Saturday, June 28, 2008

Once Upon A Time...

... there was a girl (well, actually a woman old enough to know better) who was swept off her feet by a handsome prince (well, at least he was handsome).

The girl had a handful of long term relationships in the bag and felt ready to try another one. The prince had survived being married to the Wicked Witch of the West and thought the girl was pretty nice.

So they got married and were all set to live happily ever after.

But then the girl fell head over heels off her bike and was out of commission for a very long time. The prince became worried about who would take care of him.

Then the prince started getting called into the king's office and being told he better shape up or ship out. The girl was very worried because she couldn't work and was afraid the prince would lose the king's favour. "Don't worry, " he scoffed, "The king will never fire me, I'm in the Princes Union."

But the girl kept worrying, and, as the months passed, turned into a terrible nag. "The writing is on the wall, honey," she said. "Wouldn't it be wise to send out some resumes?" The prince was becoming very unhappy because the king wasn't letting up, and in fact had hired some of his henchmen to supervise the lazy prince. So he took some time off and lay on the couch and watched movies to make himself feel better.

At last the day came when the king called the prince into his office for the last time. "Go away and never come back," shouted the king. "You are banished." When the girl heard the news she was upset but still willing to stand by her man. But then the prince told her that instead of looking for a job, he was going to join a Thin Lizzy tribute band for the summer. "They need me!" he said.

And with that, the girl flipped her ever-lovin' lid and told the prince that was that. "I'm going off to earn some money and when I come back I don't want to see you," she cried. The prince rolled his eyes and phoned his ex-girlfriend.

A few days later, the girl came back, with her pockets full. But she was dismayed to see that all her things were on the front lawn, her dog tied to a tree, and the locks to the house changed. The prince was nowhere to be found, but he had left a note: "Take your crap and get lost."

The girl was very sad but knew it was for the best. Some princes just never grow up. She untied the dog and together they set off in search of peace and happiness.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Iron Pour and Wisconsin Wrapup

The iron pour crew were surprisingly hot (and I don't mean in temperature) looking in their leather gear, heatproof coats and hard hats. Kind of a Mad Max vibe, very tough - even the girls had such strong looking arms, and smudges of soot on their foreheads, quite attractive. I loved the coats with SCULPTURE stamped on them.

The furnace had this amazing spout.

Here's Keely showing off her mold, carved in compressed sand. Cast tiles are on the table in front of her.

Here's the town waterfront on Lake Michigan.

And the inner harbour.

Sheboygan is refreshingly free of chain stores. Here's the sweet little zipper repair shop.

And finally, me in front of my quilt made from discarded fabrics, part of the DIY exhibit in the Community Gallery. The installation cleverly used hand lettered signage instead of the usual discreet white cards.

The Most Beautiful Bathrooms in the World

As I mentioned in a previous post, the bathrooms at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center are utterly remarkable. Artists were commissioned to create bathroom environments using the industrial processes available at the Kohler factory. The sinks, toilets and tiles of these washrooms are glazed porcelein, as tough and easy to clean as boring old white tiles. If you're planning a reno of the old "bog", here's some inspiration. And there are lots more photos on the Art Center website.

I didn't get a chance to ask any men what they thought of the "Gentlemen" facilities, but when I first arrived at the Kohler and used the "Ladies", it was full of women snapping photos and giggling their heads off.

I promised Lisa Anne Auerbach that I would take some "Knit and Shit" photos as she so demurely calls them. The first few are a la the Yarn Harlot's sock pictures.

But I finally dropped my pants to fully avail myself of the Family bathroom's hospitality.

The really funny part was when I stood up the ball of yarn fell in the toilet. An unanticipated hazard!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sheboygan! Sheboygan! What a Wonderful Town...

The Swap-O-Rama-Rama this past weekend was a lovely manifestation of the warmth and friendliness of this small Midwestern city. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center provided a fantastic venue, the most wonderful staff and the bounty of the "Treasure Room".

We had a veritable feast of buttons, trims, zippers, appliques and other goodies laid out to work with.
Brand new Janome sewing machines were generously provided by Daryl of The Sewing Machine Shop in Sheboygan Falls.

Yoko, recently of Kyoto Japan, made a fiesta skirt.

Mom and daughter came early and sewed for hours.

High school students Willa, Libby and friend made frothy tutus.

Claire came from Chicago and created this very cool shirt.

A.J. arrived thinking there wouldn't be anything to do, found this vest, altered it to fit, silkscreened a patch, then not only went on to make a tie and another vest, but also modeled in the fashion show!

The Kohler's fabulous Elsa Lenz not only made everything happen, she found time to sew this shapely Alabama Chanin corset top!

Karen shows off her top. She said her husband really liked the way it fit!

Tracy made an elegant black and white version.

I made one out of a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and kids Pokemon pullover. (It wasn't my size though, so adorned the welcoming mannequin.)

And I saved the best for last - the people of Sheboygan proved they have great hearts and lots of nerve, and totally rocked the participatory fashion runway. I was thrilled - we are always trying to get participants up on stage but they always beg off. But the magic happened in Sheboygan, the gauntlet has been thrown. I can't wait to see the DIY fashion show pics from YOUR town!

If you do happen to be in Sheboygan this summer, a mini Swap will be happening through July and August in the Artery at the Kohler. Two sewing machines will be set up, lots of goodies to work with, and the lovely art intern Kara to help.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Greetings From Sheboygan, Wisconsin

I'm here in Sheboygan, which is a picture perfect small city on the shore of Lake Michigan. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which is hosting me, is an absolute gem of a gallery. The collection of folk/ousider/vernacular art is as impressive, magical and heart-breaking as I imagined it would be. A gorgeous building, friendly smart people, great art, awesome programming - really, everyone, you have to visit here one day.

And the washrooms have to be experienced! Check this out:
(I'm sorry, I'm not on my home computer so there will be a shortage of links. Just Google.)

The show Vested Interests blew my mind. Basically, fiber art with political intent, featuring some of my most favourite hero artists, like Lisa Anne Auerbach and Mark Newport. And there were some people I hadn't known before but was really impressed by, like Anne Lemanski, Frau Fiber and Natalie Chanin. The famous Ms. Homeland Security: Illegal Entry Dress Tent was there, too, along with some of the Japanese kimonos from the recent book Wearing Propaganda.

And I will give a full report on the Swap-O-Rama-Rama to be held on Sunday once I'm back home. But I have to tell you about my visit to the Kohler factory today, especially in light of my recent posts on DIY. Kohler is a bathroom fixture manufacturer. Just like the kids who get to visit a farm for the first time and find out that milk doesn't come from the dairy shelf in the supermarket, I was somewhat astonished to find out the artistry and brute human strength that go into making our sinks, tubs, and toilets.

Kohler gives guided tours, led by glowingly proud long time employees of the company. Our guide, Elmer, took us through the porcelein plant, the cast iron foundry and the brass foundry, filling us in on all kinds of fascinating information about the processes involved. I was amazed to see the amount of human labour that goes into making the fixtures that we take for granted - the skillful finishing, polishing and glazing. And I was overwhelmed by the intensity of sounds and smells, the glow of molten metal, the darkness, the rows upon rows upon rows of toilets, sinks tubs, urinals, bidets, water fountains, you name it. Burly men wrestling cast iron sinks around, sparks flying, it felt like something primeval.

And it is. This kind of work is what built our countries, is part of our heritage, yet we are increasingly disconnected from it. Kohler is a very unique facility in that it hosts artists from all over the world to come and work using the facilities of the plant to create art. The connection between industrial skills and creative processes is kept alive. The work is amazingly varied and uniformly powerful. The results of the artists' efforts line the streets and parks of the town of Kohler.

So I think I must add a bit to my posts on DIY. I was too narrowly focussed on my own area of sewing and textiles - it is all still true, but possibly a bit romantic and girly. The physical, muscular, masculine energy of making objects from the raw materials of the earth has much to respect and learn from.

There's an iron pour on Sunday at the Arts Center. I'll try to steal time away from the Swap to try my hand at pouring a tile. Ahhh, the thrill of DIY!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Do It Yourself - Part 3 - Stewards of Materials

There's more. (At Swap-O-Rama-Rama, our motto is: There's always more!)

As Susan Strasser points out in her essential book Waste and Want, A Social History of Trash:
"Fixing and finding uses for worn and broken articles entails a consciousness about materials that is key to the process of making things to begin with. If you know how to knit or do carpentry, you can understand how to mend a torn sweater or fix a broken chair. you can appraise the materials and evaluate the labour of the original maker; you can understand the principles of the object's construction; you can comprehend the significance of the tear or the wobble and how it might be mended; you know how to use needles or hammers; you can incorporate scraps from your own previous projects or consign object beyond repair to your scrap collection. Even at the end of the 19th century, when factory production was already well established, many Americans possessed the skills and consciousness required for repairing. Women, who continued to sew and to mend clothing, preserved the skills longer than most men."

Strasser uses the term "steward of objects and materials" to describe people who possess such "skill and consciousness". I savour this idea - that we can actively, lovingly care for and manage the materials we have within our personal realm. It wasn't so long ago that women sewed all the clothes for the family. Cloth used to be precious, a valuable commodity. This knowledge isn't far out of our fingertips, it is still carried in our bodies. The idea of stewardship takes it farther: DIY is not just for yourself, DIY can be for the greater good, for others. Making, mending and repairing are not just practical skills, they reflect an attitude, an ethic of care.

Strasser also refer's to Claude Levi-Strauss's description of the bricoleur. This is a person who works with his or her hands, using scraps or odds and ends, the materials at hand. The bricoleur collects tools and materials because they might come in handy, and always considers new projects by engaging in a conceptual dialogue between the toolbox and the junkbox to determine how they might best be put to use. Obviously, the feminine counterpart here is the sewing basket and the scrap bag. Women used to routinely make and mend clothes for themselves and their families, and when the cloth couldn't be taken any farther it was turned into rag rugs and quilts.

"In cultures based on handwork, handmade things are valuable without being sanctified as art; they embody many hours of labour. People who have not sewed, or at least watched others sewing, value that labour less than those who have, and lack the skills and the scraps that enabled so many women to see old clothing as worthy of remaking. It is easier to discard a ready-made dress, cut and stitched in an unknown sweatshop, than it is to throw away something you or your mother made." says Strasser.

And I agree. I had the experience of visiting a woman this weekend, a very well-to-do older woman who was selling an old Singer sewing machine as part of clearing out her house in preparation for a move. (My entire house would have fit in her driveway.) She had a lovely old treadle machine as well, but said she would never sell it. "My mother sewed all her children's clothes on this machine, she sewed my wedding dress... .I don't sew myself but I have so many memories of my mother at her machine." I wondered how many of the luxurious furnishings of her house would spark that kind of attachment.

Just as Swap-O-Rama-Rama founder Wendy Tremayne says in her essay "Unbounded" it is our birthright to know how to make things.:

"It is a task of our time to take back creativity from industry, reclaim independence, replace ignorance with knowledge and accept our own birthright as creators.

Breathing life back into living is no easy task but it does offer great rewards of the spirit. Revivifying the human experience is a mission of purpose, something commodified life has taken from us. What we have to gain is intimacy, creativity, the revival of community, a healthy planet and ultimately happiness. We can each embrace a do-it-yourself spirit and use it to break down the barrier between consumer and creator and by doing so begin to reclaim the creativity that has been lost to industry.

Like all magnificent things the journey begins with a leap of faith, arms in the air, falling back while questioning if there is a net to catch you. This is the task of our time, to scream with full lungs "we are unbounded" not limited and mechanistic. We are creators."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Do It Yourself - Part 2 - Why Cloth?

Yes, to be sure, practically everything in this world could be approached with a "Do It Yourself" philosophy. Magazines abound with projects of all descriptions, and Maker Faire is the premiere showcase for all things DIY. But there is a reason (or two) why sewing and/or working with cloth is the ideal thin edge of the wedge for the coming revolution.

First of all, textiles and cloth are deeply rooted in all cultures. Mythological and metaphorical references to cloth abound: cloth holds meaning, connected to both the individual body and society as a whole. The technologies of felting, spinning and weaving are foundational to civilization, if not life itself. One of my favourite stories is that of the Fates:

"Behind the power of the gods and beyond all the efforts of men, the three Fates sat at their spinning. No one could tell whence these sisters were, but by some strange necessity they spun the web of human life and made destinies without knowing why. It was not for Clotho to decree whether the thread of a life should be stout or fragile, nor for Lachesis to choose the fashion of the web; and Atropos herself must sometimes have wept to cut a life short with her shears, and let it fall unfinished. But they were like spinners for some Power that said of life, as of a garment, Thus it must be. That Power neither gods nor men could withstand."

So, in a nutshell, cloth is a juicy, rich, fertile medium in which to work. It's not just about clothes.

But then again, it could be. The wearing of clothes is practically a universal experience (naturists aside). It's something everyone can relate to. It could be hard to start a revolution through the making of coffee tables, or birdhouses, for instance. It's pretty much down to the basics: food, clothing and shelter. Witness the Eat Local and Slow Food movements - they have had a huge impact, in no small part because everyone can relate to food. The shelter aspect is more complex and diverse, but there are many kindred spirits out there with ways to build sustainably and affordably, and yes, you can do it yourself!

But working with cloth requires such simple and few tools. The basic technique of a running stitch can be picked up in a few minutes. From there, the possibilities are as infinite as your imagination. Even if you find that sewing may not really be your thing, it creates a foundation of "Aha! This isn't so hard!" which leads to an attitude of "What else can I make?" Knowing how to sew up a hem or embellish a t-shirt opens one up to the possibilities of all the amazing things our hands can do. Next thing you know you could be learning how to weld or building a backyard oven or re-soling your shoes (and otherwise subverting consumer culture.)

So clothing is an ideal medium to use to introduce people to the revolutionary power of doing it yourself.

(And for a delightfully witty critique on the burgeoning DIY industry, check out Tract # 69, D.D.I.Y., in Lisa Anne Auerbach's Tract House project. Click on the image and a PDF of the text will appear. Man, can that Lisa write!)

Next: Part 3: Stewards of Materials

Do It Yourself - Part 1 - Revolution

I have been invited by the John Michael Kohler Arts Centre in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to be an artist-in-residence for their summer DIY series of community programming. I am very excited and honored to be part of this, and before I go I thought I should get some basic concepts down on paper. Well, virtual paper.

I have been "doing it myself" ever since I was a kid, long, long, before it was fashionable. I was the weird hippy girl going out to the woods to gather lichen for dyepots, spinning thick rustic yarn, sewing my own clothes. Those years (early 1970's) coincided with the back to the land movement, the beginning of community recycling depots and a growing awareness of human impact on the environment, the first wave of an energy that has cycled by us a few times now, and is once again a dominant force in our consciousness. Having seen this surge of concern for the environment, and collective attempts to change our destructive frenzy of consumption before, I fervently hope it is here to stay. I don't think we will survive otherwise.

So, taking a page from the anarchist cookbook, Recipes For Disaster, I say to you:

"Do It Yourself."

"The raw awareness that you have the power to change the world is more important than any other resource -- it is the hardest one to develop and share, and the most essential. Giving your endorsement to political representatives, social programs, or radical ideologies will be of little avail if the fundamental problem is you don't know your own strength."

"Self-determination begins and ends with your initiatives and actions, no matter where you live. It must be established on a daily basis, by acting back on the world that acts on you -- whether that means calling in sick to work on a sunny day, starting a neighbourhood garden with your friends, or toppling a government. You cannot make a revolution that distributes power equally except by learning first hand how to exercise and share power -- and that exercising and sharing, on any scale, is itself the ongoing, never-concluded project of revolution."

If you read Wendy Tremayne's essay, Unbounded, you will find she clearly lays out one way to exercise our power: Swap-O-Rama-Rama (SORR). Apparently it can't be said too often that SORR is NOT your average clothing swap, where the frenzy of consumption rages unabated, and in fact greediness and hoarding are rampant. Swap-O-Rama-Rama has piles of clothes to swap, sure, but it also has the crucial, indeed revolutionary component of "Do It Yourself".

At a SORR you can learn to sew, be guided through the steps of designing and making your own clothing, accessories, jewelry, whatever you can imagine. SORR is about stepping away from being a consumer and becoming a creator. The clothes are just raw materials, a renewable motherlode that enables creativity and resourcefulness.

And the best part is you're not doing this alone. At a SORR you're surrounded by your community - friends and allies (whether you've actually met them yet or not). It is the collective energy of the community that makes the magic of SORR - seeing others making things is inspiring and contagious. And the energy continues once the Swap has closed its doors for the day. A SORR organizer from Seattle, Oleana, says every time she wears something she made at the Swap, she gets a compliment, and an opportunity to tell people about the joy of making things yourself. She says it's like sowing seeds, a beautifully apt analogy.

I'll let you in on a not-so-well kept secret: the goal of Swap-O-Rama-Rama isn't for everyone to go home with armloads of clothes. It is to turn people on to the revolutionary power of "doing it yourself". I have seen this power manifest itself over and over at SORR, and I deeply believe that the simple act of taking up needle and thread has the power to change the world.

Tomorrow: Part 2 - Why Cloth?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Beautiful BC

Here's a few more photos from the boat cruise up Burrard Inlet. We went almost to the end of Indian Arm. My mom was a bit disappointed because she had hoped to see the old WigWam Inn (sorry, that's what it was called. BC does have a shameful colonial past) at the end of the inlet. Our Great-Aunt Margie had worked there as a chambermaid way back in the 1930's.

This is looking the other way, back towards Vancouver.

The boat went right up to Silver Falls. As the captain said, a great photo opportunity!

This last picture is taken as we approach the Second Narrows bridge. It collapsed as it was being built, in the 1940's, killing many of the workers. (I didn't realize it, but just found out that the 17th of June is the 50th anniversay of the disaster. See a great article here. It is now formally known as the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. Just beyond it is the rail bridge, and past that can be seen the Chevron oil refinery that is conveniently tucked out of sight of most Vancouverites.

And such is British Columbia. A combination of great beauty and wanton misuse of resources.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

No Time to Blog

Top Five Events of the Past Week:

1. I finally got my bike fixed and rode it for the first time since my accident back in August. (That was where I went head over heels onto the asphalt and broke my neck, 3 vertabrae in my back, my front teeth, and apparently lost some of my marbles.)
Hooray! it was good to be back on the bike, but it has rained every day since then, and I'm still not up to steep hills+wet pavement.

2. My meeting with the credit counsellor showed that I'm not quite as much of a financial dud as I thought I was. My new best friend will be a calculator, though.

3. My personal life is in disarray of soap opera-ish proportions..

4. The completely lovable yet boisterous to the max Miss Keiko Puff Banana (her show dog name) has chased our sweet little Britannia over not one but two fences and into the netherlands of the co-op. The cat hasn't been seen for two days now. I'm getting worried.

5. I went on a lovely cruise of Burrard Inlet and Indian Arm with my family in honour of my mom's 69th birthday. Here she is with my Uncle Allan in front of Silver Falls (the boat went right up to the shore!)