Embracing The Function of Beauty

Why is beauty never considered a function? — Ronald Rael

I came across this thought-provoking quote in the middle of a video about green technology. While the video shows the building blocks made from 3-D printers, it asks bigger questions. The most important one confronts artists and artisans alike: is it functional or is it “just” beautiful?

This particular question resonates with me because I grew up in a house full of art and craft. Dad took photos that he developed himself. Mom made pottery and took art classes. My sister drew and painted and I learned to sew and knit. Where the line between art and craft actually is has always been fuzzy in my mind and this idea of functionality versus beauty is tied to it.

Take my mom Jane Dunsmore, for example. She mostly made functional pottery to be sold at craft fairs. Treating her creative pursuit as a business meant she needed to make money. Common sense says that people are more likely to buy pottery they can use. Pottery that is “merely” pretty or decorative isn’t going to sell.

Fortunately, Mom has been able to break away from this mold. Today she makes sculpture and tiles, a far cry from the more prosaic and practical bowls, mugs, and plates she made in the past*.

jane_dunsmore_singer_of_myths_01_web
“Singer of Myths” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

I asked her how she was able to escape from the functional trap and two things came up: a change in mind-set and a change in materials. She needed both to make the change.

The mindset change came from a combination of things. When she retired from teaching, she returned to her pottery studio without the pressure to make money. Also, she was bored after years of showing students how to make round things on a wheel. She gave herself permission to make the things she wanted to and she started experimenting with free-standing forms.

Initially, she was frustrated. The shapes she was interested in didn’t work well in clay — they cracked, something every functional potter considers a fatal flaw.

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“Hello, World” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

Then she discovered paper clay (which is clay that contains anywhere from 5 to 25% paper pulp). Suddenly, she was able to make the shapes she’d always wanted to with little to no cracking. Paper clay opened the door to sculpture for her.

Occasionally, a piece still cracks, but now she sees it as part of the work instead of a flaw. Sometimes she fills the cracks with other materials, sometimes she leaves them alone. Letting go of perfectionism, as well as the expectation that everything she makes must sell, has freed her to make the work she wants to make. Her ceramics still have a function, but now it is usually beauty first.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserable each day
for lack
of what is found there.

— William Carlos Williams

Beauty is a function: for many people it is what makes something a work of art**. It’s also a key component of every craft there is. We knit and sew and embroider in order to make functional things in our lives beautiful as well.

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“Anne’s Velvet Roses” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore. This sculpture is approximately 20 inches tall.

While I love her bowls and mugs, Mom’s heart is much more obvious in her newer work. I’m glad she’s found her way past the artificial boundaries set in her path to work that treats beauty as a function.

*She still makes bowls and mugs from time to time, but how they look is much more important to her than how they work. 
**Art historians, critics, and teachers have a much more complex definition of art but they are a pretty small part of the population. 

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Kit Dunsmore

Kit Dunsmore has believed in the magic underlying the muggle world since she was a child searching for the Shetland pony pooka she was sure was hiding in her back yard. She learned early on that books were magic doors into other worlds, and that she could revisit a beloved character or place by opening the right book. As she grew, she decided she wanted to make magic with words, too. Today Kit writes about things she loves: poodles and dragons, witches and artists, quirky underdogs and loyal friends. Whether her setting is 6th-century England, the imaginary Twelve Kingdoms, or an art-obsessed version of modern America, magic always finds its way into her story. She enjoys turning fairy tales inside out and watching characters sacrifice everything to reach their goal, but she also believes in happy endings. When she isn't writing, Kit experiences magic by making things with her hands. Over the years, she's made quilts, fabric sculptures, collages, sweaters, and blank books. Her newest interest is learning how to spin her own yarn, a skill guaranteed to strengthen one of her many delusions: that she is a self-sufficient pioneer woman. She also thinks she is a hobbit, a witch, an artist, and a good cook. Living in the foothills of Colorado, Kit enjoys the giant skies and prairie landscapes which suit her need for wide open spaces. In addition to hiking through glorious scenery with her husband or imagining herself living in the Middle Ages, Kit works as a pillow for her miniature poodle and polishes the next small piece of her handmade life.

8 thoughts on “Embracing The Function of Beauty”

  1. Your mom’s pieces are truly lovely! And so varied! There is life in each of them. Thank you for this piece, as I often get caught up in functionality and forget beauty for beauty’s sake.

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    1. Thanks, I love her work, too. I love to blend functionality and beauty, but a lot of what I make really doesn’t have a use beyond visual enjoyment (sweaters for dinosaurs, anyone?).

      Like

  2. Love your mom’s pieces. And I agree that not everything has to be functional. Flowers aren’t really functional either, but what would life be without them? However, a little functionality never hurts – if that jacket was functional, I’d totally wear it! 🙂

    Like

    1. Cut flowers in the house: totally beauty as function. And you can tell, because plenty of people talk about them as if they aren’t very important.

      The jacket piece is a portrait of my sister, who owned a jacket a lot like that at one time.

      Liked by 1 person

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