Preservation and passing fancy

Trapped under glass or frowningly tagged “Do Not Touch,” the woolen pieces displayed in the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s latest conservation-minded exhibit clearly weren’t crafted for everyday use.

Yet California weaver Barbara Kent Stafford claims that her “Red Karakul Rug” (named for the breed of sheep that gave up its coat for the project) could be walked on for years — years! — and still show little use.

“This exhibit presents works of art and craft created by contemporary handspinners from wool produced by rare and endangered species of sheep,” explains a nearby gallery statement. Gathering momentum, it continues: “The skills of handspinning and the[se] unique materials … embody irreplaceable foundations of human civilization. Machines cannot do this quality of work. Chemistry, or even reverse biological engineering, can’t replicate these fibers.”

Save the Sheep: The Art of Endangered Resources has shown in the Folk Art Center’s Interpretive Area since early spring. The project honors — in its way — breeds like the Navajo Churro, which has dwelt in the American Southwest for more than 400 years. Other showcased breeds include the Cotswold, the Wensleydale, the Shetland and the Tunis.

By all accounts, the fiber bequeathed by these diminishing flocks is of ineffably finer quality than that shorn from mass-bred sheep (which makes for “shabby rugs and hair-shirt underwear,” the gallery statement scoffs). Wool, however, is widely considered a “second crop” to meat, prompting the proliferation of heftier (though demonstrably less healthy, less intelligent and more resource-draining) commercial flocks, which has edged some of these rarer breeds to the brink of extinction.

The more strident sort of animal activist will censure turning any part of a beast into a crop; the exhibit’s curators argue that, “Sheep and people formed a partnership for survival long before many other components of what we consider human culture were discovered.”

Some of the wearables exhibited in Save the Sheep represent hundreds of hours of labor, and most are made of fleece shorn from members of the artisans’ own small flocks. Brenda Bryon’s eyelash-fine Wensleydale scarf — weighing in at half an ounce — confirms one end of the possibilities, while Laurie Boyer’s boisterous Cotswold jacket, a snowy behemoth of dreadlocks, might have dropped from the chops of an ornery sage (or 10).

By virtue of hard work alone, both pieces seem sure of immortality.

The labors of local installation-artist Corey Flail, on the other hand, seek to honor the ephemeral in nature. Some Rocks Along My Path, which opens next week at Pack Place, is a multimedia exhibit that documents and shares Flail’s excursions in stone balancing.

This art form — practiced by more people than you might think, insists Flail — is a “way of creating something temporary from something permanent.” His outdoor sculptures (he has realized visions in creek beds, and in ice and snow) can take five minutes to build, or many hours. A rock’s color, shape and plane are all properties Flail considers; his work, stresses the artist, is about “using what we have.”

Some Rocks will feature sculptures specially made for the exhibit, an interactive area for folks to test their own balancing skills, and photographs of Flail’s past pieces.

So resonant are these outdoor experiences for Flail that, out of the 100 or so pictures he’s taken of his work, “I can look at [any one] and tell you exactly where and when I did [that sculpture].”

Why record them at all? At first, the point was seeing how long the pieces lasted on their own, admits Flail. But an unfortunate trend soon arose. It seems people just couldn’t keep their hands off the things: Invariably, the works would be wrecked when he went back to visit them.

And not just aimlessly dismantled, but “slammed to pieces.”

That, however, is simply human nature, Flail observes, noting, “They’d probably do that to Stonehenge, if they could.”

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