Sports Column: Art, function and the great outdoors

By the time my nephew Michael was 13 years old, he was not only tying his own flies but was selling them to a local fly-fishing store. These were functional flies; they were tied with the intention of being used to catch fish. But Michael was an artist. He took great pride in his work. He subscribed to a magazine devoted not to fly-fishing but just to the tying of flies.
I remember visiting my brother in North Carolina one year, and having Michael show me some photos from the fly-tying magazine. There were fly tiers whose creation were works of art. Literally. They sold in glass cases for hundreds of dollars. Some ended up on display in art museums.
I started tying flies a couple years ago. Nobody will confuse any of my flies for museum quality pieces. I am content if a fish occasionally confuses one for a piece of food, but I think my flies mostly just cause confusion. A fish looks at one and wonders if a flood somewhere upstream swept through a dump and washed trash into the stream. Still, from time to time I do feel particularly creative and patient, and I will put extra attention or time into a little golden stonefly or mayfly imitation. I tied a pair of mayfly earrings for my wife, Deborah, for her birthday this past year and she actually wears them in public.
This past week Deborah and I spent our weekly lunch date visiting the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Their current exhibit, “Artists of the Forest,” features a number of artists from across the Northeast (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York) who work with natural woodland materials. Though only a couple dozen pieces were displayed over two rooms, it was a fascinating and enjoyable exhibit and well worth the time of the visit.
Two things I was particularly aware of were the blend of beauty and functionality, and the fact that some of the “art” was not only made from the outdoors (that is, with natural materials) but also inspired by outdoor activities. There were, certainly, some framed works of art: sculptures and carvings intended solely to be displayed on a wall or corner table. One or two of these my wife and I imagined in our house next to our Reed Prescott painting.
But other works included snowshoes, tables, cribs, baskets and medicine chests. These were made to be usable in daily life. The work was inspired by generations of New England artisans, especially the native New Englanders who dwelt in Vermont before the coming of Europeans, and who plied their trades as part of daily life — daily life lived much more outdoors than our modern lives are lived. Yet for all the practical functionality, they were also works of great beauty, made with an artist’s eye for form as well as a craftsman’s eye for, and knowledge of, material.
So beautiful were many of the works that Deborah and I would have found it difficult to actually use some of the pieces even if we owned them. There was one pair of snowshoes so beautiful they really needed to be hanging on a wall for all to see, and not out in some shed waiting to be dragged across snowy and icy ground, tripped over, and entangled in tree branches. Yet in another sense, they were so beautifully made as practical items, and also so much a part of the outdoors and their intended functionality, that they also called out to be used.
My favorite work was a small woven fishing creel. I’ve often wanted a fishing creel like that, but I commented to Deborah that if I owned that particular one I wouldn’t be able to use it for fear I would damage it. It was such a wonderful work of art, it would have been like using an oil painting as a placemat. There were way too many hours of loving labor put into that creel to think of it holding fish.
“Oh, I would have no problem using it,” Deborah replied, as she stood beside me also admiring its beauty. “It was meant to be used. And it is certainly well enough made to handle a bit of rugged action. Besides, there are way too many hours of labor put into that creel for it not to one day be used for what it was intended for: holding fish.”
I consented that maybe Deborah was right. But only if I was fishing with my own flies. Because then I wouldn’t have to worry that any fish would ever actually get into the creel. 

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