The Icing on the…erm…Chair

Being Crafty is something other people do. I admire the feats of those who can crochet spectacular Afghan blankets seemingly out of thin air or decorate their homes for the holidays with recycled coat hangers and tuna tins and somehow make them look like a magazine cover. People who have the know-how, skill and patience to embroider babies’ bonnets, build palatial birdhouses out of scavenged fence pickets and carve perfect portraits of great historical figures out of turnips impress me greatly.

I, on the other hand, have been known to abandon ship mid-craft, or at the very least change directions radically when I feel I haven’t a hope of getting the hang of what my project was initially intended to be. My youthful embroidery days were ended when I spent a lengthy evening working on the details of some would-be floral tea towel‘s featured bouquet, stood up to gather my sewing and head off to bed, and discovered I’d embroidered through both the tea towel and the lap of my nightgown. My candle-making artistry had only its propensities for melting and burning (and thus, quickly, disappearing) to recommend it. Unlike those who are able to make fabulous sand mandalas with the grains arranged perfectly meditatively into millions of delicate otherworldly patterns would be, if not appalled, then at least mystified and probably saddened, by the strange mud-pies that would be the only produce of my efforts in that direction.

Pretty well any craft that takes any real focus and attention, let alone proficient control of the medium, is likely to remain out of my reach.

There are, however, certain tools, materials and proficiencies in the land of Craft that I can and do manage. One of the media I have enjoyed manipulating for playful, if not crafty, purposes at times is lightweight spackling compound. This stuff, made initially for repair of wounded wallboard and the filling of trim gaps by builders and handy-persons, resembles cheap bake-shop frosting so strongly in texture (and, I daresay, probably in taste, though that’s moot here) that it goes through an icing bag and tip wonderfully well. So it’s great for not only creating faux frosty baked goods but also all sorts of the same kind of detail work that plaster and woodcarving and metalworking artisans have used to create architectural accents and furniture details for eons, especially in combination with other small sculptural elements. Thinning the spackle just enough with water to go through a pastry icing tip and retain its proper density and texture and shape while drying is virtually the only difference. In fact, the spackle can be tinted in many of the same ways as frosting, too, though it may be painted and colored in many ways after the fact.photoIn any event, I’ve had fun with this magical past on occasion. I’ve made customized and personalized ceiling medallions with it. I made a nice big window valance that had all kinds of pieces and parts–food and cookery gadgets and the like–blending its own form and meaning with the rest of the dining room in which it hung. I’ve used it to create baroque picture frames and mirror frames. Probably the most fun project with it so far was making a couple of very rococo side chairs by upholstering them with tapestry-like fabrics and then building equally over-the-top sculptural frames and backs out of small objects, some pre-made and some of my own making from plasticine or wood, bone or clay or metal, and then faithfully infilled with spackle ‘frosting’ before I gilded it all with metallic montageWhat’s next? Who knows. But there are boxes full of fun waiting for me to make them into something new, and that little yet persistent itch returns from time to time, so undoubtedly there will be a next thing. Just you wait and see.

‘Social Activist Art’ is *New*, You Say???

drawingA recent New York Times article reminded me that, no matter how I might classify myself as anything but an activist, I have always been one, of a sort. It’s true that I’ve always assiduously avoided conversation, let alone physical action, tied to politics, religion, social policy and pretty much any ‘hot topic’ you can name unless I sensed I was in the safest possible environment to do so–generally, amid a comfy flock of like-minded partisans. The article is chronicling the US uprising of a relatively new breed of American artists and their support systems dedicated to, as the title bluntly states, social activism; the author gives appropriate reference, of course, to the practice being a long-standing one in other parts of the world, but shares the view that it’s still rather fresh and new here on American turf.

I’ll grant that the forms and formats may well have changed, and that there might be a larger collective sense among those who would embrace this title of being dedicated to the purpose more specifically than others, but I will step right out on my own tiny soapbox now and assert that, insofar as art is seen as a form of communication–and this might well include virtually all art except that created and performed in private and without any wish or expectation than anyone other than its maker will know it exists–it is inherently activist. The decision to create something I intend to be art and allow it to be known to others says a whole lot of things about me, the subject of my work, and my general worldview, and if I am allowing others to experience these in the art, assumes that they will respond through and with their own worldviews to it, effectively in a social interaction, whether we converse directly about it somehow or those who have interacted with my art turn around and respond to it in the continuation of their lives.

Who knew I was such a rabble-rouser? But truthfully, even by making those ‘meaningless’ little doodles that don’t turn into full-blown drawings or paintings, I am making something of a statement, am I not? I scribble, therefore I am. By doodling, I am not only using my energy to do that rather than anything else, I am also creating a portal through which my thoughts can emerge; if they turn, via this scrawling, into a concrete idea it may lead to the completion of an artwork expressing it more openly. This, in turn, suggests that I have a thing or two to say and I’m willing for others to hear it, see it, feel it–to interpret it and respond to it, even. I never think of myself as daring, but I think it’s fair to say that letting my inmost thoughts and imaginings be seen and analyzed by others through their own filters is at least a little brazen, if not occasionally foolhardy.

One of my late mentors, Lawry Gold, wrestled with the supposed divide between art and function, and he was anything but shy about being an outspoken activist, albeit a very kindhearted and generous one. He was a boldly countercultural person in a great many ways, and yet he seemed to me to reach the peak of his own overt rebelliousness when he began working on a body of art that was deliberately and unabashedly functional (beautifully art-covered, distinctively designed tables, lamps, clocks and the like) for sale through his gallery agents. This was something I know he enjoyed at least a little as cheery cheekiness to tweak artist snobs who were apparently so benighted they couldn’t accept the marriage of form and function thus, or so rich they could afford to sit around waiting for other equally rich people to buy their non-functional work, no matter what the state of the economy. Besides that these were among his most gorgeous and sophisticated works, to me they spoke of the recognition that art, besides taking so many different forms, speaks to us in many different ways, and that breadth and depth has great value.

At the same time, my friend never stopped making ‘non-functional’ art, because he of all people also had a tremendous desire to communicate, whether it was by visual storytelling in his often humorous, whimsically imaginative artworks or by making a more specific point with his illustrative and symbolic works. And he never hesitated to engage in the discourse that followed anyone’s viewing of his work. He and I had a joint exhibition of our artwork once, and as I was curating and installing the show I objected to one of his pieces that he wanted included, thinking it was not in keeping with all of the others we had selected, and he patiently steered me toward a clearer understanding that it was indeed very well suited; even though I never liked that piece as much as the others, I found that it carried an important part of the ‘conversation’ made up by the whole of the exhibition, and in fact that one interaction changed the way I curated many an exhibition of others’ work in the years that followed.

Ultimately, I see in the creation of art–of any form–an act that if it isn’t in open defiance of the social norms, allows or even invites the examination of and discourse on them. So even though much art is not made, like Lawry’s, to function in an obviously practical way, it all serves a purpose; ‘merely’ being beautiful or compelling may be purpose enough in adding layers of pleasure or relief or catharsis, but many works go far beyond that in opening new vistas to our contemplation, influencing our beliefs and even challenging us to change our behavior. All art is potentially advertisement or propaganda, for good or ill. And if that isn’t social activism, I think my encyclopedia needs some new illustrations.

digital illustration from drawings

Is all art crowd-sourced?

All in the Details (Small and Large), Part 1

photoI’m an avid, and truly amateur (in both the worst and best senses of the word), changer-upper of things. My father warned my fiance, as if the poor guy hadn’t already seen it in action, that when we lived together he would likely come home from any trip–overseas or two doors down the street–and find the furniture rearranged or a room fully repainted, or possibly, that we’d moved to another house in his absence. I promised I would always leave a forwarding address and directions with his new house key if I went so far as the latter. He married me anyway. And I have indeed continued in my blissfully mercurial attitudes toward what feels comfortable and desirable, or looks beautiful, to me in my places of work, play and general living. Aside from the occasional piteous whimpers of ‘Who Moved My Cheeeeeeeese?‘ my husband has also continued to be an exemplary, even sometimes equally avid if not outright participatory, supporter of this habit of mine.

I assure you, this hobby of mine might have run even more wildly rampant had I had the time, tools, skills and bottomless budget required for such extravagances. But though I might chafe at having to think so hard or wait so long, I’m also addicted nearly as deeply to the problem-solving puzzles presented by having to prioritize and/or simplify my fantastical plots and plans. As we’ve lived our sixteen-plus years together thus far in five homes of our own plus a couple of stints living briefly in other places where we had a bit of free rein if not ownership, there have been plenty of opportunities for these kinds of happy dreaming and scheming. Since I’m unlikely to live even overnight in a motel room without itching to Improve upon something or other about it, you can well imagine that Things Happen whenever I’m plugged in for any length of time at all.

You’ve heard hints here recently that I have had a few such projects in mind and/or in hand at home once again, so I think it’s about time to unveil some of the things I’ve managed to do or have done. And some that are still early in their incubation, perhaps. When we came to Texas to house-hunt for one whole week in 2009, it was the first time I’d set foot in the state outside of the airport. My spouse had been to the town we were moving to live in as much as twice during the interview process, so between us our experience and ken of the town didn’t add up to much, so we knew it was best to hold off on buying a home until (a) we saw if the move was a ‘good match’ (or the university or denizens of our town would run us out at pitchfork-points, or we would pack up our carpet-bags in the dark of night and slink off to places yet unknown) and (b) we had some clue what part of town spoke to us and could house-hunt at leisure.

Thus, a rental for our first Texas home. We spent a comfortable year living in a very decent place in a quiet neighborhood and with marvelous landlords, but hoping to find something with better space for inviting students and colleagues and friends to visit, not to mention where we could put visiting relatives for overnight stays without having to stand them up in a coat-closet or bed them down in the bathtub. The real bonus of our rental locale was that the neighborhood was virtually across the fence from a second neighborhood that was both inviting for cooler-weather walks on the weekend and somewhat hidden–we know lots of longtime townspeople who still didn’t know this neighborhood existed until we invited them to our current place.

When we found the house we would buy, we had been ‘scouting’ the neighborhood, with its mature oaks galore and hidden charms, for a bit and we were first to see the For Sale sign sprout and the first to come and look through. A second couple had asked for a tour before we turned around and opted to make an offer, and that was about it. Both of us had an instant liking for both the house and the nice 88-year-old lady who sold it to us, but it took both of us wearing our creative goggles to see through her 30-year-old decor to see what we would make of it as our own home. So the negotiations began with our plan to remain living for an overlapping month in the rental house a short walk away while I joined the construction crew that we hired to do the many small repairs and updates and the one larger task that would lend it such personalization for us rather x 2The big idea was to open the wall between the kitchen and dining rooms, which made this three-decade-old house leap forward into the Open Concept era and our plans for group entertainment with great alacrity. The removal of lots of wallpaper and beautifully crafted but dated window treatments and a few old-looking light fixtures, and adding many fresh coats of paint throughout, went a long way toward modernizing the place, so that’s what I did to keep busy while The Guys were generally wreaking havoc in the adjoining living areas. I ripped out the wall to wall carpeting in all the bathrooms–the en suite master bath being effectively three whole rooms even without counting the walk-in closets in them, plus a Jack and Jill bathroom between two bedrooms that we’ve made into an office and a TV room, plus the guest bathroom on the other side of the house. I ripped out the carpeting in the kitchen. It was partly glued down and mostly just welded with age to the slab all around, and the baseboard was a bit brittle with age, so it was slow going, but despite that and the gritty heat of the work it was worth the effort, and a huge delight to see the unwelcome, inconveniently dirt-gathering flooring in the ‘wet rooms’ give way to concrete over which we could get something more appropriate set.

Once I had the rugs ripped up and most of the wallpaper stripped from the kitchen and entry, the contractor’s crew came in and began the kitchen renovation, knocking open the inside wall, repairing wall and ceiling cracks, replacing the refrigerator and dishwasher and cooker fan hood (with a microwave/vent), and extending the lower cabinets to fill the new half-wall with wonderful storage. New and gorgeous granite counters went in, fresh paint went on and with masterful matching, new Saltillo tiles from Mexico were laid in the kitchen and adjoining hall and guest bath and stained to match the existing entry/dining room floor. While the men were busy with the kitchen and some painting of the higher-ceilinged entry, living and dining rooms and kitchen, I kept busy repairing small holes and scratches on walls and woodwork to prep for my paint work, removing all of the broken, torn or dated window treatments, and replacing light fixtures and hardware (grouping light switch and outlet face plates and towel bars and door handles to better match each other in various rooms). My favorite improvement in that category came from removing the Oh-So-Eighties white ceramic knobs on every cabinet door in the entire built-in-filled house and replacing them room by room with new hardware better suited to each space.

Now, I must add to all of this that this is a house I would never have designed in the first place. It’s not precisely my style. But I love it. I’m an old enough hand with this stuff to know it would have been a huge mistake to take an essentially solid and well-made house and try–at least without gutting and rebuilding it with ridiculous infusions of money–and make it into something it isn’t. This is how a person who adores Craftsman style, cottage style, mid-century modern, minimalist contemporary, Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, among many others, ends up living in and paying homage to, an updated ’70s colonial. Ha! Needless to say, it requires submitting my own instincts to an appropriateness-test each time I make a tweak, and looking for whatever I do find attractive and lovable that is suited to the situation. First and foremost, of course, that category includes the people I want to spend time with in this place. (!)

One of the distinctions of this house’s style is the aforementioned large amount of built-in cabinets everywhere. It makes for an atypical ’70s house to have such abundant storage. I don’t even use all of the space in any one of the rooms. I can credit a bit of that to being a pretty good organizer and fondness for occasional purging rampages on both our parts, but much of it’s simply having more space than we really require. We quickly found in house-hunting that nothing in our expected choice of home sizes (two bedrooms, two baths so we could accommodate our overnight guests) ever had enough contiguous living space for a dozen dinner guests, let alone twice that or more as we’ve sometimes had on hand. We have, therefore, much more space than absolutely necessary for a whole lot of other things besides mere hospitality purposes. I do find it’s nice, over time, to figure out what use serves us best in which part of the house.


Need more storage despite the cupboards? A wire rack cut to fit over the door jambs keeps the laundry basket out of the way, close by and dust-free. Doors cross each other when they’re both open and pinch your poor hands in between? Replace one of the two with a bi-fold door.

That’s how what at first seemed like a uselessly illogical cabinet in the front hall became the ideal mid-house location for my most-used small hand tools and hardware stash so that no matter where the need occurs, everything is in fairly quick and easy reach. An innate urge to find the easiest route to every necessary task drives me to make many of those changes that can drive change-haters and husbands batty at first but often lead to eventual simplification in daily life. Having two supposedly unwanted extra bedrooms led to our having a place to keep and watch a giant television without it living in our guest space and distracting from lovely conversations with visitors in the living room. Coincidentally, it makes a very cozy ‘away’ space for reading or napping that means neither of us ever has to be underfoot if the other wants to do something different (or more asleep) than the other is occupied with at the moment. It also gives us an expansive home office space so that my spouse can continue his university tasks after hours as needed, without stealing my favorite desk space as I work. No dueling over desks here. No dueling at all, really, in such a big house that I now have my own comfy recliner in front of the TV too. No, I’m not even going to try for custody of the remote; I don’t know what is on when or where anyhow.


From the kitchen, an open view: dinette at lower left, door to laundry at upper left, guest bedroom with its frosted window shining just beyond it; a big built-in hutch for kitchen storage; living room at upper right, with its opening into the dining room at the very far right, and on the lower right, the kitchen counter over which *that* room opens into the dining room.

The latest round of fix-ups and mix-ups around the house waited a couple of years after our buying the place so that we would not only have saved up a little to do them but also, one hopes, have a far better idea of how the house works and how we can best operate in it. The guest room furniture got reoriented so that there was enough more room to add in our exercise cycle and more importantly, also a small desk for guests’ use. One of the happy quirks of room re-arrangement is that sometimes even when there’s more stuff in a space, if it’s better arranged it can feel bigger. Physics aren’t always obviously logical. Go figure. The living room furniture underwent a similarly needed reorientation and now allows room for a small tertiary dinette–besides the eight person dining table and the kitchen one that can stretch for six, we can now put a few diners in the living room too without even moving the conversational seating group. My small seating group out on the back patio is very rarely used. It’s almost always too hot, of course, for sitting out there, even if there weren’t also the Texas-sized insects lying in wait to chew us right out of our skins, not least of all those recently arrived terrorists, the West Nile carrying mosquitoes. Still, there’s something both comforting and welcoming in the mere sight of a pretty outdoor ‘room’, so that’s on my list: how shall I make the space outside our kitchen windows extend our sense of place out into the greenery? How can I bridge the gap between my dream garden out there and the small changes I can bring that will improve the yard much more affordably in the short term? The plot thickens, indeed. The outdoor chandelier has moved closer to the seating area now, and more will come soon. I hope.photoHaving begun the recent round of improvements with a new TV room recliner (a supposed outdoor piece, and bought at the grocery store, of all things) and that blessed new cooktop I was bragging of recently (where eggs do not perpetually run downhill and cook from one end to the other over time anymore), we moved on to more complicated

(To be continued tomorrow . . . )