Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Artistry

This is going to sound terrible. But here goes: My whole life I have been good at things. Not everything, mind you. But more than, say, three things. I can draw a bit and I can sing. I'm a terrible dancer, but I'm a moderately successful cook. I can sew and I can knit, I can edit and I can write. But only recently, at the ripe age of 33 (why now?), do I find myself wondering what I am REALLY good at.

It's an interesting question. I remember my friend Chad telling me in high school that he wasn't very good at a lot of things, but he knew for damn sure that he could sing. And sing he could! And sing he does! Knowing him over the last 20 years, I have seen him embrace that passion, fine-tune it, affect others with its loveliness. And that is a wonderful thing to witness.

But I was always spread a little thinner. So I wasn't the best singer, but I played in the band. And I wasn't the best actor, but I always got cast. I strummed my guitar, fudging my way through country ballads, and focused more on laughing than learning bar chords. My life, and all of the activities I have ever chosen, have been infused with laughter. (Which reminds me, I am very good at laughing.) And there is an important point here: art, for me, has been blessedly free of ego. I can laugh at a creation that flops, or admire a creation that turns out well. Failure does not really bother me. I'm not a quitter, and I rarely enter a creative venture imagining that I will get rich.

Last weekend, however, at the In God We Trust backyard bazaar, I found myself looking at my handmade wares--my bags and turbans, my t-shirts and hair clips--and wondering what drove me to make it all and why I want to sell it. The joy, for me, has been creating the collection. Seeing the fabrics I have chosen, how I put them together. The moments when I get off work and walk home extra fast, eager to get started on a new idea that just popped into my head. Staying up late on a Saturday night, just to finish a project, see if it worked out. But the joy, for me, sort of leaves the building when I put it out into the world. Standing at that booth, I felt this unspoken pressure to measure my worth in dollar signs. And it made me, I swear to you, want to just start handing it all out for free. Like a lunatic, pressing bags into stranger's hands, insisting that an interested customer just take the t-shirt, take it!

I didn't, of course, but I found this urge interesting. And so I have been asking myself this week, why do we create? What do we hope to get out of it? Why do I write this blog? Is it about me or about you? Or is it something that we think about together, as we create, mutually feeling a need to throw our thoughts and creations out into the world?

As I flipped through recent photos to share with you today, this was the only one that made sense. It is a tunic that I made from Alabama Studio Style. Extra-large t-shirts, cut up into pattern pieces and hand-sewn together. It sat partially made in my to-do pile for months, and then recently I decided to finish it off. When all of the pieces were sewn together, it was fine, it was good. But when I added the binding around the collar and the neck, the garment underwent a transformation. The herringbone stitch, worked in tan thread, takes hours and hours to complete. It's complicated, time consuming, and absolutely worth it. It turned a plain tunic with wonky straight stitches into a piece of finely made decorative clothing. And as I sewed it, I thought, I'm making an heirloom. As a person who makes things, this is the moment that we long for. When we stop rushing, when we discover a combination that makes the materials sing, when we take the time to make it right, to make it perfect, to make it fit. When we can't stop looking at what we've done with our own hands.

So I keep returning to this: I don't know yet what I'm really good at. But I know that I was really good at making that tunic. There is artistry, and there is ego, and then there is the sublime. I'm keeping my eyes open, searching for the latter.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Summertime T-Shirt Brigade

Here's something you may or may not know about me: on the weekends, I like to dress like a slob. Ok, ok, I'm exaggerating, but I really do have sort of a weekend uniform. And in the summertime, this includes cut off jeans and a t-shirt that has somehow, some way been deconstructed. Seriously, they are sort of my favorite thing. And though I know of many fancy ways to make fancy deconstructed t-shirts that look nice and polished and pretty, my current favorite is the quick and easy down and dirty Emergency T-shirt that I made up at my desk last fall. In essence, cut off the sleeves, cut out the neck, and fabricate little tie-on straps to hold it all up. There's no sewing, and it takes hardly any time at all. Talk about satisfying, right?
Since I've been enjoying these t-shirts all summer, I thought, why not whip some up to sell at this weekend's In God We Trust Backyard Bazaar? So I went out and accumulated some of the most hilarious, colorful t-shirts I could find at thrift shops, washed 'em on hot so no one would be skeeved out, and got to cutting. In just a few hours I'd made ten cute summer tees! So if you're in need of a cute girly t-shirt that says "I bowled my ass off in Detroit," or, one of my personal favorites, "Forget work, let's go to Grenada," then come see me this weekend.
But the fun doesn't stop there, people. If you have a t-shirt that's been kicking around your house that you love but would never wear, just bring it to the bazaar and we can transform it together. I'll bring the scissors, you bring the t-shirt, and in no time, you'll be dressed like a cutesy summertime slob, too.
Don't think you have the skill to do it? Well, here is a testamonial by way of physical evidence sent to me by my friend Sara who was sweltering in Arizona when she read my Emergency T-Shirt post last spring and was inspired to transform her awesome Hanson tee into a cute tank top. If Sara can do it, so can you!

This Saturday, June 23
12 - 6pm

In God We Trust

70 Greenpoint Ave (@ Franklin)
Brooklyn, NY

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What's In the Bag?

Know what's awesome? I will tell you what's awesome. Sitting at work, editing away when your coworker knocks on your door and says, hey, do you want some greens from my garden?

There is really only one answer to that question: hell's yeah!
Natalie is the cookbook editor at Stewart, Tabori & Chang. She is lovely and generous in every possible way, but this one really takes the cake. Manna from Brooklyn is what I call it! Last year we became gardening buddies when we discovered that we both have backyard veggie gardens, and now we get all giddy about our plants together and swap tips (yesterday I explained to her how to make a manure tea for your plants, which is just as gross as it sounds). But when she came in yesterday with these bags and bags of greens, I was totally floored. We have kale! Spinach! And rainbow chard!

But why on earth is she foisting all of these veggies on her editorial colleagues? Well, apparently, their crops this year were insanely plentiful, and now they need to clear out the spring greens and get their summer plants into the ground. So, it's harvest time! And the employees at STC  are the winners when it comes to this bounty.
These pretty colored stalks are A-OK with me. (I would do two thumbs up, but see, I'm holding all of this chard.)
And as if that wasn't generous enough, today she knocked on my door again and suggested I take this giant GIANT bag of arugula and mustard greens. Natalie, you're killing me! How will I ever repay the favor? Let's just hope we have a really really big tomato crop this year...and then, we shall embark on a delightful Brooklyn veggie exchange.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Stroll Down Memory Highway

Friends! I feel like I've been gone for a million years. But for those of you in the knitting world, you'll be happy to know that I was up to something good. As you may or may not know, we are doing a third book in the Custom Knits series with Wendy Bernard (the second book comes out in October!), and I got to join our amazing LA crew for the photo shoot. And here's a fun fact: Did you know that Wendy and I both grew up in the same town and went to the same high school? In fact, she lives in the same neighborhood where my parents live! So Wendy was kind enough to pick me up at my parent's house and drive me to the shoot each day. (Like a typical non-driving New Yorker, my driver's license expired months ago and I only just recently noticed.)
So, while the days were long and the knits were plentiful, the shoot days were very fun. The crew was incredibly talented and easy-going, the weather was wonderful, and we got to do things like go out on a sailboat (praying that the amazing bikini-clad model wouldn't fall into the ocean and/or get was chilly out there!)
At nights and on the weekend, however, was the really hard work. And it had nothing to do with knitting. See, my parents got this idea in their head about six months ago that they are ready to retire and move to the mountains. So, as of this August, our lovely suburban house of 32 years will go up for sale. And in the meantime, my parents have had 32 years worth of renovations to do. And last week, my sister and I had 32 years of crap to sift through. Exhibit A: This box.
Do you know what's in this box? This box alone contained every single note that I received between 7th and 9th grade. That's right, this doesn't even cover the rest of high school. That's every little "hey chica, what's up?" Every love letter. Every "this class is SO lame." Every letter I ever wrote in a fury and never sent. Many of them were still folded up in that intricate origami style favored by tweens and teens...why did we do that anyway? For the convenience of passing the note in class? Did we have an obsession with pull tabs? Is it because they're the perfect size for fitting in your back jeans pocket? There were thousands THOUSANDS of these notes, and while I didn't read every single one, I did at least take a look at each one. Some were saved for further investigation and for inflicting humiliation on friends. Most were tossed. (I may look like a hoarder, but I swear I'm not!)
Some gems popped up, like an elementary school classmate's headshots. (Nice Don Johnson, Andy!)
Diaries were read aloud to the amusement of the whole family. A particular favorite was this entry from Erin which reads, "Dear Diary, I've got to do it. HANDS ACROSS USA!"
My "We Are the World" record resurfaced...!
As did my beloved Ramona Quimby and the Sweet Pickles gang.
(Do you remember these awesome endpapers???)
Of course my favorite literary find was not the vintage Nancy Drews, guessed it: my Sweet Valley High books. Oh those Wakefield twins! You were so slutty and unlikable, but I just couldn't stop reading about your lives!!
And here I feel a need to put a special spotlight on book #6, titled "All Night Long", in which Jessica apparently dates a mustachioed gay man. Was this really what we thought of when we thought of "bad boys" in the '80s?
We found ugly earrings from the '80s...slick gobs of plastic molded into geometric shapes.
And heart-shaped earrings with hearts in them for me. What every 5th grader wants to wear, clearly!
We found Raggedy Ann, whose pants refused to stay up. (Much to our hilarity.) 
Aunt Ginny came over on Saturday afternoon and we pulled out the Barbie trunk, which contains about 5 mutilated Barbies, 2 cross-dressed Kens (we never had any boy clothes for them other than those blue swim shorts!), and Barbie clothes that spanned several decades. You see, my mom and aunt used to play with Barbies, too, and their grandmother made clothes for the Barbies, including several of the ones shown below. 
Just look at this sweet little dress!
While mom and Aunt Ginny got nostalgic about their childhood, Erin and I confessed to having a special place in our hearts for the Barbie clothes of the '70s and '80s. We definitely preferred the Star Search "spokesmodel" gowns and sparkly bell bottoms when it came to Barbie's wardrobe.
Last but not least, we had to deal with the dolls. Not Barbies, mind you, but our Great Grandma Neva's collection of international dolls. Neva had many interests in her life, but one of her greatest passions was collecting dolls from around the world. Some were bought at Buffums, while others were made in remote villages in countries far far away and brought home for her by traveling friends. And since she passed away 30 years ago, my mom has kept the dolls boxed up in the rafters of the garage. Every few years when we were growing up, Erin and I would beg her to get out the boxes so that we could unwrap each one and marvel. These weren't for playing, they were for investigating. Some are scary, some are gorgeous. Each one is fascinating and exotic. We counted them all, but then we found another box, so I believe the final count was somewhere around 140 dolls. We unwrapped each doll and propped it up against the walls in the family room. We gave up on organizing the dolls by country, and so they became a sort of "Small World"-esque collection of freaks and fancy.
There were dolls from Spain and Mexico, Ecuador and England. (I took the two tall ones shown above. I LOVE them.)
There were dolls from Japan, and dolls bearing fruit. Even a few dolls that had been nibbled on by rats (I'm not joking) like the lady on the left (above).
There were dolls with missing parts, like this one that we named "Holly Bucket Hands".
There were fancy Parisian dolls (I took these ones, too)...
...Iranian cloth dolls, and Native American dolls picked up on reservations in the 1950s.
Dancing dolls from Thailand stood alongside porcelain geishas and shellacked stands.

In the end, the four of us flipped coins to decide on an order, and then we went through and each picked a handful of our favorites. I don't think any of us took more than 10 dolls. And the rest, I'm afraid, we'll be giving away to charity. There's only so long you can carry around another person's collection, and while we love them, none of us has room for 140 dolls. So we took our favorites, and now we'll display them. Better to have a few treasures out in the open than a collection out in the garage.

Aunt Ginny wondered if Neva was watching us from beyond as we played with her doll collection, fought over our favorites, and giggled at their disrepair. And I would have to say yes, without a doubt. Neva's presence, as well as the presence of so many other ancestors, was loud and clear all of last weekend. From Great Grandma Katie's crocheted and embroidered dish towels to Great Great Grandpa Myron's underlined passages in century-old books and hand-written sermons tucked between the pages.

The moment when I most felt their presence here, in our present world, was when my mom found a photo--one of many in a mish-moshed shoebox--of a house in North Hollywood that my great great grandparents moved into when they first came to Los Angeles in the 1930s. It was a lovely single story Spanish style house, and on the backside was written an address, a description of the facade, and a mention of the young jacaranda trees that were planted in the front yard. I said to my mom, let's look it up on Google maps! Maybe it's still there? And so we typed in the address and switched to the satellite view, which first showed us a view of the greater LA area. As we clicked to zoom in, we saw the neighborhood, the street, and then there we were, at street level, looking at the exact same house--the same arches, the same white stucco, the same tiles--as shown in the photo from the 1930s. Aside from a swapped out fence, all that was different were the jacaranda trees, which now reach far beyond the roof of the house and are full of purple blossoms.