A Review of
Photographs by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
Paperback: Bauhan, 2016
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Pam Kittredge
In his book, Sheds, author Howard Mansfield writes, sheds might be “the shortest line between need and shelter.” Mansfield’s book then expands on this conjecture, exploring sheds through the lenses of architecture, history and culture. He shows sheds in a variety of places, with a variety of purposes, across time.
Mansfield’s sheds form their own wildly diverse landscape of shapes and colors, of uses and purposes. Once we have observed this diversity through the author’s eyes, it seems to be everywhere. At least in New England where I live, and where Mansfield finds many of his examples, the shed is ubiquitous.
Along with food and clothing, shelter is understood to be a basic human need. Sheds offer shelter–for us, for our dreams, for our possessions and companion species. Shelter is protection–from the forces of nature, or the forces of time and deterioration. The structure we call a shed contains–along with its animal, vegetable or material occupants–care and concern for the contents. It’s purpose built to house a need, as Mansfield says, and to be a place of protection.
As a form, the shed came to the United States with the Puritans who used it widely. New England meetinghouses are built as sheds. The New England farmhouse, the summer cabins that dot our lakesides and seasides, are also sheds at heart. Sheds were, and are, simple, affordable structures, easy to build with locally available materials. Easy to adapt to changing circumstances.
Farmhouses, too, are sheds, expanded for storage or increasing family size. At the back or side, set off in row, sheds diminish in size over distance from the road, as if hunkering into the very ground underneath. But as urbanization reduced the need to grow food and have livestock, farmhouse sheds were no longer needed. Many had been lightly built to begin with and quickly failed with disuse. So while colonial farmhouses still stand, the sheds once attached to them have decayed and been taken down, or left to fall where they stood.
Perhaps the contemporary shed as housing is best illustrated by the tiny house movement. Tiny houses, like sheds, link need and shelter affordably and quickly. Tiny houses–sheds at heart–use less materials and labor, and so they cost less. The tiny house owner can often avoid housing debt, and assuredly lives more lightly on the planet. They are dwellings of just enough.
And while our cultural fascination with bigger-is-better still dominates home ownership, tiny houses–like sheds–both refute the need to acquire lifelong debt in order to build and occupy a resource-excessive dwelling that will dictate a family’s lifestyle for the next thirty years!
Freed from the need to work long hours to pay for their shelter and possessions, tiny house/shed dwellers often donate their time to build community, and to create new forms and processes that support human flourishing. If the McMansion–empty for most of the day while its occupants are away earning the money to keep it–is the symbol of excess and materialism, the shed is its antithesis. Inside these small spaces, relationships are nurtured and grown, and consuming as a pastime is avoided. The simple form offers space for the complexity of the spirit to find expression. Sheds offer humans the permission to reject material excess.
An outgrowth of a chapter in Mansfield’s previous book, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter, Sheds, is both a tour of specific examples of the form, and a broader examination of the cultural and historical meaning of the shelter offered by sheds.
A short introduction to each chapter is followed by commentary on the photographs. In the chapter essays, Mansfield writes about covered bridges, storage sheds, barns, and a bread truck, to name some examples. Each shed an example of utilitarian shelter that meets a need. Each beautiful in its own way. “Sheds are vessels of time” Mansfield writes in the Preface, and what is really important is the lives that pass through them (10). Those travelers, vagabonds, animals and people, who occupy sheds, however brief and transitory that occupancy may be, leave their mark.
Joanna Eldredge Morrissey’s photographs aptly showcase the variety of sheds, and the places they’re found–New England, mostly, but further afield, too. Some photographs stand alone on a page, while others are illustrations for the text that adjoins them.
Sheds will appeal to readers who like the coffee table style of book, as well as to those wanting a dose of history and philosophy to expand the illustrations. The balance of photos and text is just right, neither one overpowering the other.
Sheds stand as a metaphor at the juncture where the ordinary and the extraordinary come together. As Mansfield writes, “Sheds are like our lives.”(186) They are permanent and always changing. They are very special and nothing special at all. They expose, and conceal, our hopes, our dreams and our needs. In each shed, the paradox of life continues.