J. Rudy Lewis on Labor: Work Tells Stories of People

metalsmithIt’s Labor Day weekend in these United States, and as someone who works with his hands, it makes to me that I should use this time to contemplate the meaning of this holiday. A few things come to mind.

First, I know that I am damned lucky to make a living by making stuff. In most of the world, people may subsist on it, but make a living? No. Their work is not valued because they themselves are not valued: How else could people still countenance buying an embroidered skirt made in Bangladesh for 20 bucks at Target. It sickens the soul.

Second, there is a value to making things by hand–even stuff as luxurious and seemingly inessential as beautiful things that are made to adorn the body.Art may rank low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the gift of being able to wear it is valuable: It unites the ideas, hard work, and years of craftsmanship on the part of the artist and the hopes, imagination, inspiration, and pride on the part of the wearer. It is a soulful transaction that is does not stop at point of sale: It goes on, passed down through generations.

Finally, I think that work, itself–at its root–is forever story telling. Everyone who interacts with work created by the laborers who made it and the people who procure it is involved in adding narrative to the story. And stories, I think–to paraphrase the great storyteller and stylist William Faulkner–are what enable the human race not just to survive but prevail.

Happy Labor Day.