In The Nature of Gothic, nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin wrote that there is beauty in imperfection, and that ‘the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art.’ He also says that we should celebrate visible evidence of workmanship – chips and flaws – as ‘signs of the life and the liberty of every workman who struck the stone’. This way of thinking about art has stayed with me, not least because of the implicit links to rhythm. Roughness and irregularity are signs of human labour and toil, marks made by swinging a hammer or tapping a chisel. Rhythms are created through shaping, moving and moulding. Some of these rhythms are transitory, existing only in the moment of creation between artist and artwork, and others remain visible.
Justin Squizzero is a handweaver in remote northern Vermont. His venture, The Burroughs Garret, channels some of Ruskin’s ideas of handcrafting an object, connecting with the past and celebrating the workman and workmanship. Justin’s work challenges modern definitions of progress by creating textiles that celebrate and honour the natural world and the dignity of human labour. He produces all of his work on his nineteenth-century farm using 200-year-old hand looms in rooms that witnessed the very same activity some two centuries ago. In addition, the natural dyes and fibres that Justin uses draw on New England’s textile traditions and emulate its reserved aesthetic. His work connects material, maker, and user across time and place.
What does rhythm mean to you as a handweaver – both in your weaving practice and on your farm in Vermont?
Firstly, in weaving there is the repetitive motion that goes into the act itself. And I think that there is a parallel to that repetitive nature which happens here, in the place that I live, in the broader, historical span of time. Two hundred years or so of people weaving in this house, and some of the equipment that was found here, is still the same that I’m using. So there’s that, and there are seasonal rhythms here. Just before I came in to talk to you I was out moving my pigs who only have a few more weeks before they go off to the slaughterhouse. There are the rhythms that happen here, rhythms of life and death. It’s a constant pulse that’s underneath everything that happens.
What do you think are the most important or prominent rhythms in your life, that you feel or experience?
The thing that I most think about is that broader idea of the rhythms of human activity that have taken place on the spot for so long. What I do in my day-to-day life is the same thing that was done 50 years ago and 100 years ago in the house that I live in now. I came here three years ago and at that point it had been unoccupied since 1989, and so a lot of my time here has been spent, you might say, restoring – but really just breathing life back into it.
Were you drawn to the place because of the sense of connectedness with history?
I would say the place is paramount to me. I was weaving for a living before I found this house and moved here, but I would say that the weaving fits into the bigger picture. I’ve always been interested in history and the past, and also in agriculture and wanting to farm at least a little bit. And so for me weaving is a really great way to earn a living from home, and work with my hands, and engage with the craft, which I do feel drawn to, but it alone isn’t a be-all thing. I wouldn’t be happy weaving in some studio apartment in a major city; that wouldn’t have the same draw for me as here.
So do you think the history of the place enhance your experiences of weaving?
I would, yeah, I think it really sort of grounds it in something. I like to think of what I do as a continuation of the hand-weaving tradition that we have been practising for centuries. I learned from a guy, Norman, and the weaving that he learned in Scotland is the same one that had previously been practiced here but was supplanted here in the 17th and 18th centuries. And so, even though hand-weaving in this style has not happened on this shore for more than 300 years, the root tradition that it comes from is much, much older than that. It would be very different if I was using modern equipment and weaving contemporary styles here: not that that wouldn’t have any interest, but I feel really compelled to the traditional style as well and the particular location. I think it’s all very interesting.
On your website you discuss the idea of hands and corporeal objects being a means of connecting with people and the weavers that have spun before you. Do you think rhythm could be another way of connecting with this history?
Yes, yes I think it could. I think rhythm for me, thinking about it like this, is the sort of embodiment of the action; there’s the objects, but then the ways they’re made and how they’re used definitely comes into that.
How would you say that the rhythms that you’ve chosen to work with affect your work and the product, if at all?
Well I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that we engage with people through objects. I’ll use an example that a friend of mine gave. A friend of mine teaches music education to college level students, and teaches them how to be music teachers themselves. He’s just old enough that the music of his youth is different from the music of mine, and is quite different obviously from today. The thing that he pointed out that I found really interesting, and maybe concerning, was that all of the music that his students were starting to listen to was completely digital. There were no people playing instruments any more; it was all electronic backing, and all the voices were autotuned. And he was interested and maybe a little concerned that all of his students seemed to be totally plugged into computers both in their hands and in their ears. I wonder, how does that change the human experience when all of the things we surround ourselves with are mass-produced and machine-made. They’ve lost something of that connection to other people, perhaps.
Do you mean that in the sense of the man-made product being passed onto another person, or is it the personal element?
I would say it’s a mixture of that. A man-made thing has just a different character to it. There’s that slight irregularity and variation that in itself is a kind of perfection, that has a life to it. Looking around – I’m an old building kind of person – I can see just the subtlety of a hand-planed surface, or real hand-made plaster, that you don’t get with a machine-planed piece of moulding or sheetrock. I feel like I respond to a hand-made environment in a way that I don’t really find in a mass-produced place. I wonder what that does to us as people, as animals, on a base level. To not live in an environment that has natural character to it anymore because we’ve so stripped it away through manufacturing.
You say that you only work with natural materials. How much is this affected by the cycles of nature? Is there a time when you can use one material and can’t use another?
It doesn’t affect me as much as I’d like it to. I do spend a lot more time weaving in the winter months than I do in the warmer weather here, because of the growing season, and tending the garden, and the animals, so the work itself does have that natural flow. I would say that it really affects the dying that I do. I’m small-scale here, sort of like cottage industry. I don’t have a room that is dedicated to the dying; I do it in my kitchen, or in the warmer weather I’ll do it outside. It’s an enormous hassle really to do it in the winter. In terms of the materials, linen is somewhat sensitive to humidity levels, so I have had some cases where if it was too dry or too damp it was really a challenge to work with. I have had some projects where if it was really raining outside I wouldn’t be able to work on it. One advantage of having multiple looms set up is having different projects going at once.
Are there other crossovers between the rhythms of farm life and the rhythms of weaving?
There are in some ways. There’s a fair amount of planning and preparatory work with the weaving and an awful lot of thinking and getting all the yarn in order before anything actually really happens – before the thing that we think of as weaving really happens. In many ways it’s like the winter season on a farm like this, where we spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going to happen once it warms up. And then there’s an all-hands-on-deck rush to pull it all off when the weather’s good, which in some ways is like the actual time putting the funnel on the loom itself. But behind that there’s preparatory work in planning and with the garden. There’s so much time to spend tilling and laying out beds and getting seeds in order, and all that sort of thing.
Was that a conscious decision to farm the land, and grow what you eat and eat what you grow?
Yes, definitely. It’s been a short period of time that we tried to move away from that sort of thing. And I wonder about that term – ‘away from’ – it’s the long-term viability. It’s not for me, that idea of moving ‘away from’ the land. I guess some people would see it as a turning back to something historical, but in my mind it’s just sort of continuity with something that in my mind makes sense, like the weaving.
So it’s not a rejection of something?
No, it’s a slightly sceptical reaction.
Are you one of the only people weaving using these techniques?
Yeah, there’s quite a small group of people working with these tools here in the US and in Europe too. If you’re looking at a global perspective, there are a lot more people working with similar equipment and maybe similar techniques, for example in South America, India, Africa. But within Europe and America it’s a pretty small group of us who are interested in these ways.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The only other thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is the idea of preservation – from the historic standpoint both with a physical place, but also the way one lives in it and its environment, culturally as well as physically. Preservation tends to be perceived as a very backwards-looking pursuit, something that is caught up in venerating a past, perhaps.
And I’ve been thinking more about the ways in which it’s very forward-thinking, because my concerns with preserving something are that it’s still around down the line for people in the future. So this perhaps ties into the whole idea of rhythm in a repetitive sense; not repeating it as a sort of echo that fades off with time, but renewing that sort of rhythm so that it’s present for someone down the line to choose to work with or develop. That forward-looking idea of preservation informs the craft, and the way that I try to live here in this place, on this particular land – all of it.
All images are taken from The Burroughs Garret’s instagram, @theburroughsgarret. All other photographs courtesy of Heather McClintock.
This is part of RHYTHM, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring rhythm as individual and collective, as poetic and biological, and the ways that rhythm dictates life. RHYTHM is conceived and edited by Rachel Goldblatt.