I’m real interested in vernacular cultures. Where people lived a little closer to the source of materials and the making of objects for use.
I’m real interested in trades, and in ways that people make things which are not necessarily artistic. I’m mean they’re artistic in the sense that they can have formal beauty, but they’re not done with an artistic motive, they’re done often with a utilitarian motive.
As a woodworker, I use tools all the time, and there’s a certain art history to the evolution of woodworking tools in itself. I mean you look at the forms that various utilitarian things have taken throughout history and there’s a whole sort of shifting sense of beauty.
There’s a ladder. It’s made like a ladder. It’s made like country ladders you see in places where people would cut a tree trunk in half and put rungs between the two halves, and that’s a ladder.
The title came after the work was finished. I didn’t set out to make a work about Booker T. Washington. The work was really about using the sapling, using the tree, and making a work that had a kind of artificial perspective, a forced perspective that made it appear to recede into space faster than it in fact does. That really is what the work is about for me, this kind of artificial perspective, an idea that requires a certain actual length it’s a piece that couldn’t have been done small. As it was it was 36 feet long.
The idea of Booker T. Washington, the resonance with his life, and his struggle, and the whole notion that his idea of progress for the race was a long slow progression as he said of “putting your buckets down where you are” and working with what you’ve got. So it really is a question of the view from where you start. And the end, the goal— I really— this is something I don’t want to elaborate on too much, because I think it’s in the work.
I came from a generation where the work was itself the information. So there remains this belief that the work itself can have an identity that can hopefully speak. Whether it’s through beauty or through ugliness or whatever quality you put into the work. That is what the work can be about. The work doesn’t have to be a transparent vehicle for you to say things about life today or what you see people doing to each other or things like that.
I’m making a case for my own vision. It can actually move in a direction that has got some representational tendencies or at least some allusive tendencies or some kind of tendencies that are very suggestive.
– Martin Puryear, Art 21 interview in the episode Time, Season 2, 2003