I Did It Myself…*to* Myself

Do It Yourself (DIY) projects, when well executed and realized, are impressive and admirable. They double one’s pleasure in the end product by being not only beautiful and useful as desired but also the satisfying result of her own skilled labors. Personal investment increase value exponentially.

I can claim a few DIY accomplishments on my resume, happily, despite my ordinary limitations of resource, monetary or of expertise or ability for the project in hand. But having mentioned hands, I must also confess to having a DITY (Do It TO Yourself) record as well. On the occasion of the hand-made hand injury, I was fortunate that my second of inattention resulted in no worse mishap than a tiny nip on my finger.

Being an artist, I did however do this with a certain degree of style: when I stuck my finger with a single tooth of my nice, sharp little hand saw (too aptly named, perhaps?), I did manage to insert the steel into the only small spot on my hand that already had a visible scar. Puncture becomes punctuation, so to speak.

As always, the tiniest wound is magnified by other pains, not least of them the injury to ego and dignity when on the instant of infliction I succumb to a combination of reactions that to the uninjured could only have a sort of serio-comic ridiculousness perfect for cutting me down to size. The unpleasantness of having made an unwanted incision in my personage is compounded by the leap back that threatens to throw me over a chair and onto my tailbone; the pinching clamp of fingers on the cut to stanch the bleeding hurts almost more  than the initial stab; the yell of pain that, in my nephew’s youthful terminology ‘scares my ears’ is also loud enough for the neighbors to hear and enjoy. On top of all this is the diminution of my sanguine pride, reminding me that my handy skills are sorely limited no matter what I tell myself.

Does this prevent my attempting further DIY projects? Hardly! Being by nature a timid and lazy and not-so-brilliant craftsman hasn’t made me give up but instead tends to make me plan and work things out fairly exhaustively before I begin, and to assume that I’ll make mistakes or need help before I finish. It all slows me down, to be sure—and that’s not a bad thing, mind you. Any DIY work is bound to be only as polished as patience and occasionally remedial work can make it.

When I speed up too much, I get sloppy and unfocused; I make silly mistakes like sticking my finger on a saw tooth/a saw tooth into my finger. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a power saw going there, so all I lost was a few minutes, my composure, and a few red cells rather than a digit. In return, I got a good reminder to sharpen my attention, to use tools with greater care, and to call in expert help when needed.

After all, I’d far rather sacrifice some dollars and a touch of my DIY pride than an appendage. This is how I’ve survived to my advanced age without losing any body parts or breaking any bones. I have recovered numerous times from being an (or falling on my) ass. Self image is ever so much more resilient than such things. Arguably, a little too much so in my case, or I wouldn’t tend to get into these fixes at all.

Of course, getting into a fix is something I can easily do all by myself. For that task, I do have all of the necessary experience and expertise.Digital Illustration: In Which I am a Silly Ass

I Made a Wreath

I did make a wreath, really–well, two. And as usual, they got a little more complicated and veered from the original plans all along the way, and the wreaths sort of made themselves, with a little elbow grease from me. That does seem to be my modus operandi most of the time, doesn’t it. I like to think of myself as an artist and the chief inventor in my colorful little universe, but when I’m being honest with myself, it’s more like I’m the cheap labor. Once the particular puzzles announce themselves to me, I may be able to offer the valuable skill of problem solving to make them possible (or as nearly so as I can), along with the effort required to bring them into existence, but in truth I’m often as surprised by the end product as anybody.P&IThat’s not entirely what I meant to say in this little post, of course. What I intended was to say that my time among you makes me think wreath-making a particularly purposeful thing to do, regardless of its utility or lack thereof as an object. Because to me, they represent all of the good and cheerful things contained in holidays and celebrations, and bring fine and flexible attractions to the decoration of home and garden. But further, and more significant in this difference to me, a wreath is a way to publicly express personal happiness through a small creative act. I make no claim that this is deep stuff. It’s a small pleasure and a minor artistic outlet, a rather insignificant creation even among the doings of a humbly insignificant artist. But as a token of well-being, contentment and hope, and no less, a mark of my understanding that I am privileged to feel all of those and know that I do so in large part thanks to the fine company I keep, this is enough cheering reason for me to make such playful little artworks, and even make artworks about making the artworks. Odd, I know, but in that alone, well suited to represent me too.digital illustrationI confess, silly as it is, it kind of leaves me wreathed in smiles just thinking about it.

Huntin’ ‘n’ Fission

I’m told that it’s both fun and useful to have hobbies. There are certainly plenty of books, magazines, news articles, classes, clubs and social organizations devoted to leisure-time pursuits, all of them trumpeting the value of such avocations. Some of them are decidedly age-specific: I haven’t seen a large number of free solo rock climbing promotions aimed at senior citizens, for example. There are hobbies considered preferable to persons of certain economic strata, fitness levels, sexes, nationalities and any number of other identifying categories, some active and some quite passive or spectatorial, some of them expensive to learn and requiring extensive training and practice and others free and simple to master. Regional favorites abound, like, say, noodling (catching catfish by hand), which would be hard to enjoy in desert climates unless you happened to be both a big fan of the sport and dedicated enough to stock your own evaporation-protected pond. Some of the more intellectually stimulating hobbies, like competitively designing robotics for cage fights or nuclear plants for home use, are highly entertaining to their practitioners but utterly escape the attentions of us more modest-brained folk as either too highfalutin or just plain incomprehensible. Sudoku, popular with millions of people cleverer than I am, falls into that too-challenging category for me since I’m so mathematically unfit, but I do like some kinds of word puzzles reasonably well if I’m in that rare mood.

Should I take up golf, having decided to move (when my spouse gets around to retiring) to a place on a golf course partly for its–surprise!–affordability and its location in a great town in a great part of the country, and in no small part as well for its great view into the green and leafy first fairway of the course? That would require my learning which end of the club is the grip and which the head, not to mention a whole bunch of other stuff, and on top of that, paying dearly for the privilege.photoWhile I’m still living in Texas I’d certainly be in a logical place to take up hunting, but that doesn’t appeal to me at all, unless it’s with a camera. For that matter, I’m more inclined to practice target shooting with a longbow, something I’ve enjoyed briefly in the distant past, than with a gun as well, being mighty skittish about those things. Being on the fast track to old age, I could probably pick up something more sedentary like knitting and crocheting if I had the patience. My single brief fishing moment post-childhood actually garnered me a cute little throw-back bass (as a kid I never caught anything but one big scary looking White Sucker that even my older boy cousins wouldn’t touch) and was enjoyed in good company while sipping a fine Texas brew; maybe that should inspire me to get busy with fishing.photoThat’s the thing, though: I just don’t enjoy games and sports, puzzles and pastimes much at all. Whether this arose or was reinforced by my longtime social phobias, perfectionistic fear of being seen as incompetent, dyslexic inability to keep anything I’m doing on a standard track, hilariously hideous sporting skills or any combination thereof is probably irrelevant. You see, there’s no separation of church and state in my life. I spend my days and evenings doing the very things that lots of folk can only do on an occasional basis and to fill their free time.

If I took up drawing, concert-going, reading and writing, cooking, DIY projects, gardening, photography or collecting weird bits of Stuff as a so-called hobby, what would I do with my day job? The truth is simply that I’m a fully fledged frivolous person. If eccentric creative activities and ways of thinking are on the periphery of real life, then I am a bona fide fiction, an imaginary character myself. If on the other hand art is, as I’m convinced it should be, central to existence and well-being, why then I’m just ahead of the curve; I won’t need to retire to any old rocking chair or go in a desperate search for something to keep me occupied, because I already have too many fun and pleasing things to do. Either way, I’m keeping busy.

Stained Glass & Malachite

Being beautiful is such an ephemeral thing, to be sure. Making art that is beautiful is possibly even more so–after all, the same piece that appeals to one might hardly appeal equally to all, any more than the attractions of any one person might strike any others in precisely the same way. And our own tastes and interests and circles of friendship and acquaintance change so much over time that it’s a miracle if we even maintain contact, let alone a closeness or deep appreciation of each other and our various works and features over any period of time.digital illustrationCase in point: my playful attempts to learn the use of some digital tools for artwork, combined with the way that I tend to recycle my sketches and drawings, has altered both my perception of what I would keep, revise and/or rethink my own pieces to a pretty radical extent in the last few years. I believe that my overall style or the signature character of my art has remained fairly steady and therefore recognizable since it began to emerge some years back, but the tools and techniques with which it’s expressed have mutated enough to bring out some entirely different aspects of texture, complexity and even subject matter. The eccentric character in today’s illustration, for example, started out as a rather typical (if not stereotypical) caricature of a semi-human man who differed little in form from the sort of goofy fantasy creatures and people I’ve drawn for years just to entertain myself, but suddenly when I was playing with the sketch, coloring it in digitally as though I were a little kid with a digital coloring-book, he started to become something entirely different and new, a creation slightly unlike all that have come before him.

Now, because I am both unscientific and forgetful when I am immersed in amusing myself with art, I will probably never be able to replicate precisely the process that led to his looking like a hybrid of a stone-inlay project and a leaded window made of art glass. And though I like the effect and hope I can do something similar again if I work hard enough–especially if I want to make what in my own estimation is a sufficiently prettier character to warrant such a highfalutin treatment–it will hardly be the end of the world if he ends up being my only-ever stained glass and malachite creation. Being unusual and a little bit strange is just something we’ll have in common.

It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos

Outlets for Creativity

The bane of poorly placed or unattractive light switches, outlets, thermostats and other mechanicals is one of the great challenges to the average homeowner’s creating truly cohesive and attractive decor. Frankly, I’ve never understood what could be so hard about putting all of the functional and utilitarian elements of any building into very easily accessed and yet unobtrusive locations throughout, but that’s never happened in any building I’ve seen let alone in the houses where I’ve lived. Home design is generally pretty dimwitted in terms of simple practicality. But then, it offers a dandy problem-solving adventure to those of us who like such things.

So I say, if you can’t lose it, use it.photosExposed under-sink plumbing but not a lot of room for real cabinets? How about a half-height set of portable drawers and a counter skirt that fills the gap and hides the plumbing? It’s cheap, especially if you can use a ready-made window valance as I did in this instance, which also means that when your tastes change, changing the treatment won’t take a major investment either. A nasty old tile countertop that’s set in such hard concrete that it can’t be removed without demolishing half the room can be overlaid with a simple piece of laminate and a hardwood facing raised to be level with the edge of the top. Again, a cheaper fix than demo and new tile or stone, and easier to replace when the time comes even if you’ve still not saved up enough for the super-cool high-end stuff.

Another problem that’s pretty common in modest homes is a den (in this case the spare bedroom) where you want to be able to sit among your books and read but can hardly fit in your little old slipcovered sofa and still allow enough room for the adjacent door to clear, and then run out of space for the actual bookshelves. One fairly easy way to deal with this problem is to mount the bookcase on the aforementioned door. When I did this, I did install casters at the bottom of the case so the door hinges wouldn’t have to bear the weight of all the books as well, and ended up not only with handily located books for our cozy little reading nook but just a touch, however modest, of the secret thrill of a hidden doorway, even if this one only went to the attic. Add an old highboy dresser with some drawers removed for extra shelf storage, and for tucking away additional materials, there’s no end table or footrest like a stack of old trunks and suitcases. Voilà! A small and comfortable snug for reading, with a lot more stored in it than would seem probable or meets the eye.

With no space for a sewing room, I got a little creative finding a spot for that work, too. I found an inexpensive storage cabinet, the white laminate particle board kind, in about a 6’H x 2.5’W x 1.5’D configuration, at the local builder’s supply store, installed a hinged pull-down bench I could put my sewing machine on (or when it wasn’t in use, put behind it), added small weight-supporting posts in the middle of the shelves, and had a simple little sewing center that I used easily for quite some time. By setting my serger on the shelf adjacent to the pull-down bench, I had a comfortable corner where I could sit in my cheap swiveling office chair and go from one machine to another while I was working on my projects, reaching up to the stacked fabrics stored on the top shelf or underneath to the other tools and notions and sorting boxes on the bottom shelf. Finish work, push the sewing machine back in the cabinet and fold the bench up in front of it, latch that in place, and close the cabinet doors. No sign of Sewing Central in the guest bedroom until next time.photosThat house was more than big enough for the two of us, but in typical older-house style the space was divided oddly and not quite a perfect design for us as-is. What was not typical of the place’s vintage was that it had quite a high proportion of windows to wall space, a very nice thing but also a little limiting when it comes to placing furnishings and hanging art. That drove the placement of the antique china hutch (whose back side, happily, was finished in the same rustic style as its front) as a room divider to frame the dining room without overlapping either of its flanking windows. Having a wood-stove could have been a delight, but since the area where we lived had frequent burn bans because of the local microclimate, we hardly ever had the chance to play with it. Eventually I traded the stove to a friend and fellow artist in exchange for helping me redo the flooring and counters in the kitchen, but in the time while the stove crouched there using up real estate in the living room, it got a customized cover of lined taffeta (made at my little sewing station, of course) that made it into an extra end table with a hint of insulation. The living room itself was quite spacious for a house of that vintage, so with its location practically next door to the campus where we both worked, it was a handy post-concert gathering place for debriefing the concert over a glass of wine.

That meant we wanted to put as much seating as possible in the place without making it feel like one of those seedy recliner showrooms where salesmen lurk in the shadows and try to sell you chairs that look like poseable hippopotami. We already had a couple of heavy mid-eighties pieces of furniture that needed a little touch of camouflage for their portly nature (the white-draped tub of a chair on the left of the first photo above was later ‘darkened’ with multiple shades of purple into the equally chunky but less omnipresent chair on the right of the second photo, and its variety of textures and shades helped at least marginally to distract from the bulk of the whole. To get a slightly airier feel among the furniture occupants of the room, I took my grandparents’ old Jenny Lind double bed and made it into a little post-Victorian settee that kept us company for a goodly while after. That way the frame was virtually free (the seat slats were pickets salvaged from backyard fence repair) and all I spent was on the fabric and padding for upholstering the piece.

Still, I was irritated that the first wall anyone approached on coming through our front door was ‘decorated’ with an inconveniently placed thermostat. Never mind that the thermostat was located directly downwind of the only exterior door in the area, it was just plain an eyesore and a pest to hide. So I made it part of the art arrangement, ‘gilding’ it with metallic ink to match the background of the small icon and the frames of the larger artworks with which it was prominently grouped. It may still have been a pig, but I liked its looks better with the lipstick on it.

Now, I told you that I think virtually every place has some of these irksome ill-placed or hard to disguise quirks in its construction, and those I’ve dealt with were hardly limited to the one house. Our current place has them, too, and I’m working my way through them bit by bit, like the hideously ugly and out of date but perfectly functional doorbell box in the front hall that now lives behind a small basket that I think was originally meant to be an office Inbox but is mercifully less attention-getting than the egregious original bell cover. And it’s ‘breathable’, so there’s no worry about the sound being muffled or the mechanism overheating in a closed box.photoFurther episodes must wait for another day. The hunt for better, easier, more practical and attractive but less expensive solutions never ends. There will always be another touch of decorative deceit needed, as long as there are builders who don’t think through the way their buildings will actually look and work when, wonder of wonders, people live in them.

No Worries, Everything’s Okay Here! I’m doing Just Great! (Twitch, Twitch, Giggle)

 

sketchbook

But my noodle is full of doodles!

Being and Nuttiness

Origami boats and hats

And frogs and swans

And paper cats

And chicken frills

And snowflake cuts:

These little pieces

Drive me nuts—

It’s not the cut-

And-paste, you see,

That makes me

Shake the acorn tree;

It’s just that

They should

Have the guts,

Barefaced, to call it

Therapy.

sketchbook

I mean, oodles of doodles!

 

Going Buggy

I wouldn’t say it bugs me

All that much to be indoors,

For after all my place is not

Much awfuller than yours,

Both having small enclosures and

These windows that won’t open,

And both beset with folks who have

Rude ways of interlopin’

Whenever you might think you’ve got

A chance to set things right

By putting forward fine ideas

Or going home at night,

But if it comes right down to choose,

I guess I’ll stick right here—

My rubber room; your office—

Least I’ll get reprieved next year.