-To make or produce with care, skill, or ingenuity
-To make by hand
-Skill in doing or making something, as in the arts; proficiency.
-A boat, ship, or aircraft.
At the beginning of this year, I signed up for two craft classes – a sewing class with my friends That Jolie Girl and Bettie New and a metal clay class with That Jolie Girl. I was super excited about both classes and viewed them as a way to embrace the new, less-busy, less-stressed me. I was devoting 2010 to making the kind of life choices that ensured I was as happy and healthy as I could be – all the better for me to cope with on-going family stress and the unavoidable stresses of daily life (not to mention maintain the baby face of a twenty year old – what? I look twenty, right?). I made a concerted effort to focus on the creative things that are so important to me and that are so easy to put off – so easy to keep forgetting to make time for, to make half-assed plans for, to fail to start a project – any project – before you can find ten more important and pressing things to do with your time. I wanted to get back to learning and also to doing, to making, to spending time creating. What I couldn’t – or maybe wouldn’t let myself – see at the beginning of the year was that my life was about to change dramatically (yet again) and when I would find myself amidst what feels like a world of not-usual and days spent refiguring my whole future, these classes were going to be my weekly refuges.
While anticipating the start of both of these classes, I decided on my next tattoo and moved quickly to get it done. I felt a sense of urgency that was out of character and abandoned my usual one year waiting period. Generally, once I decide on an image I let it sit in my mind for at least a year and if I still love the image and want it on my body, then I trust I won’t regret it in ten years. So far, this has worked. The only tattoo I have that I don’t love is the only one that was decided spur of the moment. As the not-so-original story goes, it was one semi-drunken night . . . .
A group of friends and I were at another friend’s house when two more of our friends showed up with their newest tool: a tattoo machine. These ink and needle toting friends are artists and we all trusted their artistic abilities. While we may have not yet trusted their new medium, we all sat rapt as the machine kicked on and the buzz and hum filled the tiny studio apartment. My two closest friends decided on their astrological symbols and I followed suit, slightly adapting the image of mine, and then we lined up to place them in discrete places (we were, still, smart enough – even if not sober – to hedge our bets). This now two-decades-old glorified tramp-stamp is certainly no jailhouse tattoo – or even close to the cubes or eagle my cousin tattooed on himself with a small motor, a Bic pen casing and a guitar string as a nine-year-old me held his skin taut and watched, both fascinated and repulsed, while drops of blood rose to the surface of his arm – but it is my least interesting, least favorite and least thought-of tattoo.
When I decided, all in one moment, that I would get an image of a portafilter, a sewing machine needle and a pencil, I knew it was right. I could feel it was right. I knew it would be on my forearm. I paused – was I ready to enter the land of below the elbow tattoos – after all, who waits until she is careening toward forty to get her most visible tattoo? Yes, I was ready. It was clear what it would be and where it would go. I just knew. So I set out to make it happen and I did.
As I met with the artist and fine-tuned the image and layout, I knew that this tattoo was all about the things in my life that were coming together – the merging of my passions and hobbies and loves. It was my most personal and loved tools right on the arm that uses them all. I was acknowledging the importance of crafting, coffee and writing in my life, visibly showing the depth of these things in my cells. I was calling it my dork badge – proof that what I love to do is perhaps terminally uncool, but so much a part of who I am and how I maneuver in the world.
The sewing needle was, it was obvious to me, for my literal love of (even if not great ability in) sewing – but also for craft, in the homespun way of handicrafts. I have come to realize in the last few years of my life that I have always engaged in some sort of art or craft that requires your hands: pottery after school in third grade, bead work in high school, painting watercolors while sitting on the floor of my bedroom listening to albums hiss and crackle that fifteenth year of my life when I had to sober up and behave, fusing glass in the basement as an adult to see the change that intense heat can make in a stack of rough cut glass, painting acrylics on a piece of canvas sheared from a 5 foot wide roll and then taped to my kitchen floor in that transition time when I was a drop-out, when I was between stints in college (officially kicked out of the CSU system). It was also partly an acknowledgement of the community I find myself a part of in Portland, from the small circle of my crafting friends to the larger, hip, dorky group of people who make things by hand. Portland attracts what has been dubbed the creative class, young(ish) people who move here because of its art or craft or music community, people who move here without jobs and make do, make things, make lives. It is a place that can both inspire and make you feel completely trumped by the talent all around you.
Doing research for the coffee book project I am working on, I started to connect craft to coffee as well. Writing and thinking about coffee and what it is that I love about it, what it is that fascinates me and draws me in – the word hand-crafted kept circling in my brain. I love the various communities of artisan coffeemakers – the ones who handcraft their roasts, handcraft their shots, handcraft each individual drink as though it is not temporary, who craft a beverage with intention and passion and individuality. What I’ve been thinking of as the rock stars of the coffee world, I started to also see as the blacksmiths of coffee – toiling over heat and fire and steam for the perfect cup, the perfect shot, the hammered out beauty of a latte. When I would see a portafilter or an espresso machine, I would daydream about my tattoo and I began to imagine the word craft hovering above me in big, puffy, cloud-like letters.
Out of the three images, the pencil is closest to my heart. It is not an exaggeration to say that writing has saved my life over and over – whether it was lewd round robin poems in tenth grade biology while the teacher wasn’t looking, or embarrassingly horrible poetry at sixteen, or scripts for a never-actually-made comic horror film set to Gary Glitter’s Rock N’ Roll in high school, or feverishly written and painstakingly edited short stories in college. I understand myself, I understand other people, I understand the world through stories. I make sense of people – why we do things, how we hurt each other, how we can bridge the gaps – through fiction. I make sense of the space around me through the building of worlds – writing to find a place where I like people and can find compassion for them (and myself). I never love (or tolerate) humanity more than when I am writing – in that semi-conscious state of writing fiction, I find a place where all people are understandable and forgivable and redeemable. I write because I can’t not write, but I also believe that it makes me a better person, forces me to look at things through a different lens, with a curiosity and interest in what is working just below the surface of every glance, every hurtful action, every misdeed. Planning my tattoo, imagining that pencil, brought me back to a decade ago, to where I circled in on writing and craft and my own labored understanding of it all.
During my first term of graduate school, the simultaneously brave (for me, for that moment in my life) and unavoidable leap into an MFA program (diving headfirst into student loan debt and an uncertain job future), I took Form and Theory of Fiction as well as a literature course whose focus was the novels of William Faulkner. I have never felt as inept and unintelligent as I did in those first four or five weeks of my first semester of grad school. I trudged and trudged and trudged through the essays and novels and articles and discussions of those first few weeks and kept hearing a voice in the back of my brain telling me to slip out quietly, to just crawl along the floor and out the door before anyone would even be able to notice I had been there at all. It was my own academic version of Stop, Drop and Roll
– a chicken-shit survival mantra repeating at low volume in the back of my head throughout the four hour classes. But I trudged and I trudged some more and I ended that semester with a love for the craft of fiction, with a clearer sense of who I was as a writer, as a Crafter of Fiction. When I understood something in those theoretical essays or in a discussion of The Sound and The Fury
(however small, however simple), something/anything about time and plot and structure, I felt high – my brain afloat in my skull, a whole world of possibilities unrolling and stretching out.
I finished that first semester knowing, deep in my skin, that I love structure in writing. I love being able to pick it apart and learn from it. I love seeing the armature, just below your first read, placed by hand to give strength and voice and delicacy to a story. I love the steel beams welding together a whole make-believe world, lies (as some are prone to call fiction) that can show us so much more than knotted up, complicated, pushed-into-a-line life can reveal. Or the fisherman’s net of structure, cradling the people and the buildings and the air of a story, barely holding it all afloat – but holding it nonetheless – an elevated, windblown support keeping all of the pieces of story close to each other, touching and jostling and moving. Or the delicate doily of narrative, a writer’s hand making small, measured movements – the work of tradition – honoring the crafters before, careful of every stitch and word.
I love crafting a story – shaping it and forming it and being intentional at the same time that you simply let go, raise your arms and push your feet off the edge and trust that where you land will tell you what to do with the rest of the story. I love looking at the rough structure and reading it like blueprints – a moment to pause, a quiet landing – and knowing that there, right in those moments, I can make the story sing or I can royally fuck it up. Either way, there’s no pretending that my hands are not all over it. The notion of the big C
Craft began to fill my head again, began to arc over my world like a sun-shading umbrella, shielding me from the harshness of real life, allowing me the time and shelter to be still and ponder these things, these leisurely, academic, crucial things.
Throughout this process – of starting my classes, of researching the coffee book, of getting this tattoo – I was keeping myself busy, I was keeping myself focused, but I was becoming increasingly aware that my thirteen year relationship was at an end. I had not wanted to hear it or see it or think it. But I had become less and less able to ignore it, my brain knocking more and more loudly against my skull, demanding attention. There was no tense build-up, no dramatic climax, none of the conflict of classic literature, just the (almost) surprising denouement – the sloping down of the end – and then the dealing with it, the structure of splitting up so much – so much future, so many plans, so many things. It is for the best as they (or I) say, but it is still gut-wrenching and heart-breaking and sad. Sad, sad, sad.
I was focusing on writing, I was focusing on crafting, I was flying myself hundreds of miles weekend after weekend and hoping that, as a side effect, I could outrun this inevitability. I was trying to outrun/outsmart/ignore my heart – that traitorous bitch of a muscle. I have been a walking ball of emotion. I am prone to cry at the smallest of gestures or the simplest of things. Yet while everything around me is in flux, as I face the hard choices, make the hard decisions (those bullshit chores of grown-up life) – I have these Crafts and these classes and a place to do these things – space to make and build and put together.
On Monday nights for the last six weeks, my friends and I meet at the Hollywood Senior Center and sew. We are making, of all sleek and hip things, a loose-fitting bathrobe. We show up and plug in our machines, unpack our supplies and sew. We get lost, we ask questions, we misdirect each other, we shoot evil glances at our machines and we sigh out of frustration as we gently throw our robe-in-process back on the table. We shoot each other silent, sideways, smart-ass comments and praise each other and ourselves every time we make it through a this-was-way-harder-than-I-thought-it-would-be-and-way-harder-than-it-shoulda-been moment – but we also laugh at the teacher’s unintentional double entendres and talk about our weeks and plot and plan for the future of our crafty selves.
I feel anchored in these few hours in a way that all of the rest of the hours in a day just can’t offer me right now. My brain is put on a leash, muzzled and left to shove most of its noisy, pushy self into a small corner of the room. I put my foot on the pedal and hold the fabric, my fingers guiding the fabric gently under the presser foot. I hold my right hand down and use my left fingertips to keep the fabric straight and steady, pausing to readjust, watching the presser foot and the way the fabric moves across the feed dog, careful to keep it from pulling unevenly, my eyes at attention for the tug to the left that will create a wandering seam, a puckered edge, a messy line. I tick off stitches like rosary beads, the whirring motors of our machines making music whose irregular rhythm soothes me. The three tables that are butted up against each other form our own sewing island, our own version of a quilting circle – small and silly and fun, but a salve for my fragile, worn down, fraying sanity. I am in my own fluorescent lit, linoleum floored church of Craft.
There is a blue neon sign in the front window of the center that spells out Hollywood Senior Center in loopy, curving script. When we leave class, it’s dark outside and the blue glow of the neon against the dark glass of the front window gives me the sensation that we are leaving some Vegas-inspired chapel run by an Elvis impersonator. I can imagine our even-tempered, smooth-voiced teacher in a pompador wig and bedazzled white pant suit waving us out the door, reminding us to bring interfacing next week and to press our seams, saying thank you, thank you very much. I am calmed by the blue glow and the way that moving out of the fluorescent light of the evening, walking through the radiant blue of the neon and then out to the dim street lights of 40th Avenue transitions me back to the real world. When we leave, I am always ready to go – tired from a long day at work and then class, creatively tapped out and relaxed. That blue glow is like a guidepost back into my real, non-crafting life – a clear mark between here and there.
On Tuesday nights, That Jolie Girl
and I spend our evening at the Multnomah Arts Center – where we took our first class together learning to fuse glass and where our fledgling friendship took deeper hold many years ago. We are learning how to make silver jewelry out of metal clay. We make pendants and rings and earrings out of a mix of silver and water and paper pulp. Each week, we feel like we make a little bit of magic. Every time I roll out the clay that seems to dry out and crack in only an instant, I feel like an alchemist conjuring trickery out of thin air, like I am stealing a little bit of joy from the world each time something works out, comes together, doesn’t crack.
My hands get covered in what at first is wet, slimy clay and turns, quickly, into a thin coating of muddy silver dust. I focus on rolling out the clay evenly, on watching for small cracks at the edges and then dip my finger tip in water and smooth the cracks out before rolling it out some more. I check that my cuts and my folds are even and smooth. I focus my eyeballs on my hands and make things. It is like being able to be outside of myself and right next to myself at the same time. I am able to balance the water and air of the perfect texture and be in a rare place – hovering somewhere outside of my own messy head.
I have been wearing the first ring I made in class and it has become my talisman. I turn it around my finger when I am concentrating at work. I pull it on and off in the midst of one of the many difficult discussions (external or internal) that currently make up my days. It is as though touching that ring, moving it around, reminds my brain that I can make something solid and I can do it again and again if need be. Looking down at that ring brings me comfort and pride – with all of its imperfections and unevenness – I still know that I formed it into this wide band from a damp lump of elemental material. It reminds me of the dusty smell of our classroom and the odor of the paper pulp burning off in the kiln, of the steps and steps it takes to hand polish fired silver clay – the monotonous, tedious chore of moving through four grits of sand paper after using a steel brush and before actually polishing the piece. Seeing that ring – and liking it, loving the way it looks on my hand – reminds me of the payoff, the reward of Craft.
These two friends and I have also been planning and scheming and plotting for a new web adventure that is about to finally happen – Handmade Portland
, a resource for and a blog about the amazing, awe-inspiring handmade community in Portland. It is, as our tagline states, all about building community through craft
. For us, craft is more than doilies and hair ribbons and lacy curtains. There is an amazing community here of people who make things by hand and seek out handmade things as politics, as lifestyle, as a way to connect with their neighborhood and their people. Spending time crafting, even spending time talking about/dreaming about/brainstorming about crafting with these two women has been saving my sanity one moment at a time – a barometer adjusting weather station, a buoy when I am treading my life. I have these women who also know (even if not to the same extreme, even if not as fanatically, as melodramatically) that making things – with clay, with wood, with film, with words – is not just hobby or extra or frivolous, but vital. In these moments, craft becomes something else entirely – a vehicle, a traveling vessel, an escape hatch for my road weary heart and mind. I can imagine a small boat – a hand-carved wooden craft (of course) – with only my arm crooked over the edge, my elbow bent exactly at the lip of the boat, my fingers grazing the water, not-visible-me resting, face up to the sky, held afloat and blissfully stranded in my own life-saving Craft.
I can not speak for the other ladies, but I have come to realize that I worship Craft – not as god or deity or idol, but as reverence, as prayer, as chant and ritual. I see my forearm and am beginning to understand what I knew in my bones and in my wretched heart before my brain caught up. I may not be able to craft myself an easier life right now. I may not be able to craft a new way to view this sadness or a way to speed up the grieving process of a life I will no longer live. I can’t force my heart and brain to agree, I can’t edit or revise this into three weeks from now, three months from now, three years from now when I will be past the hardest of it. I may not be able to shape this into anything beautiful or admirable or understandable right now.
But I can form a small ball of clay in between my palms and roll it out on the table and shape it. I can make a small square bezel and push a small square stone into it, settling it gently and evenly and cleaning and sanding it all. I can take an almost-ring and handle it carefully while I sand the inside, swirl it rhythmical in a figure-eight shape over sand paper to make perfectly smooth edges. If I break it in my hand – so fragile until fired, so delicate in my clumsy hands – I can reconstitute it, make it differently useful and pull out another small hunk of clay to work with. I can take two flat pieces of fabric and guide them through needle and thread, clip the excess thread and see the small straight stitches that appear before my eyes like magic. I can pay attention to what the teacher says and listen
– make sure I use my fingertips and not my whole hand to guide the fabric, make sure I press the seam closed and then open, I can work slowly and intentionally and see the difference it makes. I can sit with people I know and we can not talk, we can work in unison and compare our imperfections and laugh. I can string a sentence and build a world where things are not pretty, things are not simple, but they begin to make sense.
I can Craft a place in the world where two things can be bound together and pulled apart with only a seam ripper and some thread. I can Craft a place where I show up and my only job is to make
, to create
, to learn.
I can show up with only my hands and my eyes and my willingness to slow the world down. I can kneel down, figuratively, at the temple of Craft and say thank you. Thank you for even a moment’s respite. Thank you for all of the times that making something, making anything – alone or in a group – has made me feel useful, capable, alive. Thank you for saving my life over and over and over again – for giving me the calm of, even if only for an hour, my fears relieved.
*Hipstamatic Photos courtesy of That Jolie Girl