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Crafty Devils

6 Aug

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When my wife Diane and   I moved to southern Indiana in 1999, I was immediately struck by the number of people involved in various arts and crafts. In  the first  houses we visited,  it seemed like there was  frequently an art studio in the basement or maybe even a full-size loom in the back bedroom.

According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation  32.7 million adults American adults participated  in needle crafts than in any other arts-related activity. Another 17.6 million engaged  in painting and drawing and 14.1 million created pottery or jewelry.   Some estimates are even higher.   According to Susan Brandt,  from the Hobby Industry Association,   80% of  American  households have at least one crafter which is  about 70 million participants in  total.  Brant says,  “Our research shows that about 14 percent of these crafters are selling what they make, which translates to around 12 million people.”

Back in Florida Diane had several  friends who were  into crafts and we would occasionally go to craft fairs.   I remember one church fair when we shamelessly spoiled our youngest son boy by getting him a number of toys  including a wooden  dinosaur covered with green glitter that got all over everything. Diane has  quite a bit of experience with arts and crafts from her work in schools with emotionally disturbed  children, Sunday school and vacation bible school teaching, and conducting  museum children’s activities.

I remember once helping in Diane’s Sunday School class for three-year-olds. They were doing a craft that called for  the use of glue and I was assigned to supervised a three year old girl named Jenna. Well Jenna wanted no part of me or my supervision and she constantly fought me tooth and nail over the control of the glue. The fact that I was 100 times bigger than her, did  not phase her in the least. Jenna was not easily impressed.

In recent years when we take vacation trips with our  grandchildren Diane usually has taken along some craft activities. Last year she made Gullah clothes pin dolls with the granddaughters, while I made a simple wood pirate ship with our grandson. I have found that even little boys can be  interested  in crafts,  if it involves skulls and cross bones. This year we’re putting together a small wooden sail boat, I hope it’s not too dull.

Once when Diane  was leading  Lewis and Clark related children’s activities  for  the Howard Steam Boat Museum’s  Chautauqua, I was assigned to fashion tomahawks, made out of small branches  and cardboard, with the boys. They were mildly interested in the task, but livened up considerably  when we decorated  them with bright red paint,  resembling blood. The parent did seem all that pleased with our handiwork.

Out of necessity people have been making and selling handicrafts throughout American history.  The  term “Arts and Crafts” was  coined in 1887,   by English artist and bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson.  At that  time it referred to  an international design movement that  lasted from 1860 well  into 1930s. This movement was largely a reaction against the industrialization of  the decorative arts at the time. It called for a return to  traditional forms and methods of craftsmanship and employed  medieval, romantic,  and classic  folk decorative styles

According to  crafts industry expert Barbara Brabecthe, however, “…the burgeoning handcrafts industry that we know today would not exist at all if someone hadn’t started the craft supply industry back in the 1940s.”   The craft supply industry started on the West Coast and swept across the country.  Brabecthe  says that  “ how-to instructional books”  and  the startup of       magazines especially  aimed at hobbyists and crafters in the 1960’s  encourage people to become involved in crafts. In  the mid-1970s  a Lou Harris poll revealed that two out of three Americans   participated in the arts and crafts, and even more wanted to get involved Large trade shows, craft fairs and  television shows pushed the movement even further  along.  Since then crafts have grown steadily,  fueled  by crazes such as Xavier Robert’s  Cabbage Patch Kids® in the 1980’s.

Michaels, North America’s largest arts and crafts specialty retailer  newest crafting trends for 2013 will be (1) Nostalgia/vintage items  using doilies, chalkboard paint, lace,  Mason jars and vintage book pages. (2) Eco-chic crafts employing  wood grain, natural fibers, rope, paper and cork. (3) Use of  Unexpected materials  such as wreaths made of photos, balloons, clothes pins, or fabric remnants. and (4) Personalization with initials and monograms showing up on all kinds of  everyday objects like cell phone cases and shoes.

Arts and  crafts  have also played a major role in American mental health. They were introduced into asylums  and mental hospitals in the early 19th-century  as    an early form of occupational therapy. Activities, such as basket weaving, were intended to   have a calming effect,  while keeping  patients busy and productive. Basket weaving and later the making of ceramic pieces continued  in mental health settings well  into the late 20th Century. In October  1970, Time Magazine published an   article entitled “Is Basket Weaving Harmful?”  The article described  how basket weaving was a  major part of the average  patient’s day.  Psychologists at the time argued  that  patients should not be forced or even encouraged to participate in such endless recreational therapy. Such activities were seen as been too akin  to childplay and ultimately  dehumanizing or at least infantilizing in  nature.

In a study of  hospitalized adults, arts and crafts were the most popular of sixteen activity groups offered, although  only one-third of the participants said that they found the arts and crafts  to be helpful. Despite only moderate  evidence  that arts and crafts are especially beneficial to   all psychiatric patients, this  may only reinforce that fact that treatment always  needs to be individualized.

When I began counseling children in the 1970’s.   almost all mental health centers had  large kilns and  materials to make ceramic pieces. Among  the first things I was given, when I started was a checker set and several plastic model kits. I was told that when I saw younger children, these would be good activities to keep them  calm and interested. I was also warned to keep them away from the glue. I don’t believe we ever made a model that didn’t have a gluey fingerprint on the windshield.  The plastic models, however,  did work our much better than the checkers, since the kids would usually get angry and turn   the board over,  when I wouldn’t  let them beat me.   I   still believe that such crafts  help   improve  motor control, sensory and perceptual stimulation,  as well as increasing rapport.. They also help children develop   patience and provide  cognitive challenges. Finally  used properly they  enhance self-esteem anda sense of efficacy.

Arts and craft  participation has also been found to be related to  scientific discovery and creativity  In 1958, UCLA psychologist Bernice Eiduson    began a 20 year long  study of scientists to try to determine what personality  factors differentiated the highly successful and productive  scientists (Nobel Prize winners and National Academy Members)  from their less successful  colleagues.   Robert Root-Bernstein from Michigan State University and   his colleagues took over the project in  the  1980’s. At first they were not   able to find any significant differences  In1988 they reanalyzed   their data and looked at the scientists’ participation in  arts and crafts, avocations, and recreational habit.    This time they found significant differences. The highly successful scientists were much more likely participate in various arts and crafts activities and believed that that these activities were relevant to their scientific work and could explain how their hobbies and pastimes contributed to their success.

Diane learned to sew and even made clothes for herself when she was in high school. I was never so talented. I did  spend a lot of  time out in my father garage taking things apart and  driving nails into pieces of wood. I did learn how to cast  lead soldiers out of molten lead and my brother Norman  tried his hand at crafts by trying to fashion a spear gun from a Popular Mechanics magazine blueprint. My father  confiscated the spear gun after it  misfired and made a two inch hole in the garage door, barely missing a couple of my brother’s hoodlum friends. Norman;s failure was short lived.  A few  years later he did succeed in making a large carbide cannon from another Popular Mechanics magazine set of plans.  .

I was once out in the garage trying to straighten a rusty crooked nail to use in  one of my projects (I think I was  hammering together a battleship). I hit the nail and  the head   broke off and struck me in the throat.  With blood all over my neck,  I scared my mother half to death. They rushed  me to the emergency room where I got  a tetanus shot.    The  x-ray showed the nail head lodged squarely in my throat,  fortunately just  north of my jugular vein. When my pediatrician, Dr. Berman arrived and looked at the X-ray,  he asked my mother, “Who shot Terry?” He wasn’t able to  remove the nail head, so to the best of my knowledge it is still with me.   For years  I’ve   been   waiting for a TSA  scanner  to go off at the airport, just  so I could tell them that it was probably the nail for my battleship.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News Tribune in Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana

A Gander at Comic Books

17 Sep

            

              The other day I was  explaining the origin of the comicbook character, Iron Man to my wife Diane. Iron Man first developed the high tech armor that gives him his powers in Viet Nam. His major adversaries originally were communist villains, like  The Crimson Dynamo. In the more recent  films, Afghanistan supplanted Vietnam and the sequel introduces a new Russian villain, although his motives are personal rather than political.    

            Being a girl, Diane lacked this vital information, and was unimpressed by the fascinating story.  Girls just don’t seem to grasp the importance of super-heroes.  Maybe this is because,  as comedian Jerry Seinfeld observed, all  men view themselves as sort of super-heroes. Seinfeld says as boys grow up,  Superman, Spiderman, and Batman are not just juvenile fantasies— they’re considered real  options.

            In 1842 Rudolph  Toppfer published a collection of newspaper comic strips in what is considered to be  the first comic book. But everything changed in 1938 when Action Comics introduced Superman, establishing the still dominant super-hero genre.   

            In the  1950s, comics came under attack,  as  congressional hearings charged them with the corruption of youth. The star witness before the  Senate Judiciary committee was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.  Wertham  testified that comic books were  “an important contributing factor  in many cases of juvenile delinquency”.  He claimed that Batman was “homoerotic”, Superman promoted “sadistic” impulses, and Wonder Woman was about “sadomasochism”.  Ironically the creator of Wonder Woman was Harvard psychologist William Marston, who wanted a hero who used love, as readily as force, to fight crime.

            Fearing governmental intervention,  comic book  publishers voluntarily formed a self-policing organization. Works that complied with standards about crime, bloodshed, occultism, and sex, were awarded the Comics Code Seal.   As comics moved from mass media to niche markets, the importance of the code waned.

             Richard Kyle coined the term “graphic novel” in 1964 to describe European works that he considered more sophisticated than the  typical American fare. The term is now applied to “serious” comic books,  with quality bindings, that are sold in comic shops and bookstores.  They have been the basis for numerous movies.

            In the  1970s  indie publishers produced  underground comics  reflecting the prevailing counterculture. Many adults found the uninhibited styles of artists like Robert Crumb (the “Keep on Trucking” guy), shocking and offensive–  pretty much as intended.   “Alternative Comics”  represented by Harvey Pekar‘s American Splendor  came next  and are still popular.    

            According to Diamond Comic Distributors,  Marvel Comics currently holds a 45% market share compared to the 33% share of their chief rival, DC Comics,  which owns the Batman and Superman  franchisees. None of the smaller publishers have more than a 5% share.

            There are over half a million American comic book readers and  top selling issues exceed 120,000 copies a month. For years my friend Scott, has subscribed to several comics.  He seals each one in a Mylar bag and treats his collection as if it were his 401K. Truthfully, it  has done much better than the market.

            The first Spider-Man  is  worth over $75,000.  Iron Man #1  has been selling for  about $600, but the  movies promise to drive the price to over $1000.   At the very  upper end, the first Batman sells for about $400,000 and the “Holy Grail” of comicdom, Superman’s  first appearance,  is priceless, but  lists for over a half a million dollars.

            I owned first editions of Spiderman and Iron Man,  as well as  other Marvel comics from the 1960’s. Had I held on to them, I might be writing this from my villa on the Riviera. It is said that R. Crumb traded his early sketchbooks for a house in the south of France.   Unfortunately my older brother Norman, ever the wheeler-dealer,  traded my prized comics, without my knowledge. In return he got a box of old Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost,  and Ritchie Rich comics from the  kid down the street. These comics were in terrible shape and were mostly the unpopular Charelton and Harvey brands.  

            I can’t blameNormantoo much, since I personally ruined my only other   childhood opportunity for riches.  As a boy I came into possession of hundreds of old baseball cards. I wasn’t a fan and had no idea that they would ever be valuable.  So, I used them all for target practice with my BB gun. It makes me ill to think about it, but I probably would have plugged the Mona Lisa between the eyes, were it in my possession back then.

            My father was always a big fan of  Donald Duck comics. In the 1940’s, Carl Barks,  Disney’s “duck man” created Donald’s lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander, and my father’s favorite, Donald’s uncle, Scrooge McDuck, “the World’s Richest Duck”.    My father was always attracted to the notion of luck and I think he really liked the idea of  “swimming in money” as Scrooge often did, in his money bin.    

            Louisvilleartist Don Rosa is one of Barks’ most famous successors. In 1995 Rosawon the Eisner Award (the “Oscar of Comics”)  for The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,  series. The series second installment begins inLouisville, complete with a depiction of the Galt House and an exaggerated Falls of theOhio.     

            My whole family grew up as Scrooge fans, as did our kids. Normanonce visited us and when he saw a stack of Uncle Scrooge comics on the bedroom bookshelf, he started referring to his room as the “luxury suite”.          

            Perhaps this all culminates with our youngest son. In the fifth grade he drew a poster with   ducks on it. They were so animated that they seemed to come alive.   Diane immediately sensed that the talent that eluded me, may have found expression in David.  He recently finished art school inManhattanand is now drawing graphic novels inNew York City.   

            David was always fascinated by big city life. When the admissions counselor at the Art Institute of Chicago looked at his portfolio, he said David had a “gritty urban thing” going in his artwork.  When David  painted a mural in the children’s Sunday school classroom at church,  Diane and  I were concerned that Jesus might be smoking a cigarette or resemble Lenny Bruce.  David, however, managed to show some restraint.  

            Although much of his work is still gritty and urban,  he  continues to  paints and draw ducks. It’s in his blood. Diane and I saved all his elementary school sketchbooks. We haven’t given up on the Riviera yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Three Labours of Stawar

3 Jan

           

        Amidst my constant brooding about money matters, I recently came up with the scheme for refinancing our house, to take advantage of the rock bottom interest rates. I surprised myself, since generally I just talk about such things. Actually doing them makes me feel like a take-charge kind of guy but also incredibly anxious. I filled out the mortgage application papers like I was in a trance and had to face the trauma of looking at credit scores and listing all my bills. There was, however, one thing, I hadn’t counted on and that is the mortgage company insisted on having the house appraised. The thought of someone poking around our house, taking note of all my neglect, was enough to make me reconsider the whole thing.

             My wife Diane said she would go along with the refinancing, but she established two conditions. First, I had to be the one who was at home when the appraiser came to our house. I admit that I usually foist such embarrassing jobs off on her. When electricians, plumbers, or other repairmen come to our house, I conveniently have a very important meeting at work that I just can’t cancel. She has to face their embarrassing questions as they look over various aspects of my shoddy workmanship. If I see a repair truck in the driveway on my way home from work, I usually decide that maybe we need some milk from the store. Shepherding the appraiser through our house would be sort of a token payback for all the times Diane was stuck with that dirty job. Diane’s second condition was her insistence that I, for decency’s sake, clean up the basement and make some minor house repairs that I had been putting off for years. She had only asked me last week when was I going to straighten up my work bench. I was intimidated and reluctant, but that fixed 4% called to me in a siren’s voice. Diane had just sprained her foot so it was also made clear that these jobs were mine alone.

             The task before me began to assume mythic proportions in my mind. I remembered how the Greek gods require Hercules to complete a series of nearly impossible tasks to atone for his past misdeeds. But Hercules only had to slay some monsters, clean stables, and steal a couple of apples. Compared to my jobs, Hercules’s labors were a piece of cake.

Labor 1: The Cleansing of the Basement Hercules’s most humiliating assignment was to clean the Augean stables in a single day. King Augeas was known for his famous stables, which were the largest in the world. The livestock, housed there, were supernaturally robust and produced an enormous quantity of waste. Furthermore, the stables had not been cleaned in many years. However, if you ever saw our basement, I’m sure you would agree that the Augean stables had nothing over the Stawaran basement, which due to my procrastinating had not been thoroughly cleaned in nearly a decade. Hercules accomplished his task by cheating. He rerouted the course of two rivers so that they flushed out the stables. It would have probably been easier to redirect the Ohio, but I used plain old elbow grease. Although technically I wasn’t required to slay any giant monsters, cleaning the basement did involve tackling several horrendous spiders and something that may have been a slime creature. The job took two full days, dozens of trash bags, and a lungful of dust and debris. There was also some psychological cost to the task, since it involved sorting through our youngest son’s old toys. He is the baby of the family and although he’s been away from home for almost six years, his absence is still hard to accept. All those Legos and Star War toys evoked a flood of bittersweet feelings that didn’t make the task any easier.

Labor 2: The Spackling of the Bathroom My second task was to repair a hole in the ceiling of the guest bathroom. I forget how long ago the hole was made by a plumber looking for a leaky pipe. The leak had long since subsided, but the hole remained. Most of our guests have had the good manners not to inquire about this hole, but lacking any such social inhibitions, visiting children always point it out. Even babies having their diaper’s changed in this bathroom have gestured upwards towards the ceiling in an accusing manner. I managed to cut a piece of drywall and nail it to the ceiling and fill in around it with spackling compound. Since the ceiling had an “orange peel” plaster finish, the smooth drywall piece didn’t blend in very well, even after I painted it. About a day before the scheduled appraisal, I decided to get a large spray can of plaster texture to try to apply a surface, similar to the ceiling, on the drywall. A friend at work told me I didn’t have to put up masking tape since any spillover would easily wipe off. Just to be safe I taped a few sheets of newspaper to the walls anyway. I shook the can vigorously to mix the texture. When I pushed the button, it was like a plaster bomb detonated. I must have swallowed about a pound of plaster and the overspray covered everything in the room including the sink, walls, the chair I was standing on, and the shower curtain. About the only thing that did not get a coat of plaster was the piece of drywall, I was aiming at. It took me hours to clean up the mess.

Labor 3. Weedwacking the Pathway We have a small outbuilding about 100 yards from our house. Since I wanted the house to appraise for as much as possible, I wanted to make sure the appraiser could see it. Over the summer the pathway to the building had become overgrown, so my final labor was to clear it. For over twenty minutes I tried to get the line trimmer going, by pulling the starter cord. I finally discovered I had dialed the wrong settings, which would have prevented it from ever starting. By the time I got the thing started I was already exhausted. The pathway had many painful thorny branches blocking it, but the trimmer was able to mow them down. In a green cloud of flying thorns and poison ivy, I cut a pathway to the building, completing my final labor.

               The appraiser went over the house with a fine tooth comb. Just my luck that since the mortgage crisis, banks are very wary of inflated appraisals. I survived the ordeal and am waiting for the results. If the appraisal isn’t high enough, my next scheme may involve fetching a Golden Fleece.

Orginally published in the New Albany Tribune/Jeffersonville  Evening News

Learn all about the Floyd County Art Scene: Take Terry Stawar’s Current Events Quiz In Current Magazine (page 34)

27 May

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