Let me begin by telling you a story about Bill Daigle. Bill was raised on a farm in Minnesota. He was born in 1954, one of 14 siblings. Bill got his training in mechanical drawing. Initially that is how he made his living. He shifted jobs to become a salesman for a nonprofit life insurance company, working his way up the line into management. The company moved Bill from Minnesota to Arkansas and eventually to North Carolina, where he “retired” in 1989. Bill built himself a home with a studio where he lives with his second wife, Paula.
Every day, at 65, Bill does just what he always wanted to do, namely, work in wood. Bill calls himself “The Chairman”. Have a look at some pictures of Bill’s work.
On Saturdays you will find my friend, Bill at the Carrboro Farmers Market, where he displays and sells his work and watches the young children playing on a footstool or with a wooden plane or truck, sometimes under a parent‘s watchful eye. That’s where we met.
Bill is doing what he loves doing and uses his unique skills and expertise to produce products others like. If he elects to sell the work, he gets some bucks on the side. That’s not too bad. He can use the extra money to help take care of himself and his family, and to do the additional things they like doing.
Can you imagine yourself as a “retiree” and being in Bill’s position? That is, spending your days doing what you love doing and selling the work — the products and/or the services — to others who are willing to pay your asking price. As an aside, they are willing to give up that amount of money just to get your work.
People often ask me, “What have you done in the 30 years since you retired?” My answer is always the same. I tell them that I’m a nominally retired economist.
For the first two years I traveled around the Country in my Ford Aerostar van. I had reconfigured it so I could live in it or out of it. During the day the curtains came down so that I wouldn’t miss any of the beautiful scenery much of which was new to me. As an East Coast kid, I was used to seeing the sunrise and the horizonover water. But I had never seen it over land, the spectacular mountains, or the sunset over the ocean. What a majestic experience!
Whenever there was a craft show in the area I’d be there. I gave up on the economics of the health-care system (that’s another long story) and turned to the Economics of Fine Art and Fine Craft. Ispecialized in the study of the high-end craft market from an economist’s perspective. Among others, I attended the Baltimore American Craft Council Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the Smithsonian Craft Show, the New York SOFA show and Wendy Rosen wholesale shows. There I met and became friends with a number of fine craftspersons from all over the country.I studied the market’s characteristics, met and worked with the artists, and lectured on issues that concerned them. They included: ‘Pricing your work’; ‘Choosing your marketing venue’; ‘Functional and aesthetically pleasing vs. solely ornamental’; and ‘Your markets and its submarkets’ .
After two years on the road, I decided it was time to settle down. Initially, I thought I would go back to Chapel Hill. That’s not the way things worked out. I spent part of the two years taking care of my mother. She spent the eleven months before she died at the end of November 1986 in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. (Another long story.) When I wasn’t on the road I lived in her apartment and experienced the hubbub the of the Village.
After her death I needed to get away. I’d been to St. Thomas in the USVI with my ex-wife, many years earlier. (Another long story.) But I had never been to St. John. I decided that it would be the ideal place to go. Never did I know! So my son Paul and I took a trip down there.
St. John turned out to be quiet, peaceful, beautiful, warm, sunny, a tropical island with a saltwater pool they called the ocean. But mostly it was the people, the locals, the St. Johnians who I really liked. They were so friendly, so accepting, so welcoming.
On the boat back to St. Thomas to catch the flight up to the States, I turned to Paul. Before I could say a word he said, “Yes, I know Dad.” Six months later I moved to St. John and never expected to leave. For the 18 years I lived there, every time I took the ferry from Red Hook to Cruz Bay I felt like I was going home. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of my story.
Even as a teenager, when we moved from Queens in New York City to Wonderful Western North Carolina, I was fascinated by relatively isolated communities. I called them ‘island communities’. For me it opened up the question, How were they able to survive, often over generations, given the limited resources that were available and with little contact with the outside world? What was their way of life?What could we learn from them?
Initially I decided to work on a project I called “The Living History of the Caribbean”.documenting the people, their culture and their crafts and products. During earlier times they made a number of important items locally. They included the boats, dwellings, stonewalls, fish pots, baskets and musical instruments. All were made from local materials using simple tools and their fine skills that they developed over generations.My intention was to find the skillholders who were still around that knew how to produce them. I wanted them to produce the product so I could document and preserve the techniques of production; showcase the quality of their work; and show how their products contributed to the local economy. That way the process would be preserved for future generations. Once the skillholders were gone their process would be lost with them.
As a starter, after I settled there and developed a friendship with Mr. Herman Prince, St John’s premier basketmaker-teacher, I decided to study St. John baskets.He said that I couldn’t write about them until I learned how to make them. So taking his advice, I took his class. Not only did I learn how to make the baskets, I learned about the St. John history and culture that made them possible. It led to the article I published in The Clarion: America’s Folk Art Magazine, published by The Museum of American Folk Art entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John” (Summer, 1990, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 52-59) In it you can see a picture of Mr. Prince. You can also see an image of his fine handiwork inA Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (p. 144). His basket is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.
Along the way, I put together a collection of 25 baskets. Included are some exceptionally fine baskets made by Mr. Prince, Capt. Victor Sewer and Ms. Louise Sewer. Their other basketsare more elaborate than Mr. Prince’s St. John Market Basket in the Smithsonian collection. My hope is to create a video that documents the collection and honors the baskets and their basketmakers, all of whom have since died.
Working with the elders revealed that an independent, self-sufficientfree black community had existed on St. John’s East End from the late 1700s. That was 50 years before emancipation! It also led to my twenty-five year friendship with Guy H. Benjamin (Benji). He was acknowledged by all as St. John’s elder statesman. Benji and I spent many, many wonderful hours together until his death in at the age of 98 in 2012. We collaborated on a detailed study of the East End community from the 1790s to 1956.
I promised not to tell you any long stories but I do have to tell you a short one. I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible. St. John was home. I never intended to leave there. In January 1999 I was inthe “bush” at Cinnamon Bay collecting hoop vine with my friend, Ralph Prince. Ralph has a sideline — basketmaking. For those of you who don’t know, “hoop” is what St. John baskets are made from. We were gathering it for his dad, Herman Prince.
I developed back pain and went to see my chiropractor, Dr. Alex Politis. He didn’t like what he was seeing and suggested that I go to the Clinic — the Myra Keating Smith Clinic. (Be careful Bernie, that’s another long story or two or more, in fact.) The short of it is that Dr. Barrett suspected I was having a heart attack but did not have the enzymes necessary to test for it. So she sent me off to the hospital on St. Thomas. (I had to get in an ambulance, an ambulance boat, then another ambulance before I could get there.) Their conclusion, at about one in the morning, was that I had a liver problem and they sent me home. After taking a taxi to Red Hook, I had to wait for the next ferry to Cruz Bay. It left at six in the morning. The next day I was diaphoretic, so drove myself to the clinic and was sent back to the hospital on St. Thomas. I went through the same routine all over again. This time they put me in intensive care.
I had had a heart attack. When I was released from the hospital, a friend accompanied me to the States. The long story short, at Duke University Hospital I had a CAB4X, a four vessel coronary bypass operation. After recovering I went back to St. John and split my time between there and Chapel Hill for a while. Although I never intended to leave St. John, I eventually decided to move back to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. The health-care was better there. That’s the short version.
Initially, I intended to continue working on the economics of high-end craft. However, based on my recent experience with the health-care system, I decided to resume my study of it. After returning to the States, I met Erin Coyle, an herbalist, massage therapist, wellness counselor and yoga teacher. Those are just some of her talents, as you will see. We found each other,developed a friendship and a fine working relationship.We decided to work together on a book entitled, “The Imperfect Health-Care Market: Making it work for you”, (remember imperfect markets is my specialty). Along the way we put together a website to let people know what we were doing. Check it out — www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.
We soon realized, however, that the health-care system was seriously broken. It was in the control of the stakeholders who had manipulated the legislative process to their benefit. Whatever we had to say would not be heard. So rather than waste our time, we went back to each of our true passion — Art. We have just published “The MiniBook: A Guide to Self Care, Volume I”. It is based on sayings that come from my experience and images to go along with them based on hers. It has been well received. There’s more to come. Volumes II-V are on their way!
Erin also convinced me that I should start “blogging”. My first response was “Blog? What’s a blog?” Obviously, I took to the idea and very much enjoy writing posts and getting feedback from my readers. (Thank you, very much.)
That’s how I spent my first 30 years in retirement. If you’re interested in seeing what I am doing now and planning for the next ?? years, check out my blog post entitled, “At 87”.
Some people say to me, “You call this ‘retirement’?” And I say, “Yes, it certainly is.” Do you know why? Because my definition of retirement is doing what I want to, when I want to do it. Retirement has given me the opportunity to take care of myself and it keeps me involved and engaged. I particularly enjoy working with the younger generations, sharing experiences, learning from them and using my training and experience to help them understand and cope with the world, their world. What could be better than that?
After reading my blog post about Fieldston, my friend Don wrote, “You should have thought about architecture — you have a keen eye for design, which is a good start, but also a keen mind for function — as in the design of the porches facing south.” That opens up a backstory, or to use the term my friend, Grace Camblos, facilitator of writing workshops taught me — it’s a prompt.
As a teenager I studied, and was enamored with, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Moreover, I was a Bauhaus kid — Form follows Function. Even at that age I was always designing buildings, laying out floor plans and seeing how to correct the problems in the buildings I was working in and the projects I was involved with. I have always been interested in helping determine ways of utilizing the resources that the environment makes available while still maintaining its potential to do that and in preserving its natural beauty. See my blog post on the cabin I lived in when I was fourteen.
In shop, I took up woodturning under Mr. Kent and made a Lazy Susan. I kept it for years, but it never met my standards. Mr. Houghton, who was the head of the shop, taught mechanical drawing. One day he was attempting to explain to one of my classmates what the orthographic of a model he was holding would look like. I’m almost willing to bet my bottom dollar that you don’t know what an orthographic is. Imagine the two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional object — front view, top view and side view — on an 11” x 16” sheet of paper. That is an orthographic. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out what the model would look like, including the dotted lines for the edges that were not directly visible. “That’s what it would look like” Mr. Houghton said to the student. He asked me if I would like to take mechanical drawing. “Sure” was my reply.
Now let me introduce you to another concept. Again I’m almost certain you are unaware of it. It is called the “error of enclosure”. You start the mechanical drawing at one corner — for each of the three images — work yourself along the first, second, third and fourth side and if all goes well you are back to the spot where you first started. The distance between where you started and where you actually ended up is called the error of enclosure. For me it was always too large. Although I could easily see what the image should look like, it never came out the way it should. So I gave up on mechanical drawing. I learned later in life than my fine coordination skills are poor.
Let me say that, at the time, the first step on the road to becoming an architect, was as an architect’s apprentice. In that role you were responsible for creating the plans and images of the structures. It was done by using mechanical drawing. Computer assisted graphics did not exist. Need I say more?
Later in life I worked with the well-known bellmaker/architect, Paolo Soleri. I traveled with him from his home in Phoenix to Arcosanti, the village he designed, constructed and ran. Both the ideas and the implementation are important. However, they don’t have to come from just one person. It is important to be open to and listen to those of others. I learned from Solari by counterexample that regardless of how creative and imaginative you are, it is very important to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of those who are working along with you. All the answers do not come from the person at the top, even if he/she is in control. You can look up to him/her but they are not God. You are all part of a team.
I also considered set design as a career. After checking around I found there were two schools — Yale and Carnegie Tech. However, at the time, the employment opportunities were very limited. They were either on Broadway or summer theater. There was no TV. I first saw TV on a cathode ray tube at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. However, it did not begin to flourish until the 1950s after World War II. Here again my lack of mechanical aptitude and skills came into play. I did not think I was good enough to make it under those conditions. So I gave up on that as well.
I have always been fascinated by architecture and by structure, function and design. And by the relationship of structures to the land around them, to their environment. In spite of that, I decided not to become an architect. Who knows what would have happened if I had grown up knowing a fine, supportive architect who had taken me under their wing or if we had computer graphics at the time.
So, Don, that is why I didn’t become an architect.
I have been able to use those interests and skills in the field that I have chosen — economics. I also added the fascination and understanding of process — the steps necessary to get things done — that I learned working in manufacturing as a teenager. And then there is my love of the arts; architecture being only one of them. In college, my art history professor, Dr. Clemens Sommer, taught that “Art is a product of the culture”. Since economics is an essential component of the culture,I have been able to incorporate all of those concepts, interests and skills into my work in economics. See Behind Each Work of Artto learn more about how I have done this.
There is more Behind Each Work of Art then the artist’s imagination, creativity and skill – much more. Frequently when you look at a beautiful work of art you have no idea of how it was made or what it took to make it. The process is lost. That is especially true when it was made in the distant past and when it has attributes that make it special. That is even truer — if that is a word — of the economic conditions and the culture that made its creation possible. When the work of art is massive and, as in some cases, when it took many years or even generations to create, there is always the open question about the conditions that made its creation possible. Importantly, when it took many, many workers to create it, they had to be supported and provided for during the entire time. How the societies were able to accomplish that, and how the works of art have survived the ravages of aging, wars and hostilities, as well as the process of production — how they were created and what made their creation possible — is lost to history as well.
Some of the renowned works of art that have survived are the Pyramids in Egypt, the Mayan pyramids and temples, the Taj Mahal and Hagia Sophia, the Turkish Cathedral in Istanbul. They are still around to be seen, experienced and admired. In part because they were made of materials, like stone and metals, that survive the ravages of time and the elements. Art works made of other materials, like wood, sod, leather, cloth or ice, are not so lucky.
Baskets are a classic example. Almost every society has them in one form or another. They were made from local materials.
As with every other art form and craft, some reach of the level of fine art. Some of the contemporary American ones that have reached that level are in the Smithsonian Collection. They can be seen in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Basketsby Nicholas R. Bell (Renwick Gallery of the American Art Museum distributed by the University of North Carolina Press). Unlike the buildings, monuments, and artifacts that have survived, all we know about the baskets of yesteryear is the impression that they left in pottery shards — the remnants of the pots they were used to make. We don’t know what the baskets were made of or how they were made. The same is true for all the other works of art that degraded naturally or were lost through the ages. My art history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Clemens Sommer, based the course on the concept that “art is a product of the culture”. It is interesting to reflect on the double meaning of the word “product” in that context.
It is important to recognize that behind every work of art there is a process. Along with it is the creator’s skill that is required to bring it to fruition. Often it is a skill that only they possessed and held as a closely guarded secret. It died with them. Moreover, the technology and the economic conditions have to be just right, to provide the components necessary to make it all happen.
It is also necessary to support the creator and the others involved in the creative process. During the time it takes to create the work of art, the artist and everyone else involved in the process must be able to take care of themselves. Either they are able to provide the goods and services involved themselves or someone else must provide them. It could be a spouse, partner, a friend. a patron or the result of a grant. The bottom line is that without those goods and services and that support the piece would not, could not exist. Furthermore, the culture has an important role. In addition to providing the technological and economic conditions that made it possible, it gave rise to the idea — the concept — and it acknowledged the importance of the work of art once it was completed.
The acceptance and approval of the work of art is manifest when someone purchases it. Both the buyer and the artist are made better off. Its new owner was willing to give up the purchase price and whatever else they could have bought with it. The artist leaves with the funds that hopefully allows him/her to achieve their objective, with the realization that someone liked the work enough to pay the asking price. Perhaps it will encourage them to create additional pieces. In addition to the artist’s time, energy, resources, and funds (TERF), other materials, tools, and equipment are used to create the work of art– to bring the idea into its physical form, someone else’s TERF had to be used to make and provide them. They are integral to the piece. It could not exist without them.
As important as the artist’s contribution is, the role and value of the goods and services provided by others cannot, and should not, be neglected. Typically, those who provided them, expect to be reimbursed for their contribution. They are part of a bigger picture. When viewing any work of art, whether it was created in the distant past or more recently, it is important to understand the work from the perspective of this broader context. The preconditions that led to it must be present. Important as it is to acknowledge and honor the work itself and its creator, it is equally important to understand the economic, technological, and cultural conditions that made the work of art possible. Behind each work of art is a great woman: The Earth Mother.
Something happened recently that I’d like to share with you. I’ve decided to change tacks and follow my heart and my gut. Together, Erin Coyle and I have been trying to help others understand the broken health-care system and how to work their way around and through the intricacies of it. We’ve enjoyed doing it and have even gotten some favorable responses. From time-to-time some of the ideas have shown up as blog posts or as topics on my website: www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.
Early in November, I got a call from the St. John Historical Society. They were planning a meeting in December honoring St. John baskets, and they asked me to come down to talk about them. The Virgin Islands, volcanic in origin, rose out of the ocean like mountaintops cropping out of the sea. The two larger ones are St. Thomas and St. Croix. The smallest — St. John — is where I lived for eighteen years. When I first moved there in 1987, I studied St. John basketry. Through basketry, I met Mr. Herman Prince, St. John’s premier basketmaker and basketry teacher. When I told Mr. Prince that I wanted to write an article on St. John baskets, he said, “Before you write an article about baskets and basketry, you
should learn how to make one.” So I took his course at Hawksnest. Not only did I learn how to make a basket, I also learned much about the culture. In 1990, I published a basketry article, entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John,” in The Clarion, the magazine of The Museum of American Folk Art. My interest in basketry didn’t end there; during my 18 years on St. John, I collected more than 25 baskets, many made by preeminent St. John basketmakers.
The phone call from the St. John Historical Society got me thinking. Sometime in late November, I pulled the collection of baskets out of the attic, looked them over, and realized how special and beautiful they are. Five of Mr. Prince’s baskets arein my collection, as well as others from St. John basketmakers such as Louise Sewer; her daughter, Lorrel; Victor Sewer; Felicia Martin; and Ina George. I also own a basket made by renowned basketmaker Jackie Abrams, who visited St. John in 1993-94.
Looking over my baskets, I thought, “Wow – some of these baskets really are fine art.”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum had just launched a basketry exhibit: “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” on display from October 4, 2013 to December 8, 2013. Looking over the catalog, I realized that one of the 63 baskets in the exhibit was made by my old friend and teacher, Herman Prince! His “St. John Market Basket” was in the exhibit and is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection; you can see it on the exhibit’s website and on page 144 of the show catalog. One of Jackie Abrams’ baskets was also in the exhibit as part of the Cole-Ware Collection.
I began to really think about my time on St. John, especially the time I spent with the basketmakers. Many basketmakers that I knew, including Mr. Prince, have already died. I quickly realized that if I don’t tell the stories about them, valuable information about the basketmakers and the baskets will be lost, forever.
Preserving the collection – and the stories that go with it – is important not only so people can learn about St. Johnian basketry and its relationship to the culture; it can even preserve and pass on the art of basketry itself. One of the baskets in
the collection is a miniature St. John basket with a cover, made by Ms. Lorrel Sewer. She learned basketmaking – the form called wist work – from her mother, a premier basketmaker in her own right. Ms. Lorrel gave me the basket for the collection in 2000. A number of years later, I got a call from her asking if I would be willing to send it back to her. She wanted to make another one, but she had forgotten how to make the cover.
Ms. Lorrel had lost that skill, and there were no other basketmakers alive to teach her. Because I had preserved the basket by keeping it as part of the collection, she was able to re-learn how to make a basket cover by studying her own work!
So what I’ve decided to do is to make a video that documents my collection of baskets. It will bring the baskets and their history to light and to life. It will honor the basketmakers who came from the small, isolated island community of St. John. I want to help tell the story of how they raised the level of the baskets they produced to museum-quality fine art. I want to make sure that the stories, memories, and culture of these beautiful people will not be lost! I plan to donate the video and all of the baskets in the collection to the St. John Historical Society. I want to honor the makers and help preserve their stories and culture for future generations of historians, visitors and viewers.
In short, I have decided to follow my true passion. For now, the other important things we have to offer will just have to wait.
Like all mammals, humans have fur. Some of us have more, others less. In addition to our fur we have created clothing to help protect us from the environment or to take advantage of it. Clothes have other functions as well. Like plumage it attracts members of the opposite, or the same, gender. It can be used to attract attention or to hide. Or used as an indication of the group we belong to and of status, rank or position in the hierarchy. The name or number on it can identify the person. It can be an indication of affluence. Clothing can also be part of our kit bag of tools, allowing us to do whatever job we undertake better. Importantly, it is a way to express who we are and our creativity.
Clothing is an art form as well as one of the basic inputs. Like the others it is dependent upon the materials that are available, on our ability manipulate them and the skills of the artisan. As the changes in it over time demonstrate, it also depends the environment, the current technology, the tools and available resources. Like all other art forms it is a product of the culture. And within that culture it depends on the imagination and creativity of the artist and, in this case, of the wearer as well. Whenever we see a piece of clothing or an image of it, a number of questions may come to mind such as: who created it, what is it made of, how does it fit into the environment, etc. In addition to covering us up or not and protecting us from the environment, clothing has many other functions:
It varies depending on environmental conditions.
It helps us stand out in a crowd or to hide.
It identifies us as a member of a team or group and as who we are.