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A Bohemian Martha Stewart 

Mary Anne Davis pauses over the table full of dish molds into which she's about to pour clay, and looks me straight in the eye. "You know," she says, "Martha Stewart's not really a bad person. She raised entertaining and homemaking to the level of an art form. I think we need to respect that. She gets a lot of bad raps, and in fact I think she's inspired a generation. It's a huge trillion-dollar industry she's created, just her alone. It's almost an eco-feminist warrior thing she's done. It's great."

At Davistudio in Spencertown, Columbia County, Davis makes colorful, high-fired fine porcelain dinnerware, teapots, vases, and platters for a living - for which she's become known as "the Bohemian Martha Stewart" among fellow craft artists. (Unlike the perfectionist Stewart, Davis follows Thomas Aquinas in accepting her own imperfections, and allows nature, through the element of fire in her kiln, "to have the final say" in her creation of art. "There's an unknown element, which is exciting," she says. "It's nice to let go of control. I think that's important for all of us.) But like many of the artists and craftspeople who are joining America's legions of artists-as-sustainable-entrepreneurs, making dishes is not all Davis does. Besides producing the brightly colored, spirit-lifting, high-quality, and practical wares that are big sellers both locally and at craft shows nationwide, Davis is also a painter, a wife and mother, the founder of a craft guild, a writer, an environmentalist and - if all that isn't enough - she and a group of Columbia County businesspeople and artists are in the process of creating a local currency.

As an artist-activist-entrepreneur, Davis does not consider her business projects as separate from her making of art or, for that matter, her personal life. Artists, she says, can reinvigorate local communities, so it's the business of artists to be proactive on all fronts, to bring their lives into their work and, in turn, to incorporate their work into their lives. Davis considers the ideas of performance and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys to be truth rather than theory: "Everyone is an artist and society is a sculpture," she says. At the heart of the emptiness of modern life, Davis believes, is humanity's having lost track of art, of having created a disconnection by separating art from everyday life. And the artist as entrepreneur, as she wrote in the essay "Business of Art" in Resurgence magazine's March/April 2004 issue, "has a unique ability to act outside the confines of the 'art establishment' and in doing so can bring art directly to the people. If we can embrace our own responsibility as artists and be creative in the way we exhibit and sell our work - instead of waiting for the art dealer to give us our career - then we can participate in society in a totally new level."

Making dishes, for Davis, is a daily meditation, "a way of staying grounded to reality" that forms what she calls "the compost" of the rest of her life and work. "What I'm doing when I make dinnerware is facilitating the people who buy my dishes to think more creatively about the way they entertain," she says. "I'm bringing people together. When I sell dishes it's to encourage people to build community and friendships by social networks, by having a lot of contact with each other." She pauses to laugh. "You know, buy a lot of dishes, have a lot of dinner parties, save the world."

Although Davis's approach to life and art is about as simple and straightforward as it could be, she says her open, easygoing outlook was hard won. "As a middle-aged mother, I'm beginning to become more civic-minded, so I'm right on schedule," she says. "But my spiritual journey was pretty interrupted from the time I was in my early twenties to when I was about thirty, because I was exploring this western model of artistic development - a discovery of self, but in a narcissistic way. There was the self and then there was the other - the art world, the parent, the critic - and I believed if I worked and made the best art that I could then I would win approval and be a star."

However, in Chicago and later in New York City, where she moved in 1985, Davis felt her energy "very seriously dissipating," so in 2000 she and her husband and son moved upstate. A year later, for reasons Davis says she is only starting to understand, she was drawn to attend Resurgence's first conference, held at the Omega Institute on September 7, 8, and 9, 2001. "It's still very in focus - I went to the conference, having never heard of Resurgence. I met all these amazing people, and got very, very psyched - people like Jane Goodall, Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Amory Lovins, and Suzi Gablick [author of the controversial book Has Modernism Failed?]. So I asked Suzi Gablick, 'Where's the art world?'"

With Gablick's help, Davis wrote a letter addressing the separation of art from everyday life, and mailed it off on September 10, 2001, to all the editors at art magazines in New York City. "Then September 11 happened, and the culmination of my three days at Resurgence and the events of 9/11 did something alchemical to my body, mind, and spirit," Davis recalls. "Ever since then I've had a growing clarity about what it means to pursue sustainability - it's an art form. After all these years of asking who am I as an artist and what am I doing, and do I really want to be rich and famous, I don't really care about any of that anymore. Art has become the tool of certain ideological thinking and I'm not really interested in ideological thinking anymore. I'm interested in the possibility of art being something more. That experience lit the fuse on something that's been developing ever since."

Having begun taking workshops at the E.F. Schumacher Society - the sustainability center in Great Barrington, MA - Davis now sees sustainability in terms of concentric circles. "Agriculture is central, but the next circle is crafts," she explains. "First we need food, second we need goods, and goods are created by people. Tying the craft world to the sustainability world is part of what I'm trying to do. I want to increase people's consciousness. If you buy a four dollar coffee cup anywhere, I guarantee it was made in a place with very nebulous ecological regulations and conditions for the people making it, because that price point is impossible. We need to learn how to live and buy our goods from people making them here, to pay more for our goods by buying less of a higher quality. Living sustainably creates a better world for everybody - a better environment, better designed, happier stuff."

So, having had her share of revelations regarding sustainability and art, Davis is now putting them to work. She has filed for nonprofit status for Columbia Berkshire Craft Guild, a growing group of artists, craftspeople, and studios, which will hold its second annual craft tour this Columbus Day weekend (October 9-10). Every other week, the Guild meets with other businesses at the local CSA Red Barn Farm to discuss the geographical boundaries and rules for the formation of Columbia County Shares, the Guild's local currency, for which Davis has already begun creating ceramic "coins".
Davis's raison d'etre these days lies in increasing the viability of being a craftsperson in Columbia County, increasing the flow of capital through the Guild, and playing her part as a member of the many networks she has helped create. Yet she says that she's constantly reminded that interdependence and self-reliance work together.

"The first requirement for establishing a community founded upon sustainability has to be self-reliance," she says. "Before, for me it was all 'Give me a gallery, get me organized, put me into the art world. I had taken no responsibility of my own to figure out how to do that. What I'm doing is about self-reliance, it's about living the concept of Thoreau's Walden, like Thoreau meets Martha Stewart." For Davis, living as a craftsperson, a member of the local community, and a small but vital part of the national sustainable living movement is akin to what Joseph Beuys felt about his life as an artist: "The work of art is the most great riddle, but the person is the solution."

Speaking of...

  • A profile of Mary Anne Davis.

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