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Hall Rockefeller talks art, craft, culture, and women

Hall Rockefeller, art historian, philanthropist, woman extraordinaire, is the newest member of the Nest Board. Her fresh perspective on craftsmanship, art, culture, and gender equity brings new insights to Nest’s work, getting us excited for the year ahead. We sat down with her to discuss her unique perspectives on Nest’s work.

Nest: Hall, we are thrilled to welcome to you the Nest Board of Trustees. Can you tell us a little bit about what led you to our organization and why the Nest mission resonates with you personally?

Hall: My road to Nest was a serendipitous one that began in high school when I met Ashia Sheikh-Dearwester, Nest’s Chief Strategy and Partnerships Officer. She had just graduated from college and had begun working for my mother at National Audubon. My mother (who is on Nest’s advisory board) loves Ashia and respects her as a creative and hard worker, so I knew that anything Ashia was involved in was worthy of attention.

But independent of my respect for Ashia, Nest feels like my organizational soulmate––I have a background in art history (both a bachelor’s and a master’s) and am particularly interested in the intersection of fine art and craft traditions, which has become a mode of making taken up as a feminist cause beginning in the 60s and 70s, as a way to heighten the respect for the work women do every day. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the weaver Anni Albers who admired the ancient weavers of Peru more than any of the artistic powerhouses around her at the Bauhaus or Black Mountain College. With my work on my website less than half, which covers women artists in New York City, I continue to gravitate towards textile-based practices and count many such artists as among my favorites.

As an art historian, you have a unique perspective on the relationship between art and culture. At Nest, we like the saying from John Muir that everybody needs beauty as well as well as bread. How do you see this sentiment as ringing true in the craft world? How do aesthetic objects bring value to a culture?

Hall: Well, as we know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we need to keep in mind that as cultures vary, so do people’s interpretations of beauty. For that reason it is important that the artisan businesses that Nest is involved with make sure to stay faithful to ancient techniques, even if they are bringing product to a more mainstream, western market. I think a fantastic example of this was something I saw at Threads of Peru, where their artisans made a throw pillow with a technique called the discontinuous weft––this is a technique that is disappearing in the Andes, as it is so difficult to master. Threads of Peru incorporated it into this pillow that is divided into four squares in different shades of reds and pinks. Not only is it a completely modern motif that would look great on my couch, but it is helping keep a tradition alive. Sometimes you find that sacrifices do not have to be made––we can actually be authentic and make it saleable.

Maybe that doesn’t exactly answer the question, but my thought is that we don’t need to prioritize one culture’s beauty over another––everyone can win.

In many cases, we see the next generation of artisans walking away from craft techniques that have been passed down through centuries. How is something like craft embedded within a culture’s identity and what do we risk losing when craft forms die?

Hall: We risk losing a lot! First off, no matter what the craft technique, no matter where it is being done, craft is a way of engaging with our physical worlds. Psychologists have done plenty of studies on the importance of physical touch on our psychological well being––I think whether its a hug from a loved one or a connection to clay or cloth, touch is an essential way of staying grounded.

Certain crafts have had millenia to develop, and as a result many techniques are uniquely suited to the places they “grew up in,” so to speak. They are tethered to the landscape either as a motif drawn or woven or painted into objects or by the material that can be found there. When I went to Peru with Nest in August, I saw how all the colors we constantly saw in the mantas everyone wore were in the landscape––the reds from the bugs that fed off cacti, the yellows from a specific type of leaf and on and on. When we walk away from craft we lose not only our connections to our ancestors and our communities, but we lose our connection to our environments. And the more we are estranged from our environment the more willing we are to destroy it.

Nest: Craft is the second largest employer of women in emerging economies. Yet often, women’s contributions to retail supply chains are invisible. Through your own work, you have helped to expose the exceptional works of female artists. Why is visibility itself such an important first step towards women’s work being valued?

Hall: I can guarantee you that most people have no idea about outsourcing or about the thousands of women in their homes doing handwork outside labor regulations, which is why I found that NYT article on Italian home laborers in the designer market so important. (Though, of course, it us a shame that the plight of European workers is what it takes to shock people. People would be far less interested in hearing about that story in reference to workers in India or Southeast Asia.) I think we think that the rise of the factory in the 19th century was the end of domestic production for women, so of course knowing there is a problem is the first step to fixing it.

But on a grander scale, not seeing women as part of the dominant narrative, whether in history or politics or art, really in any sector, is a key part of keeping women in the status of second class citizens today. When I flip through art books that are chock full of paintings by male artists, I’m not thinking, “oh gee women weren’t making anything, what were they up to?” I’m thinking, “this is a book full of silent voices. This is a book teeming with the lost ideas and histories of women.” Because the thing is, there have always been women, and you can bet that they had a part in whatever art movement or political event (I mean, we make up half the population!), it’s just that no one chose to document what that part was. (Just a quick example of this––most histories of the Bauhaus focus on the Big Guys who came out of it––Walter Gropius, Josef Albers, Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy––but don’t often mention the weaving workshop, the only studio to which women were admitted. Turns out the sale of their industrial textile designs funded much of the Bauhaus. Not only were they present, but they made the whole machine run.)

So the less we write and talk about it, the more willing we are to believe that women have never made a difference. But if we begin to see that throughout history women have been there with an opinion, maybe we’ll be more interested in hearing those opinions today.

Nest: What else about the relationship between craftsmanship and women strikes you as unique and important?

Hall: While my background particularly rests in an academic/critical realm, I am actually very interested in the business element of Nest’s mission. It’s not radical to say that money and power are entwined, and that’s not just for people at the tippy top of the economic ladder. When women are economically empowered they also achieve freedom. I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and when some women win, all women win. A woman who is successful is more likely to help other women become successful, either by employing other women or buying material for other women.

Nest: We have our own mini library in the Nest offices and the entire team loves to share book recommendations with one another. What is on your 2019 reading list?

Hall: Oh, goodness, so much! I have recently been reading diary entries and short writings on many artists as of late. I highly recommend reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook, a year long chronicle of the minimalist sculptor life in the seventies. I also am excited to read a short volume of the Surrealist painter Remedios Varo’s writings, including “prank letters,” a grouping of letters she sent to strangers to see how they might respond. I actually have a Goodreads account in conjunction with my website for people who want a good reading list on female artists.

As for non-art related books, I am excited to read The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (the third Brontë sister), as well as having just finished Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (an excellent book!).

You shouldn’t have got me started on this topic––I could go on and on.