(revised and updated: August 10, 2011)
If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, you’ve probably noticed in the eclectic mix of things I post a solid chunk of updates about crafters and artists of various stripes. This may seem a little strange to anyone who knows me well enough to know that my own crafting/artistic skills pretty much stop at macaroni and glitter. It may also seem a little strange to anyone who hasn’t held something handmade and marveled at it (and to have never experienced that is sadly becoming more and more common). Certainly, most handmade items we run across are old and have lost some of the impact they may once have had as contemporary or useful objects.
Personally, I find crafters fascinating because of one unifying trait I’ve noticed in at least all the good ones: a love of the act of creation. This is what attracts me. Many of my fellow liberals are often chided for supporting art (and for believing in government funding of the arts) and there is some truth to governmental-art-for-arts-sake is not always for the public good or the good of art (that’s a topic for later). But I feel a large part of the disconnect people feel about is these days is because we’ve forgotten what true art is about — art is not about truth or beauty, it’s not a cerebral accomplishment to be studied and debated. The public benefit from art is not solely the display and shared experience of it, it’s also a community of people who are devoted to creating the new. What I consider art is that act of creating something new and doing it with originality and passion. Much of the art of the 20th (and the 21st so far) lacks that completely, and that’s why people have stopped caring about it. It stopped reaching us on that level and we stopped giving a damn.
However, that spirit of true art lives on with many of the crafters and other artists I’ve met. They don’t make things just for money, they do it because that act of creation is an undeniable force in their lives; it’s both an addiction and therapy. An almost sexual tension builds as they begin, only to be released when they come up with something that finally scratches that itch they’ve been feeling in their brain, their heart and their soul. And if you’re lucky enough to see and experience what they’ve created, all of that comes along for the ride and you feel it too.
That’s all fine and good, I’m sure many of you say, but how does that apply to, say for example, soap (seeing as how I seem to tweet about it a lot)? Soap is a good example, as two of my favorite crafters are Kylee Lane (@kyleelane) and Lesley Karpiuk (@geeksoap) and they are all about the soap.
Soap is something we all use every day (some attendees at conventions obviously exclude themselves) and a bar of soap is as utilitarian an object as I can think of. As most of us experience it, it’s a model for the ‘progress’ of the last 100 years — it’s mass produced in mostly humanless factories from various combinations of chemicals that you can’t pronounce, packaged in bright shiny packaging designed to appeal to our basic mammalian instincts, and then sold to us as the solution to all our problems and truth to tell, it almost never works as advertised. Now, before anyone accuses me of being a Luddite, let me say that for the most part I love technology and progress. I would much rather live 100 years in the future than a 100 years in the past.
But sometimes, especially when the economic bottom line is driving the process of decision making, we end up with a result that is, at best, unsatisfying and, at worst, actively harmful — all in the name of cost and efficiency. So what do Kylee and Lesley do differently? Well, I’ll speak mostly about Kylee as I know more about her business directly, but I believe pretty much all of what I say about one also applies to the other. Kylee makes each of her soaps by hand. And as much as possible, every step in the process is done with a true craft-person’s ethic: soap bases are developed by hand, molds are often made by hand (including my faves, the Companion Cube soap and Alliance Soap Bar!), scents and colors are mixed per batch and done all by hand (and never with the cheapest ingredients, but with the right ones for the job). Even all the packaging is done by hand — if you ever have bought a soap from Kylee, I can 100% guarantee her little hands were intimately involved in every step of its production.
And what does all that get you? It gets you art. They take something that most of us don’t spend more than a second thinking about and turn it into something that you stare at in wonder, something you’ll surreptitiously hold up to your nose just to catch that fragrance one more time. Something you show off to friends and family. You can spill paint on canvas and probably sell it to someone as ‘art’ but to be able to turn something as pedestrian as soap into art takes real genius. In addition, touching on an earlier point, once you hold a quality handmade soap — once you use that soap, using anything else becomes almost painful, as you can’t help but be reminded of the superior product every time run across a mass-produced one.
Kylee’s soaps are not just geeky because they feature Carbonite, invaders from space, famous bounty hunters, or console controllers (both this and this!!) — or even that ThinkGeek sells some now, her soaps are geeky because she’s geeky about making soap. Her stuff is cool because of its quality, not because it’s currently cool to be geek. They’ll continue to be cool long after the current love affair with geek culture is over — and that is one of the other things that set the Kylee’s and Lesley’s apart from everyone else. I’ve seen other artists who ‘create’ soaps and other things – I’ve seen and sampled the quality, and for all the ‘geeky’ bells and whistles, some of the stuff might as well have been turned out on an assembly line in one of those hulking factories. A geeky label wrapped around a plain bar of soap is simply pandering to what’s fashionable, not an expression of geek pride.
Luckily, quality crafting and art are not limited to Kylee and Lesley (awesome as they are, you can’t live on soap alone!). There’s @GEEKLEETIST who is an amazing and talented artist and just a great guy to know (I own two of his prints: this and this), and @VictoriaTheGerm who makes pillows that are just incredible (like this!). Even folks who I started following on Twitter for just general geekery are getting started (@chibi_missy for example, see more here). And lastly, two more of my absolute favorite people: @cthulhuchick makes crocheted Cthulhus like this, and @toasterlicious.
What does @toasterlicious (a.k.a Jess, Jessie, my #MUPS along with Kylee) do? Well, that’s a funny story. When I first met her on Twitter, she obviously shared my love and appreciation for crafters, all the while claiming no talents of her own. Through a number of conversations and interactions though, it became clear that she was a gifted writer (and those who know me, know I do not praise writers lightly) and I can proudly claim to have played a small part in her restarting her efforts at blogging.(Since this was originally posted, she has moved on from a wordpress.com and has a hosted blog at her own domain) And as a writer, I fully classify her as a crafter as well — most of us use writing as a method of communication and effectively accomplish that through some pretty hamfisted efforts. On the other hand, both as a writer and editor, Jess wields words like others handle paint brushes or sculpting tools. Which is sort of an interesting metaphor, as over time I noticed she would occasionally post some drawings on Twitter. When I complemented her on them, she once again disavowed any skill and in fact went out of her way to deny her artistic ability in the strongest terms possible. Well, long story short, she experienced some exciting developments on that front too.
I explain all this about Jess because she’s as great an example of what I’m talking about as Kylee and the other “traditional” crafters. Neither of them can help but create something, and no matter the medium, I know they will both always be actively engaged in creating art with passion and creativity. They bring the ‘new’ into the world, and they do don’t do it just for money, fame, or anything else other than they simply couldn’t stop if they tried (or if they did try, they’d be utterly miserable *grin*).
You will have hopefully noticed I included links to Twitter accounts for all the crafters I’ve mention — these crafters and artists I follow on Twitter whose work I truly believe in. They represent all of what I talked about above day-to-day far better than I could ever hope to explain it. They are artists, dreamers, and some of them are dear friends that I can’t imagine not being part of my life. Most importantly though, they make art that makes our world a better place and they create as naturally as the rest of us breath. The links will take you to their Twitter accounts and from there you can follow links to their own blogs/business websites etc.
In summary I do have to add two more names here that are worthy of note and that help explain my love of crafters: First is my mother. Back before she was a political force to be reckoned with, back before she was the first woman elected to Congress from Virginia, and back even before she’d been in the state legislature or the local PTA — she did stained glass. She’s a talented artist in many ways, but it was the stained glass that always stood out to me, and the only skill like that I’m aware of she turned into a business. In addition to making little stained glass cardinals and sailboats to sell at local craft fairs, there were a few pieces she did that had an effect on me. First was set of two windows at my parent’s house, where her stained glass took them from plain boring holes of lights to beautiful paintings of flowers in glass. The second included pieces for a local (Washington, DC) Irish bar near Capitol Hill called the Dubliner. Still there today (as far as I know) is a half-height simple window with diamonds of orange and clear glass and a small interior ‘window’ showing the four provinces of Ireland. My mom did those, and while some people may not know of her political career or any of her other accomplishments, I can always point to that stained glass at the Dubliner and say “My Mom did that.” Those two pieces are always what I think of when I consider the value of crafters and the things they make.
Last and most certainly not least is my wife, Kathy (@KatMByrne on Twitter). Back in the summer of 1993 when we met, she almost immediately started encouraging my efforts at being creative in a variety of ways. Oh, and so I told a little fib at the start — I have done more than macaroni and glitter in terms of art or crafts — but almost all of it Kathy should get the credit for, as she was the one who made it possible. I did everything from growing and blending my own herbal teas (both flavored and medicinal), to crocheting a blanket for her while she was busy making a number for our first child. One of my favorites examples is her allowing and even encouraging me to spend money we didn’t even really have at the time to not only make our own entertainment center, but to “dress it up” like it was an old-style puppet theater complete with drapes and decorations.I don’t know why I wanted to other than I’d had the idea that a TV is kind of like a puppet theater (especially back before LCD/LED TVs). So she is always first in my mind when I think the difference crafts can make in someone’s life. Not only did Kathy do all of that encouragement and inspiration, she’s actually an excellent and skilled crafter herself.
So support the crafters above. Try and become a crafter yourself if you think you can. Support everyone who is engaged in making the world something greater than it is. If you have the choice between handmade and the usual mass-produced crap, at least try the handmade. It’ll be worth it — I promise. Most importantly, surround yourself with those who are creative and bring a little more beauty into existence, and you will find it easier to do the same. I certainly have.