Category Archives: arts and crafts

A Gift for Mom

I remember what Mother’s Day was like when I was a kid. My sister and I always gave my mother perfume. Well, my dad bought it and my sister and I gave it to her. (We didn’t get much of an allowance back then.) We always got the same kind, a scent called Tigris. I rather think we got that one because it came in a cool bottle with a tiger-striped fuzzy cap. Now I don’t know if she liked it or even if she wore it much.

I wanted to learn about other people’s memories of Mother’s Day, so I asked my friends on Facebook what they gave their mothers. I also asked moms among my friends what were the best gifts they had ever received. I didn’t get many responses, but enough to establish a pattern.

In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book about The Five Languages of Love, five ways that people can share love with one another. The book was originally intended for spouses or those in romantic relationships, but I thought I’d apply it to Mother’s Day.

The five “languages” are

• words of affirmation

• quality time

• physical touch

• acts of service

• gifts

In relationships, problems arise when two people don’t speak the same “language.” For example, one person would like quality time together, but the other thinks giving gifts is the way to express love. Or someone who would like words of affirmation but receives only physical touch.

What surprised me from my unscientific poll is that the persons who gave gifts were mostly children. Usually they had no money, or not enough to buy anything nice, so they relied on arts and crafts. Many a mother has received the venerable gift of a loomed potholder or the neighbor’s flowers. But many of the answers I received showed real thought and imagination.

One guy, for example, said, “I started sewing as a youngster. I once made an apron, though she didn’t wear them as a rule.” One mother particularly remembered – and still has – an acrostic poem that her child wrote and illustrated for her. (For those of you not familiar with it, an acrostic poem is one in which the first letter of each line spells out a word, in this case “MOTHER.”)

Many of the other gifts fell under the heading of quality time or acts of service. For quality time, the clear winner was the mom who remembered, “For me it was my daughter surprising me and showing up at my church plus spending the day with me. We’ve also gone to movies or gotten massages/pedicures together. Mostly just time spent together.”

One response spoke of both affirmation and a gift. This mom remembers, “It was the first Mother’s Day after my son moved to England. Honestly, I don’t remember what the gift was, but the fact that he remembered the day (it is on a different day in England) meant a lot to me.” She added, “Last year, he took the time, from England, to arrange for a delivery of Brock Masterson’s Mother’s Day quiche meal for me. That was above and beyond, I think.”

The categories of food and service overlapped at times. One former child remembers, “I made her breakfast in bed. Usually burnt crap.” I’m sure mom appreciated the thought, at any rate. Another idea was given by a guy who, as a teen, did “some extra chores so she could have a day off.” Another person responded, “We took her out to eat,” which if you think about it, combines quality time, act of service, and gift.

The most comprehensive, and most touching, came from a mom who said that the best Mothers Day gift she received was “All of them because they honored me in so many ways.”

No one mentioned expensive gifts, like jewelry. Gifts of touch were also seldom mentioned, though I suppose the mani/pedi would qualify. And I’m sure a lot of the gifts and remembrances were delivered with hugs and kisses.

This is not to say that moms settle for little, but that the little things are the most fondly remembered.

The Lens and the Brush

Very meta: A photo of a painting of a photo

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

Ansel Adams said that when he was tired of hearing about people who liked a photograph say, “Wow! You must really have a great camera!”

Funny, nobody ever says to painters, “Wow! You must have an amazing brush!”

I have a story that involves both a camera and a brush. Here’s how it happened.

I wanted to give my husband a painting of his much-loved cat, Matches, for his birthday. I know a really great artist, Peggy McCarty, and asked her if she could do it.

“I’ll need a photo of him in natural light,” she said.

No problem, I thought. I took the cat outside, where the light is as natural as you can possibly get, and took a few pics of him wandering around the yard. (Including one with a super-blep, which was amazing, but just not right for a portrait.)

Those photos wouldn’t work, I was told. There was natural light, sure, but no contrast. This time Peggy gave me more explicit instructions. I should take the photo indoors, but somewhere that there was natural light, like by a window.

For those of you who think it would be hard to get a cat to pose by a window, well, you’re wrong. Matches was the most laid-back cat ever. I could pick him up, plop him down near a window where there was light shining through the slats of the blinds. He’d sit still, looking bored, while I snapped a few shots. Then he would get up and stroll away. I would follow him, pick him up again, plop him down by a window, and take a few more pics. We repeated this several times, and he never got annoyed.

I took the photos to Peggy and she deemed them all right in the lighting department. Then she surprised me. “Could I put some plants around his feet and lace over the window?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said. “As long as the cat looks like the cat, add anything you want to.”

It turns out that the plants were necessary because my photo didn’t show the cat’s adorable feet. And the lace curtain was because Peggy likes to play with textures in her paintings – and still does.

It was perhaps the best birthday present I ever got for my husband and, amazingly, it survived the tornado that hit our house, needing only a new frame.

As the years have gone by, Peggy has practiced her art until now she paints on commission regularly – and has regular calls for pet portraits.

And, as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to use a camera better, especially since they invented the kind that cancels out the tremors from my shaky hands. The problem is that my husband has improved at photography too, and every good photo we have he claims he took, even if I know I was the one who took it. Unless he’s in the photo, of course. Then he might be willing to admit I snapped it.

But he’s never tried to claim that he took the photo of Matches that turned into the painting of Matches. That would be absurd. The proof is hanging on the wall.

Peggy McCarty has a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Peggypaintings/, where you can see more of her amazing art and get in touch with her.

Diverse Minds

The university I went to had something called “distribution requirements.” That meant that everyone had to take at least two courses that were outside their major. I was an English major, so I took History of Science in Western Civilization and Beekeeping (which turned out to be a horrible mistake).

I think Cornell had the right idea. It’s a good idea to step outside your comfort zone and expand your mind. Of course, many students side-stepped the requirement, choosing a course that most resembled their major. Science students took economics, on the theory, I guess, that they both dealt with numbers. Same with architecture students and life drawing. Or English majors and French literature.

However, one of my friends was a civil engineering student, and she took sculpture. She didn’t get the greatest grade, but I admired that she valued exercising her mind and exploring her talents more than pumping up her GPA.

I love people who have diverse interests. We all know people who have a single-minded fixation on a topic, vocation, or hobby. And that’s okay. The world needs specialists. But the world also needs generalists.

I enjoy the science fiction fans who also love Gilbert and Sullivan. I admire lawyers who also play a stringed instrument. I applaud nuns who also enjoy South Park. Microbiologists who participate in community theater. Artists who are big fans of the space program. Gardeners who study comparative religions. Police officers who explore photography. (I really know all these people.) And we all know about the astronaut who plays guitar and sings in space.

As for me, everybody knows I’m a word nerd. My hobbies include crossword puzzles. My spare time is spent writing blogs and novels. But I am also a closet science geek. I have been known to ask friends in the sciences things like, “Explain to me how epigenetics is different from Lamarckian evolution.” And mostly understood the (probably simplified) explanation. Apart from science (and reading about it), I also love travel and semiprecious stones.

I would have to say that most of friends are people who explore different areas of their personalities and different areas of interest. I seem to be drawn to them. One of my oldest friends, a restaurant manager at the time, spent his off hours learning how to scuba dive, developing his own photos, and reading science fiction. I know an aerospace engineer who practices yoga. A writer who loves trains and old postcards. An office worker who decorates elaborate birthday cakes. The combinations are nearly endless.

People argue which is better to use, the left brain or the right brain. The left brain is the rational, logical side, exemplified by scientists and mathematicians. The right brain is said to be the seat of creativity, non-logical thinking, and artistic expression. It has been argued that our world today is skewed toward the left-brained, leaving out those who function mostly on the right side of the brain. There are a lot of right-brained people who are stuck in a left-brained world, where business executives and doctors and people in other high-paying occupations rule. Right-brained people are too often looked down on as hippie-dippy, touchy-feely new-agers who don’t really contribute to society.

(I would seriously disagree with that characterization. Right-brained pursuits make life worth living. Who can live in a world without music, film and television, stories, and the decorative and performing arts? But I digress.)

I don’t know how many people remember Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It was all the rage in education a while back. It posited that there are many kinds of IQ, and that children learn best when taught in harmony with whatever their special style of intelligence is – visual-spatial or musical or bodily-kinesthetic learning or others, in addition to verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical.

Of course, the theory can be applied ridiculously and made fun of (suggesting that the McCarthy hearings be presented in interpretive dance). But it had some remarkable successes – children who learned their alphabet better when tracing letters in a sand tray instead of reciting them.

What I mean to say is that no one operates totally on one side of the brain or the other, or learns things in the same way. My husband, for example, is a more visual learner, while I’m more verbal. But I can’t count the number of times when we’ve explored the same content, him from a documentary and me from a book – an archaeological discovery, for example.

No one way of learning or experiencing the world is better than another. No one way of expressing oneself is intrinsically better than another. And while single-minded devotion is good in some respects, so is diversity of mind. And, in my experience, it makes for more interesting people, not to mention more interesting conversationalists.

Straight From the Art

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is an old saying that expresses what many people really feel about art. Unfortunately, what they like is seldom art. More like dreck or kitsch. Maybe not sad puppies, but over-the-sofa mass-produced art. “Art” that doesn’t evoke thoughts or feelings: wonder, awe, challenge, mystery, inspiration, anger, sexuality, tenderness, memory, questions, fascination, laughter, pity. “Art” that doesn’t take you outside of yourself or into yourself.

I did learn a little about art in school – mostly the Impressionists (and a little about the Fauvists) because I was studying French at the time. Later on I learned a bit about cubism, pointillism, and a few other -isms. Still, most of the art hanging in my house is simply what I like.

Oh, I had a Van Gogh Sunflowers poster in my college dorm room and was thrilled beyond words to see the original (or one of the originals) in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Seeing the almost sculptural aspects of the brushwork made me unable to be satisfied with a flat poster ever again.

But gradually, the artwork surrounding me has become more … idiosyncratic.

This was brought home to me recently when, after a natural disaster, most of the many artworks that graced our home were assumed lost. We never knew just how much our artworks meant to us until they were gone. They had become such a fixture in our house that we didn’t really appreciate them as we did when we first acquired them. And that was a shame, because losing them left a distinct hole in our lives.

The rental house that we moved into was entirely devoid of decoration. There were flat, neutral walls; flat, neutral carpeting; flat, neutral furniture. I know they have to make rental houses this way to appeal to renters with various kinds of furniture and taste, but we had nothing to take the edge off all those neutrals. Nothing relieved the eye.

Our “art collection” was nothing elaborate or expensive, but it had meant a lot to us. A large part of my contributions to the household decorations consisted of paintings by Peggy McCarty, a talented friend of mine. These included self-portraits, paintings of food, and a couple of paintings of me or one of our cats, as well as a tiny landscape refrigerator magnet.

Dan collected many posters and prints, some of them signed and numbered, at the science fiction conventions we went to. These featured moody or majestic planet-scapes; cacti bursting off the ground like prickly green rockets on pillars of flame; wizards, changelings, and such; and a carved head of Einstein. Not all of them were to my taste, but, as the saying says, he knew what he liked. And some of them I found stirred my heart as well.

Not that my contributions to our household artwork were all formal and highbrow. One framed poster that Dan got for me was the theatrical poster from the Puss in Boots movie, which had a prominent place on our bedroom wall. The bright orange and yellow background demanded you notice it and, well, I’ve always had a thing for anthropomorphic cats.

Not long ago, we discovered that a number of our beloved artworks had survived the tornado. Some of the unframed, unmatted ones had sustained damage and others still haven’t shown up. But I was so happy to see the ones that did, I almost cried.

Naturally, we went right out and bought a bunch of Command Hooks (“Do. No Harm”) and started alleviating all the neutral walls with things that remind us of our old home while we wait for it to be rebuilt.

My study (actually the small bedroom) walls are graced by four small works: one of apples painted on a board by my artist friend Peggy; a print of a metal tiger from the Chinese Soldiers exhibit at the local art museum; a colorful Debbie Ohi sketch with a Neil Gaiman quote that I won in a raffle; and a framed, round, black-and-white drawing of a cat on a branch with stars in the background.

We each selected one work for special placement in the living room. Dan chose a framed poster of “To Everything There Is a Season” that used to hang in his office. I chose Peggy’s painting of Dan’s first cat, which I had commissioned her to paint for him for his birthday one year.

We haven’t settled on what goes in the master bedroom yet, though there is an evocative blue and white framed print that has a good chance of making the cut. So does Puss in Boots, though it will clash terribly.

But I know what I like.

State of the Arts

It bothers me that the two trends in art that are gaining the most ground nowadays are prettiness and functionality.

Prettiness and functionality have their place in art, of course. Who doesn’t love a Monet landscape? And Soviet Realism, while hardly pretty, performed its function of representing the worker as hero and inspiring comrades to greater effort.

But prettiness is not beauty. If you look beyond the prettiness of a Monet, you see the sheer talent that it took to break the boundaries of then-current art standards and paint in a way that revealed a different way of looking at the world. And that was beauty.

No one would call Picasso’s Guernica either pretty or beautiful. Its clashing shapes and tortured figures do not inspire “awwws.” They aren’t meant to. The painting is a condemnation of the horrors of war, and it performs that function exceedingly well.

Now, I don’t have anything against art that is pretty or functional. I just think that there is a lot more to art than just those qualities.

But art today – or at least what passes for art – is solely about prettiness and functionality. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, was established to “fund, promote, and strengthen the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” Now the organization’s existence is in great doubt. The federal budget eliminates it completely (though it hasn’t passed yet).

Why the neglect of the NEA? It isn’t pretty enough. It isn’t functional enough. It supports and promotes a variety of types of art, some of which are challenging, unappreciated, and even shocking. At least that’s what the budgeteers focus on. The NEA, however, also provides grants for projects like arts education in communities and schools, including “the growth of arts activity in areas of the nation that were previously underserved or not served at all, especially in rural and inner-city communities.”

Why, the NEA even collaborates in a program with “more than 2,000 museums in all 50 states that offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families during the summer.” But you (and apparently Congress) never hear about things like that.

Arts education in the schools is languishing too. Along with music, it’s been relegated to the heap of the “unnecessary” or watered down to become “art (or music) appreciation,” with little or no thought given to allowing children to create their own art as well as studying “the masters.” It’s like art is now an extracurricular, though not as well-funded a one as sports.

STEM is the current bastion of functionality in school curricula. And admittedly, the U.S. needs more citizens educated in technical fields such as medicine, aeronautics, robotics, engineering, architecture, and so on. Art occasionally sneaks in there, so the programs reluctantly become STEAM, but the focus is still on turning out people who perform what most people consider vital functions in our society – those associated with products, and industry, and money.

But art, even when it’s disturbing, does have a function. It can make us think, love, cry, wonder, or remember. Imagine a world without art. No music, no dancing, no paintings, no sculptures – not even any graphic design. (That would mean no political campaign posters.) Life would be very different and much duller. Even if you don’t believe it, the arts touch you in some way every day of your life.

The arts are far from being a waste of time and money, as some seem to think. Winston Churchill had it right: “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

 

Where the Weirdos Go

Where do the weirdos go to have fun? “Nowhere,” you may think. “They stay in their parents’ basements, turn pale from lack of sunlight, and debate the ending of the most recent Avengers movie.”

Well, you’re in for a surprise. There’s a place where geeks go to socialize, share, and occasionally even get laid. It’s the science fiction convention (aka “con”). Although there will be people dressed as Klingons and furries (look it up), many of the trappings of an SF con resemble those of any other kind of convention. Panel discussions, book signings, an art exhibit, a dealer’s room, a hospitality suite, parties, music, perhaps a dance. There also may be children’s programming, science guests, and, in the case of the con I plan to go to in May, animals from the Columbus Zoo.

Because I look to the outside observer like a fairly typical middle-aged lady, I get asked a lot by other hotel guests, “Who exactly are these people?”

“They’re mostly harmless,” I reply. (Thereby quoting from one of the classic SF novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) And that’s the truth. Even though they may wear authentic Scottish dirks, Viking swords, and lightsabers, they are indeed harmless. They are simply people who lead, as one song says, “Rich Fantasy Lives.” They are the geeks. Nerds. Outsiders. Every variety of misfit.

Including me and my husband. I’ve been going to cons ever since I was a stringer for Cincinnati magazine and was sent to cover one by my editor. There I wrote a 400-word piece and met people who would become my lifelong friends. (The editor had chosen me for the assignment because she remembered that I was a reader of science fiction when she knew me in high school. But I digress.)

The people who attend cons are not all Trekkies or get-a-lifes or people who think they’re from another planet. There are writers (like me) and scientists, but also musicians and career consultants and academics and lawyers and advertising people and zookeepers and all varieties of creative types from folklorists to woodworkers.

Why do they gather in these numbers (up to the thousands), in these hotels, in these tribes? Fellowship. Camaraderie. Stimulation. Understanding. Friendship. Shared interests. Fascinating discussions. Movies and novels and video games. Even love.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been to a con in years. I know that, unlike at a business convention, almost anything I do will be all right. I can hang with friends or sit in the lobby reading. I can join a large, raucous group for dinner or order a pizza in my room. I can attend parties where I know no one or concerts where I know everyone. I can be opinionated and argue or be quiet and learn. Generally, only overt violence and sexual harassment are disallowed.

And I can wear my NASA t-shirt, my Fahrenheit 451 t-shirt, or my Death Star/Ceci n’est pas une lune t-shirt (okay, I’m a language geek too). No biz casual for me. No booth duty while the salespeople power-lunch. The only booths will be in the art exhibit and the room selling shirts, books, CDs, and costuming supplies. (Cosplay is a big thing at this particular convention. Look it up.)

It’s true that after all the business conventions, I get a bit of anxiety around so many people. But the other attendees may too, and they will understand. After all, we are mostly misfits, from the over-intelligent to the socially awkward to the nearly completely unsocialized. But I’ll have a hotel room full of close friends (sharing rooms is a tradition) and a hotel full of potential friends.

So, as the song says, “Don’t be unkind to a wandering mind/Just say it again if we missed it./Some whispering poem/Was calling us home/To a place we know never existed.” Or exists for a weekend at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, anyway.

 

Arts and Crafts: What’s the Difference?

Creative things you make with your hands generally get divided into two categories: arts and crafts. But what makes one category different from the other? It’s not always easy to tell, especially if you’re talking definitions. The lines begin to blur and in regard to most kinds of productions, the definition is in the eye of the beholder.

Some separate arts and crafts by type. Paintings and sculpture are art. Crochet and creating chainsaw sculptures are crafts. Baking, which is creative and done with the hands, doesn’t fall into either category unless you’re talking about the cakes you see on Food Network competitions. But food is ephemeral, so let’s focus on the kinds of work that last.

And arts and crafts are work. Make no mistake about that. They can be one’s hobbies, part-time occupations, or livelihood, but both arts and crafts require skill, practice, mindfulness, sensibility, and attention. That’s reflected in the phrase “a work of art.”

But to what efforts do we apply the term “art”? And what is “merely” a craft?

Kits and Patterns. First, the kinds of work that come in kits and with patterns are considered crafts. This includes everything from paint-by-numbers kits to bedazzlers to sewing. But wait a moment. Don’t clothing designers elevate their work from craft to art? In the main, those who design haute couture don’t use patterns. They invent, using only their own imaginations. Knitting and crocheting usually require patterns and are not considered art by most. Most home-made clothing likewise involves patterns. So perhaps one of the criteria for art is that it comes only from the artist’s imagination.

Beauty. This is a tough one since, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But famous paintings that are unquestionably art aren’t always beautiful. Sometimes they’re disturbing or make us uncomfortable. Picasso’s Guernica is an artistic masterpiece. It is also a depiction of the horrors of war. Whatever it is, it’s not classically beautiful.

Nor does beauty by itself make a work of art. The paintings that people hang over their sofas depict beautiful scenes, but professional artists and art critics scorn them. Paintings of sad clowns or large-eyed puppies are classed as kitsch or dreck. They may be technically well done or pleasing to the eye, but they are not Art with a capital A.

Age. Art, perhaps, is something that stands the test of time. But if we limit art to the Old Masters, we deny that young artists create meaningful works. It’s a bit like poetry – no one values it unless you’re dead, preferably by suicide, or best-selling like Helen Steiner Rice.

Age, however, can elevate crafts from the mundane into art. A sampler stitched today is virtually worthless, but one made before, say, 1774 is a precious artifact. With most art, the older the better. The decorations on Egyptian tomb goods or the beading on native clothing are museum-worthy if only because they are old enough.

Location. And while we’re talking about museums, let’s talk about location, location, location. To many the distinction goes like this: Art is what you see in a museum. Crafts are what you find at a local outdoor festival or hanging on the walls of a restaurant. They are created by someone you know or at least could get to know. Distance in both time and location seem to make a difference in whether a piece of work is art or not.

There are gray areas, of course, and these are generally called “artisanal.” If a potter has a shop and sells hand-made vases and dinnerware, if a person who makes jewelry from semi-precious stones instead of diamonds has a shop, the general feeling is that they are more than crafters but less than artists, however lovely their creations.

Price. This is a no-brainer. If it sells for thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars it is art. If you buy it online or spend less than $250 on it, it’s not. There are gorgeous quilts hand-sewn every day that look like works of art, but they do not sell for the same prices as for a Van Gogh. We pay for perceived value.

Rarity/Collectibility. And this is how the perceived value is calculated. If there is only a limited number of an item, like Imperial Fabergé eggs (50 were made), their worth and claim to the title of art skyrocket. Of course, this distinction does not hold true for everything. There are models of Hot Wheels cars, Beanie Babies, and Star Wars figures that are quite rare, but no one considers these art.

Personally, I love art, but in many ways I prefer crafts. Blown glass, stained glass, needlework, carvings, calligraphy, and framed prints decorate our home. When I wear jewelry, it’s going to be amber or malachite or amethyst. I think of them as little pieces of art that anyone can own.