in good company
by Maja Schelski
There is a moment of surprise when people step into our studio. The path leads through a kitchen, down the stairs, and around a dark corner, guiding you like an inverted funnel that seems to lead nowhere only to suddenly open up into a large color-filled space that’s humming with creative energy, focused attention, and often friendly chatter.
Below this melody, the steady rhythm of our work keeps the beat. On the left, you’ll find the weaving unit, where we hand-weave fine cotton and linen fabric on large manual floor looms. Weaving, the time-consuming, yet rhythmical and meditative process of building the cloth one thread at a time is a favorite task for many of us.
Over to your left is the printing unit. Rather than the relaxing atmosphere of weaving, here you’ll meet anticipation while the squeegee is passed up and down the silk screen as we are printing one of our original designs onto hand-woven canvas or organic cotton tees. We hold our breaths as we lift the screen—did the print come out well? Screen-printing is something we are all still learning together; it’s exciting and nerve wrecking all at once.
Between the weaving and printing, in the far corner of the studio, lies our sewing unit. Here, master seamstresses and apprentices receive the hand-woven fabric and turn it all into handbags, fashion accessories, and various home decor items. The workflow in the sewing unit has it’s own rhythm, moving between the silent movements at the cutting table, to the rattling of sewing machines, and the steamy puffs of the large industrial iron. Frequently, colleagues drop by to suggest fabric combinations, bold or subtle, depending on individual tastes.
We design and handcraft each and every item in our studio through a collaborative and inclusive process. By the time a product is finished, each one of us has had the opportunity to contribute our individual talents and skills to its creation.
We are in good company, a small collective of artists and craftsmen passionate about textiles and dedicated to good craftsmanship. Some of us have developmental disabilities—and that’s where it gets complicated.
I feel that most people fundamentally misunderstand why those of us with disabilities weave. This usually means that they also misunderstand the purpose of our textile studio and even craft or art as a vocation in general. I don’t blame them. As soon as ‘disability’ enters the equation, everything seems to change. Today, the world of disability services is neatly subdivided and categorized into clear compartments. You are either a service provider or recipient, paid staff or participant, independent or dependent, integrated or institutionalized. There is, however, nothing neat or clear about the creative process or the work of an artist. Our work does not fit into the molds available.
Our studio, like many cooperative studios, is based on values that seem outdated, even radical for many people today. We value interdependence more than independence, choose collaboration over self-promotion, and deeply believe in the power of community. In the midst of our fast-paced society, obsessed with output and productivity, we savor slow being and slow doing. As craftsmen and artists, we find meaning and joy in our lives because we get to create every day. Sometimes, this creativity translates into a productive day of work at the loom, sewing machine, or print table. Other times, it produces a heap of almost identical drawings, a mess of yarn bits on the floor or paint-covered hands. The seemingly unproductive days are as crucial to the creative process as the productive ones. In fact, the one type of day couldn’t exist without the other in an artist’s life.
At in good company, nobody receives monetary remuneration for the work we do. All income that we make from product sales is used to cover raw materials and other studio expenses. Many will find this strange when looking at us through the lens of disability services. Yet isn’t it so that very few artists and craftsmen are able to earn a living through their work? At best, they get to pay for the studio space and for materials to keep fueling their desire to create and thus live joyful lives. If fortunate enough, a spouse will make enough money to pay for food and rent. If less lucky, artists end up in day jobs they loathe and long for weekends where they finally get to follow their heart’s passion.
For some artists, creativity is strongest when working in solitude. For others, it is the company of fellow artists or craftsmen, the potential of mutual enrichment and collaboration that it affords that makes the work extra special. And so, in our studio, you will find people whose passion is to weave, to be creative, and to do so alongside others who feel similarly.
At in good company, disability is one of many features that define who we are, and for the purpose of the work we do, it’s a fairly insignificant feature. Many of the professionals in disability services who visit us have gotten bogged down trying to make our studio conform to their ways and attempt to measure the “progress” and “productivity” of the special needs artists in our studio. They are less interested in people’s passions, their search for meaningful work and their wish to explore their creative interests and possibly discover their vocation. For us, however, these are the things that count the most!
I don’t have a developmental disability, and so I am one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need to explain why I choose to work as an artist, how much progress I’ve made over the past month or whether I’ve sold enough items to justify my placement. I consider myself so incredibly blessed to be able to work creatively every day, to spend those unproductive days with my hands covered in paint and with like-minded folks. I am especially lucky because I do not need to sacrifice creativity for productivity or need to worry that our craft must provide our income. I want the world to understand that most artists and craftsmen would die for such an opportunity!
My co-workers with disabilities are some of the most important colleagues to me and to others in the studio. Not only do our talents complement each other nicely; we also get excited about all aspects of our work the way few can. But most of all, I am fortunate because I have found my vocation. Not a job, but the very thing that sustains me and gives joy and meaning to my life. How many people get to say this nowadays?
in good company is part of Camphill Soltane, an intentional community in southeastern Pennsylvania. For the past 75 years, Camphill communities worldwide have utilized a communal, rather than service-provider model that allows individuals with and without disabilities to live, learn, and work together in an environment that blurs boundaries between ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’. Camphills can be best described as intentional communities where the values of service, sharing, spiritual nourishment, and recognition of each individual’s gifts and contributions offer a model of renewal for the wider society. Today, however, Camphill communities are endangered. In a society where individualism and material acquisitions define successful lives, Camphill communities are facing an uncertain future that jeopardizes their most cherished values and forces them into molds where they do not belong.
Maja Schelski fell in love with the Camphill way of life 15 years ago and has since been living and working in Camphills in Norway and the United States. She is the founder of in good company, a small textile design and production studio and possibly her favorite place in the world. You are welcome to contact Maja at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit the online store, or learn more about Camphill communities.