Summer Reading #9: John…

Summer Reading #9: John Robshaw Prints

This book was...disturbing. I bought it both because I love John Robshaw's fabrics and because I have a strong interest in traditional fabric print-making, especially block prints. I mostly can't afford Robshaw's fabric, but I did splurge on a shower curtain which I adore, and yes, it sounds ridiculous to spend $200 on a shower curtain, but it completely makes the room and will hopefully (with a liner) last forever. I also have a luggage tag of his, made in the shape of an elephant from block-printed fabric, and a passport cover. They give me pleasure every time I use them; they are a tactile and visual delight. Someday I might save up for a full set of bedding.

I know I'm talking about money a lot for a book review, but that's sort of the main, odd point of this review. John Robshaw is a white man, a high-end designer, who has presumably made a massive amount of money using South Asian block prints. That sets up an odd cognitive dissonance, and a worry about exploitation of the workers who actually make his prints.

Reading the book, Robshaw seems very aware of that issue -- he goes out of his way to tell you about a colleague of his who did something similar, and in the process created an industry that helped thousands of indigenous artisans support themselves and their families. Okay, I can buy that. And if you're going to frame the story as "I lifted them out of poverty," and it has a bit of an Orientalist colonial white savior flavor to it, that may rub me the wrong way, but whatever. The work itself is probably something they're happy to have, and I can only hope you're passing along some of those profits to a decent pay rate for your artisans.

Robshaw also seems anxious about what he's asking them to do -- over and over and over in the book, he talks about how he would deliberately ask the artisans to 'mess up', and how they would resist that. He liked the older printers because their hands shook. The young ones could print 'like machines,' absolutely even and regular. It's an aesthetic choice, to value the obviously, visibly, hand-made over the machine-made, and we could go into a whole sidebar here about why I might choose to support my local artisans, and how that can be a choice that is both ethical and aesthetically extra-pleasing, but it can also be sort of problematic.

As Jeremy Hankins said, in Facebook conversation, "My grandmother used to teach spinning, from wool sheared from her own sheep and dyed using materials she collected from the woods herself. One of the things that would get her really worked up was when her students would ask to be shown how to make the yarn "old fashioned," by which they meant lumpy and full of irregularities. She'd show them how to do it, but she'd also point out that back when it was done by hand the result would have been smoother and more regular than anything the student was likely able to produce -- that lumps and irregularities would have been something they'd be ashamed to show anyone. My grandfather (a blacksmith) ran into similar issues: folks wanting to add extra hammer-marks after a piece was finished so that it looked hand-made enough. So even though I can appreciate the aesthetic, there's something odd about it, since our appreciation for it mostly just shows how steeped in modern industrialized culture we are."

Yes. What would you do, if someone asked you to deliberately do less than your best work? (I'm imagining someone coming to me and asking me to teach a lit. class but, y'know, get some of the history wrong. Because that would make it more accessible, or something. I know, that example doesn't actually make any sense, but the point is, it's like nails on a chalkboard even thinking about it.)

In the end, I liked the book, and I even liked Robshaw as a person. The book covers a variety of aspects of his life, from early artistic training to finding his love of fabric printing to figuring out how to make it a business to a little primer on basic printing techniques -- all accompanied by gorgeous, gorgeous photographs, both of the work, and of the places/people he regularly visits. It's a lovely coffee table book. But what really won me over to Robshaw was the early artistic section, because it made clear that year after year after year, this man studied. This man worked. Robshaw took his art really seriously, and that's the part that not only makes me respect the aesthetics of what he's doing, but also makes me suspect that he respects the artisans he works with too.

As for the difference, if any, between an artist and an artisan -- well, I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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