Horse in box

I’m feverishly working on a new presentation for my work. It involves boxes.

A lot of boxes.

I scoured junk yards and antique stores for months, compiling a collection of likely candidates. At first it was hard because I didn’t know what I was looking for. (Let me introduce you to my collection of cigar boxes….)

I had no idea how I would restore them, either. I mean, I had a vision of them in my head–worn, beaten, discolored and encrusted by age and dirt.. But how to get that look? Leave them “raw”? (A greasy, dirty box looks wonderful, but real grease and dirt are stinky and messy.) Paint them? (I’d lose a lot of the writing and markings that make the boxes interesting.) What kind of paint? Latex? Milk? Chalk?

I finally hired a friend, a furniture-maker, to let me work in a section of his woodworking shop. I get to use his tools and supplies, while he guides me through the basics of surface treatments and finishes.

It’s been a nice relationship. And most of all, I’m getting a lot of work done. Nobody can “find” me here, and I work for hours uninterrupted.

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Soon I learn which boxes work, and which ones one won’t. Cigar box walls are too thin for my purposes, though maybe I’ll find another use for them. Some boxes were promising, but proved to take too much work to restore them. Others that looked grungy clean up surprisingly easily. Some have to be washed and scrubbed, then set out to dry. Others just need a little scrubbing with a brass brush and a couple blasts of compressed air. (Note to self: Compressed air would be AWESOME to clean house with!)

As we work on our respective projects, Gary and I have many discussions on design versus technique. Some boxes are extremely simple–not much fine woodworking technique involved. Sometimes just a few well-placed nails hold everything together. But their dimensions and proportions are beautiful, and the wood soaks up the glazes, paints and wax beautifully.

Some of my favorite small boxes are handmade sets, made for homemade storage chests. They are made from cut-down cheese boxes or slats from fruit crates, painted in gay colors that are now muted and worn. Odd specialty nails act as “pulls” on the fronts. They are simple, lovely and intriguing.

Other boxes look intricate and wonderful. But the quality of wood is poor. Or the box has been cut down badly. Or the finishing is bad, or the “faux aging” techniques are faulty (wear marks that are arbitrary, for example.) Or cheap backing materials are used instead of wood. Eventually, I learn which ones aren’t worth my time to refinish or restore.

A lot to think about from an artist’s point of view. Technique or design? Gary weighs in heavily on design, his forte. His techniques are solid, too, but he believes technique is nothing without exquisite design.

As a juried member of the League of NH Craftsmen and other fine craft venues, it’s tempting to go that route. Easy to judge and feel superior. Sometimes my lizard brain goes there.

But then I remember there’s a place in the world for all. I tell Gary about my dad, who took up woodworking after he retired. He claimed he couldn’t make anything unless someone drew a picture of it for him. He needed measurements and drawings to make his craft. Everything he made was well-made, from good wood. It won’t appear on the covers of any art magazines, though.

And yet, when I look around my home and see the pieces he made for me–a table for behind the sofa, lamp tables, a step stool, a coffee table (why do I always ask him to make tables for me??), I know they are as priceless to me as a Van Gogh.

Something made with love has its own inestimable value.

Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory--polymer clay
Unmatched shaman mask earrings, in faux ivory–polymer clay

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #12: The Muse Never Falters

MYTH: Creativity never sleeps. If you hit a wall, then you aren’t a real artist.

Truth: The Muse will come and go, but give her half a chance and she will always return.

Today’s myth was inspired by a blog post from Danielle LaPorte, whose website White Hot Truth…because self realization rocks is becoming one of my favorite reads.

“Life balance” is an insidious myth. Picasso, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Maria Callas – they weren’t aiming for balance, they were aiming to rock their genius, and they’ve all had periods of burn out.

This was a little spooky. Okay, a LOT spooky. Because I got the old synchronicity thing going again.

Because a few days ago, for the first time in like two years (or more???), I sat down and began working on a new series of fiber work.

Danielle’s post today was actually the third or fourth synchronistic thingie. The second was her post from a few days ago, about kissing up to your muse.

I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago with a great idea for next month’s column for The Crafts Report. At first I rolled over to go back to sleep. I’d just sent in my column and had a few weeks before the next one was do. I was sure I’d remember the great idea.

But something in me said, “No. Get up NOW. Just go write it.”

I went with it. And wrote almost the entire article in one sitting.

The spooky thing about that? It was the night before her post on don’t-dis-the-Muse. (Cue Twilight Zone music…)

The synchronicity thingie piece before that happened at dinner out with friends last week. Turned out one of our dinner companions is the daughter of another good friend who’s a painter. Her dad has a new series of artwork on exhibit, after a hiatus of many years from painting.

I mentioned I’d tried to buy one of his paintings a few years ago and he wouldn’t sell me one. She said yeah, he had a “thing” about not selling any until he had a body of work produced, even though he hadn’t even started his new phase when I’d tried to buy one. “He’s funny that way,” she mused. (Pun intended.)

Funny? Hmmm….. He wouldn’t sell his old paintings…. He’d stopped painting…. Now he had a new body of work.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I hadn’t made any new fiber work because it had stopped selling a few years ago. I don’t care what the newspapers say, artists and craftspeople know the recession started a lot further back than last year. Oh, I sold a few, but it was tortuous.

When people stopped buying, it wasn’t exciting to make more. And as they sold (slowly), I unconsciously held on to the ones I had left.

So that, if the muse never came back, I’d have something on hand to prove I really had been an artist.

I know it’s it’s desirable to grow and change as an artist. But change for change’s sake was not desirable (for me.) I was stuck.

Awhile ago, I realized that even if my fiber work remained what it was, and I never had a new idea, well, having that one really great theme in my life would be “good enough”. That cracked the door open again.

The remark that made me realize I was hoarding my old work opened that door a little wider.

Getting up in the middle of the night to write blew it open. Danielle’s post was like putting a door stop in it, to keep it open.

And then I sat down at my sewing machine and thought, “What if I just do some simple little pieces….? Just for me.”

Her post today was the final nail in the coffin. Er, door. Should doors be nailed open?? Okay, forget that metaphor, it stinks.

So being willing to be a “not very good artist” again (making the same old work) and realizing what I was holding on to (“I was once a pretty good artist!”) was enough to get me in front of my sewing machine once again. (Which is when I also sewed through my finger, but I’m not going to let that stop me, either, though I worry that my machine has now tasted blood.)

Danielle’s observation–that the muse may come and go, but if we care enough, we will just hang in there–was powerful. Letting go when the inspiration wanes, knowing we will come back, somehow, some way, even though we have no idea what that will look like, that feels like jumping off the edge of the world.

But now I know, as long as I persevere, it will indeed come back.

Because it has to. Or I’ll die.

It may be the same stuff. If so, then I will keep making it. I will rejoice and be grateful I had at least one really good thing to offer the world.

It may start the same and change. That’s okay, too. It will be what it will be.

What’s important is–it’s back.

I don’t care what it looks like anymore. I don’t care what other people think about it anymore.

I just have to do it.


So a few days ago, I found various lumps that may or may not be cancer. I went into the understandable emotional nosedive. I was on the phone with my doctor’s nurse and heard myself crying and saying, “I’m scared! I’m so scared!” I’m already on my way into that nebulous world of clinic visits, testing, waiting for test results. I’ve been there before. It’s not a fun place to be.

I’m also here, putting my thoughts together to write a column on booth design.

So why am I writing about how to display your work when I should be focusing on whether there’s a chance I won’t be here in a few short years?

Because the cancer can wait.

I don’t mean I’m in control of that. In fact, I’m NOT in control of that. I either have it, or it’s something else. Whatever “it” is will involve weeks of testing, pain, discomfort, waiting, no matter what…and probably there will be no clear answers or final resolution.

But I’m not here on earth to have cancer.

I’m here to do a lot of other things. And I’ve got to focus on doing them as much as I can, as long as I can, until that’s no longer under my control.

I pitched my old column recently to a new magazine editor.  I was asked to describe it.  I wrote, “I write how becoming an artist has made me a better person.” I meant that.

Focusing on making art–and being becoming a martial artist–with passion, and honesty, has helped me become a more authentic person. Someone who things carefully about what I want to say and who I want to be. It’s made me want to share the process, so others, if they are so inclined, can do it, too.

The desire to continue this process, and writing about it, has made me not only a better artist, but a better wife, mother, friend, person.

The threat of cancer has only made that desire burn more fiercely yet.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone, not yet. I hate the drama queen approach to life. I don’t want to drum up a ton of sympathy when it’s not even certain what’s going on.

Yet the last time I tried to carry something like this alone, it got weird. People knew something was terribly wrong–and assumed it was our friendship. Then I had a lot of back story to give out, and a lot of explaining to do. Painful.

And of course, there was the resentment that I hadn’t considered them enough of a friend to tell them. Ouch! In trying to spare people anxiety, I had increased mine (by going it alone) and insulted them.

So this time I’m letting people know.  And letting them know what I need right now.

And letting them know what I don’t need.

I don’t want a lot of cancer stories. Yet. Maybe that will change. But right now, I don’t want to hear the long, involved, courageous battle stories. I don’t feel very courageous. And I’m sorry, but I’m totally involved with MY story.

I don’t want a lot of sympathy, either. A quick hug will do it.

I don’t want people to disappear, either. Some people don’t know what to do. (I’m always one of those people.) They don’t know what I want. Hey, I don’t know, either.

Last night, though, I thought of one thing I do want.

I want authentic moments.

When I’m with people I care about and like, I just want them to be their own selves.

If they are being whiney or pissy or silly, I now have the freedom to tell them that. I don’t mean the cancer trump card–like, “You don’t get to complain, I might have cancer” thing. That’s selfish. People are entitled to their own lives.

I mean I get to encourage people to be their authentic selves. Like “You are so incredible and you have such wonderful gifts–what’s holding you back in this situation from you being the most wonderful “you” you can be?”

Life is short. Life is achingly sweet. Why spend time and energy digging a hole any deeper, when you can dig some steps and get out of the hole?

(I’m so compulsive about my metaphors being perfect, I have to add, “Unless your goal in life is to dig holes”, in which case, keep on digging.)

So this ordeal is not the hole. It’s just a little water in the bottom, encouraging me to dig those steps a little faster.

P.S.  I wrote this a couple weeks ago, when I first got the scary news.  I’m through the first round of testing, and so far the results are encouraging.  Looks like there’s nothing to be scared of, for now.

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