Art Part Time

some thoughts on the virtues of amateur and hobby arts and crafts

One of my favourite quotations (despite its depressing subtext, i.e. that only men have careers, pursue art, etc) is found in Bandhu Scott Dunham's book Lampworking:
The single label we commonly hang on ourselves and on our friends -- doctor, lawyer, or whatever -- represents only a part of us. There is more to the man than what he learned in school, and now uses to serve society and earn a living. Important as that work may be, it does not exhaust his potential. It is one facet of himself that he has taken the trouble to polish highly, and which he has come to be known by. It is his carte de visite, his passport, certified by competent authority, and guarantees status and respect from his fellows in addition to his daily bread.

If he is wise, part of his leisure hours will be spent alone in a private oasis of his own making, where he may exercise creative talents other than those used in the performance of his professional work. In that oasis he may embark, with audacity, on any creative adventure that attracts him and is consistent with the welfare of his neighbors.

-- John Burton, Glass

and this page is an account of some of the things I have done quietly, without harming my neighbours, to live a fuller life and do a little more than just what I'm paid for.

Confessions of a Dilettante

Over the years I have tried, and sometimes quickly abandoned, various art forms. Seems the older I get, the more curious I get about "how the heck they do that." The older I get, the more depressed I get about how little most of us (myself included) know about how things are really done, made, constructed, etc. How many of us live up to the famous "basic skills" list proposed by Heinlein's fictional character Lazarus Long, many years ago?

At some point I became aware of the painfully narrow focus of my few pet interests, and felt a need to branch out into terra incognita. How, I asked myself, does origami work? I must have seen finished pieces thousands of times, and I knew how to make a couple of kid-culture paper folds back in grade school. I wonder if I can remember any of those. Hot damn, my fingers remembered how to make a cootie catcher, and I spent a year or so rediscovering folded paper, happily learning to make boxes (and more devilish things).

I saw some people painting on silk at an art store and was intrigued. How do they do that? how do the colours work? Gee, that's pretty. I'd like to try that. So I did. For several years I have, intermittently, painted silk. Some pieces I sold, most I gave away to friends, some I kept. It's the only kind of painting for which I ever showed the slightest affinity, and it's given me many hours of happy play along with an occasional good result. It also re-introduced me to the tradition of gifts made by hand as opposed to the store-bought kind, and this brought a new dimension and happiness to holidays and birthdays (for me anyway; let's hope my friends and family are being sincere in their kind words and appreciation!)

Somehow silk painting and origami in combination led me towards quilting, that antique and patient art. With a little study I managed to make a few decent quilted pieces as gifts for friends. And now when I look at a quilt, or even a piece of ordinary clothing, I know how it was made. I know the difference between hand and machine stitching. I know how many hours it takes to make what I see. I have a new respect for the labour involved, the precision, the mathematics, the planning, the extraordinary perseverance.

Remembering my deceased grandparents, I recalled the amazing coloured knitting my maternal grandmother used to make, the busy click-tick of her needles which accompanied her everywhere. I could barely remember the basic knitting skills she taught me years ago; while technology has marched on and the human race allegedly progressed, in my own family a fundamental skill has atrophied and been forgotten in just two generations. I decided to rediscover how to knit. I will never recover the level of proficiency a lifelong knitter like Grannie had, but with patience I did manage to knit a few functional and not-too-ugly garments. And now when I look at a sweater or hat, I know how it was made. I know how a straight piece of string magically turns into a complex three dimensional form.

Most recently I have indulged a lifelong curiosity, which dates from my very first marble: how do they get the colours in there? How do they do that? So I got a torch and some glass and started where beginners start, making glass beads. If I'm patient and work hard, I might even make a marble of my own someday :-) but in the meantime, I'm fascinated simply by my discovery of glass (surely the most bewitching of all artists' media) and the lore of the hot glass world.

It's my belief that one of the finest things about the human race (a species of otherwise dubious merits) is our need to Make Stuff and Do Stuff. We take the decorative impulse, the quest for the beautiful and the nifty, further than any other species on the planet. Some of the earliest artifacts our remotest ancestors left behind are paintings and statuettes; in the infancy of our human culture we were already making nifty stuff. We are not merely a grim utilitarian bunch; we have an endearing taste for the unnecessary, for what is nice to look at and fun to play with. It's the most lovable thing about us, for my 2 cents; we're otherwise pretty nasty and brutish (though not all of us are short).

There are two great pleasures in exploring any new art or craft. One is the simple joy of being an innocent newbie again, unburdened by sophistication or expectations, revelling in the exhilaration of the steep learning curve and the feeding of our insatiable appetite for the New and the Unknown. I love being a beginner again -- it's both humbling and encouraging. The other explorer's delight is the fun of discovering the subcultures that thrive throughout our allegedly monolithic popular culture.

The guilds of knitters and quilters, the clubs and associations of paper folders, the international literature of silk painters, the glass workers and their secretive arts; all these apparently normal people are passionately devoting their leisure hours to art forms whose inception dates back from centuries to millennia. It's a splendid continuity. It makes one proud to be human, rather than (as I feel all too often these days) weary and ashamed.

Not to get too heavy here, but I think it does us good to create, to design and scheme with our own brains and to work and construct with our own hands. It's a Good Thing about being human. It makes time slow down; with busy hands and a relaxed brain, freed from the endless manipulation of symbols and abstractions, something fundamental in us gets to uncurl and take the air. We create instead of just consuming. We think about Now instead of planning for Then. We lose the noise and trivial worry-hustle of the daily grind, the endless buzz and mutter of our own opinions and contentions and anxieties, in a timeless concentration on colour and form and feeling in the present moment. And sometimes, if we're lucky, we get the big bonus: the unalloyed thrill of looking upon our own work and seeing that it is good.

I present here, in all humility, a few pictures that show what a happy beginner can achieve in various arts and crafts, starting with nothing but enthusiasm and the willingness to read a few books, find or buy some materials and tools to work with, and try.
De Clarke
UCO/Lick Observatory
University of California
Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Tel: +1 408 459 2630
Fax: +1 408 454 9863