Friday, January 9, 2009

Region and Identity

80. Region and Identity

[This essay was written while my wife attended graduate school in Kent, Ohio. We have since returned to our home in Lawrence, Kansas. Employment may require us to move yet again.]

For years I’ve been intrigued by the issue of regional identity in the arts. What does it mean to be a California potter, or an Ohio potter, or a North Carolina potter? If there are genuine local influences and patterns of work how consistent is their effect? Are we just generalizing from a poor statistical database, a few stereotypes?
I once got into a discussion with Mark Hewitt on the subject, wondering in his case how long it took for him to be identified as a, “North Carolina potter.” You see, Mark is English, born and bred, and at least part of his education in ceramics took place at the Cardew Pottery at Wenford Bridge in extreme southwestern England. He is, as they say, “not from around here.” And yet his mail goes to his home in North Carolina where his work and friendships have blended in “quite nicely, thank you very much.” They are proud to have him in North Carolina, accent and all, and he is happy to be there.
In the days of family potteries, one’s regional heritage was a simple consequence of one’s childhood upbringing and little else. These days, Academia can cause us to move around the country quite a bit. If you go to college in one state, graduate school in another, and take a teaching job in third, say Texas, are you instantly a Texan artist? The NEA Fellowship selection panels will think so.
My parents are academics and, though born in California, I’ve lived in Latin America, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Iowa, Kansas, and, most recently, Ohio. Am I now a different artist here in Ohio than I was when my studio was in Kansas?
Certainly I’ve met different artists, been to different museums, seen different workshops and made new types of pots. The weather is different, as is the local culture. The essays of this collection have almost entirely been written in Ohio. When the responding letters of praise or complaint get written, they will likely get addressed to me in Ohio. Is Ohio now different with me in it?
Perhaps there really is an underlying issue of “belonging.” Where do you belong, and are you there yet? Perhaps Mark Hewitt belongs in North Carolina. I can think of another artist who, for three years, did not belong in South Carolina, though that was where her mail reached her. She now resides happily in Florida. For many of us, location does not really matter as long as we’ve got the tools and the time to work. The rest will struggle, strangers in strange lands, inappropriately stereotyped, waiting to find the true region of their identity.

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