The Lost Art of Creating Stuff Ourselves

Creativity is intelligence having fun.” ~Albert Einstein

When was the last time you rolled up your sleeves, got your hands dirty, and made something yourself?

marissas menorahA few weeks ago my niece sent me a photo of a menorah she had made. I couldn’t tell from the photo if it was made from metal, wood, or paper so I asked her how she had made it and she replied that an artist had supplied a metal template which she had painted herself. While I was thrilled that she had done her own artwork, I was a little disappointed that the project hadn’t included drawing out a design, cutting it out of the metal, polishing/sanding the edges, and THEN painting it.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s NOT my niece who disappoints. I love the way she painted her menorah, her creativity, her pride in her work. What disappoints is the system we live in where it is considered unreasonable to turn a 15 year old loose with power tools and teach her how to manipulate the metal to make her own form. I was looking forward to a conversation about what tools she had used, how she had chosen the design and figured out what would be structurally sound to support 9 candles, why she had picked the metal she picked, and what she had learned from the process of creating a functional work of art from a piece of raw metal. Creating things from scratch is rapidly becoming a lost art, and it makes me sad.

In our fast food/convenience world, we can purchase pretty much anything we want. It’s faster and easier to swing by the drive-through than to cook your own dinner. Most of us wouldn’t dream of sewing our own clothes, let alone sheering a sheep and spinning the wool into thread then weaving the thread into the cloth. How many of us know how to change our own oil or replace a bicycle tire? I’m astonished by the number of people I talk to who have no idea how cheese becomes cheese, what it means to “temper” chocolate, or even that “pork” once was part of a living, breathing pig.

My husband and I are fascinated by materials, the way they work, and what can be done with them. We spend hours of our free time learning about the similarities between chocolate, soy wax, and glass; we play with creation of beer, bread, wine, and kimchee; we own a band saw, a scroll saw, a kitchen aid mixer, a propane-oxygen torch, a kiln capable Sof reaching 1800 degrees, glass cutters and grinders, an orbital sander, an air compressor, and more. My explorations of the properties of silver, gold, copper, and glass have led to a deep understanding of how to create wearable art from raw materials and our living room is adorned with a stained glass lamp of my own design and execution. My husband has made a clock in a woodworking class, replaces the brake pads and does other repairs on our vehicles, and has created his business’ entire website from HTML code.

Creating things from scratch is becoming a lost art. As we send more and more of our manufacturing jobs overseas and continue to cut shop, home economics, and art classes from school curriculum we gradually lose the ability as a culture to create the things we need to maintain our lifestyles. My suburban junior high school was relatively progressive for the 1970’s. Boys were required to take typing, shorthand, and home economics and girls were required to take shop. By the end of 8th grade I had learned the basics of woodworking, plastic injection molding, ceramics, sewing, cooking, typing, and household budgeting along with the academics required to succeed in high school and college. Fear of liability has chased power tools from the classroom, and budget cuts have eliminated all but the “academic essentials” from a curriculum focused more and more on passing standardized tests and less on the practical aspects of living in society. This makes me sad, and it makes me afraid.

carrots growingPerhaps you’ve seen the movie “Idiocracy”, a satirical look at a futuristic world where people have forgotten how to do things for themselves. Plants are watered with Gatorade because nobody knows they require water, and society wonders why nothing will grow. It was a difficult film for me to watch because I can imagine all too well how this satire could become our reality. Imagine a world in which you are completely dependent on another country – say China – to make all of your food, medicine, building materials, jewelry, clothing, dishes…anything you use on a daily basis. Now, imagine China putting itself first, and exporting the lowest quality “seconds” off their production lines while charging top dollar for shoddily made goods. Imagine all of your food coming from large corporations who control all the growing and factory production not only of the finished product but all the ingredients used in the creation of the finished dish. Imagine knowing nobody who is able to make a garden grow or bake a loaf of bread or sew a button on a shirt. What would your life be like?

candy making 2014For most of my adult life, a large percentage of the holiday gifts I give have been made from scratch. Over the years I’ve made jams and jellies, cookies packaged in creatively decorated tins, and granny square trivets. The idea that I could make pairs of earrings for my Mom and sister for less than I could buy them led to an obsession with jewelry design which started with simple stringing of beads and morphed into a full-scale metal and glass working operation. In recent years, many people on my holiday gift list have received boxes of homemade and hand dipped/decorated chocolate truffles and caramels. Making all of these things has been educational and fun, has enriched my world with new knowledge, and has made my gifts more personal and unique.

This holiday season I urge you to roll up your sleeves, put on an apron, and create at least one thing from scratch. Get on the computer and design your own holiday card. Make a homemade almond cookiespair of earrings for a friend. Sew your own holiday table runner. Bake the cookies you bring to that pot-luck rather than running to the bakery section of your local grocery store. Take an old pot, fill it with soil, and plant an herb garden for your kitchen window. If you are already a do-it-yourselfer, try something more complex…crochet or knit a scarf. Make a cheese ball from a recipe and serve it with homemade crackers. Make your own ricotta or sauce for the lasagna you’re serving at your holiday party. If you get the bug to create more and more of your own stuff, resolve to take a class in 2015. Many adult education and community college programs offer classes in subjects like jewelry design, woodworking, welding, automotive repair, graphic design, and more. You can find classes in cheese making, gardening, knitting, and more at local specialty shops.

Don’t leave all your food preparation, jewelry making, basic car or bike repairs, gardening, and holiday gift giving to large manufacturers. Try making some stuff for yourself. You’ll be amazed by how much you learn, how “professionally” you can make things with a little practice, and how much the people around you will appreciate your efforts!



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