Interviewsand Articles


Art As Gift

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 2, 2008



left: carving by Jim Barton

Welcome to newsletter issue #9. As Lewis Hyde says, art is a gift. To appreciate that, some qualifications have to be made. After all, an entire industry is devoted to art handled as a commodity. A lot of money changes hands at the top of that particular mountain. But having assembled material for this issue of our newsletter, it was Lewis Hyde's thought that came to mind: art as gift. It just felt right. Each of the three artists whose interviews are included exemplify in their own ways, how art making is deeply related to giving. So rather than trying to explain how art is a gift, maybe what we've collected here will help make the case. 
     We can start with something explicit in the form of a quote from artist Jim Barton: "The normal person walking around, it's about what he can get. Then, at a certain point, I think-if a person is really going to grow-it has to dawn on him that real happiness is about giving. To the degree you can give something back to life, that's the degree to which you can feel some satisfaction. That's just how it's put together. That's what I call understanding." It's an understanding that's hard won. Trying to figure out what to say about Barton in a couple of sentences is too difficult, so I'll just leave it to the reader to go straight to the interview where the problem will become a lot clearer.
     Next there's Richard Shaw. These two artists could hardly be more different from each other-except that they're both rooted in the deep aspect of art that Hyde calls the gift, or giving. For many years, Shaw has taught at UC Berkeley and, for years before that, he taught at the San Francisco Art Institute. He's quite well known as an artist, and also much loved as a teacher and friend. Shaw works primarily in ceramics and is a master at making uncanny replications of ordinary objects. It's tempting to focus on his impeccable craft, but that's for another time. I think Shaw would agree that ultimately, he hopes his work will put the viewer in front of something that stops them and makes them come into a state of presence. As he says, "It's pretty mystical because there are no rules to it. I think for Martha [Shaw's wife] and I, that is our religion. I think it's also something that you give to other people. You feel good when you hand something to someone that you made and they get something out of it. It's a pretty magic place to be." More than that, Shaw hopes his work will act to inspire others to make something creative themselves.
     Our third interview comes to us thanks to ceramic artist Nancy Selvin. Nancy herself happens to be quite generous, tirelessly working on behalf of several good causes. I suspect this quality is what moved her to interview Kevin Nierman, friend, fellow ceramics artist and comrade in generosity. The interview took place six years ago, but is as true today as it was then. Nierman, who I've talked with on several occasions, found a way to do what he loves doing-making clay art-and, since 1988, giving his secrets away to children in the form of teaching. Nierman is a social entrepreneur and his work is "nationally recognized for its innovative programs" [].
     It's going on two years now since I met the founder of, Nipun Mehta. Included here is a brief description of some of the things that have followed from this meeting -- amazing things, actually. These conveniently are set in the context of one of charityfocus's most lively projects, its gift economy restaurant, Karmakitchen. The title, "A Taste of the New Counter-Culture" expresses both a feeling for what may now be evolving and the hope that my sense of it really is accurate. 
     Completing this issue, is another special item. Recently a subscriber sent me an example of her husband's poetry. It made such an impression I wrote back and, next thing I knew, a book of poems arrived. The poet is Robert Moore. It's been a long time since a poet moved me as much. Soon I had in my possession four books of poetry, all by Red Hawk, the name Moore goes by. In my brief contact with him his generosity was obvious, though perhaps not a generosity the poet would claim for himself. Most of the time, an artist's wish to give is mixed with self-serving motivations, but sometimes the poet, the artist - or potentially anyone - reaches beyond the these.
     French poet Franc Andre Jamme [works & conversations #17] speaks of this as follows: "to understand that the root and the flower of what we search for is completely impersonal." The two poems by Red Hawk are from The Way of Power, published by Hohm Press, Prescott, AZ.   
     Welcome to issue #9. 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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