Archive for 2015

An article, a story, and a quilt.

Monday, December 7th, 2015


This arrived in the mail today. Isn’t that portrait on the cover wonderful? It’s by an artist named Benjamin Shine; he created it from layers of tulle. The magazine has a nice profile of him; his website is worth a look as well.

Textile Fibre Forum, an Australian art magazine, has also run an article about one of my quilts, a piece inspired by the story of a heroic and homeless Guatamalan immigrant, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax. It seems on point at the moment. Perhaps it has something to do with winter approaching, here in the northern hemisphere, and having my thoughts turn to people shivering and starving in the cold. There’s also hideous news coming out of Syria, with streams of people fleeing a never-ending nightmare only to encounter hardship, hatred, and perhaps death as they become refugees and try to find new homes. Newly minted immigrants to new lands.

I highly recommend checking out Textile Fibre Forum. It’s just gorgeous, maybe 15-20 articles per issue with a fairly discrete amount of advertising. It costs a pittance, about the same as an over-sugared drink at Starbucks, if one downloads it via their iOS app.

More importantly, it’s an opportunity to get acquainted with Australian textile art outside the occasional exhibits which may visit the U.S. or other countries. This, I believe, is vitally important, an opportunity for cross-pollination.

Years ago, I attended a talk by Martha Sielman. She was discussing the creation of one of her book series – either the Art Quilt Portfolio series or the Masters: Art Quilts books. One of the publisher’s requirements, she stated, was that a certain number of the artists had to be from outside of the United States. Intrigued by this statement, I thumbed through her books and looked up all the non-U.S. artists. There was a freshness about their work. Perhaps they’d been influenced by different cultural and historical traditions, or perhaps they just weren’t part of the incestuous little copycat treadmill we have here in the United States. The publishers must have known that including them was important for the sake of diversity – or perhaps they were just trying to keep the books from being entirely U.S.-centric!



Remember this thing? Yes. I’m still working on it.

On the work front, I’m noodling away on the reclining nude of my dog, Odalisque. Here’s the current progress:


Tatted throw: not stitched.



Couch and pillow: stitched.



Ryan-dog: not stitched.



Marble floor: stitched.



Screen in background: partially stitched. This thing is kicking my rump. Note that there are two types of small, precise textures which are overlapped. I hope I have more sense and avoid this sort of situation the next time I design an image.



Curtains in background: partially stitched. This is also eating my lunch. I had a hideous time getting any texture at all stitched, given the darkness of the cloth. Having it visually behind the palms has made it even more challenging. Why didn’t I just put in a plain wall or something which could have been stippled? It wouldn’t have made a big difference as far as the composition, and it would have been much quicker to render.


Rug: not at all stitched and oh my lord, how am I even going to do it?

All this work, months of work, and I haven’t even gotten to the punchline of the picture, a dog reclining on a couch in place of the standard nekkid woman.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m feeling discouraged. I was hoping to enter a show at the end of this month, but this thing isn’t even halfway done. I’ve lost four days of work during the past week, what with chaperoning my kid’s field trip, hosting a STEM activity for Cub Scouts, and being knocked on my rump by Dramamine that I probably didn’t even need to take. Not to gripe – first world problems! Lots of people would love to be able to drop what they were doing and head out on the San Francisco Bay for hours with their kid’s class! But you know, I’m not a piñata. If someone smacks me with a baseball bat, I won’t puke out artwork.

I have considered brewing up a pot of coffee and pulling a couple of all-nighters to see if I could knock out a bunch of work. Alas, I suspect it would end with a bunch of lousy stitching which had to be ripped out and my shaking like an autumn leaf falling from a tree. The workmanship has to be good; otherwise there’s no point.

Meanwhile, my kid has been getting over a cold and we’ve been dunned with day after day of grey skies. The dreary weather and his cold made me remember a cold of my own.

Fifteen years ago, I was off on a photography trip to Rome and Paris. One of my clients was writing a book; the trip was a way to help her attain a dream. That was really important to me then, helping people figure out what they really wanted and helping them reach for it. I also craved a bit of adventure, which the trip would provide.

Boy, did I get my wish! I could write a book of my own. Absolutely nothing about that trip went as planned. We weren’t even on the airplane before my client poked around in her purse, panicked a bit, then announced that she’d forgotten her traveler’s checks. My memories past that point include her cheerily announcing “the last time I was here, I got deported for drugs”, multiple episodes of driving child pickpockets away from her, and a wild rush hour drive around the outskirts of Rome when we went to the wrong airport for the flight to Paris.

One of my more pressing personal issues, though, was a killer head cold. It set in during the interminable flight across the Atlantic from the U.S., rendering sleep impossible. By the time I needed to be perky and shooting photos of multi-breasted statues spurting water out of their nipples, I was thoroughly exhausted and spouting my own secretions out my nose.

I did my job. I focussed. I planned. I walked all over Rome, Tivoli and Paris laden down with gear. I took hundreds of photos.

My cold thoroughly annoyed my client, though, and she wasn’t shy about expressing herself. “I never get sick,” she told me accusingly, as though my hosting a virus was meant as a personal affront. “There are viruses and bacteria all around us, but I don’t come down with them. I’ve never even vomited, not in my whole life.” An endless array of home remedies were proffered, including raw garlic and a strange, unknown blend of dried herbs.

Somewhat alarmed by her drug deportation story, I politely declined and turned to standard, pharmacy-variety remedies. She continued to press ristras of elves’ bane and Hungarian witch peppers on me. She grew sharp when I stated that I could ingest her garlic and herbs and the cold would last about a week, or I could continue with the pharmaceuticals and it would be gone in seven days.

The last straw, though, was my skin. I am not one of those people who cries cutely or looks adorable when I’m sick. I tend to head straight into the territory of skin like a boiled lobster and massive, noisy expulsions of ectoplasm from whatever orifice is exposed.

My client was understandably revolted. Repeated forays with Kleenex had left the skin on my nose and cheeks dry and, in some cases, hanging in tatters. “Put some of this vitamin E oil on your skin!” she commanded one evening. I declined. “It will be fine by morning,” I stated, barely hanging on to my temper, “I’ll just rub a little of my moisturizer on it and it’ll be as good as new.”

My client sniffed in disbelief. I headed off to bed.

The next morning, knowing that there would be an inspection once she woke up, I took a razor to my face. Wonderful things, razors. They do an incredible job of removing pilled-up fibers from sweaters and sheets, hair from one’s legs, or, as it happens, dead skin from one’s face. After ruthlessly scraping away all signs of skin damage, I slathered my face with moisturizer, then braced myself for the inevitable.

“Good morning,” we both said, then she peered at me minutely. I could tell that the words “Vitamin E” were on the tip of her tongue, and she was just dying to cram an entire unpeeled head of garlic down my throat. However, there wasn’t a speck of dead skin in sight.

“Huh,” she muttered, “I guess you were right.”

“Yep. A little moisturizer takes care of it every time,” I lied.

She is gone now. The dear lady who never had colds, who had never vomited in her life, who faithfully downed garlic and mystery herbs and swished hydrogen peroxide through her teeth, was felled by a slow, extremely painful illness.

I still miss her.

Scribble bots from dollar store electric toothbrushes

Sunday, November 15th, 2015


It’s time for that ritual I think of as “repaying the internet”. To whit, if I get information off the internet and then find a twist, I need to give some information back. This time the topic is scribble bots, or more precisely, powering scribble bots with dollar store toothbrushes.


A scribble bot uses batteries and a motor to make markers vibrate across paper, thus leaving marks. They’re all the rage at science museums and STEM nights, letting one guilelessly sneak a few Physics lessons in on the kids.

There’s all kind of information about making scribble bots on the web, such as on Instructables and the Exploratorium website.


Most of them have a materials list that includes a 1.5-3 volt hobby motor. The instructions often suggest getting the motor from Radio Shack or cannibalizing one from a toy such as a dancing chicken. Radio Shack is now out of business and I don’t happen to have any dancing chickens, so to my mind, finding a motor is the hardest part of the project.

Unless you have an electronics supply store around, by the time you’ve ordered a motor and maybe a switch and battery housing to go with it, things can get pricy. I wondered if there was a cheaper way to get the necessary parts. Might there be something at the local dollar store?

Indeed, there was. Our local dollar store had an array of the world’s saddest-looking electric toothbrushes. Instead of rotating a group of bristles like one’s Braun or Oral-B, these battery-powered devices jostled a stationary brush head a tiny amount, pretending to give a jolt of dental cleaning power that couldn’t be obtained by simply moving one’s hand.  Disassembling a brush revealed that it had a motor with an offset weight. This was exactly what was needed for a scribblebot. Perfect!


Here’s a typical dollar store electric toothbrush with its guts squeezed out.


Here we’ve cut the handle away from the rest of the toothbrush. The handle can then be used to hold the motor, battery housing, and switch.

(Hang on to the toothbrush end. I have no idea what you should do with it, but it’s bound to come in handy sometime. If you make enough of these scribble bots, for example, you can spray paint the leftover brushes red or gold, glue them to a grapevine wreath, and make a hideous Christmas decoration. Or not.)


Click image to enlarge

Here are the parts we’re sticking back inside the handle. Notice that we’ve cut the handle just short enough to reveal the offset weight, so that it can have attachments and twirl around freely.

Also note the electrical connections circled in red. These are necessary for forming a complete circuit between the battery and the motor. The connections at the motor end aren’t going to be accessible once the parts are put back in the toothbrush handle, and they may be flimsily assembled. Make sure they’re making contact when you reinstall the parts.


Toothbrush battery at left; standard AA at right

Here’s one other fun tidbit. I noticed that the supposedly AA battery which came with the toothbrush wasn’t the same size as a standard AA. It was shorter and narrower. I could force a fresh, standard AA battery into the brush handle, but the motor would no longer work. The circuit wasn’t making up. Sometimes there isn’t enough profanity in the world!

No doubt this is by design. Probably the owners of People’s Electric Toothbrush Factory Number Five don’t want shoppers to use their cheap dollar store toothbrushes indefinitely, so they’ve intentionally made it difficult to replace the batteries. We aren’t using the toothbrushes for hygiene purposes, though, so we do want to be able to replace the batteries.


If you run into this issue, remove the end of the battery holder and peer inside. I found that there was a vertical plastic standoff inside, precisely calibrated to the dimensions of the supplied battery. After removing the standoff with a Dremel tool, a standard AA battery fit and my circuit made up.


Lousy photo of a battery holder after removing standoff. Pretend that you can see where I’ve made the modification. Also, pretend that I have a decent manicure.

Alright. We’ve sawn and fiddled around and modified a cheap toothbrush. What next? How about making some additional weights?


These weights, which are made from wide tongue depressors, can help make the motion of the scribble bot more erratic.


Here we’ve installed a weight on the protruding end of a motor. Note that we have the weight aligned with the mass of the off-axis weight already on the motor.

Some different scribble bot designs …


A portion of a pool noodle with motor mechanism tucked inside and auxiliary weight on top.



Another pool noodle design, this time with the motor at the bottom. It’s interesting to see how positioning of the center of mass affects the motion.


A highly elegant Greek yogurt cup model with outboard motor.


Strawberry basket, outboard motor. Classic. Add some razor blades or a scalpel blade to the tongue depressor weight and you’ll have a fighting scribblebot, as well as occasion to visit the emergency room.

In a few weeks I’ll try all of this out with children – well, except for the part with sharp blades. We’ll see how it goes. I anticipate that there will be chaos.

Sometimes it takes awhile

Saturday, November 7th, 2015


Work. I’m gearing up for the next thing. Tentative titles: Big Fish or maybe Fish Story. I had a green screen session with the boy recently, getting him to model various poses, and took a bunch of shots. (Around eighty, to be precise.) Sometimes it takes awhile to loosen up and get in the mood, and sometimes something special and spontaneous happens during the modeling session and you want to stick with it. These days we don’t have to pay for film or developing, so why not? The boy has a rubber face, so he can generate about a thousand different expressions. I pay him, so he’s a good sport about it. Probably he’d be a good sport even if I didn’t pay him, though. He’s a good kid. (No, I totally don’t dote on him or anything like that.)

I was working from sketches when I posed him. Fortunately, I don’t have the sketches at hand, so nobody will have to see them.

One of the things I consider when having a modeling session is how to dress him and what sorts of props to employ. Stuff can be edited in Photoshop later, but it’s nice to get relatively close to the desired scene, and nice to have props for him to interact with. In this case I wanted the boy in a plain red shirt, but we don’t have one. I ended up turning one of his T-shirts inside out to hide the logo and giving him a bamboo pole with clothesline tied on to stand in for a fishing pole. Later I’ll replace the bamboo pole with a digital model of a real pole.

Awhile back, I posted about some of the equipment I use, including the green screen and background support system.  These are some of the best money I ever spent; they make removal of a person from a background about a thousand times faster, cleaner, and simpler.


There’s going to be a UFO plus some terrain, trees and water in the scene, so I’m starting to develop models of those. It’ll probably take months. It doesn’t necessarily have to take months, but I tend to work on several things at once. I’ve come to like the clarity I get from walking away from a project and coming back to it.


Here I’m starting to rough out the scene with polygons, before getting too deep into the modeling. It looks like a dog’s breakfast and that’s okay. Stuff evolves.

There are a couple of books I love which might be interesting to others who like to compose their own images. It turns out that years ago, Norman Rockwell was doing exactly the same sort of thing, posing models in costumes with props and taking reference photos for his paintings. He didn’t have the digital tools we have today, but he was very clever with the non-digital tools of the time.


The book about his methods is Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera. It’s by Ron Schick and is available for around $25 on Amazon; less if one gets it used.


Another book is James Gurney’s Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist. In it, he discusses his use of maquettes, models, props, and sketches to create art which looks “real and believable”.  His blog, Gurney Journey, also a great read.

I prefer to use digital tools, or a mix of real-life objects, human or animal models, and digital tools. There’s no reason one has to do that, though. One should use whatever tools one likes. Rockwell and Gurney are proof that one can achieve marvelous results with a pencil and a paintbrush. One can sketch a spaceship from one’s imagination or craft a rudimentary model out of Play-Doh rather than modeling it on a computer.



On the production end, I’m stitching on Odalisque. (Odalisque is another of my computer-assisted, composited images. See parts one and two from about a year ago.)

It feels like there’s several million miles of stitching. That’s why I have to put projects aside now and then. They can start to feel overwhelming when I’ve been working for weeks or months, or I can get terrified of an area and fear messing it up. What if I do the wrong thing on that tatted throw? An utter disaster!


See the screen behind the chaise? This is some of the stitching. I’m having to use magnifiers. It’s making me crazy.

There’s a quality I’m striving for where the stitching and the base image marry. I’m not there yet. It’s going to take some time and experimentation to master.


The shoe and leg in my work Flooded come close to what I have in mind.


So do this hand and couch done by Mardal and Hougs.

There’s a quietness about these examples. The stitching and the base imagery support each other, rather than the stitching being an afterthought stuck on top of something which was already complete. That is, alas, the look of many works where someone has printed out a photo and stitched on top of it.

I don’t mean to criticize those who have that aesthetic and enjoy that type of work, by the way. It just isn’t to my taste. One’s aesthetic is a personal preference, not a matter of right or wrong.

I’ll get there. In the meantime, I should finish Odalisque and see what I can learn from it.



There’s also this thing, a side project I stitch on when my brain is fried. Sometimes one needs to keep one’s hands busy but the light is bad or it’s just too much effort to do precise work.  I call it “Crap Cloth”. Yes, that’s vulgar. Probably I need a politer name. However, “Crap Cloth” does at least communicate that it’s made of odds and ends.

It began life with a section of fitted sheet that had blown a giant hole. Yes, I know one shouldn’t waste time on cloth whose integrity may be questionable. I do it anyway, though. I tie knots in the worst parts and let the dogs play tug-of-war with them, and I make shopping bags out of the best sections. After all the thread I put down, I could probably make bags out of paper towels and it wouldn’t matter. Nothing short of a bomb or maybe a rat on cocaine can dislodge my piles of stitching. Machine jams and makes a thread nest? Cool. Let’s stitch that sucker in. In fact, let’s start saving up floor sweepings and stale Cheerios and stitch those in, too.

This was going to be a shopping bag, then it turned into something else. I don’t know what it is. A loud wall hanging? A grotesque table runner? A dog house cover? Who knows. If you know what it is, leave me a comment.

While others were at IQF Houston …

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Random photos spliced in throughout post …


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.”


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!”


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.


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.


These cupcakes went to a party.


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 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.


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

The Festival will simply have to wait a few years.


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


1000 Quilt Inspirations

Monday, October 26th, 2015


The boy and I were at the library the other day. I saw this in the new books section and stared at it, confused. “Huh. That looks familiar.” Then it dawned on me: “Hey. I think I may have some work in that.”

Indeed, I do.

Sider’s book came out about six months ago, but I’d never seen a copy. The publisher didn’t send courtesy copies to contributors (although they did offer a discount if we wished to purchase one) and for reasons I won’t go into right now, I don’t buy books if I’ve provided content for them. (I could write an essay on the topic. Be thankful I’m not doing so right now.)

Not to knock the publisher, Quarry. I have to figure that publishers in the art quilting world operate on narrow margins, and the cost of sending out courtesy copies to several hundred artists might be prohibitive. Frankly, the artists in the book may comprise a core set of the people who’d be purchasing it anyhow. Still, I have my rules.

It’s really a good book, though. Everyone should buy a copy. Put it on your Christmas list, if you exchange presents at that time of the year.



I was tickled to see that one of my Paisleyfish received a full page spread. I think that piece has been sold off, so it’s nice to see it recorded for posterity.



My flamingo, Suspicion, was also included. (Upper right hand corner.)



So was Waiting for Spring, in the upper left hand corner of this spread. I should put Suspicion and Waiting for Spring up for sale, but the whole business of dealing with business licenses and sales tax gets me down. It’s a commitment unto itself. What I would like would be to hand over my work to someone else, say “Here. You take a 40-50% commission and deal with the taxes and shipping,” and get on with the part I enjoy.



Sandra Sider really did a bang-up job selecting work for this book. Its title says it all – there are 1000 juicy, succulent images. If you need to jostle your brain for stitching or design ideas, this is a great resource. The styles span a really wide gamut.



Some pictorial works, showing renderings of humans.

One thing this book has reminded me of is how fun it can be to work small. The commitment of time and energy aren’t huge, so one feels the freedom to experiment.



Some modern designs. There are also renderings inspired by plants, animals, buildings, and purely abstract arrangements of color and form.

Should I type what I’m thinking now? Sure. Why not. Here’s a confession: I have a very hard time taking pleasure in anything I accomplish, beyond the act of doing it and perhaps helping others or giving them a moment of joy. I’m not sure where that comes from, the constant drive to break my back working and then denigrate any good fortune that comes my way, but I can make some guesses. During the last few months I was in contact with my father, I got in the habit of telling him absolutely nothing about what I was doing. I realized that he was incapable of expressing interest, even the bare minimum of interest you’d extend to someone standing in line beside you at a supermarket. It had been going on for years. I noticed that it was a pattern with my family, the withholding of interest or approval. There was a constant drive to impress others, though, along with a constant stream of insults once the parties were gone.

And, I don’t know what I’m driving at, other than it’s going to be okay. I’m away from that. Maybe I’ll never be able to feel that I deserve whatever good fortune comes my way, but I’m at least learning to take pleasure in others’ good fortune. Other people’s good work or accomplishments aren’t a threat. They’re something to appreciate and applaud or learn from.

I’m lucky to have my work in Sider’s book alongside so many wonderful works.

PIQF 2015

Thursday, October 15th, 2015


I went to PIQF today. It’s a decent-sized show which takes place in a convention center about five miles from my house, so I look forward to it each year.

Unfortunately, it didn’t hit me right today. I don’t know whether I was in an odd frame of mind, so I wasn’t as receptive to the exhibits as usual, or whether the general level of work just wasn’t as good as in years past. After an hour or so, I had a decided feeling of “meh” and left. I’ll take another look at the exhibits on Sunday and see whether I feel differently. Maybe I’m being harsh. I hate to be overly judgmental about work people have poured their hearts and souls into.

That said, there were several artists whose work I greatly admired.


Susan Else was one of them. I’ve been internet-stalking her for years, hoping to get a chance to attend a lecture or class held by her. PIQF had a special exhibit of her work, including the skeletal family above. Despite my statement of “meh” above, simply seeing a display of Susan’s work is worth the price of admission, and I’m so grateful to the Mancusos for slotting her in.

I’d show more photos of her work, but it’s really better to visit her website or buy some of her postcards. Come to think of it, I should have bought some of her postcards today! If she’s around on Sunday, I’ll do that.



Gloria Loughman‘s work is another treat.


Aren’t the bold, crisp lines of Loughman’s work lovely and designerly, as is her contrast of warm and cool colors?



One of the aspects of PIQF I look forward to each year is the traveling World Quilt Show exhibit, which includes entries from around the planet. As I once told a border control agent, who was asking me why I was visiting his country, “I want to see and learn about things that aren’t American.” I find that the style of the works from overseas can be quite different, and I find that refreshing.

The triptych above, Cathedrals, Castles & Ruins, is from Camilla Watson of New Zealand.


In her artist’s statement, she tells us that each panel is created from photos taken during her travels. That’s a neat way to display one’s travel photos, isn’t it?



This wall hanging, Energy of Fire, was made by the Grassroots Guild of South Africa. It was inspired by the works of the glass artist Dale Chihuly.


Here’s a closeup of one of the panels. It isn’t unusual for artists to be inspired by another artist and explore that person’s work by, say, copying it or by stitching over a photo printed onto fabric. I have to compliment this group for instead taking it to another level, interpreting the works of Chihuly in a fresh, energetic way and creating something new and unique.



Coco, by Neroli Henderson of Australia. This is a very tactile work which captures the personality of the artist’s sweet-faced Bichon Frise.


Around the portrait, we can read a bit of Coco’s biography. This bit about her having had twenty puppies grabbed my eye. Anyone who’s had even one child gets a pang of sympathy at that thought!



Mega Postage Stamp, made by Betty Tang of San Francisco. “A seven year journey and over 10,000 pieces”, the artist’s statement tells us. This strikes me as the fiber equivalent of making a Buddhist sand painting, the sort of thing which drives one to strong drink.


A close up of a section of Tang’s work. She is made of sterner stuff than me.



Some of the best design work was in the Wicked exhibit, an array of squares in black and lime green. Jacamar Eye, above, was made by Elaine Jones.



She: A Self-Portrait by Lynn Dinelli. Boy, do I relate. That’s the face I see pretty much every morning when I get up.



Here’s my thing, The Thief. The lights in the convention center killed it, utterly sucked the life out, plus it looks like crap with the bend at the top from hanging. You’d think I’d remember that and increase the contrast in my work to compensate, but I never do.

Some of the bad from PIQF:

No work from Charlotte Kruk, or if there was some, I didn’t see it. I’ll look again on Sunday. Charlotte makes the most amazing examples of wearable art I’ve ever seen, painstakingly pieced together from the packaging left from consumables. I first fell in love with her work when she displayed a matador’s suit of lights some years ago; it was made from M&M wrappers which she’d beaded and sewn together. Since then, I’ve looked for her work each year. It’s one of the key reasons I go to PIQF.

No work from Kathy Nida, either. One of her figures is in SAQA’s Oasis exhibit, which was to be at PIQF. It wasn’t, though. Heaven only knows where it is … maybe on a truck or a loading dock somewhere. I was bummed.

However, there was work from someone from my past.

Years ago, I took a paper-piecing class. I was young, dewy, and still had a waistline then, working in a menial capacity at a job which didn’t pay beans.

One of the unstated requirements of the job was enduring repeated sexual harassment. I didn’t know how to handle it at that time. After all, hadn’t my father drilled it into my skull that “those gals” who complained about that kind of stuff were usually exaggerating? Therefore, I really didn’t know what to do when I landed in a work environment where one of the men I worked for liked to undress and hang out in his office with the door open. (That was in addition to the poster on his office door, which showed a nude female torso done up as a face, and the gynecologically detailed posters in the tool crib where I went to inventory parts.) Later there would be verbal invitations and harassment of a physical nature. It was not just from one person, either.

I sought others’ advice. I sought advice at home, where I was told that I “must be doing something to cause it”. I sought advice from a friend, who told me “You just tell them that we don’t do that kind of thing back in Texas!” Finally, feeling utterly alone and running out of places to turn, I asked the quilting instructor what she would do. Please keep in mind that this was a person who was very proud of a quilt/traveling exhibit she’d spearheaded about the struggles of women around the world.

She bridled, informed me that her husband worked at the same place, that the people there were very nice and professional, and that no such thing could be happening to me. It was incredibly painful, one more insult piled on top of the nightmare in which I dwelled at that time.

Now, of course, I wouldn’t take my problems to random people, but at the time I was quite alone and quite desperate. Although my problems really weren’t hers to solve, she could have avoided accusing me of lying. It would be an understatement to say that I formed a lasting, negative opinion of her. And, although I generally try to be open-minded or accepting of others’ work, I’m afraid that I get great pleasure from looking at hers and thinking “My work is quite a bit better than yours.” Also, I inwardly hiss like a movie vampire exposed to sunlight.

Oh – and in case there’s some young, dewy creature out there who isn’t quite sure how to handle harassment, here are some of my personal take-aways:

  • Don’t be surprised if the company/organization doesn’t address the issue, particularly if there’s a power imbalance between you and the harasser.
  • Thoroughly document the situation.
  • Be direct and matter-of-fact, even if it feels uncomfortable.
  • When harassers proceed to touching or, say, laying on top of one while one is working, smashing them in the face with a flashlight does wonders. So does a knee in the crotch. Profanity and very loud yelling are also good.
  • If someone implies that the harassment is your fault, unless they reverse their attitude pretty quickly, they don’t need to be in your life. That includes boyfriends, spouses, and relatives.
  • There are environments in which even a broom dressed in a skirt would experience harassment. This doesn’t make it right or mean one should accept it, though.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

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.


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



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.



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



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.



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.



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.)



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



Reference materials. Each new project gets a new batch.



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.



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.



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?


Drawer dividers for Ikea Alex

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

I’m smack dab in the middle of four separate deadlines/commitments, so it seemed like a great time to destroy my work area. I’m logical like that.


The thread came, so I’m a step closer to divorcing the Chain Fabric Store from Hell. However, I needed a place to put the thread.

I don’t use wall racks. Some folks like them, but my house gets incredibly dusty what with two dogs and a bird, plus Apple building a spaceship half a mile from my house. Anything that sits out for a couple of days disappears under a half inch thick layer of filth.


I’ve been using spool storage cases from Allstitch. They hold 48 spools, keep the dust out, and at $12.75, aren’t too expensive. Unfortunately, I’ve run into some issues finding room for the cases, plus pawing through a bunch of them is getting tedious. Getting even more didn’t seem like a good idea.


Alex series – about $120 at Ikea

My next thought was to stick dividers in some drawers. I had some wide, shallow Ikea Alex drawers that seemed about the right size for storing thread. Perhaps, since they’re a standard item at Ikea, they or somebody else might sell drawer inserts? Barring that, maybe I could head out to the garage, scrounge up some wood, and make my own?

I poked around on the web. I didn’t find pre-made dividers, but I did learn that the Alex series is incredibly popular with crafters and artists, as this pinterest page demonstrates. From there I also learned that many people make drawer dividers from foam core board.

Foam core! Why didn’t I think of that myself? It’s cheap, easy to cut, and in some sense is more forgiving of mistakes than if I started fiddling around with wood. I headed down to Michael’s with a 40% off coupon and grabbed a 20 x 30 x 3/16” piece of foam core for around $2. That piece of foam was big enough to furnish dividers for three of my drawers. If I’d bothered to plan ahead, I could have optimized my cutting scheme and made even more.

The top three drawers of the Alex are about 2” deep. There’s an added complication in that the back 4 1/2” of the drawers is obstructed, so it isn’t terribly useful to run dividers all the way back there. Thus, I opted to make my dividers 1 1/2” tall and leave about 6 1/2” clearance behind, so one can wiggle other items in and out.

Other specifications were driven by the fact that I was storing spools of Madeira Polyneon, which are about 3″ long, and the pieces of foam core were 3/16″ thick.



To make dividers like mine, begin by cutting four 1 1/2” thick strips across the 30” length of the foam core. An X-acto knife (Or, bleh, a “craft knife”) and long metal ruler or T-square work well for this task.


Put waste cardboard or a cutting mat beneath the foam core to avoid cutting in to your work surface. Or, you know, you could just do what I do, which is pretend the scratches and cut marks aren’t there and throw a cloth on the table when you have company.


Measure the width of the drawer and cut three of the 30” strips to that length. Or, if you aren’t fond of measuring, take the strips over to the drawer and mark them there.


Mark lines 6” and 6 3/16” in from each end of the long strips. Next, mark horizontal lines about 3/4” down from one edge, as seen above.

The goal with these lines is to outline the area which will be carved out to make notches. I like to draw an X over the area to be cut out, as a reminder.

Set the long pieces aside.


Cut two 10” pieces from the remaining 30″ strip.


On each 10” strip, measure and make the following marks:

  • 3/16” from one end (3/16″ being the thickness of the foam core board)
  • 3 5/16” from the end  (The above measurement + 3 1/8”, which is the length of one spool of Madeira thread plus 1/8″ wiggle room)
  • 3 1/2”  from the end (The above measurement + 3/16”, which is the thickness of the foam core board)
  • 6 5/8”  from the end  (The above measurement + 3 1/8”)
  • 6 13/16”  from the end (The above measurement + 3/16”)

You should end up with a series of marks which alternate the thickness of a piece of foam core and the length of a spool of thread.

Next, make horizontal marks about 3/4” down from one edge. These will determine how tall your notches are.

The finished marks should look something like those shown in the photo above.


With the X-Acto knife, cut out the notches in all of the pieces.


You should end up with three long notched pieces and two short notched pieces for each set of dividers.


Test fit the pieces before gluing. I like to use hot melt glue; it sets up quickly, and this application isn’t going to require much strength.


Oops. The drawer is full of junk. Also, I’ve managed to photograph it so that it looks like a trapezium rather than a rectangle, which is kind of a neat trick.


Junk removed, with a test fit of the drawer divider. There’s just enough room behind the divider to wiggle stuff in and out for storage.


Thread in place, with some assorted rulers stuck behind the divider. Hmph. My drawer has reverted to looking like a trapezium again. Maybe we’re in a universe without ninety degree angles or something.


There’s a way to cut out the foam core more efficiently, so as to get more dividers out of it, but I didn’t really plan before cutting. So, um, just throw the waste pieces in a random drawer and hoard them for twenty years. That’s what I’d do. They’re bound to come in handy sometime. Bound to.



Some of the other thread drawers.

Okay. That was fun. Now I guess I’d better deal with the wreck I made when pulling junk out of the thread storage drawers, then get back to work … hope this helps somebody and sparks some ideas, anyhow. It turns out foam core is incredibly easy to work with, and is a natural for making drawer dividers. If I was somebody who enjoyed folding underwear rather than wadding it all up and mounding it in the dresser, it might be worthwhile to make foam core dividers for the bedroom, too. (Spoiler: not happening.)

Coming along

Monday, September 21st, 2015


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.


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.


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.

The Cake is Not a Lie

Thursday, September 17th, 2015



I’m recovering from a shoulder injury, so I can’t yet do the things I want to do: paint, 3D work, stitch. However, I can put a shirt on without groaning and I can sort of type, so here we are. Let’s talk about the Portal party.

The boy just had a birthday, which meant that there needed to be a party. That’s one of the things you don’t think of when you’re longing for a little bundle of joy, that if you’re from a culture which celebrates birthdays, you’re going to be in the party business. It doesn’t matter how awkward your social skills are, how little you know about parties, or what your socioeconomic status is. When the kid gets old enough and his birthday rolls around, you’re going to do your best to dredge up some family or friends and come up with something vaguely cakelike, even if it means stacking up a pile of Ding Dong clones from the dollar store and jamming an emergency candle in the top.

Now, I don’t know anything about birthday parties. They’re a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why I’ve hosted some really bad ones. The worst was at a miniature golf facility. The “concept” consisted of hosting a few games of miniature golf, playing some arcade games, and hacking down greasy snack bar food inside the windowless, stained concrete cell grudgingly set aside for ingesting food. “No stress!” crowed my husband, “They’ll provide everything! You won’t have to worry or do any work!” Bless him. It sounded like a good idea at the time.


“Father, may I have my party here? I’ll be ever so good!”

We invited only two guests, one of whom was quite late. We waited. And waited. And waited. The other guest, who’d arrived promptly, was bored to tears. So was his family. So were we. (Actually, that’s a lie. I wasn’t bored; I was anxious and stressed out.) At one point I ended up watching the guest’s younger sister for a few minutes. You know how you can sometimes tell that you give people the creeps? Yeah. I severely gave her the creeps. She really didn’t want to be around me at all, much less alone with me, yet there we were, alone in the grease-stained concrete pizza cell. I edged over to the doorway and stood half in and half out of the room so I could plausibly make sure she was safe yet respect her need for space. Ghastly.

That party was beyond awful, somewhere in Dante-circle-of-hell awful. I wanted this year’s birthday party to not be awful. I also wanted to not have it at a facility. This falls under the category of “first world problems everyone should be fortunate to have”, but I’m tired of drumming up marginally interesting activities which fall flat (“Go karting! Laser tag! Indoor skydiving! Travel to low Earth orbit!”), haranguing people to RSVP, and hauling around a small mountain of food and cake and other nonsense.

No, this party would be at home. We’d provide food, entertainment, and relaxed hospitality and not worry over whether people showed up or not. It would be intimate, more modest, and hopefully more fun. We just needed some ideas.

I started poking around and found about the Game Truck. Boy, that sounded neat, like something a pack of boys would really enjoy. The Game Truck folks would quite literally bring a truck load of video games and consoles around to one’s house. We could herd the kids in to the truck, have them play video games until they’d lost thirty or forty IQ points, stuff some food down their gullets, then kick them out to the curb beside the forgotten garbage cans. Why not? Game Truck was well reviewed and their fees weren’t outrageous, given that a human being had to drive an entire truck out and manage a bunch of children for hours.

Unfortunately, we’d be paying someone to bring out a bunch of equipment we already had. The boy loves video games more than anything else in the world, so for years he’s spent every penny he gets on games, video consoles, and more games. We even have two copies of the much-reviled E.T. from 1982, courtesy of my in-laws. Well … how about hosting a game party in our house, then? How about bringing out ALL of the consoles and ALL the games?

My husband and the boy thought this was a great idea. Yeah! Games! Food! Young men  grunting at each other! Alright, then. That was settled.

Now we just needed a specific video game to theme on, something other than Minecraft. Minecraft is great, but as far as parties go, it’s been done and done and done. Enough pixellated blocks of cake have been served to blanket Mongolia. It’s the same with Space Invaders, PacMan, etc. “PacMan! We’ll cut a wedge out of the pizza and call it PacMan pizza!” Dear lord, no. Didn’t we get all that out of our systems in the 1980s?

No, the boys are transitioning into moody tweenagers. Hormones are coming on. They have an ever-greater urge to beat each other up without knowing quite why. They’re beginning to experiment with swearing and heaven knows what else. (“Boys, mind the swears.”)

It was time to go dystopian. Portal. Oddworld. Bioshock. (Big Daddy bento box, anyone?) Obscure would also be good. For example, a party themed around Soviet Arcade Games could be interesting.

So, Portal it was. Never mind the fact that the guests have been kept in tidy little nests of cotton wool and the Portal references went right over their heads. Kids can feel when something is thematically right. They can feel the respect. They can appreciate the Combustible Lemons and Companion Cubes. They can threaten each other with the lemons, even.

I sent out invitations and got to work. It was time to make some props.






I didn’t want to throw a Portal-themed party without portals. After all, the games are named Portal and Portal 2. One solves nasty little puzzles using portals. Also, portals make nice large wall/ceiling/floor embellishments, thus taking care of some of the party decor. Portals were a must.

Making them was straightforward:

  • Take photos
  • Digitally add orange and blue portal outlines.
  • Print the resulting graphics at human size or as large as one can manage. I pieced ours together out of 8 1/2 x 11” sheets of paper because I’m cheap.
  • Laminate the prints at an office or school supply store for extra durability, especially if they’re to be placed on the floor.

Voila! Portals! Did anyone notice them and think they were cool? Nope. But they made me happy.

Cake, cookies, combustible lemons



Cake – there are a jillion recipes for Portal cake out there. Some wiseacres have even made “cake” from meatloaf and mashed potatoes, thus ensuring that “the cake is a lie” and leading to hordes of groaning guests. This one was a basic chocolate with chocolate buttercream and grated chocolate. I suggest freezing the chocolate shavings before trying to press them into the frosting. I didn’t do that initially and I ended up with melted chocolate shavings all over my hands. I couldn’t let the dogs lick the stuff off my hands, since chocolate is bad for dogs, so I had to do it myself.

On second thought, maybe don’t freeze the shavings. Having to lick chocolate off your hands isn’t the worst fate in the world.


Portal cookie cutters – These used to be available from ThinkGeek, but have since been discontinued. They can still be found at the usual places around the web for often-ridiculous prices.

We included a few of the Companion Cube cookies in favor bags, despite my doing a crummy job decorating them. Not that it mattered – I don’t think the kids knew what Companion Cubes were, so I could have drawn a picture of Richard Nixon on them and they wouldn’t have known the difference.


Combustible lemons – The poster with Cave Johnson’s classic rant is available from a vendor on Etsy.

There are instructions for making combustible lemons out on the web, not that one really needs them: stencil a logo on a lemon and glue on the top section of a toy grenade.

The most difficult task was finding inexpensive plastic toy grenades. Sure, they can be bought on Amazon and eBay, but who wants to pay ten bucks or more for some chunks of plastic which will get sawn in half then thrown in the trash? Fortunately, some cheap grenade toys turned up at a party and costume store.

If I had it to do over again, I’d use stronger adhesive, maybe E6000. It was predictable that a group of young males would pick up the combustible lemons and start heaving them around, and the hot melt glue didn’t hold up well. Cave Johnson would have been disappointed in me.


Fan Art

There’s some wonderful fan art on the web. People have spent hours recreating signage from Portal, rendering significant quotes, or coming up with their own take on the Portal theme. It’s pretty amazing.

I printed a bunch out and used it on the walls as decoration. Afterward, since my son really loved people’s artwork, the prints went up on the wall of his room.

The Portal bookends, which can just barely be seen in the photo, can be found on Amazon or ThinkGeek.



Companion Cube cookie jar

If you’re going to have a Portal party, you need at least one Companion Cube. This cookie jar used to be available from ThinkGeek; maybe it still is. There’s no seal on the top of the thing and its lid rattles around, so it’s lousy for holding cookies. However, it does make a decent planter.



Potato battery

The GLaDOS quote/potato graphic is, or was, available on Etsy. The potato battery is, well, just a standard potato battery. There actually is a company which makes GLaDOS-like potato batteries. Alas, I didn’t find out about them until a day or two before the party.

Oh, lovely. My hand is going numb. Blasted shoulder injury. Will I finish typing this? Let’s see.


Surprise Deployment Device

I had mixed feelings about this. My goal with the decor and favors was to stick to Portal canon as much as possible and not “mom things up”. For example, sticking a bunch of orange gumballs in a plastic test tube and labeling them “Portal Pellets” is momming things up. There are no Portal Pellets in Portal. There’s very little food of any kind, except for the cake and some cans of beans. (And yes, before you ask, I did ask my kid if he wanted some cans of beans as party decor. He declined.)

I wanted some streamers, though. What’s a birthday party without streamers? Were there any streamers in Portal? Yes, as it happened, in Portal 2, GLaDOS obnoxiously plopped some confetti down a ceiling-mounted chute. Not quite streamers, but close enough that I could reasonably hang streamers and claim that it was sort of canon.

Making the chute was a problem, though. I considered spray painting a small laundry basket and hanging it from the ceiling, but I was running out of time and energy. In the end, I hacked away at a cardboard box, painted it primer gray, and stuck it to the ceiling with masking tape. “Surprise! The surprise is that I did a crummy job on the surprise prop!”

I don’t think the chute in the game is called a Surprise Deployment Device, though. I sort of made that up in case the guests wondered what the box on the ceiling was about. Sigh. I guess I mommed things up after all.



My metric for good party favors is whether the kids will have good, fairly innocent fun with them and the kids’ parents will barely speak to us once they see the contents of the bags. Things like whoopie cushions, gigantic rubber bands, homemade marshmallow guns.

I thought about sending the kids home with homemade potato battery kits. How bewildering would it be to open the favor bags and find a couple of potatoes, some copper and galvanized nails, and other bits of electronics? I didn’t get all the stuff together, though, so that didn’t happen.


Cans of silly string rebranded as repulsion and propulsion gel. I got most of the text from the Portal and Half-Life Wikis. I’m sure the guests’ parents found it all deeply disturbing.

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Chocolate Companion Cubes – These were molded using ice cube trays from ThinkGeek. To make the cubes, I melted Nestlé white chips, filled a cube space about halfway, then shoved in a chuck of milk chocolate. I then topped the milk chocolate off with more of the white goo so it was covered and the Companion Cubes appeared uniformly white.

I doubt any of the guests discovered the milk chocolate inside, though, because the white chocolate/toxic Nestlé goo was so sickeningly sweet that it could instantly induce Type 2 diabetes.

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Miniaturized Handheld Portal Devices – Picture this. Your kid has picked out cheap 39 cent toys for the party bags. You don’t want to say no, because the things are only 39 cents and they look fun, but they aren’t really consistent with Portal cannon. So you slap a bogus label on them and toss them in the favor bag, kind of hating yourself because you’ve once again mommed things up.


Ah, well. The kids seemed to have fun, or if they didn’t, they kept their yaps shut about it. They ate junk food and played video games for a few hours, then they went home. In another year, their parents will have forgotten about the stuff I sent home with them and we’ll throw another party.

Maybe next time we’ll theme on Little Big Planet. Sack people and prize bubbles everywhere … maybe a giant prize bubble piñata … yes … I can work with that.