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Piñatas as Art

Photo: Henry Gass/Christian Science Monitor.
Piñata sculptor Alfonso Hernandez in his garage studio in Dallas. He is one of a growing group of piñata makers hoping to transform the industry and get recognition for the piñata as an art form.

When you think of piñatas, what do you picture? Kids’ birthday parties? Long cudgels? Here’s an article about people who want you to know that piñatas can be a serious art form.

Henry Gass asks at the Christian Science Monitor, “Would you take a sledgehammer to the David? A flamethrower to the Mona Lisa? A shredder to the latest Banksy? (Actually, scratch that last one.)

“Why then, some people are beginning to ask, would you want to pulverize a piñata? Alfonso Hernandez, for one, wants you to lower the bat and take off the blindfold and appreciate the artistry of a form that dates back hundreds of years.

“The Dallas-based artist has crafted life-size piñata sculptures of Mexican singer Vicente Fernández and Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. He wants the public to help turn an industry into art.

“ ‘Piñata makers never treated it like an art form,’ he says. ‘They’re taught to make it fast. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, just hurry up because they’re going to break it.’

“Unsatisfied with the generic mass production that has characterized their discipline for decades, piñata makers are pushing the artistic limits of the party pieces. These piñatas, bigger and more detailed, are made out of wood, foam, wire, and clay, and sculpted to look like beloved icons and life-size low-riders. Some move, some are political, and some even talk. Rihanna is a fan, as are, increasingly, art galleries.

“For generations, the real cost of bargain piñatas has typically been borne by the piñata makers themselves working long, arduous hours for less than minimum wage. By proving that piñatas can be more than just clubbable party pieces, people like Mr. Hernandez hope they can both create art and bring a wider respect and dignity to a craft long viewed as cheap and disposable.

“ ‘It’s been an underappreciated art form,’ says Emily Zaiden, director and lead curator of the Craft in America Center in Los Angeles. ‘Piñatas are so accessible. They speak to everybody,’ she adds. But there’s also a flip side. Piñatas ‘can be about appropriation, can be about, I think, the trivialization of a cultural tradition.’

“A new generation of Hispanic artists, she continues, ‘see how much metaphorical potential piñatas have, and how deeply it reflects their identities.’ …

“There are lots of questions around where piñatas come from. They may have emerged in Europe, or China, or the Aztec era – or in all three independently. There are few preserved, written historical records on the origins of piñatas – another sign of how underappreciated the craft has been, Ms. Zaiden believes.

“ ‘A lot of this work probably hasn’t been collected or preserved in ways that other types of art have been,’ she says. ‘It’s all speculation and oral history really,’ she adds, ‘but that goes hand in hand with the idea that these are ephemeral objects.’

“For centuries, piñatas were used for religious ceremonies in Mexico. Typically built to resemble a seven-pointed star, symbolizing the seven deadly sins, they would decorate homes – and be smashed – during the Christmas season.

“Their religious significance faded over time, and they became the popular children’s birthday party feature. But as the piñata industry commercialized, quality and craftsmanship became secondary to quantity.

“Yesenia Prieto grew up in that world. A third-generation piñata maker, she watched her mother and grandmother create in her grandmother’s house in south central Los Angeles, and when she was 19 she started helping herself. It was a constant struggle to survive, she says.

“ ‘I was tired of seeing how poor we were,’ she adds. ‘My grandma was about to lose her house. And we just needed to make more money. We needed to survive.’

“She describes a week in the life of a typical piñata maker. A four-person crew makes about 60 units out of paper, water, and glue a week. Selling wholesale, they make $600 and split it between the four of them. That’s about $150 for a full week of work. …

“ ‘What you’re seeing is an art form having to be mass produced and rushed because they’re getting sweatshop wages,’ she adds. …

“In 2012, Ms. Prieto went independent from her family, and independent from the mainstream piñata industry. She founded Piñata Design Studio and set to making custom, complex pieces that reflect the artistic potential of the craft.

“They’ve created pterodactyls and stormtroopers. They’ve made a giant Nike sneaker, and an 8-foot-tall donkey for the 2019 Coachella music festival. They made a piñata of singer Rihanna for her birthday. …

“But the need to hustle hasn’t abated, according to Ms. Prieto. They work longer on their piñatas than most makers do – up to 16 hours in some cases – but still struggle to sell them for more than $1 an hour. They’ve been leveraging the internet and social media – posting pictures of pieces as they’re being made, to illustrate the labor that’s involved – and they’re slowly raising their price point. …

“She’s also now reaching out to other piñata makers about forming a co-op. By working together, she hopes, piñata makers can get paid fairly, at least. Artistic quality could also improve. And as people see elaborate, custom piñatas more often, she believes, demand will grow, and pay will grow with it. …

“ ‘There is a shift taking place,’ she adds. She’s seeing piñatas in galleries more often. But ‘there’s [still] a need for us to push hard to survive.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Westcountry_Hedgelayer/Instagram.
A newly laid hedge at a farm on Dartmoor, Devon.

I haven’t visited England in decades, so I didn’t realize it had gone through a period of ripping out its iconic hedgerows. How sad! But as Tom Wall writes at the Guardian, renewed interest in biodiversity is bringing them back.

“The emerald-green five-year-old hawthorn hedge glistens in autumnal sunshine. In the cider apple orchard and grass pastures below, younger hedges shoot off towards a fast-flowing trout stream.

“History has come full circle in Blackmore Farm, which nestles in the foothills of the Quantocks in Somerset. The owner, Ian Dyer, remembers helping his father, who arrived as a tenant farmer in the 1950s, grub out old hedges in the 1960s and 1970s. But – like increasing numbers of landowners – he has hired a hedgelayer to bring back his hedges to provide habitats for wildlife, capture carbon and slow water pouring off fields into rivers.

“ ‘In my life, I’ve probably taken out three miles of hedge. It was seen as progress at the time. The government was pushing for more and more production,’ he says, standing in the long grass on his 750-acre arable and beef farm. …

“Dyer, 62, has planted 1km of new hedges in the last five years and has noticed more insects, nesting birds and small mammals, including water voles, since the work started.

One study found that hedgerows provide 21 ecosystem services – more than any other habitat.

“ ‘My views have changed in the last 10 years. I want to live in a green and pleasant land – not in a [ecological] desert,’ he remarks. ‘It’s starting to look like I remember it as a five-year-old boy.’

“The National Hedgelaying Society, which held its national championship event this weekend, says its members have been inundated with requests to lay hedges this season, which runs from September to April. ‘There is more work than anyone could ever do for the rest of their lives,’ says Claire Maymon, one of the charity’s trustees. ‘Our founders in the 1970s were worried the craft would be lost for ever, but now we are worried that we don’t have enough young hedgelayers coming through to meet demand.’

“The Campaign to Protect Rural England estimates that over 25,000 workers will be needed to deliver on the Committee on Climate Change’s call to plant 200,000km of new hedges in the UK. The committee has calculated that the nation’s hedgerows will have to be expanded by 40% in order to reach net-zero by 2050. …

“The government wants the post-Brexit agricultural subsidy system to encourage farmers to better maintain hedges. A pilot scheme, offering farmers up to £24 per 100 metres of hedgerows, starts next month.

“Hedges need to be carefully managed throughout their lives, otherwise they thin and eventually gaps appear. Paul Lamb, the hedgelayer helping to transform Dyer’s farm, ‘pleaches’ – or splits – hawthorn, blackthorn and spindle stems so that they grow back dense and thick next spring. ‘Every hedgelayer has their own style,’ he says. … ‘For me, it’s so satisfying to plant and lay a hedge and then see it full of birds, insects and wildlife.’

“Business is booming for Lamb, who lives in a converted horsebox on a nearby farm. He has never been busier, with commercial farmers making up a growing proportion of his work. …

“ ‘When I started hedging, it was a way of earning a bit of beer money on a Saturday. I would never have expected to be booked up for a whole season. But here I am, booked up for this season and half of the next – and still people are phoning me with jobs. There is a renewed interest in conservation and craft – and a feeling that we need to live in a more sustainable way.’

“Britain lost half its hedgerows in the decades after the second world war as farmers were encouraged to create large arable fields to increase production. Since then, legal protections have been introduced and hedges are no longer being ripped out – but the decline has continued due to poor management, including some landowners over-trimming hedges mechanically, without simulating new growth below. But the growing demand for traditional hedgelaying leaves many in the craft feeling optimistic.

“Nigel Adams sits on the HedgeLink steering group, which advises [the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. He says there has has been a sea-change in attitudes, with everyone from the National Farming Union to Natural England calling for more hedges. …

“Adams, who lays hedges throughout the country, including on Prince Charles’s estates, believes the role of hedges should not be underestimated. ‘Insects follow hedges and bats hunt along hedges,’ he says. ‘If we didn’t have hedgerows, then we would be living in a barren wasteland.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. Since the Guardian is free, you have access to the pictures, too. I think you are going to love the water vole there.

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Photo: Upcycle Stitches.
Sashiko is a needlework to reinforce, to repair, to mend, and to decorate the fabric. 

Whenever I hear something good on Public Radio International’s the World, I hope they will post a text version online so I have something to edit, but today’s story is accessible only as audio. So I am combining it with a May 2018 blog post that “atsushijp” wrote at Upcycle Stitches: “Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project.” (Atsushijp did us all a favor by sharing this work with a different audience, and I have not tried to tweak her English.)

“It has been almost 7 years since I had encountered this beautiful project: Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko  Project. … After the earthquake followed by Tsunami on March 11th, 2011, the five volunteers established the project to support the people in Otsuchi, especially those who had nothing to do but sitting in the evacuation shelter. The men had a lot of things to require the muscle power after the disaster. The young generation also had many tasks to revive the infrastructure such as distributing the support goods and clean. However, those who wouldn’t be able to move, mostly elderly women, did not have things to do and had to wait. …

“The project tries to create jobs for those who couldn’t do hard labor outside. They have been trying to create the community where anyone can gather for the purpose of stitching. We all then hope that the stitching can be a part of the purposes of their new life after the earthquake. I, Atsushi, first join the project in June 2011. …

“I had written many articles and reports regarding the Otsuchi Sashiko in English, but I had to give them up when my father passed away and the stakeholders decided to shut down the website. Well, even after the sad reality of me leaving Sashiko behind for while, my mother, Keiko Futatsuya, kept in touch with them. Now, she is the advisor of Sashiko technique and designing in Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project. …

“Otsuchi town was badly damaged by the earthquake followed by Tsunami, including the loss of town hall and the mayor and more than 1,280 of people’s life. The survivors [who] needed an evacuation shelter by losing their house were more than 9,000 people.

“In the evacuation shelter, mothers and grandmothers, who were very much hard worker in their own house as a house-maker, didn’t have anything to do. There were no kitchen to cook, no living room to clean, no dishes to wash. Men and young generation could work for the cleaning debris, but the job required a lot of muscle power. Mothers and Grandmothers couldn’t help them even if they wanted to. …

“The answers they had come up with was Sashiko, in which requires only a needle, thread, and piece of fabric. The Sashiko was doable in a limited space of the evacuation shelter. The mothers and grandmothers wanted to do ‘something’ instead of just waiting.

“An elder woman who lied down all the day in the evacuation shelter. A hard-working mother who lost her house-making job. A young woman who lost their job opportunity. Everyone in Otsuchi moved the needle with hoping the recovery of Otsuchi. Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko project is their first step to the recovery by women in Otsuchi since June 2011. The Earthquake destroyed the houses and jobs and took away our previous people. We, as Otsuchi Recovery Sashiko Project, would like to re-establish the town of Otsuchi throughout Sashiko by strengthening, mending, and making it more beautiful. …

“When a mother, who enjoy Sashiko, is happy, the household will be filled with smiles. If the household is filled with smiles, the town of Otsuchi will be energetic. When the town of Otsuchi become energetic, everyone in the town and related to the town will be happy. …

“We strongly respect the value of hand-made craft culture with spending so much time and putting the good-heart in it in the era of ‘speed’ and ‘efficiency (productivity)’ with mass-production and mass-information. ‘Hand-Made Craft’ provide us ‘Care’ and ‘Mindfulness (Mental Wellness)’ by thinking of other, and using our own hands.”

More at Upcycle Stitches, here. The audio story at the World, here, covers aspects of the initiative in which men have helped, too.

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Photo: Jill Mead/The Guardian.
Fleur Britten with Simon Johnson at Pattern Project in south London. Covid got people going with sewing their own clothes. Sustainability concerns could make them continue.

Unlike me, not everyone is OK with wearing the same clothes for 30 years. But even fashionistas are starting to worry about how much clothing ends up in landfills or is sourced from factories paying slave wages.

Fleur Britten has an article at the Guardian about being mindful while having fun making her own clothes.

She writes, “My foot hovers nervously over the sewing machine pedal. I am cautiously working my way through a sew-it-yourself kit produced by Pattern Project, a ‘microfactory’ startup in south London. It has pioneered a laser-cutting machine that can cut patterns on demand, with minimal waste. The pieces for the dropped-sleeve dress that I am sewing have been snipped to my precise measurements by a zippy little laser, which whizzes over the crisp Irish linen, scorching faint seam guides into the fabric so I know exactly where to sew.

“Pattern Project’s founders, Shruti Grover, 34, and Simon Johnson, 35 – partners in life and in business – are seeking funding for their first shop. A ’22nd-century’ vision of fashion, says Grover, it will hold no stock, but will sell custom-fit clothing that is laser-cut in front of you within minutes, out of local, ethical and sustainable fabrics – and then sewn by you.

“They have already collaborated on a zero-waste pattern for the latest collection by the fashion designer Phoebe English, while last weekend they exhibited at the V&A in west London as part of the London Design festival. …

“The sew-it-yourself (SIY) movement has become something more modern, sustainably minded and social. For starters, sewers have been rebranded as ‘sewists’ – because who would want to be mistaken for a waste pipe? Plus, thanks to a new wave of independent pattern-makers, it is not hard to find on-trend designs, downloadable in pdf format anywhere in the world. …

“According to Jones, the new customers are ‘young and mostly female, against fast fashion and much more switched on about environmental issues.’ Many are motivated to sew because it enables them to avoid sweatshop production. …

“There is plenty of support available for newbie sewists, too. The Fashion District festival, a five-day celebration of sustainable fashion that took place last week in Stratford, east London, dedicated a third of this year’s programme to maker workshops, including a tutorial on upcycling scarves into kimonos, hosted by the community interest company Trashion Factory.

‘There’s a huge appetite for people to be involved in their own fashion,’ says Helen Lax, the festival’s founder. ‘This is a different incarnation of the good life. Rather than just following a pattern, the maker community is going off-grid and having a go. …

“For many sewists, the face mask was a gateway drug. After spotting a callout for 500 cloth masks from a homeless charity, Lydia Higginson, the founder of Made My Wardrobe sewing kits, rallied her followers to help. ‘It was a quick win – the perfect small challenge to get people back on their machines,’ she says. ‘And then they were like: “What else can I make?” ‘ …

“While you will find only British and European organic fabrics at Pattern Project (as well as an Italian polyamide that they claim will biodegrade about five years after disposal), the bigger fashion problem it wants to solve is overstock. It is estimated that 20% of the 100bn items of clothing produced each year are not sold; they are then usually buried, shredded or burned. ‘Brands always over-order,’ says Grover. ‘It’s cheaper to produce more and sell at mad discounts later than it is to produce less, but higher-quality, stuff.’ Pattern Project’s ultimate goal is to see its zero-waste laser in fashion stores and haberdasheries across the country, so clothes can be cut and sewn on demand, affordably and quickly.

“In the meantime, the sewists are playing what they call ‘pattern Tetris – making patterns fit into a smaller amount of fabric,’ says Atia Azmi, 38, a GP and a host of un:CUT: The Makers’ Podcast. According to the government’s 2019 report Fixing Fashion, ‘as much as 15% of fabric can end up on the cutting room floor … Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric are wasted at the design and production stage before clothing reaches the customer.’ Within the sewing community, downloadable zero-waste patterns have blown up online.

“Reducing ‘fashion miles’ – the distance a garment and its component parts travel through the supply chain – is also on the sewists’ agenda. The starting point for the newly opened Mend Assembly in Totnes, Devon – a two‑storey centre offering a makers’ space, dressmaking workshops, repairs and upcycling – was ‘clothing localism,’ says its co-founder, Joss Whipple.

“As well as utilising ‘existing waste streams’ (upcycling old sweatshirts into kids’ leggings, say), Mend Assembly hopes to work with the regenerative ‘farm-to-clothing’ concept of the non-profit group Fibershed, whereby local demand for clothing is met by using local, natural fibres in a closed loop. ‘We believe that when clothing becomes aligned with local practice, so many of the problematic elements of the global commercial model fall away, from reduced carbon and transport to deeper connection, respect and care for the clothes that we own and wear,’ says Mend Assembly’s website.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Robert Mckergan.
Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry.

When I saw this story on traditional crafts, I thought of the late, great James Hackett of Moate, Ireland, and the handsome shillelagh he made for John. There was something so special about knowing the maker and knowing that his skill had been handed down through generations. Although his day job was harness making, I suppose James might also have been called a “stick-maker,” like the craftsman in this article.

Vanessa Thorpe wrote at the Guardian in March 2020 about organizations that are working to preserve traditional craft skills like those.

“Clay pipe making, wainwrighting, tanning and making spinning wheels – all are skills of the past that can offer us a sustainable future. This is the message behind a drive, launched this spring, to preserve endangered traditional crafts in Britain.

“With a new award of £3,000 available, together with fresh support from outdoor pursuits company Farlows, the Heritage Crafts Association is calling for a renewed effort to save old skills and pass them down to the next generation.

“The association’s list of ‘critically endangered’ ancient techniques has often been regarded as simply concerned with conserving history. But renewed interest in sustainability, together with a growing dislike of throwaway consumer culture, has prompted a new campaign. …

“The new HCA award was set up this month by Prince Charles, the association’s president: craftspeople are invited to submit a proposal to help secure the survival of a craft ranked either endangered or critically endangered on its official list. …

‘We have a rich heritage of craft skills that can be regarded as just as important as historic buildings and treasured objects,’ [Patricia Lovett, chair of HCA] said. ‘However we are in danger of losing a number of these crafts: our research has found that in some cases there are only one or two makers left.’

“The at-risk list is compiled by combining a conservation status ‘red list’ system used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist.

“A heritage craft, usually carried out by an individual in small workshops or at home, is considered viable only if there are sufficient makers to hand down their skills to a younger generation. Last year the traditional paper-making skill of ‘mold and deckle’ was judged extinct, and the vanishing of production in turn endangers paper making. Those deemed merely to be endangered are those crafts which are not financially viable as a sole occupation and those which have no clear system for training or passing on skills. Among these are fan making, watch making and walking stick making – all involving the manufacture of items that are still popular with the public, and even regarded as essential by some.

“Farlows, a company closely associated with fields sports and makers of traditional fishing rods, works directly with many artisan manufacturers, in particular tweed makers, and so its management has decided to formalise that arrangement by backing the heritage association, which they see as a key umbrella body.

“ ‘There is a real knack to making something like a split cane rod. People who fish really value it,’ said [Robin Philpott, chief executive of Farlows].

“The danger, according to Farlows, which began trading 180 years ago and in 1942 switched all its manufacturing to support the war effort, lies in widespread mass production. Although the company now has a Russian owner, its management say it still aims to keep alive the key trades it supported when it was owned and run by family members. …

“Robert Mckergan, 66, is a stick-maker from Portstewart, County Londonderry. ‘For me, it started as a hobby, but I feel we need these crafts to go on. I am a retired engineer and while you can teach yourself as I did, not everyone can do it. You need to be competent with your hands.

“ ‘You couldn’t live on this work, I don’t think. Each stick is about 20 hours’ work. But you get a sense of achievement and of purpose. When I see a tree, I see all the potential carvings. And of course the smell that comes from a piece of wood, say cherry, as you work is lovely.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. An update is at the Heritage Crafts Association, here.

Photo: Wikimedia.
Shillelaghs. See the one James made for himself, here.

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Photos: Hunterdon Art Museum
The exhibit From the Ground Up: Peters Valley School of Craft” can be seen at the Hunterdon Art Museum (Clinton, New Jersey) or online through January 10, 2021. 

I first heard about an unusual crafting community in New Jersey when Ann sent me a video of her online textile instructor. Peters Valley School of Craft was founded in 1970, but it has the vibe of a early American craft colony. That sense of highly skilled artisans with a united, focused purpose also reminds me of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, which we used to frequent when we lived in upstate New York.

Here’s a report on an exhibit celebrating Peters Valley School’s 50th year.

Ilene Dube writes at Hyperallergic, “I recently visited the Peters Valley Craft Fair, usually held in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This year, without leaving home, I could drop in on artists in their studios in Buffalo, New York, Portland, Maine, and Bristol, Connecticut, within a matter of minutes, watching them work and talking with them one-on-one about their processes. And this past summer, I was able to attend Peters Valley faculty presentations — one of the highlight events for those studying at Peters Valley School of Craft — every Friday night via Zoom. I traveled to studios all over the world.

“Physically based in Layton, New Jersey, Peters Valley School of Craft is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey — and yes, you can … visit live if you are properly masked. From the Ground Up, on view through January 10, recounts the story of Peters Valley from its earliest formation as an experimental craft colony, to the prominence of its women blacksmiths in the early 2000s. What better way to tell the story than through the works in fiber, jewelry, ceramics, wood, photography, and metal produced during artist residencies?

“Peters Valley began in 1970 as a planned colony of resident blacksmiths, ceramists, fiber artists, metalsmiths, woodworkers, and photographers who populated the site’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Over time, Peters Valley’s (non-degree) educational mission evolved into the craft school it is today, bringing together students with artists of local, national, and international renown for immersive workshops.

“Peters Valley was the ancestral home of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, Delaware Nation, and Stockbridge-Munsee Community. Dutch and British colonists forced their removal beginning in the 17th century, then worked the farmland for generations.

“Peters Valley acquired the land as a result of the aborted, and controversial, 1950 proposal to build the Tocks Island Dam, which would have created a 37-mile reservoir between New Jersey and Pennsylvania but instead became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Among the 72,000 acres acquired through eminent domain was the village of Bevans, now home to Peters Valley.

“The founders had to convince the National Park Service of the value of putting a craft community there, and the original craft fair was produced to gauge interest. With 30 exhibitors, the organizers expected hundreds would visit; thousands came.

“In a soon-to-be-published catalogue, Andrew Willner, one of the first residents-in-wood, recounts that a week before students were to arrive that first summer in 1971, the small team realized everyone had to be housed and fed, and sprang into action.

“ ‘We found a prep table, an old refrigerator, and made a dining room,’ Willner said.

‘The dormitory was fashioned from an old farmhouse. We planted a garden, and by August that garden was feeding people who were enrolled in classes and staying at the valley. For many of us, it was our first experience living communally and it has had lifelong implications. …

“ ‘Learning from each other was an important element. We were in and out of each other’s homes and studios. All of us were able to take a hand at iron forging, jewelry making, ceramic and fiber arts. We even baked bread together.’

“My enchantment goes back to visiting as a teenager when my parents had a summer home in the nearby Pocono Mountains. … The hand-made ceramics and weavings, as well as the soot on the blacksmiths’ overalls and the stir-fried veggies served over brown rice at that early craft festival made me feel like I was among my people. …

“Participants share meals, mostly vegetarian, in the communal dining hall. In the summer of 2019, I met and was starstruck by the blacksmith and faculty member Elizabeth Brim, who renders frilly dresses, strappy stilettos, and bonnets in iron, transforming the gender expectations of her childhood. …

“In addition to its acclaimed blacksmithing and fiber art classes, Peters Valley is known in the ceramics world for its anagama kiln. ‘It gives you surfaces that are stunningly beautiful and really can’t be made any other way,’ said Peters Valley Executive Director Kristin Muller, who found her way to Peters Valley as a ceramic artist and wood-fire expert. Muller’s ‘Pod Vessel,’ fired in the anagama, is on view at the Hunterdon.

“Anagama kilns were introduced to Japan from Korea in the third century. Japanese kiln builder Katsuyuki Sakazume spent a year constructing the 46-foot long, tunnel-like structure, burrowing into the hillside at Peters Valley. Fired only once a year, it takes two to three days to load, and another five to six days to fire, burning 25,000 pounds of wood. A community forms around the ritual, which involves stoking the fire round the clock. The flames, gases, and ashes exposed to the clay in the single-chamber kiln impart their magic to the finished piece. It is said that the fire is an active participant in the process.”

Read more about this unusual place at Hyperallergic, here.

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1011-ddp-turquoise-director-ledePhoto: Scott Peterson/Christian Science Monitor
Nathan Stroupe, Afghanistan country director for Turquoise Mountain, in the courtyard of one of the 112 buildings the British charity has restored so far to create an institute for Afghan artisans to revitalize their heritage.

Christian Science Monitor has great stories about people and organizations that make a difference. I loved this one on a UK nonprofit called Turquoise Mountain, which is reviving ancient crafts in Afghanistan and providing much-need work for craftsmen and -women. More than 500 artisans have graduated from Turquoise Mountain specializing in traditional crafts such as woodworking, jewelry-making and gem cutting, ceramics, and elaborate calligraphy.

Writes the Monitor, “What sounds like a lovely effort to revive traditional culture in a place where art had been almost stomped out by war is about more than making jewelry. As a former ambassador says: ‘It is about preserving the soul of the country.’

“When Turquoise Mountain took on the restoration of Murad Khani, one of Kabul’s poorest historical neighborhoods, its aim was to do more than clear away wartime debris. From the beginning, the British charity also sought to revive the disappearing arts of Afghan culture, among them jewelry-making, woodworking, and gem cutting.

“Rays of hope are rare in Afghanistan, but in the process of revitalizing Murad Khani, Turquoise Mountain has created a model now being applied in Myanmar (Burma) and Saudi Arabia, and soon in Jordan, with Syrian refugee artisans. A project that started by hiring 1,000 workers to remove deep layers of trash has so far renovated 112 buildings and created an art institute, primary school, and a clinic that sees 2,000 patients a month. The institute has produced 500 graduates, and their work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. That helps change perceptions. …

“In her heart, Ramzia Sarwary-Khorami always wanted to make jewelry. But the path to success in Afghanistan is narrow, especially for a woman, no matter how intrepid or ambitious.

“Then on the radio a decade ago, she heard about a new urban reclamation project …

“Ms. Sarwary-Khorami signed up with Turquoise Mountain and learned soldering, sandpapering metals and stones, and the secrets of the six cultures of Afghan jewelry making.

“ ‘I found my dreams,’ says Sarwary-Khorami, who now works as a teacher and quality controller for the charity and sells her own creations through high-end jewelry designers in London – a pathway established by Turquoise Mountain for its graduate artisans.

“ ‘Every year we have more students, I tell them: “Come to Turquoise Mountain, we can support you,” ‘ she says.”

I will be talking to Suzanne about the jewelry. Maybe there would be a way for Luna & Stella to work with Turquoise Mountain. (And speaking of Luna & Stella, do check out the latest — antique lockets to complement the company’s contemporary birthstone jewelry. Think Christmas, Hanukah, weddings …)

More at the Christian Science Monitor, but it’s behind a firewall.

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080616-vision-of-hope-zambia-apron

The first booth I encountered at the Art and Artisan fair Saturday was promoting a charity called Vision of Hope Zambia.

Co-founder Meg O’Brien had been a student at Berklee College of Music when a missionary friend in Zambia asked her to lend her musical talent to uplifting girls who lived on the streets.

When she visited Africa, Meg must have been shocked by what she saw: young girls, often orphaned, often HIV positive, who had no place to get a meal or even take a shower. She flew into action, co-founding Vision of Hope Zambia with Chitalu Chishimba.

Meg’s mother and aunt also flew into action, creating a craft initiative that donates 100 percent of proceeds to the cause.

The two artisans not only sew with skill — baby bibs, changing blankets, aprons and the like — they also are good at selling, promoting Meg’s charity while highlighting various features of their products.

Meg’s aunt saw me talking to my grandchildren and immediately pointed out the colorful array of child-size aprons. In the end, though, I bought an adult-sized apron for myself.

From humble beginnings in 2009 (“weekly meetings in the backyard of the Girl Scouts building underneath a tree”), the organization is now able to provide housing and education for many girls as it continues to grow.

Photo: Vision of Hope Zambia
Girls at Vision of Hope proudly show off their hard work in rug making.

 

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After a father’s death, the family tries to find homes for his perfect metal miniatures.

Isaac Feldberg writes at the Boston Globe, “On any gift-giving occasion in the Megerdichian household, the most exciting presents to unwrap were always both the smallest and, funnily enough, the heaviest.

“Some boxes held metal miniature re-creations — a brass violin with horse-hair strings and a latched case; an aluminum piano music box that played ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.’ Others concealed stainless-steel jewelry, intricately detailed, immaculately formed. And others still contained children’s toys, like steel tractor-trailer sets to be nudged along the wooden floors of their Cambridge home.

“ ‘They were 14 ounces of love, 1 ounce of metal,’ says Robert Megerdichian, 63, of the tiniest pieces his late father, Abraham, bestowed upon the family throughout his lengthy career as a machinist. ‘He started off with a solid block of metal, brass, aluminum, copper, or stainless steel, and he gouged away, like a sculptor would, like an artist would, to create all of these objects.’

“Megerdichian’s description of his father as an artist has recently earned official validation, with museums across New England displaying an array of Abraham’s pieces. The Attleboro Area Museum of Industry, the Lynn Museum, and Boston’s Museum of Science all currently house some of his metal miniatures. Additional museum exhibits are set to open in the fall, including at Connecticut’s New Britain Industrial Museum. For more than half a century, however, Abraham’s creations were reserved for his loved ones. …

” ‘It was important to him to make things that made the people he cared for happy,’ ” said his son.

Read about Abraham’s history here. A great example of what the intersection of love and skill can give the world.

Photo: David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Robert Megerdichian looks over a miniature Hoover vacuum cleaner crafted by his father.

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This is a sampling of the bloggers I follow.

First is Asakiyume, from whom I learned everything I know about blogging, including how to borrow a photo from another site in such a way that readers will go to that site. She is an editor and a novelist, and she blogs about a wide range of topics, from personal to global.

In this post she compares a chest of drawers in a local coffee shop to something she saw in the animated Japanese feature Spirited Away. She offers many inspiring social justice ruminations plus thoughtful literary criticism, especially of fantasy and science fiction: the interstitial world.

KerryCan is a retired English professor who is very serious about crafts, selling many of her own on Etsy. She is a chocolate maker, a weaver, a quilter — you name it. I like her description of studying and resurrecting a forgotten quilt art in a recent post on “redwork.”

“I have been using an inexpensive child’s lightbox to trace the redwork panels on to paper,” KerryCan writes, “so I can keep them. Then I trace from the paper version on to off-white cotton fabric. As I trace and then stitch, I enjoy the designs. There are flowers, lots and lots of flowers. And there are animals; some are the ones the maker would know from the farm and some are exotic, known only from books or dreams.

“My favorite blocks, though, are the ones with the people, and, especially, children. The children depicted are not the cute and pampered and romanticized children of modern America but are serious and, often, awkward-looking.” Check it out.

New England Nomad is a perfect blog for learning about hidden places that even natives don’t know. The Nomad takes lots of pictures and provides detailed information on directions, special features, parking and costs. You may have heard about the Newport Cliff Walk, and the Nomad covers it, but do you know the “gem of Rhode Island,” Colt State Park in Bristol? Read about it here.

A Musical Life on Planet Earth blogger doesn’t post often, but when he does, Wow. Not only is he a music teacher and singer, he is deeply knowledgeable about the American Songbook, Broadway in particular — Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin … . He cleans out the local library when doing research for one of his featured-composer shows. Find everything you ever want to know about the great Jerome Kern at this post, and listen to Will sing.

I’ll be doing more of these blogger recognitions from time to time, but before I leave today, I have to say I’ve been riveted to relatives’ Burning Cloud Blog, detailing the ups and downs of five months in a sailboat. Most of the posts are written by the children in the family. Read the entry “I have operated a lock” here.

Photo: New England Nomad
Colt State Park, the “gem of Rhode Island.”

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Trade shows have been helpful to Suzanne’s birthstone-jewelry company, Luna & Stella, as it branches out from being strictly online to selling to retail outlets like Talulah Cooper Boutique in Providence.

A couple weeks ago, Suzanne took Luna & Stella to the trade show NewYorkNow (“the market for home, lifestyle + gift”). Today, she is making an impression at PlaytimeNewYork — while making friends with other relationship-oriented businesses, like Little Paisley People.

I love how the founder of Little Paisley People describes the origins of her business: “I spent the most memorable summers of my childhood in Amalsaad, a quaint village, in Gujarat, India. … I grew up watching my mom work with the local artisans to hand-make toys that would support the local community. Those are the toys you also see in the Little Paisley People line. And that’s the logo you see – the passing on of the thread over the generations. …

“We create handcrafted lifestyle products for children, never forgetting that kids need to be kids. The handmade nature of these products evoke an understated elegance but are always playful. Social responsibility, the people who make these products, and how they make them are very important to us.”

Here, she and her daughter model Luna & Stella’s mother-daughter heart rings. How nice that new businesses are emphasizing the importance of family and friend relationships!

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You have heard of “slow food” and perhaps “slow money” (a loan with a long time to pay back) and other efforts designed to help us reduce the often meaningless haste of modern life. Well, Cousin Claire has been posting news on Facebook about another slow movement that is sure to intrigue you, Slow Textiles.

Says Slow Fiber Studios on its About page, “We are founded on a simple intention: to offer real-world insight into the multifaceted and holistic practice of textile-making. Slow Fiber Studios™ offers dynamic, hands-on field study programs in diverse areas of the world where textile culture runs deep — India, Mexico, Japan, France, Italy, and on. We believe the best way to understand a philosophy is to see it being lived.”

Here is a description of a 2012 offering: “Special opportunity to travel throughout India with Yoshiko, who has been exploring this country for over 30 years (lived in Ahmedabad in 1983/84 on an Education & Culture Fellowship and frequent 3-month residencies spanning 3 decades). Yoshiko will introduce her friends in India who are involved in welfare, community empowerment, and cultural sustainability projects.

“Tour Highlights: natural dyes, organic cotton cultivation, handloom weaving, khadi, biodynamic farming, architecture, local food and religion, contemporary art and design educational institutions, museums, solar energy development, hand spinning and weaving wild silks and Tibetan wool in Himalayan communities.” More here.

How well I remember the wistful feeling I got in reading the book Lark Rise to Candleford when the beautiful handmade lace was spurned as soon as the factory-made came in. There is something to be said for speed and efficiency, but also something to be said for craft.

Photos: Slow  Fiber Studios

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In John’s house, I am Grandma. In Suzanne’s house, I am Mormor. Mormor means mother’s mother in Swedish. My husband is Morfar (mother’s father). Erik’s mother is Farmor (father’s mother), but when she is with her daughter’s children, she is Mormor. Got it? There will be a quiz.

Mormor and Morfar have been hanging out with the new baby’s big brother, who has his own life to live. Yesterday we picked him up at his morning-only school. Here he is offering his monkey a snack. The monkey’s name is Kompis. It means friend.

Back at the house, I cut cardboard pieces in the shape of Christmas ornaments and punched holes in the tops for hooks. We had fun gluing seasonal cutouts from magazines on the ornament shapes. (Well, to be honest, the purple glue stick was what was fun. We lost interest by the time it came to hanging our creations on the tree.)

Today we ran errands with Papa. Here you see Elder Brother checking out bathroom fixtures with the level of intensity he brings to serious activities.

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Someone on twitter linked to this delightful post at Junk Culture this week. It’s an extraordinarily detailed replica of a Boeing airplane — made out of manila folders.

Writes Junk Culture, “Using nothing but manila folders and dabs of glue, Luca Iaconi-Stewart has been putting together a very detailed model of a Boeing 777 that is almost as complex as the real thing.

“The doors open and close on paper hinges and the landing gear retracts up into the fuselage. The project which has been a labour of love for five years grew out of his passion for airplanes and the models he made from manila paper in a high school architecture class.

“Iaconi-Stewart told Wired, ‘There’s something rewarding about being able to replicate a part in such an unconventional medium.’ ”

A collection of amazing photos — some that move — may be found here. The retractable wheel carriage has to be seen to be believed.

Without meaning to suggest that there is anything bizarre about such remarkable precision in a young man, I have to say actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes keeps coming to mind as I look at the photos.

This is an unusual mind at work.

Photo: Luca Iaconi-Stewart and Mark Mahaney

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Boston and Baltimore have created cool places to learn and practice engineering and craft skills.

At Technical.ly (better cites through technology), Andrew Zaleski describes how the Baltimore Foundery [sic], “a campus for makers,” was inspired by Artisan’s Space in the Boston area.

“It was by chance that Andrew Stroup and Corey Fleischer, two [Baltimore] locals-turned-contestants on a new engineering-focused Discovery Channel TV show, met Jason Hardebeck, the executive director of gb.tc.

“But despite having only met earlier this year, the three had more in common than they knew: each thought it was high time Baltimore city had its own makerspace — a large, indoor area replete with machine tools, digital tools like 3D printers and equipment for woodworking and metalworking — on par with similar spaces in other cities in the U.S.

“Through their time on the show, Stroup and Fleischer met Gui Cavalcanti, who started the Artisan’s Asylum makerspace in Boston, a sprawling, 40,000-square-foot complex where members renting space brew their own beer, construct their own bikes and sculpt pieces of art from metal. After spending a weekend there in mid-January, the two were convinced they needed to find a place within Baltimore where any resident could do the same type of work.

“ ‘Baltimore has everything that we saw at Artisan’s Asylum: the level of artists, engineers, hobbyists,’ said Fleischer, 31, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from UMBC, and now works at Lockheed Martin in Middle River. ‘Baltimore has those people, and Baltimore does not have a space like that where everyone can go.’ …

“Whereas few people in Baltimore have the resources to become ‘coders and programmers,’ Hardebeck said, people ‘can understand how to become CNC machine operators.’

“In effect, that’s the grandest wish Hardebeck — a former product manager at DeWALT — harbors for the new makerspace: a place that can foster the next generation of blue-collar workers in Baltimore city by offering a community workshop so people can have access to good equipment and classes. In turn, people can become entrepreneurs building products in their own small-scale manufacturing facility, albeit one they share with other makers.”

More.

Photo: Technical.lyFleischer leads a class in Introductory Welding last month.

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