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Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish (Ohio)by Sue Bender
How It Began
Can an object go straight to your heart ?
Twenty years ago I walked into Latham's Men's Store in Sag Harbor, New York, and saw old quilts used as a background for men's tweeds. I had never seen quilts like that. Odd color combinations. Deep saturated solid colors: purple, mauve, green, brown, magenta, electric blue, red. Simple geometric forms: squares, diamonds, rectangles. A patina of use emanated from them. They spoke directly to me. They knew something. They went straight to my heart.
That was the beginning. Innocent enough.
"Who made these quilts?" I demanded.
The Amish used the same few patterns over and over--no need to change the pattern, no need to make an individual statement.
The basic forms were tempered by tiny, intricate black quilting stitches. The patterns-tulips, feathers, wreaths, pineapples, and stars--softened and complemented the hard lines, andthe contrast of simple pattern and complex stitchery gave the flat, austere surface an added dimension. I wondered if quilting was an acceptable way for a woman to express her passion?
Colors of such depth and warmth were combined in ways I had never seen before. At first the colors looked somber, but then looking closely at a large field of brown--I discovered that it was really made up of small patches of many different shades and textures of color. Greys and shiny dark and dull light brown, dancing side by side, made the flat surface come alive. Lush greens lay beside vivid reds. An electric blue appeared as if from nowhere on the border.
The relationship of the individual parts to the whole, the proportion, the way the inner and outer borders reacted with each other was a balancing act between tension and harmony.
The quilts spoke to such a deep place inside me that I felt them reaching out, trying to tell me something, but my mind was thoroughly confused. How could pared-down and daring go together? How could a quilt be calm and intense at the same time? Can an object do that? Can an object know something?
How opposite my life was from an Amish quilt.
My life was like a CRAZY QUILT, a pattern I hated. Hundreds of scattered,unrelated, stimulating fragments, each going off in its own direction, creating a lot of frantic energy. There was no overall structure to hold the pieces together. The Crazy Quilt was a perfect metaphor for my life.
A tug-of-war was raging inside me.
In contrast to the muted colors of the Amish, I saw myself in extremes: a black-and-white person who made black-and-white ceramics and organized her life around a series of black-and-white judgments.
The driven part didn't question or examine these values. It took them as real, and believed it was following the carrot "success" wholeheartedly. Didn't everyone believe in success? I never asked, "Success at what cost?"
A part of me is quiet. It knows about simplicity, about commitment, and the joy of doing what I do well. That part is the artist, the child--it is receptive and has infinite courage. But time and my busyness drowned the quiet voice.
In the world in which I grew up, more choices meant a better life.
It was true for both my parents and my grandparents. I was brought up to believethat the more choices I had, the better.
Never having enough time, I wanted it all, a glutton for new experience. Excited, attracted, distracted, tempted in all directions, I thought I was lucky to have so many choices and I naively believed I could live them all.
A tyranny of lists engulfed me. The lists created the illusion that my life was full.
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