Crafting Welcome: The Welcome Blanket Exhibit

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Tucked into a lawn-hemmed corner of the University of Chicago campus, The Smart Museum of Art – the UC’s local exhibition space – is currently HQ for the Welcome Blanket Project. Welcome Blanket is a crowd-sourced project that is sending donated crocheted, knitted, and quilted blankets to new immigrants, migrants, and refugees living in the U.S. Along with the blanket, the program is asking that each crafter enclose a personal message of welcome to their blanket’s recipient. The project imagines and performs a mass-scale welcome through letters and yards and yards of yarn and fabric as a way of creatively resisting current “build a wall” rhetoric.

The gallery blurb on the wall clarifies:

By overlapping art, craft, design, architecture, social activism, political resistance, social media, and civic engagement, Welcome Blanket offers a concrete way to explore abstract ideas. Not only by making the concept of a 2,000-mile border wall tangible through yards of yarn, but also by blurring the spaces between individual stories and collective conversations. It connects a large-scale installation in a museum gallery with small-scale local craft circles with single links between a blanket maker and a new neighbor.

How do we make large-scale civic engagement meaningful, positive, and creative for each individual?

How do we intimately understand international crises?

How do we share our singular stories in an understandable way?

I see value in simple acts of welcome, reception, and inclusion through craft. A simple handmade blanket is not much: it does not change legal frameworks and practices. It does not significantly alter the difficult and precarious economic and social conditions of living for refugees and other newcomers to the U.S. And, it is likely not going to change the opinions of people who are committed to shoring up the borders of the country. But, a blanket gifted in this way sends a meaningful message to the individuals and families whose lives are being affected by the recent shift in policy and public sentiment on immigration in the U.S. I have also learned, through joining a local Welcome Blanket knitting circle, that contributing to the project is a way for people to materially make sense of what’s happening and find voice, agency, and community again in concrete and productive ways. Like others, I think with my hands and must grapple with things when working through bigger questions.

My sense is that simple messages and gestures like these, taken by a critical mass of crafters, can restore a sense of hope.

The Space

Imagine being given the best hug you have ever received from a good friend. This feeling of embrace, warmth, and acceptance permeates the Welcome Blanket exhibition space – you’re surrounded by a collection of handmade gifts whose purpose is to offer a little bit of colour, warmth, and comfort.

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Building a wall of welcome

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In line with the exhibit’s theme, the Welcome Blanket space invites visitor-participation. You’re welcome to sit and knit a while, peruse through a binder of personal welcome-notes written by various blanket-makers, or (if you’re new to knitting or crochet) take a seat and try your own hand at basic blanket square-making. The knitting circle meets weekly in this space, and it has been lots of fun to spend some time stitching at the Smart with other UC knitters, transforming what is usually a ‘private’ and solitary activity into one performed in a public and shared space.

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Knit (and crochet) happens.

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Having found out about the Welcome Blanket Project very recently, I knew that I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful act of craftivism, despite never having made a knit-object on this scale before. So, it looks like a foray into blanket-making for me. More on the specific blanket-making process soon!

If you’re heading Chicago-ward in the coming time, the exhibition will be up until December 17th. And if you are interested in donating a blanket yourself to the Welcome Blanket Project, the deadline has just been extended from September 5th to November 4th. So that more people can participate, Welcome Blanket is covering the cost of shipping blankets to the Smart Museum in the US. Learn more at welcomeblanket.org

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Knit, write, run, repeat: On slow progress

Long post alert (but with some knitting updates in tow).

I’m coming to recognize and examine a few things about myself:

1.  I like to get lost in work. Different kinds of work. Usually, whatever it is I have to do. Call it engagement, “flow,” or trance, I rely on that state of zoned-out engagement for a sense of balance and productivity.

2.  I am a slow worker. By this, I mean that I like to take my time. Whether preparing a piece of writing, a piece of knitting, or a meal, I like to consider possible alternatives, undo and re-do my efforts, enjoy all the different steps of a process. I’ve often felt that my slowness has been, up until now, a disadvantage. World records, rewards and races endlessly validate speediness; “slowness” gets a bad rap. But, when I work slowly (and can manage to tame the urgent sense that I should work faster), I get the most work done over the long term. Slow work adds up.

When I first became aware of it, my habit of slow work seemed counter-intuitive and almost paradoxical. Business-y internet clip art and related images of productivity have taught me that productivity thrives on speed: doing multiple things on the go, doing them quickly, one after the other, life-hacking tasks to cut the time it takes to do them. But, the more I committed myself to the kinds of projects I actually enjoyed doing, the more I discovered that there are many things to which shortcuts don’t apply. Some very worthwhile processes are not very “efficient” or streamlined at all. For these processes, slow and steady plodding (with its second chances, pauses, and time for deliberation) feels more comfortable to me. I’m starting to appreciate my disposition for slowness, and am beginning to discover its benefits and advantages.

Knitting

I cultivate my inner ‘plodder’ through knitting, which is the ability to create durable and interesting things one stitch at a time. Well-intentioned people have reacted to my knitting in ways that expressed that they thought it was admirable, but amounted to a form of tedium. In those moments, I wished I was capable – through some sci-fi mind melding – to transmit the states of pleasure and engagement that come from working on a project. For me, there’s the zeal of the pattern-search, when I entertain hope and collect aspirations; there’s the thrill of a fresh cast-on; there’s the mid-way chill-out that comes with seeing the knit grow (and growing into the knit); and the satisfaction of the final bind off. All of this, further, comes wrapped up in anticipation and self-doubt: I never know how the thing is actually going to turn out, so I knit for the simple pleasure of seeing what happens. There’s always some dread that a project might end up quite horrible, so I don’t rush to my doom.

I’ve made progress on the recycled yarn sweater of the previous tutorial, posted in April. I recall purchasing and unraveling the sweater in March. I’m mid-way through re-knitting it into a new sweater – 3 months coming! Now, that’s a slow sweater.

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Recycled yarn sweater in progress – half the back! (May 15, 2017)
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Completed back of recycled yarn sweater, thumbtack-blocking on a spare sofa (June 1, 2017)

Writing

Writing provides similar refuge for my slow-plodder. I’ve been working on a writing project for nearly 3 years. I was once told by someone that, were they in my shoes, they would have given up. I wanted to convey to them how I get lured (tricked) into writing, how there is a wave-like cycle that oscillates between productivity and fallow-time, between the momentum of strongly desiring the things I’m going to write and being absolutely sick of the things that I have.

Unlike knitting, where I can watch my knit grow as I inch towards that FO, I’m often caught off-guard, when writing, by how quickly unrelated content can pile up. A big hunk of my written words, I’ve learned, will have to be cut from the next draft. The equivalent to this experience, in knitting, would be to start, say, a scarf, only to discover that a hat, sock, and some other unrecognizable stuff have also started to insinuate themselves onto the needles. Constant mutation! If my knitting constantly shape-shifted in this way, I would be faced with deciding which one of the emerging projects to pursue; this would come with a twinge of pain at having to say no to some very promising beginnings without any guarantee that they’d be completed later. Having newly committed, say, to knitting the sock instead of the scarf, I might once again find myself re-directed by some new emergent stuff and have to re-decide what it is I’m doing. This is how uncertain and non-linear the process of writing feels to me.

On still other days, there’s just the blankness to contend with. Either way, in the past, I could only make it to the writing table kicking and screaming.

The fear abides. But, I’ve learned that I can make things a little more bearable if I plod gently and slowly: I work my way to the chair, put on some music. I try to keep in mind that none of it is set in stone, and doodle things with pens that no one will see. I work one word at a time, one tiny revision at a time – time enough to build that awkward sentence, register that up-welling horror, and then take a gentler, more yielding stance to it, reworking it where I can. With slowness comes some space to practice forgiving myself, as I go, for all of the bad prose produced. I’m discovering that writing can be a valuable exercise in self-acceptance; the fear is always there.

Running

More recently, I’ve found a new home for my slow, plodding ways: running. Not the race-you-to-the-fence kind of running, but the kind done slowly, at your own pace.  Jogging, I guess.

Last weekend, my partner and I ran Chicago’s 5K Ridge Run. I ran the course in 40 minutes (a plodding 13-minute mile). I found myself – a barely trained running neophyte – having to slow my pace down in order to keep going. But, this pace was slow enough for me to not have to hurriedly toss the little cups of water they hand you to the ground (which felt wrong, the course was in a residential neighbourhood). Instead, I simply jogged to the nearest bin. It was slow enough to see and appreciate the good folks who had shown up, on their own time, to cheer the runners on. And it was slow enough to register the odd bit of chatter between runners –  the way one mother explained to her small daughter the meaning of the word determination (“it means you don’t give up even when something gets really hard”).

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Start at the beginning. At the starting line of Chicago’s 40th annual 5K Ridge Run, May 29th.

We ran in honour and memory of my partner’s father – a seasoned and dedicated runner who ran a Ridge Run (10K or 5K) every single year since the race’s beginnings in 1977. That’s an unwavering 39 races run, over 39 years, in addition to a number of marathons also run, over the years, and all the training that happened in between. I have always been amazed and inspired by this example of commitment. He was able to not only complete courses most would find harrowing, but to maintain his dedication to the sport over decades.

It’s an example to live by.


How do you work best? And how do you, on larger projects, keep motivation alive long enough to go from start to finish?

Happy making, friends. Wishing you a beautiful weekend.

Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair

Yesterday (Sunday) saw two firsts:

one, Chicago had its first day of snow this season – the kind of overcast, subtly slushy city day that feels like a call to snowy adventure. I felt a bit like Peter in Ezra Jack Keats’ beautiful The Snowy Day.

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Two, I attended my very first indie craft show (!), the annual Renegade Craft Fair held in Chicago’s Bridgeport Art Center. This historic 1911 building is an industrial work space in wood beams, skylights, exposed brick, and 3,ooo lb-bearing freight elevators which shake and hum mechanically as they take you to the Skyline Loft on the 5th floor. The building oozes with the energy of creative labour, making the perfect meeting place for lovers of handmade and artisanal wares. Despite still coming off of the tail end of my head cold (this thing is really hanging on), I was determined to go to the Fair. Having first read about it in Handmade Nation, I was very curious about what kinds of things Midwestern crafters were working on.

When we arrived Sunday, the venue was packed to the hilt – really a bustling marketplace. Apparently, Chicagoans love their crafts.

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With roughly 250 vendors, wares included handmade knits, prints, candles, cards, soaps, ceramics, stationary, jewelry, housewares, handwoven textiles (even macramé plant hangers!). I was able to meet and chat with a few folks in the Chicago and regional arts/crafts community and was really inspired by their examples – people who combined hard work and creativity to produce original and magnificent (and useful) things. The ethos of the event, I felt, explored the unity of form and function – the view that art and artistry can be present in, and celebrate, ordinary life and the everyday. Finding and making beauty in the ordinary is something that I deeply value. [Aside: There happen to be no craft-persons or artists in my immediate family that I know of, so I’ve always wondered where this strong impulse came from. The only genealogical ‘art link’ I was able to find was my Great Uncle Andrew. According to the story, he studied with the Philippine portraitist Fernando Amorsolo and was a very talented painter who lived a mostly impoverished life. He’s been described as a kind spirit, perpetually fretful, and worrying.]

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Left: The Loopy Mango yarn booth and its hand-knit super-duper chunky merino sweaters.

I digress. With all the craft and design energy abuzz, I couldn’t help but have an inkling of what it might be like to participate in a fair one day. I started to think of what kinds of things I might be able to produce, and what steps I might take to begin to share my work. Would I choose one medium? Explore several? Or combine them all into a single, new, art-craft megabundle? What would my goals be? Until I decide, I’m happy to continue doodling, subway-knitting, avidly reading blogs, and being an all-around craft enabler and enthusiast.

At the end of the day, I was thrilled to bring home a new tote bag designed by Mustard Beetle Handmade. The tote features artist Elizabeth Jean’s gorgeous brush and ink work. We had a lovely conversation about ink and brushwork – a challenging medium which I also love – and I spent the ride home looking  (marveling) at the detail and beauty of the design (for more info and a link to the Mustard Beetle Etsy shop, see #2 in my list of Memorable Makes below).

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Brush and ink design by Mustard Beetle Handmade

If you are interested in some Renegade craft vendor highlights, read on, friend. And if you have participated in fairs or sold your wares, I would love to hear a bit of your story – how and when did you decide to get started crafting on a larger scale? What brought you to make that transition?

Wishing you a week of very merry making.  

Continue reading “Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair”

A higher power

I am blissfully re-watching footage from yesterday’s Jens Lekman concert. It was one of those nights where you come home from singing with a crowd of strangers to find out that the Chicago Cubs have taken the World Series Title for the first time in 108 years. I’m not a sports-person, or a “native” Chicagoan, but the cheering in the streets and fireworks down our block were a festive conclusion to the day. Wending our way through groups of ecstatic Cubs fans, I felt like I was encountering what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence” – powerful collective experiences of shared symbols that, for Durkheim, were at the origins of religious thought, concepts of the sacred, and ‘society’ itself.

I leave with some Durkheim (1912) and some Lekman (2004):

“It is not difficult to imagine that a man in such a state of exaltation should no longer know himself… It seems to him that he has become a new being… And because his companions feel transformed in the same way at the same moment, and express this feeling by their shouts, movements, and bearing, it is as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinarily lives…In one world he languidly carries on his daily life; the other is one that he cannot enter without abruptly entering into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world and the second, the world of sacred things.”*

 

*1995 [1912]. Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. NY: The Free Press.

Jens Lekman, live

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A little musical post: Completely unbeknownst to me, the beau bought two tickets to Jens Lekman’s Chicago show (November 2nd at Lincoln Hall) knowing that 1) Jens Lekman is one of my much-loved singer-songwriters – he has a way of going from quirky to comic to transcendent and sublime, all in one go – and 2) that I was too swamped with work and such to consider getting the tickets myself. The last time I saw Jens Lekman live was 6 years ago, in Berlin – long enough for me to justify resigning myself, earlier this week, to missing the concert; the tickets came as a complete surprise. It was a much needed night out. Bless the beau.

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The show included a moving opening set by Emmy the Great, audience sing- and tambourine-alongs, a marriage proposal made by Jens to a man in the front row (“but only for the citizenship”), and an old classic – “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” concluded with a tambourine benediction and some exquisite air xylophone which I tried to capture on film. Magic.