What Art Taught Me About Dishes

Repetition is the warp and weft of domesticity, inherent to caring for others. It’s necessary for survival, yet despite it’s indispensability, it feels so much like futility.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes describes some of the rhythms of nature—the rising and setting of the sun, the movement of air currents, and the water cycle—and complains, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it.” Yet these repetitive processes make life possible. We can easily come to view any cyclical process as “spinning our tires” rather than effecting forward movement.

As humans, we want something by which to chart our progress. We want the assurance that our efforts have meaning, that our labors are indeed bearing fruit. It’s no wonder that parents place so much importance on “milestones” in their children’s lives: first steps, first word, first time to sleep through the night. Life with an infant begins to seem one endless day as the same actions of feeding, changing, rocking, soothing are repeated every few hours. Progress is so incremental as to be completely unnoticeable. Then, BOOM, a milestone is met, and we celebrate the measurement of a verifiable change. Sometimes a birthday, a photo, or a weigh-in at a doctor’s visit notifies us of the difference, and we hold tight to that something that assures us that progress is being made. We aren’t going backwards, and we aren’t merely circling around again; we are moving forward.

My daughter was just shy of two years old when my twin sons were born, and it didn’t take too long before the monotony and incessant drip-drip-drip of household tasks nearly drove me mad. An insightful friend pointed out to me that women’s lives are inherently cyclical. Domestic duties repeat daily or weekly in many cases, and the bearing and raising of children follows a pattern. Even the textile processes associated with women—knitting, crocheting, stitching, and weaving—are all iterative. All grow through seemingly endless repetition. The change is gradual, but after a while, becomes visible.

A thread, a yarn, a line moves forward, then moves back, twists, loops around. The actions don’t suggest linear progress, yet faithful repetition moves the resulting object in the direction of growth and progress. If we can let it be, allow it to grow, and learn to be settled by the actions themselves, we will be pleasantly surprised by the change that comes with time.

Isn’t it interesting that for centuries, women have been sitting down at night, taking up thread or yarn, setting their tired hands to work, and allowing their minds and nerves to unwind? In these patterned actions they are taking a much-needed break from a completely different kind of repetition.

As I began to incorporate these kinds of textiles into my artwork, the cycles of domesticity came to seem less futile. Yes, my efforts seemed to move forwards then back, my days twisted and looped around, the progress was hard to detect, but I became more sure than ever that what I was making was real and growing. My labors in the studio were reflecting my efforts in the kitchen, and I began to see that my repetitions of care in the home were giving me a voice in the studio.

Michelle Radford