"Close to Home: An Homage to Hestia"
Essay by Patricia J. Thompson
Close to Home: Introduction by Susan Hoeltzel

 

Home. The word evokes incongruent emotions. For some, it is the "warm fuzzies." For others, something less or something more. Everyday life, in its cyclical and unremitting mundaneity is not always etched as dearly in our memories as recollections of things that are out of the ordinary. We are so caught up with events and activities in the public sphere that we overlook the deep meaning experiences in the private sphere hold for our lives. That is why a society needs its arts and its artists! They remind us of the touchstones of our humanness and that, through our own efforts, we can transform that which would "bring us down" into that which will "lift us up." The exhibit "Close to Home" disrupts the taken-for-grantedness of our everyday world and marks ordinary objects and activities with the extraordinary eye and hand of the artist.

Households are the background setting for our most intimate associations—our families. Political theorist Jean Betake Elshtain calls the family a "beloved landscape." It is also a landscape strewn with shopping carts, tablecloths, unsorted laundry, johnny mops, and ironing boards. These commonplace artifacts of the household are the "technologies" of modern domestic life. So intimately implicated in "housework" or "women's work," these items are often used but rarely thought of as constituting an "esthetic" of the household. Why should such banal items as twist ties, scouring pads, cosmetic pads, dental and embroidery floss, steel wool, foam packaging, and squeeze bottles be rescued from the garbage and take their place in creative projects on display in art galleries? If men can establish an "ashcan school of art," shouldn't women be able to sustain a "garbage pail" school?

According to anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, "specific everyday tasks can be life-giving, binding individuals to each other and to the past. They can also be opened up as areas of choice, becoming the building blocks of identity." As she further remarks, "a household requires sustained attention to many different needs, a very different kind of attention. Time, space, and tools need to be used for multiple purposes." In the present instance, they are also used to produce novel and arresting works of art. The link between artwork and housework shows a refreshing appreciation for commonplace objects and reminds us of their role in the real work of "home-making."

Behind the mundane artifacts related to prosaic household activities lies a human purpose which both male and female artists in this exhibit help us to realize. As brought together by curator Susan Hoeltzel, the artworks play off the unifying notion of "housework" and offer the viewer a new appreciation for aspects of life we are likely to take for granted and which we are unlikely to pause and reflect upon as contributing to our psychological well-being.

In a chapter called "Just a Housewife," historian Gerda Lerner describes the modern housewife as performing her monotonous activities in a repetitious cycle in greater isolation than women have in past time. Shouldn't we distinguish between solitude and isolation? Solitude provides opportunity for reflection and creativity, but isolation keeps us "out-of touch." The goal of homemaking is to keep families "in touch," not isolated from one another. When we are "in touch" with our surroundings, as are the creators of the artworks in this exhibit, our creations put us "in touch" with the ground of our being—in this case, the ground is the household and its objects.

Homage to Hestia:
Goddess of Hearth and Home


Awareness of the potential of ordinary things to make life meaningful brings us into a new relation with the world external to us. Each day, the ancient Greeks evoked the spirit of the goddess Hestia, protector of hearth and home. Hestia was the goddess of the hearthfire, of family life, household activities ("housework" to some), harmonious interpersonal relationships, and hospitality. The work of the home—Hestian work—is not done merely for the purpose of maintaining things but for maintaining relationships. The goal for Hestia's votaries (female and male) was not only to possess a "clean house" but a "clean conscience." It may be the first example of the notion that "cleanliness is next to godliness." This sense of the sacred quality of life-sustaining tasks prompted Kathryn Allen Rabuzzi to refer to "the spirituality of housework." Just as Hestia was a felt—not a visible—presence at the hearth, the work of the household is made invisible—until touched by the creative imagination. With a touch (like the wave of a fairy's wand), commonplace objects and activities are illuminated and imbued with new meaning. Pythagorean women philosophers in the 6th century BCE believed that order in the private sphere is the precondition for order in the public sphere. That is something this exhibit can help us to reconsider in contemporary life.

Stephanie Demetrakopoulos believes we should "resacralize Hestia" because to make her as culturally central and apparent as she was in ancient Greece would give public recognition to the worth of private household work done mostly by women. If we could resacralize this aspect of life—enjoy it as a part of the activity of being—we might recover the connections between mind and body, private and public, and the worlds of men and women, traditionally so separate. Demetrakopoulos rejects the idea of Hestia as a mere allegory for the "monotonous work that sustains our species, housewifery." She encourages us to regard Hestia as the background for...labor as a process in the house...whose products are swallowed and undone by our needs as fast as the chores and duties can he done." She says that putting the Hestian aspects of life onto women and sequestering them within the home denies the fact that human life requires a great deal of repetitive toil, simply to survive. The works assembled here help us bring this fact of life back into consciousness in novel ways. On a Jungian reading, Hestia becomes a psychological archetype whose qualities help women to remain centered, withstand solitude, resist damaging relationships with men, and find value in their personal resources and capacity for creativity in their relationships with people and with the things of everyday life.

Carol Christ, a professor of women's studies and religious studies, recounts her own homage to Hestia on a visit to Greece:

This is my altar to Hestia, Goddess
of hearth and home. I speak to Hestia,
telling her how honored I am to live
in her realm, continuing the tradi-
tions of home-making I have learned
from my mother and grandmothers,
a bond I share with women across
the ages.

Barbara Kirksey remarks that, without Hestia, herself "imageless," there can be no focusing on the image, and there are no boundaries to differentiate the intimacy of the inner dwelling and the outer world because there is no psychic house to give protective walls. She emphasizes Hestia's "cohesive function in the soul, which preserves the element of wholeness, allowing the individual to image "in peace." Framing our perspective in this way helps us to view this unusual assemblage in the proper frame of intelligibility—the Hestian frame of reference—so that we can experience the ordinary transformed into the extraordinary.

Household Ecology

In the mid-19th century, Catharine Beecher published The Treatise on Domestic Economy which suggested ways in which women could reduce their workloads in the household and improve their health. Later, with her sister Harriett Beecher Stowe, she published The American Woman's Home in which domesticitynot just the individual "household arts" of cookery and stitchery—was itself elevated to a science ("domestic science") and an art. Domesticity is rarely represented in public art—except for the "domestic scenes" of the classical period when Vermeer bathed his subjects in a warm glowing light. This exhibit brings into view what French historian Fernand Braudel has called "that vast world of the habitual, the routine." It is precisely those things lost to history—the habits and routines of ordinary, everyday life in households—that we are invited to contemplate here. Using the familiar materials that clutter our lives and which are found close to home presents us with a realm of possibilities we may not previously have imagined. Experts on the domestic scene such as Martha Stewart can help us decorate a table, but artists help us decorate our psyches.

When I teach courses in home management and household ecology, I ask students to keep a "garbage log" on which they list everything thrown out in the household trash. After a week, their assignment is to analyze the detritus of our throwaway society and to divide it into organic and inorganic components. This tells them what is biodegradable and readily recyclable end what is not. Next they are asked to make something useful and/or beautiful from an item they usually discard without thinking. The object of the exercise is not a simple intervention in the loop from manufacturer to consumer or even the quality or artistic value of the final project. It is to make them think about the things they use and the long-term risks and benefits of such use. The time to think about such things is before we sacrifice all our natural landscapes to urban landfills. Focus on process rather than product makes us conscious of what we are doing unconsciously. In this "disruptive" task, artists play an important role.

The evocative works displayed here help us see and think differently about what would ordinarily lie just below the surface of our consciousness. Students tell me they remember this "garbage" exercise long after they have forgotten the oxygen and nitrogen cycles because it touched them "firsthand" and was so "close to home."

Perceptions are organized around particular systems of signs and categories, rules and principles, that lead us to what is deemed worthy of attention. Culture provides a schema of what is worth seeing. Cultural conditioning has made women and women's work invisible.

We (women and men) are socialized to recognize what men have recognized as important. Conversely, such cultural schemes also dictate what is not to he noticed, what is unremarkable, such as the daily round of invisible household work done by invisible hands. We notice what we are taught to notice—until the artist directs our attention to something we have missed.

The idea that we should stop, think, and look close to home—and not look ever outward—to enrich or beautify our lives is empowering to us as we go about our daily round. Why must we fix our gaze solely on products? Shouldn't we also consider the underlying human purposes served by mundane artifacts and humdrum routines? There is a powerful message in this collection that transforms ordinary objects in our household ecology into objects of contemplation and reflection. In combining unlikely artifacts in artworks, we are reminded that living well is itself an art. As Mary Catherine Bateson says, the greatest challenge we face is "composing a life." This exhibit reminds us that a life, like a work of art, can be composed from commonplace components. It is up to US to put them together with imagination and courage.

The private/public sphere split has captured the attention of feminist scholars in many fields for more than three decades. Central to their concerns is the dilemma of domesticity. How can domestic work be equitably shared and equitably compensated? Why is Hestian work more valued when it is done by paid workers in the public sphere than by unpaid workers in the private sphere? Domesticity implies its share of drudgery—but so does other important work in society. Some drudgery of comparable or even lesser worth to society is better compensated than forms of drudgery that have profound human importance! Mundane, repetitive, monotonous work that "never gets done" is frustrating and oppressive. No argument there. It takes the artist's eye to remind us that what may be engaged in as dull and repetitive also has its redeeming aspects—the discovery of the artist in each of us as we pursue our work in either sphere. •

Professor Patricia J. Thompson of Lehman Col-
lege is an authority on the changing American
family, and has spoken and written wideIy on
family and feminist values, family life education,
and the new scholarship on women. She special-
izes in feminist theory, particularly Hestian femi-
nism, and gender studies. She is the author of
Bringing Feminism Home.

Rhonda Roland Shearer, Doll Series: Girl Action Figures (Vacuum, floor model), 1993

 

Michael Pribich, Untitled, 1992-4

Jeanne Tremel, Quilt, 1996