Window on America is closing (February 6, 2003)
Call it warped, if you will, but more than a few of us harbor an irrational nostalgia for things labor-intensive. We are the type that fondly remember those lumbering cars with no power brakes or power steering. We avoid self-propelled lawn mowers with electric start engines. In a culture alive with the sound of leaf blowers, we vow to never let go of the rake.
And if I can come clean, I'd like to reveal a longtime love affair with yet another of those endangered species of this vanishing wilderness: the clothesline.
Sounds crazy? Perhaps, but as the time-honored tradition of outdoor drying fades from view, it finds some nostalgic supporters riding to the rescue. Supporters such as the authors of "The Clothesline" (Gibbs Smith, $21.95), a recent book that celebrates the long history and cultural significance of al fresco laundering. Supporters such as Joe Kirkish, a Michigan photographer whose clothesline compositions can be seen in an exhibit opening Monday at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Supporters such as Martha Stewart -- someone who has seen plenty of her dirty laundry aired as of late. Stewart has declared that clotheslines are making a comeback due to the "sweet smell" and "crispness" that their use adds to our shirts, pants and bed sheets. Maytag may get the job done in a timely and efficient fashion, but Mother Nature has a style all her own.
More importantly, the motor-driven dryer is nothing more than that: a motor-driven dryer. An outdoor clothesline, however, is much, much more than the sum of its parts. In addition to the crisp, sweet-smelling end result it produces, the clothesline represents a kind of communal openness that has slowly disappeared from our culture. Neighbors weren't afraid to let neighbors into their lives. They received an unobstructed view of each other's laundry, and they chatted as they stood in adjoining yards and hung their clothes on lines that stretched between poles or perhaps from tree to tree.
As for kids in the neighborhood, the clothesline could be transformed into a makeshift fort or playhouse -- bedspreads and sheets strung over parallel lines provided perfect cover. Those lines also served as badminton nets and football goal posts, while the metal poles could be rigged up for a game of tether ball. On really boring days, simply climbing those poles or leaping for the lines could be entertainment enough.
And then there is the angle offered up by Irene Rawlings and Andrea VanSteenhouse, authors of "The Clothesline." It's an angle that presents line drying not as a to-be-avoided domestic chore, but as a desirable exercise.
"Hanging laundry on a line is one of life's luxuries," they write. "It represents time. Time to be alone. Time to think, even to meditate, accompanied by the repeated actions of hanging clothes -- stooping, straightening, lifting, hanging, breathing, watching the clouds. There is a spirituality in the simple, positive actions of this everyday activity."
But "The Clothesline" also makes the case (through personal remem brances and historical anecdotes) that outdoor lines lead to a sharing of lives and experiences. For Kirkish, 77, the photographer at the UMSL show, it is that aspect that hits closest to home.
"I think we've really lost a communal feeling as clotheslines have disappeared," he said in a phone interview from his Houghton, Mich., home. "When I watched my mother hanging our clothes, you couldn't help but look across the lots and see all the other clothes hanging across the landscape.
"You got to know people by what you saw. There was the old lady with all tattletale gray clothes, so there was something about her that was different. Then there was a household that was all overalls, and that would tell you something. So you really got to know people in a neighborly way -- especially in a small community like this."
Kirkish, a longtime teacher at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, now retired, began his clothesline series of photographs about 20 years ago.
The idea came out of one that he first used on a class of English composition students: When they claimed they had nothing to write about, Kirkish sent them out with pad and pen.
Find a clothesline, he said. Tell me everything you know
about these people based upon what you see hanging there.
Inspired by the students who'd been inspired by his writing assignment, Kirkish decided to make a record of the clotheslines he encountered. At first he didn't think the practice would amount to much, but he soon discovered that the photographs struck a popular nerve. Then, about a decade ago, Kirkish discovered that more and more of the clotheslines began to disappear -- a combination of some people turning exclusively to dryers and some communities creating ordinances banning clotheslines as an eyesore.
"That really got me," he says. "That really
made me nuts."
Kirkish's photographs, much like the ones by David Foxhoven and Jason McConathy that help illustrate "The Clothesline," are equal parts art and journalism. They are exercises in line, action and shape just as they are examples of cultural documentation. They are a look at things associated with the past that still have strong meaning for those in the present. They are, above all, literal and figurative timelines.
"There was a time when the clothesline was a metaphor understood by all," reads a passage in the Rawlings and VanSteenhouse book. "Everyone washed clothes and everyone hung them out on the line. Name brands like Buick, Pepsi and Zenith used the clothesline in their advertising to symbolize cleanliness, wholesomeness, and a job well done."
Kirkish remembers that time, and he remembers the overwhelming
feeling elicited by a simple horizontal line strung between two vertical
structures. It's a feeling, however, with which he refuses to part. He
remains a clothesline junkie.
He searches for a single word to capture the experience.
He finds it:
VanSteenhouse is a Denver Colorado public speaker, psychologist, and author of Empty
Nest, The Clothesline, and A Woman's Guide to a Simpler Life.
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