Why Do We Do The Things We Do?

WHY?What motivates you? Why do you do the things you do? Why do you make the things you make?

So many of us make things. We weave, we bake, we quilt, we “craft,” we garden, we sew, we work in wood, paper, metals, fibers, clay. And, of course, we write.

But why do we pick one or two of these expressive outlets instead of others?

What draws me to fibers and textiles and you to your medium? How come one thing turns you on but might leave me kind of cold?

I’ve been pondering the reasons I make the things I make.

I like to be creative. I like to be productive. I like to understand how things work. I like to add something lovely to my world.

Okay, well, all of those things might apply to any creative outlet. But they don’t give me any special insight to my own interests.

Three other elements that draw me to a specific craft or creative activity seem to be the following:

I like to solve problems. I really like my creating to have an intellectual component. I want my brain to be engaged. If someone says, “Oh, this craft is great—it’s mindless,” I’m unlikely to be impressed. So, I seem to be drawn to crafts that have an analytical component and present problems to be wrangled with.

I like the math and geometry involved in planning and piecing a complicated quilt design. I like the need to really ponder the exact sequence of steps to be followed in a difficult jewelry design. I am intrigued by, and still overwhelmed, by the endless nuances of weaving structure.

They things make my brain hurt. I guess I love that.

I also like to make things that will last. I don’t cook at all but I like to bake and make candy very much. I think it’s because, first, baking is rules-based (and I love rules), whereas cooking is much more improvisational. But, more than that, baked goods and candy might stay around for a day or two while cooking gets gobbled up in 20 minutes. The idea of spending a lot of time and energy on a dinner that is just . . . gone depresses me.

I make things of metal and stones and fabrics that are more likely to stand the test of time. Those monks who make the sand art, knowing it is evanescent, doing it partly because it won’t last? I admire it but could never, never do it. Same with the people who build fabulous sand or ice sculptures—their art is of the moment. I want mine to be of many moments.

I like old, handmade things because they lead me to think of the humans behind them and I guess I hope that someday someone will run their hands over something I’ve made and think of the person who made it. There are vital human connections to be made as a result of our creative output.

Taking this a step further, I realize that, in addition to hoping that my art will connect me with people who come after me, I like creative outlets that connect me with human beings who came before me.

When I taught college, my academic discipline was rhetoric and public address—the stuff of human communication and persuasion and expression, and just that which Aristotle taught his students in Greece, in the 5th century BCE.

I can remember saying to my students, “Think how exciting this is! We’re gathered in a classroom, discussing the same topics and the same problems that thinkers have been discussing for 2500 years. We’re here together, not looking for one right answer, but exploring what it means to be human, just as they were!”

As you might expect, I got a lot of blank looks from this. But I always saw a few sparks of understanding, too.

For some of us, the thrill in making comes from the thrill of knowing that humans make—it’s a large part of what we do and what we are. And to be making in the same manner, building on and continuing the skills developed through the ages—for me, that’s heady stuff!

I love reading about the history of craft—how women wove as far back as the Paleolithic era, how exquisite jewelry was crafted without specialized tools, how tiny, ornate stitches were done in candlelight. I love the practical concerns that led humans to develop these skills and, more, the ways in which these art forms were used symbolically.

I love the connection I feel to people, women, of so long ago. So different, so much the same.

The writing I do fills these needs as well:

The problem-solving—Writing is never mindless. To write is to wrangle with difficulties. How do I express myself clearly? How do I draw the reader in? What is worth saying, how best to say it?

The connection to the past and to the future— All of us who write, not with the idea of the next Great Novel or renown, but just for the pleasure of writing and communicating, are carrying on a great tradition. We’re the Samuel Pepyses of the future, documenting and providing insight to daily life in the early 21st century, reflecting what it means to be human here and now.

In an era when people don’t write personal letters much anymore, our blogs become a place to convey the minutiae, the worries, the thrills, the little things that make up our lives. And, when I put words down in my blog and hit “publish,” my words, and any knowledge and insight I impart, become more likely to carry on. My thoughts and my way of seeing things, might, just might, outlast me.

I’ve learned in my blogging that these wordy, contemplative posts are not popular. That’s okay—while I work hard to keep my writing reader-centered, I’ve also come to realize that sometimes, as with all my making, I need to please myself. And, as was true with my students, I am thrilled to get the occasional sparks of understanding that reassure me that I’m not alone!

If you’ve read this far, have you considered what draws you to the creative choices you’ve made? I’m still working through my thoughts on this and would love to hear from you—why are you drawn to your particular art or craft or expressive outlet? Any of the reasons I’ve mentioned? Or ones I’ve missed?

Loving Hands: Connecting Two Generations

Banker quilt pendant-4When it comes to a trove of items made by “loving hands at home,” I am one of the lucky ones. I have many, many treasures made by members of my family.

I am very sentimental about these things and I like to have them out where I can see them. I have a wooden knife box, made by grandmother’s grandmother’s father, in the kitchen holding my dishcloths. We use my husband’s grandmother’s hand embroidered pillowcases on the bed. And I used the scrap of an old, old quilt, with my great-grandmother’s signature, to make a silver pendant.

The quilt: An old patchwork quilt, done as a friendship quilt; each person would stitch a block with their signature in the center, then the pieces would be put together by the group. Sometimes these quilts were made as a gift to a person marrying or leaving to move West. Sometimes they were made by members of a church, with each signer paying for their block, as a way to raise money for the church. This quilt was made in a variety of fabrics, set into off-white cotton and with a center square for the signature.

Banker quilt pendant-2My quilt had been used hard and then stored badly for too many years. By the time it came to me, it had huge holes through the fabric and batting and was filthy. Though some people will say I was wrong to do so, I cut it up and salvaged what I could, with an eye toward doing something to preserve the remnants at a future date. I saved all the signature blocks, including a number with names I recognized, made by women and men. One block said “Grandma Banker.”

Banker quilt pendant-3Based on the other signatures and family memories, I identified the “grandma” as Ella Banker, mother of my paternal grandmother and born in 1867.

The pendant: I studied jewelry making as an art student in college and then did nothing with it for years. I became a college professor in an entirely different field but the college at which I worked offered jewelry making and silversmithing so, after about 25 years, I was back in the studio.

We received the assignment to make a piece of jewelry that represented our notion of “precious.” I knew I wanted to focus on family and connections so I chose to incorporate the “Grandma Banker” quilt scrap into the jewelry.

I made the pendant of sterling silver and created a tiny oval box into which the fabric would nestle. I cut the front and back, using a jeweler’s saw, and scalloped the edges to suggest lace. I used tube rivets to hold the pieces of the box together; these hold tightly just by fitting them properly and I thought the hollow middle of the tubes added to the look of stylized lace.

Banker quilt pendant-5Banker quilt pendant-6I used plexiglass on the front, to protect the old fabric. I wanted to be sure that the piece wasn’t airtight, so the fabric could breathe and not get mildewed, so I used my saw to spell out my great grandmother’s name and birth year on the back of the pendant.

Banker quilt pendant-7It was hugely satisfying to find a way to incorporate an old one-of-a-kind family treasure into a new one-of-a-kind piece. I still haven’t done anything with the rest of the quilt pieces but I have ideas!

I’m always drawn to the re-purposing of old treasures. I’d love to hear about ways you continue to weave the pieces of your family’s past into your present life!

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Many Hands at Home: The Family Gallery

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Remember the thrill when your mom taped your drawing to the refrigerator, for all the world to see? Has you work been on display anywhere since? It’s still exciting, right?

If you’ve been reading along, you know that I love the full range of human made, from the most skilled to the most  . . . shall we say, inexpert. I just like the idea that people are creating and making and doing, rather than watching others create and make and do.

So, it seems fitting that we have, in our home, a gallery to show off the artwork of family. All of the family. Whether they like it or not.

We have mostly paintings and some needlework. The artists are: my grandmother, my grandfather, my mother, my husband, my mother’s husband, my husband’s mother, my mother’s husband’s mother (getting confused yet?!), my sister, my niece and me!

Some of the artists have a lot of experience and some never created a single work before they made one for this gallery. I love every single piece of art. Not to mention the artists!

Here’s to the artist in all of us, and our busy hands at home! Keep what you make on display!

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