Why Make Things When You Could Buy Them?

In this “Digital Age” where we have no patience for things that take time, and where we can easily find whatever we might want on a computer, it may seem Amish, quaint, and/or silly to be encouraged to make something with your own two hands. Why should we make things? I mean real, 3-D things like making clay pots, painting murals, knitting scarves, making a dinner for friends, baking and decorating a cake, or planting and caring for a vegetable garden?

How about because, as I have discovered, making things with your hands has tremendous positive effects on your mood, your brain, your body and how you live your life? These effects can’t be obtained through a computer, or bought on Amazon. You can only get them through the process of creating things by hand.

img_0438“Too much time on technological devices and the fact that we buy almost all of what we need rather than having to make it has deprived us of processes that provide pleasure, meaning and pride.  Making things promotes psychological well-being.”–Carrie Barron, MD

I’m lucky in that I was given tools and space to explore creative outlets from a very young age (my first, realistic drawing of a person was done at age 3). My mother was a self-taught seamstress, embroiderer and quilter, a big celebrator of birthdays and events large and small, a flower arranger and party planner, and was mostly unrecognized for her creativity and inventiveness in our family.  She just “made things.” She, like most women of her time, deferred to the importance of my father’s government work and she made her projects on her own, a bunch of “nice hobbies.” She could go into a store, see a complex fabric handbag, go home, draw out a pattern and make a complex handbag–in fabulous colors and fabric. She taught herself quilting patterns and made quite a few quilts before blindness ended her creativity. She baked and decorated special cakes for birthdays, packed amazing picnics for us, and sewed clothes and drapes, and recovered and re-caned chairs. Even the way she dressed was always stylish and chic.

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My point about her is that she was, herself, creative, curious about how to make things (to reproduce them, but also how to alter them to her own taste), and although she didn’t think that I–or anyone–could make a living through creative pursuits, she was encouraging of my explorations–that’s the reason I was lucky.

I remember when I was maybe 8 years old, she showed me a book of Van Gogh’s paintings and talked reverentially about his work, trying to imbue admiration for Impressionism. But I didn’t think things looked “right” with what he had painted–faces looked weird and things were strange colors. I didn’t understand why she thought his work was “great.” I thought Norman Rockwell was a “good” painter because things looked like they were.

As a youngster, I drew, painted, wrote and put on plays about ancient Egypt and the wars over conflicting gods, built tree houses, and liked to dress in costume. As I grew up, my father, a serious amateur photographer, taught me how to develop film and print photos in the basement darkroom. He made films, too–mostly documenting the places he worked, and where we lived. In middle school I wrote a series of novellas about my adventures as the niece of Illya Kuriakin (from The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and I made up for my lack of serious intellect by doing extra-credit things like making colorful bulletin boards and posters at my school.

When it came time to go to college–to prepare myself for a career–I decided to become a film maker (I had been making Super-8 movies for a while.) My parents, bless them, allowed me to go to New York University’s School of Film and Television even though they didn’t at all approve of New York City, or believe that I would make a career out of film. And they paid for the whole thing. Again, lucky.

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I loved film school but ended up switching to different school and getting a BFA in Visual Communications with a minor in Photography. I earned a living for a long time as a designer, an art director, a producer and creator of projects for National Geographic, Disney, Broderbund, America Online, and Discovery Communications.

The point of this laborious plodding through past history is that I consider myself very  lucky to have spent most of my life doing what I loved, making things. I challenged myself to explore new things, and had the freedom and support of bosses and funders to invent things and produce them. I worked on paper, on film, and with words. I worked with teams and collaborators and “made art with an army.” I did what I loved and loved what I did.

Life wasn’t perfect and without challenges because I made things, but writing, painting and, oddly, beading helped me climb out of troughs of despondence. The effect of moving overwhelming emotions out of the anxious, swirling cauldron of my mind and putting them into written words or splashed colors was calming. Representing depression or fear without words was a safe, and helpful way for me to look at and deal with strong emotions.

“…transforming what is inside–instincts, conflicts, feelings, aesthetics, and knowledge–into something outside can heal the self… Tending, repairing, making and reshaping help us express and work through inner conflicts, though we may not even recognize or verbalize what is occurring.” –Carrie Barron, MD  &   Alton Barron, MD

And now, as a busy, engaged retired person (I wince whenever I use that label, “retired”–I do not consider myself “retired” from life. I haven’t taken vows. I don’t live in a convent.), I continue my explorations in creativity. And I make things. Every day.

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My house is messy and full of clutter–every kind of art supply stands at the ready; easels, paints, brushes, canvases, palette knives. Cameras, digital and SLR occupy drawers and shelves, thousands of slides await unearthing. My kitchen is in constant disarray as I explore things like pickle making, bread baking, and pie making. There are paintings –mine, friends’ and others’–on all the walls. There are photos and postcards on bulletin boards over my desk, scribbled notes, drawings and plans for things like  community garden layouts, a kitchen remodel, and different hairdos I might try. I have boxes and drawers full of yarn and finished sculptural knit objects as well as traditional knitted scarves, hats, gloves and socks around the house. I teach knitting to cancer patients and mothers-to-be in a hospital, and do charity knitting (chemo hats, blankets, and preemie hats for the NICU). And I write–this blog, yes, but also keeping a diary and keeping up an active life on Facebook and through email.

 “Creativity is a great motivator because it makes people interested in what they are doing. Creativity gives hope that there can be a worthwhile idea. Creativity gives the possibility of some sort of achievement to everyone. Creativity makes life more fun and more interesting.”  Edward de Bono

I am able to explore in multiple media–but so is everyone. Everyone, even people who didn’t have the good fortune I enjoyed. Creativity isn’t just something “owned” by people whose paintings hang in galleries, who are given awards, or who have magazines dedicated to “their” creative thinking and output. Creativity is packing your kid’s lunch with a little drawing and a note. It’s trying to bake a birthday cake with 5 layers from a recipe you came across online. It’s your “signature,” the way you look at the world and respond to it.

I’m not anywhere near being considered “an expert” with any of the tools I use, but I am curious about all of them; how they capture feelings, how I can manipulate the media to create new work, and in the effect these expressive endeavors have on my brain and my heart. I like exploring new ways to make things, adding spice to recipes, or looking at a portrait from another angle. I enjoy the process of creating, and maybe even more than I care about the final product I make.

Sometimes I make something that can be eaten. Or worn or watched. Or enjoyed in other ways by people. But I’m really making things for myself, for the all-consuming act of creating it and learning from the process of creation. And in the making of things with my own two hands, I have learned more about who I am, and have found peace, resilience, and joy that keeps on growing.

“When I saw and realized that all this was a creation of my own two hands, my whole nature began to change.” –Booker T. Washington

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