Art, Poverty and Respect

When I was a kid, my family took one of those ‘great American vacations;’ traveling from Wisconsin to California and back again. While we were far from wealthy, I remember it as the turning point. Soon after, we went from ‘getting by’ and ‘things are tight’ to full-on-poverty.

While visiting relatives in California, my parents loaded the kids into the van and took a day-trip across the border into Mexico. Crossing the border was exciting. The desert was beautiful (even without air conditioning). Yet, what I remember most about Mexico are the tar paper shacks and the roadside stands selling folk-art.

People were living in flimsy box-frame structures covered in black tar paper. They didn’t look sturdy enough to store plastic boxes full of extraordinarily unimportant items. I can’t even imagine how horribly hot it must get inside one of those during a summer day. In the interests of full-disclosure, I must add that I never actually entered one of these shacks. My parents addressed my questions about these houses with short statements (e.g.: it’s just how people live down here) and refused additional conversation without further consideration.

Therefore, just like every other American tourist in Mexico, my family drove past the shacks and stopped at the road-side stands selling brightly painted pottery.

I clearly remember one particular pottery stand. My family wandered around, looking at the wares, side-by-side with other random tourists. I watched the people working. There were adults and teenagers carrying heavy items and looking exceptionally hot and tired, like people who were half-way through a workday at the local factory. There were also children running around, helping out here and there.

Based on the way people interacted with one another, my child-self concluded they were a family and this was their business (this was never confirmed). The pottery was the kind of stuff most people purchase during a tourist-stop in Mexico. It was very pretty and amazingly cheap.

At the time, the weariness of the workers stood side-by-side with the quality and price of the pottery. I kept thinking there was something important about all of this, but I didn’t know or understand what it was.

Recently, I stumbled across a large amount of brightly colored Mexican pottery at a second-hand store. As I went through the collection, choosing items for the Wild Raccoon Market, memories of that decades-old trip to Mexico came to mind. The hand-painted and nicely detailed images of people marching across a shot glass reminded me of those bone-weary workers making large quantities of tourist-art and selling each piece for a few dollars.

These thoughts continued as I sat in front of my computer. For my family, that cross-country trip marked a turning point. Soon after, we stumbled out of just-barely-lower-middle-class, and took a headlong spiral downward into poverty.

One of the first things true poverty will teach you is the importance of respect. It touches every aspect of your life and colors every relationship. It’s also strangely, and pointedly, lacking from the world of underpaid work. When you’ve worked your fingers to the bone (sometimes literally) only to drag your tired body home with less than half of what you need to pay rent (never mind everything else), the word respect begins to encompass a pie-in-the-sky fantasy of very simple lifestyle elements (e.g.: being able to pay rent, being treated with the basic respect due to any human being, etc.) frustratingly accessible only to those in the upper classes.

No matter where you live, working long hours to create something that is devalued because of a long list of arbitrary factors, is dehumanizing. In terms of respect deserved vs respect received, American poor and Mexican pottery producers have something in common.

I found myself staring at these lovely items and thinking about the ‘value’ attributed to them because they were (most likely) purchased for insanely low prices during a vacation in Mexico.

While this may sound a bit preachy and in-your-face (even), I challenge you to place the word respect at the forefront of your mind every time you decide to purchase art. Regardless of what you buy, where you buy it, or who you buy it from; all original, handcrafted art is the product of skilled craftsmanship. It’s not something that can be replicated because it was not created by a machine. Human hands touched, traced, formed, and changed this thing into an object of beauty. The person and the work deserve to be appreciated and respected.

Then, consider extending the same respect to the poor, working poor and workers everywhere; because the person and the work deserve to be appreciated and respected.

Just my opinion.

Take it for what it’s worth.

One thought on “Art, Poverty and Respect

  1. Pingback: Cultural Traditions and the Value of Folk Art | Adora Myers

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