Never work for money.
— Bernard Denzer, M.D.
My mother tells a story about a sculptor she knew in her student days, when work was more important than eating, and money was scarce. This sculptor friend had been recommended to – and accepted a commission from – a wealthy businessman who wanted a portrait bust. So the sculptor arranged the work, modeled the bust in clay, made the mold, cast the piece, cleaned the cast, applied the finish, and finally delivered it to his patron, who expressed satisfaction. The sculptor was unprepared, however to answer the next question: “what do I owe you?” So he looked around the man’s well-appointed office and figured he must have also selected and paid for the handsome desks, chairs, and a large, well-made, leather-covered armchair. This last seemed to the sculptor equal in scale and value to his own work, so he said “whatever you paid for that armchair will do.” The businessman didn’t object, but the sculptor was surprised when the pricetage on the chair turned out to be twice what he’d hoped for!
I’ve had a few gallery shows and so had to price the work I wanted to sell. I had no idea how to put a number on what I’d done. Should I try to count my time and charge by the hour? What about the fact that the best work came quickest and easiest? The owner of the first gallery suggested “well, how much would you need in order to part with each piece?” The problem there, however, was that the ones I didn’t want to part with, I wouldn’t sell, and the ones I was happy to sell, I didn’t want to keep. But he encouraged me to value my work highly, and to let the prices reflect it. I sold one piece for quite a bit of money, then gave away a few others, and took most of the rest home. Since I lived in a very small house, storage was a challenge. My next show was at a gallery where the previous exhibitor – another sculptor – had sold nearly every piece. His policy was to price as low as possible – and he was working in wood – much slower and more involved than what I would be showing. Following his lead, I priced my work low too, sold most of it, and had little to haul home.
Between these two shows I also wrote and self-published a little how-to book which started to sell quite well. A book, of course, is easier to price than unique works of art, but I had a few customers who bought them wholesale and one of these wanted to negotiate a unique discount on entire cases. It made me anxious and uncomfortable. When we met to discuss the discount and exchange money for books, I said that dealing in dollars always made me defensive – as if my value in the world was just a number, and that everyone else was a thief out to cheat me of my due. But my “customer” was someone I worked with. I liked and respected him, and didn’t want my irrational feelings about money to queer our relationship. Of course, as we talked, it became clear that neither of us worked just for money. Once we established the similarity of our purposes, the money took its rightful place as a simple means of exchange, rather than a value unto itself. Everything else fell into place. That “customer” has become a friend, and our relationship has become a collaboration by which we do much more than simply selling books. Though we continue to do that – profitably – we’re also making beauty (goodness) – together.
Such beauty can offer criteria not only to price work, but to guide it. After I’d been doing things long enough to be known for what I did, I found myself facing choices about how much work and how many clients to take on. I realized that just because other people think of what I do as “my art,” I don’t have to say yes to every opportunity. In fact, sometimes I have to say “no.” Working for goodness and beauty is not a simple matter of ever-increasing production and bank-account balances. We must not make ourselves into machines. Like farming, art succeeds or fails not according to the number of carrots and potatoes you pull out of the ground, but according to the fertility of the soil and the health of the community. When the soil overflows with fertility and the community overflows with health, all products become gifts and exchange becomes celebration.
Obviously, “the fertility of the soil and the “health of the community” are beyond the reach or potency of any one man or woman’s art, whether we think of health and fertility as concrete facts or conceptual metaphors. But at a certain point I did realize that my own choices shaped my community and affected the fertility of my environment. For instance, I fairly regularly get invited to work in places and for people far from home. Of course, this is a big ego boost, and travel is always exciting. One man called from Canada saying he wanted me to build him an oven to anchor his new restaurant concept. Since “the customer is always right” and since ovens were “my art” I said “yes.” After I hung up the phone I thought about the 2-day trip to Edmonton, the weeks away from home and family – and the fact that I had no practical idea of who I would be working for – and I thought, simply, “no.” I called him back next day and gave him the name of a Canadian builder I knew. Not long after, I got another call from someone much closer to home who also needed work – and realized that I wasn’t just building ovens and other sculpture, I was building a network of relationships between peoples who – depending on my choices – might be in close enough proximity to know not just me but each other. Part of any work, of course, involves maintaining relationships, and if the work itself also involves maintenance, it makes sense to keep the focus local.
Now, when I evaluate my job prospects, I weigh them according to how they answer three questions: is the work in or close to my community? Will I be working with people I know, or know of? Is it interesting? This doesn’t’ mean that I refuse any jobs that doesn’t meet all criteria – sometimes it’s worth more to try something new, or to work with a particular person than it is to stay home – but the criteria help me remember that money isn’t a value. Once I’m clear on what is of value to me, then I can talk about money.
Such criteria also add something I call “gift labor” to every job. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth giving my time and energy without counting every minute and every expense. This leaves me free to adjust my prices according to real needs (my own and my clients’) rather than arbitrary or contrived scales based on fickle markets or mechanical concepts like “time & resource management” or “cost-benefit analyses.” The gift can work both ways, too, as some clients are happy to pay more than I really need.
Of course, need and wealth are relative. If you need to eat at fancy restaurants, to drive brand new cars, to buy every new appliance, to go on expensive vacations, to live in a big house (or two), with cable TV, maybe a personal trainer, and every possible option on your cel phone package, you’ll “need” a lot of money, and you’ll have to count your time and your wealth in dollars enough to pay all the bills. And none of my measures will make much sense. If, on the other hand, you need time and freedom for family and garden, to cook your own meals and to make a life of beauty (goodness), then you may need only one small house with nothing in it that will distract you from the people you love and the things you love doing – and your wealth will be much harder to count – and to tax.
This way, labor turns again to art and wealth is given – in the form of time and materials at hand – and goodness comes without price. One mason I worked with specializes in custom-built, super-efficient, wood-fired heaters. As a 2nd or 3rd generation brick-layer who’d been inducted into the union at the age of about 12, he was used to billing by the hour, until one obsessive and controlling customer counted his work by the clock and refused to pay the entire bill. Now he simply charges a flat fee that includes an allowance for maintenance calls. He’s one of the foremost builders in his trade; his focus goes entirely into the work – which now includes a large amount of “free” work – and his clients become allies in his larger mission, which is not just to make money, but to educate the public about a better way to heat a home.
In Mali, west Africa, where buildings have been hand-sculpted out of mud for untold generations, masonry required much more of a man than any American trade or a profession. Malian masons traditionally took responsibility for the entire life of a house, not only maintaining and re-plastering every year, but also burying the owners when they died! When a house sold, the mason had to approve the new owner. Masons in Djenne, home to a great Mosque that is one of the largest earthen structures in the world, still share responsibility for this public structure, which also requires annual re-plastering. The job involves the entire community takes part, which divides into teams to make and transport mud to the masons, who race to see who can finish their section first. It’s a celebration!
Can you imagine an American contractor agreeing even just to keep a house painted? If the same man who built the house also maintained it, who would need bonding and insurance? And if the builder had to approve every new owner, we would have to value houses as sacred space essential to the life of the whole community, rather than simply as speculative commodities controlled by banks and mortgage re-sellers.
Of course, I may need to compute how much cash I need per month or per year, how many hours I have available, and how many dollars I need to get out of my working hours. But I don’t sell my time – that’s called “wage slavery,” and for good reason – when you sell your time for money, you give away your freedom.
Selling objects in galleries seems no better to me, even after that show where I sold nearly every piece. I like to meet and know the people who buy what I make, and it’s helpful to learn how they use it and what inspired them to buy it. I much prefer to work by commission for people who need or want me to help them find ways to improve their home, to increase the goodness and beauty of their life, whether it be an oven, a garden wall, or a fireplace surround. I get to collaborate with them, and they get to participate in the process – the value we create goes far beyond the cash that I need. I do continue to accept invitations to work in local schools or on other public projects, for exactly the same reasons. When I have time at home, I carve spoons and wooden dustpans, most of which I’ve given away, though I have thought that when I have time, I’d like to make enough to be able to sell direct at markets or fairs. I take pleasure in talking to people who show interest in the things I make, whether it’s books or spoons, and when they buy, it seems like more of an exchange of gifts than a financial transaction. When I sell only what I make, everything changes. Every thing has its price, and prices vary with the market, the buyer, and the seller – but all labor truly is “love made visible,” and the gift of s/he who gives it.
Best of all, however, is working in a pure gift economy – also called barter, except that barter focuses more on the thing, while a gift economy focuses more on the exchange. The original agreement by which I fixed up and moved into my house was the greatest such gift because it was a relationship that cemented me into my community, and that also continues on what is very much a familial basis (which, of course, includes family challenges and the kind of risk you can’t control with money – which is priceless on the good days, and no worse than normal on the bad days). When Hannah was pregnant with our first boy, we found a wonderful midwife who traded with many of her clients. She happened to want a garden wall, so after she spent 6 months walking with us into the adventure of parenthood, I spent weeks in her yard helping to re-shape her home. Later, inspired by a carpenter who had traded home maintenance for family doctoring, I traded with our naturopath for family health care.
A few years ago we took the boys camping and schooling at a “primitive skills gathering” that’s about a decade old. We spent the week making things, and the boys – when they weren’t making stuff with the other kids – had the run of the camp with all the others, now fast friends or foes. Virtually every adult, however, came with impressive skills and talents, and beauty was on display and/or in use everywhere: tools, utensils, weapons, clothing, food & drink – all hand made, home-grown, wild-crafted, and beautiful. The highlight of the week was the night of the “trade blanket,” when anyone with an item to trade could bring it into the circle and offer it for exchange. The rules allowed only traders to sit at the blanket (spectators took the rear), and no mention of cash prices. The first trader put an item on the blanket and anyone who wanted it offered item or items in exchange, including as much or as little commentary as might be needed – sometimes even cash, when the pot needed sweetening. When the offers stopped, the “seller” could take her time looking at and asking questions about any item. No deal was required – the trader could simply say “I respectfully decline,” and remove her item. Otherwise, she’d make her choice, and close the deal with a handshake. Some exchanges celebrated and cemented friendships. Others encouraged new young traders, as when a young man who wanted someone else’s beautiful knife offered a few tiny jars of a sweet he’d made – from the milk of his own goats. The owner of the knife wasn’t really interested at first, but the boy told about the hours he’d put in with the goats and standing at the stove stirring – and then, with encouragement from the crowd, he offered a taste of the product. By that time everyone around the blanket had a stake in the exchange, and most were rooting for the boy. It became a point of honor for the more experienced adult trader to reward not only the work, but the courage and integrity that the boy had brought to the blanket. When they shook hands, all cheered.
While not every exchange inspired the same degree and quality of participation, the public witness and valuation made for ties much stronger than any contract, and values more enduring than cash. Traders and audience both made the blanket into a true market, a democratic board of trade, a public court of value. The gains were much more than profit. Everyone went home with stories, and an invitation to participate, if not in the next trade blanket, then to carry on the exchange of gifts and stories whenever opportunity and desire made it possible.
We all face essentially the same choice, every day, as we share with each other the skill, knowledge, meaning, and goodness (beauty) that we all need to continue cultivating a life that can sustain us all.
 My family and I – four of us – live quite happily and cheaply in a combined cabin and cottage that give us about 600 square feet of space, not including the composting toilet, cold-cellar, and greenhouse, which are in a separate small building. I started out trading labor for rent, including fixing up the buildings, but now I have more work, we pay cash. The small space limits our ability to consume too much stuff, encourages us to live outside, and keeps us close. I also have a shop at a neighbor’s, where I do odd jobs in exchange for use of the building, which would otherwise go empty.
 The Future of Mud, a “constructed documentary,” by Susan Vogel, tells the story of a modern mason in Djenne and how he deals with the choices forced on him by modernity, including good footage of the annual community plastering of the Mosque at Djenne.
 I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason why Malian masons were also undertakers. After all, wouldn’t it make sense, especially if your prime building material were earth, for your house-builder to see your dead body safely enclosed back into the earth that also sheltered and enclosed your living body?