Archive for the ‘Ponderings’ Category

Pulling Out Too Soon

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

One thing I’ve learned: if you create innovative, thought-provoking work, at some point somebody’s going to crap all over it. They’ll say things like “This is ugly; I want to see pretty” or “Somebody sure had a lot of time on their hands” or “You couldn’t pay me enough money to have that in my house.” It doesn’t matter how objectively good the work is. You can make a piece showing how people were transported on slave ships during the rum trade era, and somebody will whine about it because it made them think for a split second and their brains couldn’t handle it. I’ve seen it happen.

Works with nudity really get this treatment. If a piece includes nudity, real or imagined, somebody will have an apoplectic fit while they’re crapping on it. Sometimes, if the work is exhibited in a show, they’ll have their little fit all the way to the show’s organizers, then maybe hang out and wait for a TV news crew so they can be offended on camera. If they’re really good at being manipulative, they can scare the show’s organizers into taking the work down.

 

TFF

A few months back, I wrote an article on this type of thing. I interviewed Annabel Rainbow, Randall Cook, Kathy Nida, and a couple of other people who didn’t wish to be identified. Their stories of censorship are truly chilling.

The piece appears in Issue 122 of Textile Fibre Forum. I recommend checking it out, not only for their stories, but because TFF is a nice, crisp, high-quality publication. That issue also includes articles on the work of Grayson Perry, Charlotte Kruk, and others. Electronic back copies can be purchased on iTunes or via PocketMags.

 

kathy-nida-72

I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket, © Kathy Nida

Alas, censorship has reared its hysterical, pearl-clutching head again. One of my friends, Kathy Nida, just had work pulled from AQS Grand Rapids because a viewer THOUGHT she saw a penis in it. Here’s her blog entry. ***

I happen to know that the visitor didn’t see a penis. She didn’t see a penis, because there isn’t one. I’m posting a photo of the work for yourself, so you can verify that there is, in fact, no penis in it. That’s right. We’ve reached a new level of censorship – having work censored for something that isn’t there!

Based on this event, I think there’s some confusion about what a penis looks like. This worries me a little, because about half of all mammals have them. Chances are, no matter how sheltered you are, you’ve seen a penis. Dogs and horses don’t exactly walk around in tighty-whities, and most women have had husbands, boyfriends, or at least changed the occasional diaper.

However, I will concede that it’s possible this woman had never seen one, given the state of sex ed in Michigan’s school systems. Apparently it’s optional, and is given to things like pro-abstinence speakers.  Therefore, let’s have a little chat about what a penis looks like.

MrHappy

Mr. Happy

Here is a representative penis. I call it “Mr. Happy”. It’s a nice, non-threatening toilet paper holder and Kleenex dispenser that I made it for an art show a few years ago. I thought it was apt because it’s rendered in fiber. Maybe the AQS visitor was confused about what a penis looked like because she was looking at fiber-based artwork.

Mr. Happy depicts some of the standard characteristics of a real penis, such as being longer than it is wide and getting shorter and longer. (One adds and removes rolls of toilet paper to achieve that effect.) It even has furry testicles. I will admit, though, that the eyes are not true to life. If I saw eyes on a real penis, I’d probably flee as fast as my legs would carry me.

I hope that helps clarify things a little.

 

Show organizers, your censoring of works has gotten old. Real old. Even if the woman had seen a penis in Kathy’s artwork, so what? There’s been nudity in artwork for the past 50,000 years or so.

You know what I do when I see a piece I don’t like? I move those funny pink blobs at the bottoms of my legs and I walk past it. Personally, I found the picaninny quilt that was exhibited at PIQF a few years ago deeply offensive. And it won a prize. (Evidently it was a kit quilt, too – what a marvelous world we live in, when you can buy your very own kit for making racist quilts!)

Show organizers, you need to get clear on a few things.

What type of show are you running? 

Are you holding what’s essentially a bigger version of a county fair exhibit, where people gather and look at patchwork and say things like “Look, Paw! That shore is some plum purty stitchin’!”? Or are you going to support the growth of the medium into an art form? *

What type of work do you allow in your show?

Do you allow in artwork? Can the artwork include nudity, or just stuff like kitty-cats popping their heads out of pumpkins? How about you get real clear on your policy, and be up front with exhibitors like SAQA and the rest? **

What is your policy on pulling work out of the show? 

If it’s met your openly stated standards for being exhibited, are you going to do that? Are you going to pull work if someone complains about something imaginary? Are you going to deprive the rest of the paying visitors the right to see a piece of artwork simply because somebody else didn’t like it and didn’t have the self-control to walk by?

Allowing in artwork, then getting scared and pulling it when someone blanches and clutches at her pearls, isn’t working out. It’s bad for all of us.

Also, the next time someone threatens not to come back to your shows because of some damned thing she imagined, maybe just say “I’m sorry to hear that,” politely wish her well, and consider yourself lucky to not see her again.

 

* Edit: I now see that this paragraph implies that patchwork can’t be art, which isn’t true. However, I’ll let it stand, since that’s the way the majority of people have seen the post.

One of commenters also made a good point about my using “country speak” in a ridiculing manner. She’s right. Probably I shouldn’t have done that. On the other hand, “country speak” comes natural when you’re a first generation descendent of hillbillies and rednecks, and have used an outhouse more than a few times when visiting grandparents.

** Another clarification: I don’t want to revile AQS or any other show if they really don’t want to get in the business of displaying art. If art-lovers aren’t a key part of their business, so be it. But clearer guidelines would be useful for everyone.

*** Kathy has written a second blog entry which shows some of her base drawings and analyzes a variety of things which could be construed as penises. I think that from now on, whenever she has an umbilical cord in her work, I’m going to squint at it and refer to it as a penis.

 

Update as of Monday, 8/17: Per Kathy, “So AQS made the decision to pull my quilt I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket with the nonexistent penis from QuiltWeek in Chattanooga and Des Moines. They are now considering whether my other piece, Fully Medicated, which has zero complaints, should also be pulled (still no penis). Please let them know how you feel about either decision at the link below.

I am so disappointed and frustrated by their actions…please share this if you think it will help. I appreciate all your support…”

Here’s AQS’ contact form.

 

Don’t keep it in a safe place.

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

My husband gave me an Apple Pencil for Christmas, to go with the lovely iPad Pro I gave myself for non-Christmas. It’s been a delight. I use it with the Procreate app and sketch away during TV time.

One day I looked at my work surface and realized that I’d just haphazardly tossed the pencil on there. It was sitting in the midst of the clutter of soiled rubber bands, an industrial-grade dust mask, Athlete’s Foot cream, and random scraps of paper. It struck me as disrespectful. I was being unappreciative of my husband’s thoughtfulness and the fact that he’d had to work for the money to buy me the thing. Plus, what if something happened to the pencil? What if I put a hot iron down on it or spilled wood glue on it? (Because, frankly, that’s the kind of household I run. Everything happens everywhere.)

I decided to put it in a safe place.

I’ll bet you know where this is going, don’t you? Oh yes. I had another project crank up and I didn’t need the pencil for awhile. When I did, it was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t in one of the tech drawers in my work area, where I keep things like chargers and keyboards. It wasn’t in the little tech basket atop my work surface, where I keep things like wireless headphones and graphics tablets. It wasn’t in any of the thousand little receptacles for holding drawing pencils or pens or paintbrushes. Oh no. I’d kept it really safe. So safe I couldn’t find it.

I freaked out. Losing the nice hundred dollar stylus my husband had given me was even worse than leaving it out on my work surface. He isn’t the sort to get mad or hold grudges; one of his frequent statements is “It’s just stuff. Stuff can be replaced.” I felt awful about it, though. Plus I wanted to use the pencil. I began to systematically rip my work room apart.

ApplePencil

Here’s where I found it. Yes. This was my idea of a “safe place”. In one of the thread drawers. Do you see it? It’s that white pencil-like object, cunningly placed on top of a row of white spools of thread so that it will be very difficult to find. Because that’s where everyone puts their Apple Pencil, in a drawer full of totally unrelated objects.

Don’t do this. Don’t put things in a safe place. That’s the surest way to lose them. I know all about this: this isn’t the first time I’ve pulled this stunt.

I’ve found this philosophy applies to other things as well: making safe art. Having safe experiences. When we focus on keeping parts of our lives in a safe place, we can lose them. We can also lose our sense of self or even our sense of ethics.

In terms of art, this might apply to making art which we think will appeal to others or avoid offending them. We avoid putting too much of ourselves in the work.

Ahearn

Here’s the work of someone who, I suspect, isn’t keeping his work in a safe place. The artist’s name is Bren Ahearn, and this is possibly the worst photograph ever taken of one of his samplers. I urge people to go over to his website and take a look at his other work.   He has nice photos there, photos that don’t make his work look blurry and rumpled.

I ran across this work at the SDA exhibit in San Jose a couple of months back. We both had work in the show; his was pretty special. This piece is huge, about five feet wide and seven feet high, worked in needlepoint style on a substrate that’s satisfyingly like a scaled up version of needlepoint canvas. It reads like a standard needlepoint sampler, something proper young ladies would have been stitching away at in the 18th century, right down to the alphabet, proverb, and creator’s name. However, he’s subverted and taken ownership of the medium in this and his other works, many of which contain touching autobiographical details both real and imaginary.

His work is real. Personal. Genuine. His own.

I brood now and then. I do. I’ve been brooding about a certain matter since last October. I’ve debated writing about it and changed my mind back and forth several times. Maybe I’ll just tap dance around it. Evidently not writing about it at all is throttling back my ability to blog.

Odalisque22

Now and then, people will say that one of their works was “inspired by” someone else’s work. Here’s my eternal piece-in-progress Odalisque, for example. I didn’t invent the form of the odalisque in art; other painters did. Other people came up with the nude reclining on a couch and looking out at us coquettishly, and the throw and draperies and so forth. I claim that in this situation, my saying that my Odalisque was “inspired by” the ones which came before it is a fair use of the term. I’ve leveraged off all those other odalisque paintings by including similar elements. There’s a couch, a throw, drapes, and a reclining nude. True, the nude is a dog rather than a woman, but that’s the joke of the picture. The fact that we have a rich history of more standard nudes helps make it funny.

That’s the sort of thing I expect to see when someone says their work is “inspired by” someone else’s. A work which is their own. It may be similar thematically or in terms of the colors used or in terms of the composition. It may even contain visual elements which are very similar, although hopefully not to the point of being derivative.

MondayMona

Similarly, we can reference famous works such as the Mona Lisa and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. We’ve made a joke or a statement then, leveraging off the power or message of the original work.

HokusaiGreatWave

Hokusai’s Great Wave

bilibin-saltan-czar-08

Ivan Bilibin, Illustration from Pushkin’s “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” 

Many have leveraged off of Hokusai’s Great Wave, for example, including the illustrator Ivan Bilibin. The Wall Street Journal even ran a nice article on such pieces. Well-known works become cultural touchstones.

However, when no one knows the source of your “inspiration” and you don’t openly acknowledge it, you run the risk of simply plagiarizing or copying. What I don’t expect to see when someone uses the phrase “inspired by” is something along the lines of a work I saw last year. A photo had been downloaded from a free stock photo site, cropped, tinted, then rendered on fabric so precisely that when I overlaid the original photo with the resulting “inspired by” piece in Photoshop, even the details matched up.

I probably need to stop at that. I need to not describe how offended I was when I learned about this and a similar incident, and how I suspect that the person has done similar things many times. I need to not dwell on the fact that my respect for her plummeted when I saw that she hadn’t acknowledged the original photographer at all, and only wrote “inspired by thus-and-such photo” on her website after being prompted repeatedly. I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that I feel the urge to vomit each time I see a picture of her standing beside the piece, a broad smile on her face, and think about the fact that someone probably paid thousands of dollars for what’s essentially a copy of a free stock photo.

But I guess I really should thank this person. You see, I am so offended by her behavior and by the impressively low standards I see throughout the art quilting industrial complex that it’s made me rethink things. It’s taken the pressure off. Because really, what’s the point? Mediocrity and poor ethics win the day. Quite literally.

One of my art friends occasionally says things like “I’m making the next piece for myself”, meaning that she’ll be making something which fulfills her desires rather than fitting into the requirements of some mythical show. No, I want to tell her, you should always make the work for yourself. That’s perhaps the best reason to make it. Because that fire is burning inside you and the only way it can be quenched is by getting the art out.

Make that original work because you need to make it, and be ethical. Don’t fall into the trap of the “artist” whose work was “inspired by” the stock photo, of trying to churn out piece after piece which lives up to the crazy-eyed marketing fairy tale you’ve told over the years. That’s one form of trying to keep things in a safe place. That path can lead to making a deal with the devil. You lose your soul that way.

Of course, other things can happen when we keep things in a safe place. For example, we may never quite get around to taking risks or trying new things.

I used to visit family. One my family members was extremely toxic, the sort one might suspect had narcissistic personality disorder, but she deserved compassion. I can’t be around her because she’s cruel and awful, but you know, I keep hoping things will work out for her. We don’t have to like people in order to want good things for them.

She’d had some hard knocks, some rough times. Not everybody can rise above that sort of thing. Not everybody is able to look themselves in the mirror and say “Wow. Why, exactly is it that I enjoy it when people are miserable and I’m unhappy when they succeed?” I’ve done that kind of thing. “Wow. What do all of my failed relationships have in common? Oh. Me.” It isn’t fun. It’s damned painful. Once you’ve done that, you have to figure out what you’re going to do about it. Sometimes the answers aren’t easy. Sometimes it isn’t clear what to do.

Anyhow, this particular person had aspirations. Peering in from the outside, it appeared that many of them would get wrecked by her husband. He’d hear about one of her aspirations, rush in with some notion of how it should be done, and take over. Poof. End of aspiration.

Some of them just fell apart for the usual reasons, I guess. I don’t know if it was her experience, but I’ve found that the more I talk about doing something, the less energy and motivation I have to actually do it.

It was sad to witness. When I hear about somebody having aspirations, I generally want to applaud, even if I don’t like the person or relate to what they’re trying to do. I don’t enjoy seeing people’s dreams get wrecked. Reaching for dreams or goals is life-affirming.

One of her goals was writing. I’d visit; she’d describe some story that was in her head. “I’m writing a book. It’s about a young Indian girl living in West Texas. She sells crackers in a general store.” Or whatever the plot was. The ideas always sounded insanely dull to me, but that’s the beauty of ideas and aspirations – the rest of us don’t have to approve of them. Maybe she had some spark which was going to bring that plot to life. Maybe we were going to find out that the Indian girl had a side business making sanitary napkins out of dried cactus pads. Maybe she was the long-lost descendent of space aliens. Maybe she got on a train, went to Paris, and became a can-can dancer.

We will probably never know. I always eagerly awaited the news that she’d finished her book. Maybe she’d even have a publisher. Then I could lie and say that it sounded wonderful rather than like a steaming pile of horse feces, and I could sincerely applaud the fact that she’d achieved one of her aspirations.

It never happened. I never got to applaud. It made me sad. Seriously. I can’t stand her, and she’s caused me unbelievable amounts of pain and harm, but I always wanted to see her fly.

People can find all sorts of ways to not do the things they say they want to do. Maybe they don’t actually want to do them. Maybe, in the words of my husband, “I would like to write a book” really means “I would like to have written a book.” What they really want is the identity, not the process of doing the work. They don’t like the identity of teacher or grocery store clerk or insurance salesman, so they fantasize about being someone else. An artist, maybe. Or a writer. Those sound nice. Those sound less mundane. They want that doing thing out of the way so they can claim the identity.

I’m at a point where I’m not so worried about identities. I’m more worried about doing. Not doing frightens me. Maybe this is part of the “I’m not old … yet” syndrome. The unspoken half of that sentence is “but I will be.” Do you really want to try riding a motorcycle, visiting Paris or writing that novel? Get on it. The Reaper is coming. Maybe not today or tomorrow or in twenty years, but sometime. Figure out what the obstacle is. Sweep it aside.

At the end of last year, I decided to finally move past the “I would like to write a book someday” stage myself. It’s something I wanted to do for quite a long time, but I kept making excuses. I was afraid. I was keeping things in a safe place, sticking to the things I know how to do. The prospect of trying something new and finding out that I was downright lousy at it was scary.

Now I have two books and two short stories drafted. Probably they’re awful. “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” my husband often tells me. That sounds about right. I decided that I can live with that. I didn’t want to go my whole life without writing about my personal equivalent of the Indian maiden selling crackers at the general store.

I’ll edit the stories some more and then publish them on Amazon under a pen name, so that their stench hopefully won’t reach back to me. I’m glad I did it. It’s been quite an adventure.

I’m glad I quit keeping things in a safe place.

While others were at IQF Houston …

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Random photos spliced in throughout post …

WhyKnot

The big quilt show in Houston, IQF, is over. I learned that my piece, Why Knot? received third place in the digital category.

Immediately, of course, I began to see frank, dampening comments on blogs and mailing lists:

“Photo-realism wins the day in Houston. Frankly, I have never entered that show because, yes, I am a snob who considers it the same as a pipe and drape show, only larger. Art? Uh – no. Unoriginal work – yep. That eliminates all the artists I know.”

“… when I look at most of the other works my first reaction is ho hum… Yawn..boring.. same old, same old. I do not know what the others entries were but the winners are sadly without much interest.”

Sorry to hear that.

It’s true that IQF isn’t an art show per se. Although it does show some genuine artwork that happens to be made of fiber and is quilted, the show isn’t on the radar of the larger Art World, as far as I know. If it was, the “Husbands’ Lounge” (I assume that was still there this year?) or events like the costume contest or tiara parade would knock it clean away.

It is, however, enormously popular and many people love to go there, or dream of doing so. It provides an enjoyable escape where people can browse, admire others’ workmanship or artistry, do a spot of shopping, and bask in the font of natural beauty that is downtown Houston. Many people make a week or weekend of it, staying in hotels, eating out, and socializing.

IQF Houston is the world’s largest quilt show. I aspire to create work that is original and interesting (see comments above), and I like having my work in bonafide art shows. However, I also just plain like to have my work seen. It’s nice to have my work on display at the world’s largest quilt show, where fifty or sixty thousand people attend, and I appreciate receiving an award. As my husband frequently tells me, “Not everything is curing cancer.”

Itt

This is Serious Art. Give me money now.

Art – sculpture, painting, fiber, you name it – is not a meritocracy. There is no governing body looking to see whether, say, an entrant is re-rendering borrowed or stock photography without acknowledging the original sources. There are no absolute rules about what does or does not constitute art, and whether or not something is decent. There are no overseers looking over the entire universe of work and saying “Well, yours is the best. Here; have some publicity, some accolades, and a bag of money.”

What there does seem to be is a great deal of posturing. People joining organizations with the word “art” in the name and jockeying for position. “Hooray! These people, who coincidentally need membership fees in order to keep their organization afloat, have designated me a Professional Studio Artist and juried me into their organization!” People writing reviews of shows on their blogs, including only their cronies, and sort of not mentioning the fact that their own quilt was hung upside down and they didn’t notice for an hour. People writing pompous opinions of what does or does not constitute Real Art. People having vicious arguments on mailing lists, or hosting exhibits in which they’ve glued fabric on ancient AOL disks and have strung the disks together with fishing line. “It’s a synthesis of technology and tradition!” “Check out my latest piece! I coated teddy bears with house paint, laid them on fabric, then ran over them with the steam roller I keep handy!”

pumpkin

More Serious Art.

Here is what I’ve learned: with few exceptions, nobody cares. Nobody is watching. There are many, many people creating artwork, and most of them are busy doing their own thing. We have to take care of ourselves. If we’re lucky, we get to connect with a few other people and we get to appreciate others’ work.

Do whatever it is you like. In a hundred years, it won’t matter one way or another. Exhibiting in Houston or not exhibiting in Houston probably isn’t going to affect one’s art career. If one is born female and one’s medium is fiber, chances are there isn’t going to be worldwide recognition from the Real Art World anyhow.

One of the things I like is having my work seen. One of my series is comprised of portraits of my son in various situations, both real and imaginary. It isn’t on par with Wyeth’s Helga series, but the boy and I enjoy collaborating and we both get a kick out of seeing his portraits published or exhibited. That’s the majority of my work now, while he’s young and enjoys it. If my work is shown at Houston, I can figure on 50,000-60,000 people attending. Of those, I can estimate maybe 25,000 will walk down the aisle with my work and maybe half of those will take a good look, and hopefully enjoy it or get a giggle. That’s 10,000-15,000 people I got to share some joy or a joke with. That’s probably far more than saw my work when it toured with Quilt National, much as I treasured that experience.

Alas, I wasn’t able to go to Houston this year. Actually, I could have gone but didn’t. My husband would have bent over backwards to watch our kid for a few days. Unfortunately, barring one of those statistically unlikely “Drop everything; you’ve won a top prize!” situations, going just isn’t practical when one has a kid.

cookies

These will no doubt get me barred from providing class cookies in the future.

IQF Houston often occurs around Halloween, you see. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that their target market is largely comprised of people with empty nests – women, middle-aged to elderly. They’re mostly white, mostly conservative. Not entirely, mind you; I always see a few men and some younger people when I’m at a show, and I don’t mean to imply that quilt shows are trying to exclude non-whites. The demographics may also skew depending on the region of the country. But mostly, when I go to a quilt show, that’s who I see: middle-aged to elderly women who probably don’t have kids at home. People who don’t need to worry about staying home for Halloween.

Cupcakes

These cupcakes went to a party.

Cupcakes2

These cupcakes stayed home.

The Festival is wildly popular and, I assume, wildly profitable. The people who run it have quite a bit of practice and know what works for them and most of their attendees. It doesn’t work for me, though, and probably won’t for the foreseeable future.

For example, going to the Winners’ Circle celebration on a Tuesday involves a day of flying, hurrying to the convention center, then having the next day wasted because exhibits don’t open until Thursday. The last time I tried it, my intestines were coiling up and threatening to spring out of my body during the award ceremony.

WiiMote

WiiMote costume

It would have been nice to have seen the show this year, but on balance I’m glad I didn’t go. I would have missed my son’s Halloween party, school party and costume parade, zombie dance number with his Cub Scout troop, and of course, Halloween. Kids grow up. There are a limited number of years when one can bake cookies for parties or make Wii controller costumes.

Thriller

My kid is the one with the cone on his head. Of course.

The Festival will simply have to wait a few years.

goody

Making goody bags for Halloween, part of my master plan for clearing excess junk and craft supplies out of the house.

goody2

Tools of the trade

Monday, October 12th, 2015

In my last post, I shared the joy of hacking and slashing away at bits of foam core board to make dividers for my otherwise ghastly, disorganized drawers. In this post I’d like to share some of my other work area aids.

Many tools are specific to whatever art form one pursues: easels, paint brushes, kilns. Others, though, are more general purpose, applicable to a wide range of media. Those are some of the tools I find most interesting.

20Drawer

Here are the drawers, by the way. Decent storage is a thing of joy.

 

screwdriver

A screwdriver. I’m not going to share the story behind this right now, except that it involves blood, my stumbling out to the garage to look for a screwdriver while holding a sewing machine, and then a nurse shrieking when I phoned for advice and described my injury.

If you use a machine upon which you can get impaled or caught, keep whatever kind of tool you need to free yourself right beside the machine. Also, a telephone. Those are good. If you can’t get free with a screwdriver, you can at least call 9-1-1 and tell the dispatcher that no, you aren’t dying so there isn’t a huge hurry, but if they could come by and give you a hand when they have a minute, that would be much appreciated. And, um, until then you’ll just hang out with your machine. You’ll be one with your machine, so to speak.

And no, I don’t use power tools such as saws unless I’m stone cold sober and feel alert. Ironically enough, I think it’s easier to injure oneself on sewing machines and the like because one tends to work with one’s fingers in closer proximity to the needle.

 

BG1

Why does this boring-looking piece of ABS plastic have wood yardsticks glued to either end? Of what possible use could it be?

 

BG2

When one cinches up the shoe laces which are threaded through the corners, the sheet of plastic makes a seamless backdrop for photographing small objects. (Pretend that the Buddha head in the example is actually lit well.) The ABS can be wiped clean before use and stows away in a very small amount of space. This is my invention, although I’m sure similar things are commercially available.

This backdrop is handy for getting product shots for magazine articles, one’s website, Etsy, and so forth.

 

headphones

Wireless headphones. So wonderful. Having music or a podcast playing in one’s work area is good, but I can’t hear the music if I’m running a machine or the dogs are fighting right beside me.

 

earplugs

Ear plugs. Good for levels of noise the headphones can’t disguise. Leaf blowers or chain saws, for example, or the people who used to hold impromptu church services in their house next door and would “speak in tongues”. (That, or they were practicing howling like coyotes with the accompaniment of organ music.)

 

OilPen

Oiling pen. Don’t know how I lived without this; it applies a microscopic dot of machine oil just exactly where I need it. And boy, I use it frequently – every four or five times I swap out the bobbin, I’m in there brushing out the bobbin area and giving it a light lube.

It makes the bottles of oil one buys at the fabric store seem as delicate as a sledge hammer. Pens like this are dirt cheap, all of $3 or so at Allstitch.

 

clamps

Clamps. Cheap and handy. Attach lengths of fabric or paper to work surfaces, hold things together for gluing, pinch annoying people. Harbor Freight carries a set of six for a minimal price. They can also be purchased at Sears and hardware stores.

 

inspiration

Inspiration board for project ideas or things I find appealing. Stuff goes up, furnishes my mind for awhile, then gets swapped out.

 

books1

Reference materials. Each new project gets a new batch.

 

books2

I can also step into the other room for more, or if I need a hound dog. Never can tell when I’ll need a dog.

 

lights

Guess what’s in here. Give up yet?

With this stuff, I can suspend and light my finished artwork, or set up a backdrop for portraiture work or staging a scene. The whole thing was dirt cheap, maybe $250 – 300 total, stows away in a small space, and has saved me a world of inconvenience.

felt

 

Yards and yards of green felt. I have similar lengths of white and grey. These come in handy when I want to photograph my work or a person on a solid background, which I’ll then remove (“knock out”) on the computer. The squeeze clamps (see above) let me attach the felt to my background support stand with minimal fuss.

 

What kinds of aids do you like to use in your work area?

 

Coming along

Monday, September 21st, 2015

GameOver

This is coming along. Thanks to those who labor to grow and pick coffee beans, thus enabling me to have marathon work sessions, the sky and the sides of the plastic ice cubes are roughly stitched. However, I’ve decided that I’m not leaving the house anymore except to walk the dogs or go to the gym.

Yesterday I headed to the fabric store to pick up thread to match the bear. The following exchange took place (please tune out if you’ve already read this on F-book).

Clerk: “Are you doing some embroidery?”

Me: “No. I’m working on a quilt.” (Note to self: MISTAKE!!! Never tell people in fabric stores the truth! Nothing good ever comes of it.)

Clerk: “This is embroidery thread. It isn’t quilting thread.”

Me: “Yep. That’s what I use.”

Clerk: “The embroidery thread is more expensive than quilting thread.”

Me: “Yes, but it’s what I use.”

Clerk: “I just want to be sure, because most people use quilting thread.”

Me: “Yes, well, the embroidery thread works great when I’m thread painting or stitching densely.” (May I please just pay and leave?)

Clerk, still not quite believing me: “So what are you quilting.”

Me: “Something depressing.” (Still hoping she’ll ring me up and I can leave.)

Clerk: “Yes? What is it?”

Me: “It concerns global warming. It features a drowning polar bear.” (Just kidding. It’s a bunch of Sunbonnet Sues humping drunk frat boys who have STDs. Please may I leave?)

Clerk, pretending to be perky: “Oh, more people should make quilts with drowning polar bears! Will you, you know, put it on your bed?”

Me: “No. It will go to shows. Galleries. And so forth.” (%$#@#, I’ve tried to be polite, and there’s now a line about a mile long. Here – see this magazine? My stuff is in it. I know what kind of thread I want. Can I please. Just. Pay and leave? Or would you maybe like to see my passport and credit report while I’m here? Maybe get a sample of my DNA?)

The gatekeeper of hell finally, reluctantly rang up the thread and decided that I could go.

I have a little sympathy for the clerk, a tiny amount. I’m sure the people at fabric stores end up doing quite a bit of “tech support” with novices wandering in and not knowing quite what they need. In fairness, if I was working on a utility quilt rather than a piece of artwork, I would indeed make different thread choices. However, I’ve experimented to find what works for me, and after the second round of “this is what I use”, she should have desisted. The thing about my putting a rendering of a drowning polar bear on my bed was over the top; probably I should have just left at that point.

Well, she was right about one thing: the thread was overpriced. The convenience of being able to drive a mile or two to the Chain Fabric Store Which Shall Not Be Named versus ordering thread online and waiting turned out to not be worth it, especially once she singlehandedly removed the convenience.

No, it’s time to do what I’ve been threatening to do for ages. I need to sit down and inventory my thread collection, then order every color I’m missing from Allstitch. All of them. I don’t care if it takes months of budgeting and multiple orders. I don’t care if there are drawers and drawers of thread left when I die, thread which has to be given away to the home for pregnant teenage iguanas. I never want to go back to that fabric store for thread or, really, anything at all.

thread1

Check this out. This is what I purchased yesterday, eight spools of 250 yards each, $36.92 before taxes. That comes to 2000 yards for $36.92.

thread2

Here, by contrast, are some of Allstitch’s offerings, fourteen spools of 1100 yards each, at $2.63 each. That’s 15,400 yards – 7.7 times as much thread as from the Chain Store from Hell – for $36.82, ten cents less. Buy $150 worth and they’ll throw in free shipping.

Need some needles? Sure we do. I change needles and dust out and lightly lube the machine after every 4-5 bobbins, so I go through lots of needles. The good news is, Allstitch will sell me bulk needles at around $12/100, or about 12 cents per needle. The Chain Store from Hell wants $4.29 for a four-pack of needles, making them run over a dollar per needle. At that price, one would need to come up with a needle-sharpening jig and reuse them!

You know what else is great about Allstitch? They let me buy stuff without giving me the third degree. In all the years I’ve been buying supplies from them, there’s only been one goof, which they promptly rectified. Otherwise I simply order stuff online, perhaps while sitting in my pajamas and sipping coffee, and a week later it appears, as though by magic. Unlike some vendors, they don’t constantly dun me with advertising emails or otherwise bother me. I give them money. They give me stuff. It’s wonderful.

Suck it, Chain Store from Hell. I’d suggest that you rot in hell, except you’ve already attained that state.

Box modeling “Game Over”

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015

I’m working on some 3D models for a quilt whose tentative title is Game Over. This is as good a time as any to post about it, I guess, because my Carpal Tunnel and Thoracic Outlet syndromes are acting up. (A “nice” reminder of my time as an engineering physicist at a particle accelerator, contorting my body and twisting knobs for 8-12 hours straight at a time.) It doesn’t happen too often, but when it starts to flare up, I “get” to take a break for a couple of days. Usually I notice the signs and can avoid it. This time the mouse I use for modeling broke and I foolishly decided to try a different style of mouse. Whoops! Ibuprofen and rest time.

Anyhow. Models. Gotta say, I love the tools that are commonly available these days. As noted elsewhere on this site, back when I started doing 3D work, modeling with primitives (spheres, cubes, cones) plus some lathing and extruding and maybe some spline curves were the rule of the day, at least with consumer-level software. No doubt one could get more advanced/flexible tools if one worked at one of the studios which were beginning to spring up, or one bought some of the higher end software packages which were starting to appear. I didn’t have access to those, though, and I was burdened by the small issues of having to work my way through school and earning a living. It was one of those “claw your way up” situations, and I had to put my dreams aside for awhile.

Here’s what I’m working on now, “box modeling” a character. One starts out with a cube …

box

which one subdivides …

box2

starts moving around the vertices …

box3

extrudes some faces here and there …

box4

smooths things out …

box6

adds some ears …

box7

starts to build a body …

box8

adds some arms and legs in a similar fashion, etc.

box9

Box modeling! Neat stuff, eh? Maybe in a couple of days I can make the bear some eyes, skates, and a little hat.

Here’s another model from the same project. It may seem familiar to those who’ve played a certain child’s game which involves hacking apart a plastic iceberg, thereby sending a plastic polar bear to its doom.

iceCube

Here’s a water model. Haven’t decided which direction I’ll go with the sky, whether it’ll be gloomy or sunny.

water

You can probably guess where this is going. I hope that when I pull all the pieces together, I’ll have a nice cautionary apocalyptic scene to get printed on fabric for my next quilt. I have a couple in the works. Global climate change and environmental matters are much on my mind these days. Maybe that’s one of those things that happens after one has a child, one starts thinking about how one is leaving the joint for future generations. (Not to imply that those without kids don’t.)

Years ago, after one of my failed relationships, it seemed wise to get out in the sunshine, do some volunteer work, and focus on something other than myself. I considered volunteering with an environmental group such as the Sierra Club. There are always organizations, both local and national, which need a hand with mundane tasks like removing kudzu and poison oak from trails, counting two-tailed polywogs, etc.

My mother darned near defecated on herself when I mentioned it in a letter. “The Sierra Club is a pack of devils!” she replied diplomatically, then there was a bunch of spittle-flecked stuff about how God had put man in dominion over nature and it was there for us to use, etc. Ah, my mom. Always good for a crackpot letter. The problem is, I think her attitudes reflect those of many Americans, right down to “n—— carry razor blades in their shoes” and waiting with great glee and anticipation for the Biblical End Times to arrive. (She may even have a special End Times Potato Salad recipe. I wouldn’t be surprised.)

There are a lot of humans on this planet. We have a tremendous impact on what happens here. The stories we tell ourselves and how we respond to them matter.

Are we, like my mother, enchanted with the notion of Biblical apocalypse and think it’s coming any day now, so heck, why not help it along? Yep. We can certainly do that. Drill baby, drill. Let’s burn, drill, frack, bomb, pollute, and kill slavishly, without regard for the consequences. What does it matter? The End Times are coming. We can make sure of that.

On the flip side, would we like to respect and nurture the diversity of the flora and fauna that remain? If we’re of a Biblical bent, do we think that “in dominion over nature” has more to do with being mindful caretakers than with being spoiled children who stomp all over their toys and then whine because they’re ruined?

Well, it’s probably clear which side of the fence I’m on. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my arm and shoulder are still too messed up to quilt, so I have some two-tailed polywogs to count.

The Halfway Point

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

About halfway through summer, halfway through various projects …

MQU1

This arrived last month, the July/August edition of Machine Quilting Unlimited.

MQU2

There are several neat articles in the magazine (Marianne Williamson! Awesome!), and they also included my piece Why Knot? They’re a nice magazine to work with and their graphic designers/layout people do a great job. It’s a pleasure to have my work in their publication.

While I’m on the topic of Why Knot?, I’ve learned that it has been juried into IQF Houston, so it’ll be making a road trip to Texas this fall. I don’t think I’ll be going, so I hope my quilt won’t be taking on bad habits in my absence … smoking, eating barbecue, harassing coyotes. Who knows?

What else do I have? Work I can’t post. Hot diggity. It was totally worth visiting this page for that, wasn’t it? Seriously, I find it a pain. Just when I’m juiced up from working on something and could cheerfully post progress photos and the like, I can’t. A couple of things have the “work must be hermetically sealed” exhibit requirement. By the time I can post progress photos, I’ll be on to the next thing and my attention and enthusiasm will be on that, not on whatever I’m working on now.

I will note that I’m working on some 3D-rendered surface designs, though, a couple of apocalyptic environmental pieces. Once the designs are fixed up, I’ll ship them off for printing, then stitch on the resulting fabric.

oil

Sometimes I spend days trying to get something just right and it goes to pot. Here I was trying to do a fluid simulation to depict an oil well. Yep. Things weren’t going well that day. Fortunately, I save versions as I work. I was able to go back a version or two and rescue things.

Garbage

I also had the great idea of creating a mountain of rendered garbage for the scene’s background. The result did look like garbage, but more in the metaphorical sense. The texture I have on the garbage bags makes them look more like laundry detergent pods or a nasty variety of candy, and the bag arrangement looks more like a stone wall than a mountain. Okay. Part of art, writing, and many other endeavors is fearlessly trying stuff and being willing to admit when it isn’t working out.

I’ve spent hours either making or casting about for 3D models for my scenes. Here’s a model I ended up making, one of those ubiquitous red plastic cups:

SoloCup

Hmm. Maybe should have added a few more vertices to smooth it out. Anyhow, good enough for the job at hand. I could have bought a model – here’s a nice one for $19 – but it wasn’t that hard to make and didn’t need to be too precise for the scene I was building.

There are many, many sources of 3D models these days, some free and some for coin. One such source is the Daz3D site. They particularly specialize in models of humans and accessories. Now and then they offer freebies. A couple of months ago, when they were offering something gruesome like a haunted asylum or zombies (maybe it was zombies haunting an asylum?) I asked my ten-year-old son whether we needed such models. He took a look at the gloom and gruesomeness in the ad and bellowed “Oh HECK YEAH!” He could think of jillions of occasions when he might personally need 3D models of zombies or an asylum, and that wasn’t even taking into account my own needs. Really, is there any occasion for which zombie or spooky asylum imagery aren’t appropriate?

I duly registered with Daz, obtained the freebies, and filed them away on my hard drive. Strangely enough, our need for zombies and asylums wasn’t as great as we thought, so they haven’t yet been used.

Since then, though, Daz and I have become great friends. I say this because they send me an email every day or so, which is what good pen pals do. Usually the letter is filled with colorful and, dare I say it, fetishistic imagery. The subject lines are things like “BOGO is a Go-Go” and “It’s a Zevtastic Weekend”

Here are some samples:

Fashion

Hot damn. Everybody knows how much I care about fashion. Sea vehicles, too.

 

Adventures

Not sure I want to know what the related fantasy items are.

 

Utility

Huh. I’ve never seen anything like that at the hardware store. Maybe I was too focussed on stuff like caulk and bolts.

 

Crazy

You know, I’m beginning to suspect that I’m not in the core part of their target market. Members of their target market are probably more the sort who like to gaze at breasts.

 

skyler

Bleh. Nope nope nope. Don’t want to know. Seriously. I’m not joking. I don’t want to know what people are doing with this model, particularly the way it’s dressed and posed. I’m a mom. I even get skeeved out by boy bands. Justin Bieber naked? Bleh. Get thee hence, Satan. Don’t want to see the buttocks of anyone younger than me unless they need a diaper change.

 

Freaky

Wait. The rest of the ads weren’t already freaky?

 

main-promo

No idea. More breast imagery, though. The outfit looks uncomfortable – the strap across the chest, and what if you need to use the restroom? – but I guess 3D models don’t care.

 

Woodlands

She looks annoyed. Maybe the 3D models do care about wearing freaky costumes. Or maybe the ears are uncomfortable.

I’ve considered unsubscribing from Daz’s emails, but I never know when they’ll offer something I need. Also, I’ll reluctantly admit that I’ve begun to find them entertaining. I never know what they’re going to send next, and I can only speculate that the young men who form their target audience eagerly await each email and find it very, um, stimulating.

Meanwhile, summer. Outings. Camps. Play dates.

At the beginning of the summer, I drug the boy down to Legoland. I like going to Legoland. My kid doesn’t, or at least not as much as he used to, but he endures it for my sake. I have to have a child to visit Legoland; adults aren’t allowed to visit by themselves.

I took these photos with my hand-me-down iPhone, thinking that I should pare down the amount of stuff I carried on the trip. I wish I’d taken a decent SLR along. There was lint and dust under the iPhone’s lens. Cleaning it out will require taking the phone apart. I can remove artifacts with Photoshop, but it gets to be a pain. Kind of a waste of time to remove something that shouldn’t have been there to begin with.

bison

Legoland. Is there a more perfect amusement park on earth? I don’t think so.

 

Miniland

I love every bit of it. The giant models of buildings in Miniland …

 

StarWars

… the Star Wars exhibit. Okay. I’m not into Lego Friends, but I guess I can’t blame the Lego company for their pink-burqaed, cynically capitalist attempt to lure in young females.

 

hotel2

You know that windmill you drive by when you’re going through Carlsbad? That’s the hotel we stayed at. The interior of the windmill is sad. There’s a massive vaulted space which should feel airy, but somehow it contrives to feel depressing and outdated. Just off to the side there’s a TGI Fridays which is accessed through a door in the windmill, a door which slams uncontrollably and loudly enough to rupture one’s eardrums. The experience pretty much destroyed every fantasy I had about windmills.

 

hotel

Here’s the view from our hotel room. Gorgeous! Pipes. A wall. Wires draped here and there. That must be the deluxe courtyard view touted on the reservation website.

Well, I guess this is what happens when you don’t cough up the $400+/night to stay at the Legoland Hotel during the height of the season.

 

Musee

Another trip, just for the day, up to the Musée Mecanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The place is so cool. Tons of old coin-operated mechanical arcade machines. One can have a lot of fun on $5-10.

 

AnnSam

Plaque outside the building. It has a decidedly grotty, impromptu look about it, as though a passerby stuck it up with an entire tube of adhesive. I imagine Ann and Sam aren’t with us anymore – not too many people reach their 70th anniversaries – but their plaque lives on.

 

Sal

Laffing Sal. I believe one of her twin sisters lives in Santa Cruz.

 

BellyDancer

Good. Guess that takes care of sex ed.

 

Sailor

Poor fellow. He has a skin condition. Hope he’s not on meth.

 

FloppedOver

Another case of substance abuse, perhaps strong drink?

 

MarriedWoman

I didn’t look at this Nickelodeon reel. I had a strong suspicion that it would depict something unpleasant. Dishwashing or toilet scrubbing, maybe. Putting up storm windows. Other things married women wish to avoid. To heck with all that stuff.

 

Elephant

While up at the wharf, I made my family visit the Rainforest Cafe. I was curious. I’m glad we did it. Now we never have to go again.

Seriously, if you enjoy dim lights, fairly expensive food which aspires to be more than it is, and animatronic animals which make jackhammer-level racket every so often, this is a great place. Otherwise, perhaps not so much. The waitstaff were pleasant enough, though. Can’t blame them for the fact it’s a tourist trap.

hat

They do hand out rather nice little paper hats. I need a bio photo for some website or other. Maybe I should send this.

 

adventure1

Also hauled the boy and one of his friends up to the Adventure Playground in Berkeley this summer. Think “Home Depot meets Lord of the Flies”. I’m kidding. It’s a great place, actually, where kids can earn the right to use tools and woodworking materials to build their own creations. The staff there go to great pains to make sure the kids have enough freedom to learn and enjoy themselves while keeping the experience safe.

 

adventure2

One of the kid-built play structures, formed from salvaged materials.

 

adventure3

Inside one of the structures. Spooky-cheerful.

 

Vasona

Another day, taking the dogs out for a walk beside a lake, because I’m an idiot.

 

dogs

I thought it would do the dog we recently adopted, the white furball in the photo above, some good to get out. Go someplace in the car other than the vet’s, get some fresh air, see some new things.

Alas, he whined pitifully all the way to the lake and most of the way back. Ryan the weiner-basset didn’t whine, but he did slobber all over the front window and pass gas in my face during the drive. Neither dog particularly wanted the (plain) hamburgers we bought them, saving them until they were home again. Too excited, I guess.

Both of them were brats at the park, pulling on their leashes like crazy and barking at other dogs. At least they had the sense to not try that with the geese. Ryan seemed to tell Jake “Be cool, man. Be quiet and don’t look ‘em in the eye.”

Ah, well. Maybe it’s like dealing with kids. You have to take some chances and work with them a little before things get better.

 

mustaches

A disguise for every occasion? Yes, please! I particularly appreciate the lack of gender discrimination. I might want a mustache to supplement the one I’m already growing. One never knows.

Only 4 1/2 weeks of summer left. It’s palpably trickling away. Time to get the boy out for more experiences while he isn’t old enough to be ashamed of being seen with his mom, and get another quilt design or two ready to go.

Meet Jake

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

Jake1

This is Jake, the newest addition to our household. He was a neighbor’s dog.

Jake2

Things Jake likes #1: hitting us up for food, particularly if meat is involved.

I’m not sure how we ended up with him, other than he and our existing dog, Ryan, may have had a conspiracy. Jakey stayed with us on an emergency basis several months ago and Ryan took a shine to him. They played like little furry madmen. When the neighbor retrieved him after a week, we figured that was that and said our goodbyes.

Jake3

Things Jake likes #2: napping.

Jake and Ryan weren’t okay with this. Jake would shove his face under the neighbor’s fence gate and howl when we went outside, or escape and come scratch on our door. When that wasn’t going on, Ryan would insistently try to lead us over to Jake’s house. The dogs wore both us and the neighbor down. In the weeks and months that followed, the two of them had many play dates together and would sulk when they were apart. “Jake’s hiding under the bed,” the neighbor would report, “do you mind if he comes over?” Ryan would look at us like puppy murderers when we took Jake home after a play session.

Jake4

Things Jake likes #3: play-fighting with Ryan.

It was pretty clear that, at least in his mind, Ryan had adopted Jake. One day the neighbor walked Jake over and formalized it. The neighbor needed to move and wasn’t going to be able to have a dog for awhile.

Jake5

Time for more napping.

Jake and Ryan are now spending their days together doing happy dog things like passing gas, napping, hunting for rats, digging, and going for walks. They’re buddies. We weren’t planning on getting another dog, particularly one whose yaps are weapons of eardrum destruction, but sometimes one needs to accept love when it comes. Not all good things in life are planned.

Jake6

Getting cuddles from a human

Jake7

Aaaand … more play fighting

Jake8

Time for another nap

Jake9

More fighting, this time by my work table while I was foolishly attempting to work.

Jake10

Tidy dirt pile? Who needs that?

Jake11

Jake12

 Treat time, which is always a big hit with dogs.

Jake13

Fight time.

Jake14

Nap time. Do you see a pattern here? Naps, fights and walks with snacks in between.

Jake15

End-of-week “doggie soup”, made from the remains of a CostCo roast chicken and whatever veggies are okay for dogs

Jake16

Nap time.

Jake17

Beg for food time.

Jake18

Fight time.

Jake19

Napping with his bear.

We hope he’ll be happy here. We’ll try our best to give him a good home.

 

 

Forty Years of the Utah Teapot

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

UtahTeapotPoster

A couple of weeks ago, after dropping my kid off at a Laser Quest birthday party, I ventured across the street to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. It’s a marvelous place, the Computer History Museum, and if you’re ever in the Bay Area and have any interest in computers, I urge you to visit. Their exhibits span the range from slide rules to robots to modern day computers, with many pit stops in diverse topics such as punch cards for weaving Jacquard, guided missile systems, and video games. While other museums may have ‘a’ something-or-other, such as ‘a’ key punch machine or ‘a’ Babbage Difference Engine sandwiched in with other science exhibits, the Computer History Museum has a broad range of ‘a’s and ‘the’s. As in “Wow. That’s the original Pong Machine that Al Alcorn stuck in a bar in Sunnyvale, complete with crooked name plate.” Or: “Wow. That’s a chunk from the ENIAC.” Plus there’s a neat gift shop with nerdy stuff.

One of the museum’s ‘the’s is the Utah teapot, the one digitized by Martin Newell back in 1975. Holy cow! Has it really been forty years? Well now, that’s something worth celebrating, so I did. I came home and whipped up the graphic above, which is based on Martin Newell’s original pencil sketch of dimensions and a rendering of the resulting model. Oh, and I may have used some artistic license as far as aging the paper and so forth; I wanted to call to mind da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. In reality, Newell’s sketch is very tidy, executed on decidedly unstained quadrille paper.

Happy birthday, Utah teapot, and a big thank you to Martin Newell for sharing his work with the world.

The Utah teapot is something of an icon to those who work with 3D graphics. As the story goes, back in 1975 when Martin Newell was “a member of the pioneering graphics program at the University of Utah”, he needed a “moderately simple mathematical model of a familiar object for his work.” He was having tea with his wife at the time, and she suggested modeling their tea service. He did and, in addition to using the teapot for his own work, shared the data set with others. The rest, as they say, is history.

HomerTeapot

Since then, the teapot has become a beloved icon to many of us and something of an inside joke. It has appeared everywhere from test renders to papers submitted to SIGGRAPH to films such as Toy Story and Monsters Inc. Even Homer J. Simpson has had his teapot moment! Not bad for a humble white teapot purchased from a department store.

ToyStoryTeapot

The teapot is of course not Newell’s only accomplishment, just the one most familiar to many of us. He’s had a long and productive career. However, it’s a bittersweet fact of life that we don’t get to choose the manner in which we’re remembered, if we’re remembered at all. Per Tom Sito’s Moving Innovation: A History of Computer Animation, “When Newell spoke at a SIGGRAPH conference in the late 1980s, he jokingly confessed that of all the things he has done for the world of 3D graphics, the only thing he will be remembered for is ‘that damned teapot’”.

I think I could make my peace with that.

Gestures of kindness

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

cardFlattened

 

There’s the card I’m sending out this year; click if you wish to see a larger version. I confess that I used the design as a prototype for a quilt I may make. Of course, it was totally horrid and torturous having to buy (and later consume) candy for “research” purposes. And yes, that’s my weiner-basset up there driving the sleigh pulled by squirrels.

Jezebel has a “best/worst Christmas gift ever” article. It’s funny in a wincing “Oh lord; that could have been me cluelessly giving someone that shell-filled Mason jar atop a candlestick” way. Yes, it’s true. I see myself on the “inflicting” side of the gift-giving process. My husband very politely refuses to believe that I’ve ever been an awful gift-giver – or at least, he pretends to believe that, bless him. But it’s true. Here’s a partial list of the bad gifts I’ve given over the years, at least the ones I can remember. Heaven only knows what else I’ve done that’s lost to the winds of time. Prepare to wince.

To my brother:

  • The same book on motorcycles (or was it guitars?), two years in a row. Never mind how I managed that – it takes a special type of genius. To his credit, he was gracious about it and just sort of didn’t mention it to me. It’s probably good that I saw the twin books on his shelf, though, or he might have received the same book a third year.
  • A hand-painted T-shirt featuring him as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which might not have been so bad if the tail I rendered hadn’t resembled a penis. I understand that this was a source of great merriment and humiliation when he wore it to school.

To my sister:

  • A cosmetics organizer she’d asked for, only I sent it in January or February.
  • The first quilt I ever made, which was admittedly of poor quality. On a later visit, I found it out in the mud and feces-caked front yard with the dogs. That’s how good it was.

To my stepmother:

  • Everything I ever gave her, as detailed in a manifesto of gifts she wished to not receive from me. In her defense, the list included cookware. Yes, I have been guilty of giving a mother-figure cookware, because that’s what all women naturally want, to be classified in terms of domestic tasks that they don’t even enjoy.

snowflake

A lace snowflake. If you get on my Christmas list and you aren’t careful, you may receive one.

To various relatives:

  • A variety of awful T-shirts and sweatshirts which I made, including a black sweatshirt festooned with sparkly fall leaves. The latter might not have been so bad for someone in her forties, but was a bad call for my teenaged niece-by-marriage. Plus it was a couple of sizes too small. Bless the girl for restraining herself to a small glare. I hope that wherever she is now, she receives major karma points for graciousness in the face of disappointment.
  • Homemade fruitcake. “It made the entire package reek of alcohol,” my stepmother complained.
  • Christmas ornaments which I had painted. “You father hates Santa Claus,” my stepmother informed me after the fact. Also: “They were so heavy that they fell off the tree.” I’m sure they broke as well, perhaps even by accident.
  • Lace snowflake ornaments made on my embroidery machine. Only one person expressed enthusiasm over these snowflakes. I assume the rest were objects of puzzlement.

ornaments

Hand-painted ornaments, of the type I used to make and give out. Some folks like receiving these – and by “some folks”, I mean no one that I know.

To my husband:

  • Silk boxer shorts and a T-shirt featuring a Krispy Kreme doughnut rendered as a delivery boy. My husband isn’t a lounging sort of fellow, nor does he have a particular fondness for Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I’ve since liberated the T-shirt from his drawer and wear it for workouts. Probably I should do the same with the boxer shorts.

To my son:

  • Various books on topics he could care less about, such as whittling wood and making shadow puppets.

To my mother:

  • Books which I self-righteously thought she should read, knick-knacks she had no need or room for, and a down-filled throw. The latter might not have been so bad if she wasn’t allergic to feathers.

To my step-great-great aunt, who was failing with dementia:

  • A malachite worry stone. “She dropped it and it broke,” my stepmother sniffed when I asked if the gift had been enjoyed. (These days my default gift to people who are dying or who have dementia is an album of photos. I figure if nothing else, they can look at the colorful photos and wonder who the people are.)

For these sins, I apologize. There was a decade or so there where I was batting a thousand with the homemade and otherwise “thoughtful” gifts. Hopefully I’ve upped my game a bit since then, though. My gift-giving list is mostly pared down to my husband and son, plus the one person who made the mistake of enthusing over the lace snowflakes. (Unless she says otherwise, she will receive a relentless barrage of lace snowflakes in her Christmas card for the next twenty years.) These days I stick to lists which people have given me, maybe send a treat hamper off to my in-laws and a donation to the food bank, and that’s it. If one can’t be clever and thoughtful, being non-clever and thoughtful is the next best thing. Give people joy if you can, play with the family dog, and bake cookies.

Cthulu

Awesome Cthulu ornament from my brother-in-law

Have I also received odd gifts or had occasions used as emotional weapons? Sure. Mostly, though, I’ve been treated with great kindness. There’s the brother-in-law who sent me the molecular gastronomy kit and the Cthulu ornament, both of which I dearly love. There’s the father-in-law who painstakingly picked out quilting fabric to ship me, and the mother-in-law who would faithfully send me the latest Maeve Binchy novel, back when Binchy was alive. One sister-in-law bakes and ships Christmas cookies each year, and the other sister-in-law sends some munchie she knows we’ll enjoy. They’re all good people, which I guess isn’t surprising considering that they’re related to my husband.

There are also my stepmother’s relatives. For all that she and I have a poisoned relationship, her relatives were some of the warmest people I’ve ever known. Her sister, a lovely young woman, would take me horseback riding. Her brother, who wasn’t financially affluent, would nevertheless give me an exquisite bottle of perfume for Christmas. Her parents did whatever they could to make a ragged nine-year-old child feel welcome, including picking out a special Star Trek Spock doll or making one of those grotesque/wonderful birthday cakes which features a Barbie doll impaled in a half-sphere of frosted cake-skirt.

giftBooks

Crafting books, a gift from my step-grandmother many years ago

Even though she’s now deceased, I frequently have reason to offer thanks to my step-grandmother. Because of her, I was supplied with books and supplies for knitting, jewelry-making, and denim decorating, and worlds opened. It’s because of her that I’ve had the guts to pursue my own creative vision. I can’t count the number of times she provided me with a thoughtful kit of some type or other, replete with sewing supplies or nail polish or little girl jewelry. I still jab my needles in a tomato/strawberry pincushion which appeared under the tree one year and, although it perhaps isn’t as dignified, our dog eats from the remains of a gigantic Estee Lauder makeup palette/tray. I wish I had better expressed my gratitude to both her and my step-grandfather before they passed away.

pincushion

A beloved pincushion, a reminder of kindness

Maybe that’s the way it goes sometimes, though. If we’re lucky, we get the consciousness and decency to properly thank people while they’re still around. Otherwise, maybe kindness is a pay-it-forward sort of thing, and many of us end up giving thanks for past kindnesses by taking a turn at giving ourselves. In my case, though, it appears that I should confine myself more to the toy and canned food drive end of things and take a pass on the handcrafted shirts and mason jar candlesticks!

Happy holidays – and I do mean that in an all-inclusive way, including holidays which aren’t part of my tradition but which matter to others – to all.