DIY: A Manifesto (of Sorts) in Four Parts

comments (9) December 29th, 2008     

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Jeff_Rudell Jeffery Rudell, contributor
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Photo: Jeff Rudell

DIY: Part 1

I was raised on a hardscrabble tract of land in Michigan by two of the craftiest people I know. My father worked in a paper mill and my mother held jobs as a bank teller and a realtor. They called themselves farmers, but the fact of the matter is farming is difficult work, and like many family farms, ours seemed incapable of generating enough cash to keep us solvent, so my parents took on second (and sometimes, third) jobs to keep us from bankruptcy. 

As a child, I never realized the hardships my parents felt. From the vantage of youth, all that was visible were the results of their creativity, not the motivating force behind it. I saw only a father who was good with tools, could build a rocking horse, repair a dresser drawer, build a quilt stand, and fashion a dizzying variety of knots completely at odds with his life as a landlubber. As for my mother, I thought of her as naturally crafty; someone who could turn tuna fish cans into Christmas ornaments, make a canister set out of coffee cans, could improve the look of any flea market find with her modest skill as a toll painter, and someone who (against all logic and in the suffocating heat of the Michigan summers) seemed to like doing nothing more than sitting motionless, for hours, hunched over an embroidery hoop, quilting.

What is now visible through the corrective lens of adulthood is that my mother and father faced one choice each and every day of their lives: Do it yourself or make do without. No one but a child would imagine that a large-handed and clumsy man like my father relished the patience required to re-cane a chair he'd rescued from the town dump. And, now that I'm older and have some experience myself, I realize that the focus my mother lavished on her quilting hid the fact that buried within the folds of the unquilted cloth on her lap lay a forest of stick pins ready to answer her every movement with a piercing reminder that winter was coming and there were blankets to be made for all three of her children. 

What is clear to me now is that my parents were DIY crafters of necessity.

DIY: Part 2

A few years ago, I ventured out into the streets of New York City one afternoon in search of craft inspiration. I packed some paper, an X-Acto knife, and a small cutting mat. By lunchtime I found myself in Grand Central Terminal snacking on a hot pretzel. Not far from where I was seated, a homeless man was pawing through a trash receptacle. He pulled out a discarded food wrapper, wiped some catsup from it with his sleeve, and proceeded to fold it into a perfect origami crane (albeit a condiment-stained one). When he finished, he withdrew another piece of paper from the trash, created another crane, and placed it beside the first one. As I sat eating, I watched him assemble an entire flock of cranes. He then delicately, and with great intent, arranged them in a pleasing display atop the lid of the trash can out of which they had been born. Having witnessed the "manufacturing and merchandising" of his product, I stuck around to watch him try to sell them: "Hey, pretty lady, wouldn't you like to help a fella out by buying one of my birdies?", "How about buyin' one of my birds, buddy?", and my favorite, "Genuine tramp art. Get your genuine, antique tramp art here."

Sadly, no one offered to buy his wares. The fact that he was dressed in rags, unwashed, "aromatic," and wearing the wild-eyed countenance of a half-crazed person did not, I'm sure, encourage consumer confidence. After I finished eating, I did a quick sketch of him from my table and then walked over and offered him a few dollars. When I wouldn't take a bird in exchange for my few bills, he threw the money back at me and yelled, "I'm selling things, here, #*@!. I am a businessman. I don't need your #*@! handout." Wanting to leave him both his pride and the few dollars I'd offered, I walked away with my head bowed, leaving the money on the floor of the station for him to collect once it was clear that I'd been suitably dispatched in shame.

Since then, I've made a point of periodically sketching homeless people, what a friend of mine calls the "creatively displaced." It serves as a good reminder that there is little difference between me (who writes for an online audience of thousands) and the very clever homeless man who stands in Penn Station (likewise before an audience of thousands) with his sign that reads: "A Cup of Coffee: $1.00. A Sandwich: $3.95. Feeling Like You Saved a Life Today: Priceless!" While he is clearly the more concise of the two of us, it begs the questions, who between us is the more creative? For my part I am hard-pressed to make a determination.

Below are a few images drawn from this ongoing project.

Folio sleeve for "Homeless" project.

"Christopher Street" selection from "Homeless."

"The Port Authority" selection from "Homeless."

"Union Square" selection from "Homeless."

"Tudor City" selection from "Homeless."

"Grand Central" selection from "Homeless."

DIY: Part 3

I was reminded of this recently when I was rushing to a meeting in midtown Manhattan. I turned a corner on West 58th Street and came face to face with two obvious crafters who were dressed, head to toe, in their handiwork. I smiled at this colorful couple. They smiled back. I said, "Wow" and we fell into conversation with one another. The woman said she was responsible for the creation of the work on display but that the man did his part by helping to unravel old sweaters and knitwear. She then takes this rescued yarn and makes "new and pretty" things to help keep the two of them warm ("I love having 'new' things"). When pressed for details, all she would tell me was that some of it was knitted, some of it was crocheted, and some of it was "finger-woven" the way her grandmother had taught her. When I asked why the bike was covered, they hesitated and then admitted it was not, "strictly speaking" theirs, but they didn't want someone thinking they'd stolen it so they covered it up.

I asked if I might take their picture and they agreed...and then asked if I might spare a token of appreciation for their trouble. A $20 bill was all I had on me, and this seemed to suffice. They wished me well and sent me on my way with a small, woven wristband she promised would bring me good luck in the New Year. "Get home safely," were her parting words to me as I turned and left them homeless on a New York street. Here are the two pictures I took with my camera phone. Notice the bike seat, the bike saddle bag, the bike basket, the handlebar covers, and the hats, vests, scarves, and leg warmers all in brightly colored yarn.


DIY: Part 4

With the New Year fast approaching, I, like many of my friends, am busy preparing for end-of-year celebrations and the inevitable end-of-holiday return to work. We're all engaged in making long lists of resolutions—things we want to do in the New Year, things we hope to do in the New Year, and, in some cases, things we know full well we will never do in the New Year.

Sitting, reviewing my list the other day, I heard in my head the voice of my long-dead German grandmother saying—in anticipation of Nike's tagline by more than 20 years—"Quit talking about what you're going to do and just do it, for heaven's sake."

So, after some reflection, I've decided to rip up my list of resolutions and expand my interpretation of what "Do It Yourself" really means. In place of New Year's resolutions, I'm going to take up the much more humble (but effective) Daily To-Do List. I live by my list. It's what makes it possible for me to get any (and all) of my work done. Today, as 2008 draws to a close, I cannot offer any grand or inspiring suggestions beyond the simplest one: do something today (and everyday) that needs to be done (it can be small but it should be important). For me, for today, my list begins with these four entries:

1. Try to pass along to others any knowledge you have that can help them. Do if for free.

2. Take all the coats and clothes that either don't fit (or aren't favored) and find a good home for them (for me, this means New York Cares Coat Drive).

3. Feed someone today (this means dropping off some food at the local Food Bank on my way back from the grocery store).

4. Make less trash. Make more things out of trash. (Today I'm writing holiday thank-you cards on scraps of paper left over from my recent Creche project).

These are small steps, granted, but they are steps nonetheless. I realize that no one of us can solve a problem like homelessness or hunger, but I also understand that all of us, working together, can.

I am grateful to all of you who have commented on my posts. Your tips and ideas and advice have been invaluable to me. I hope you will continue to share your skills and knowledge here for others to learn from and enjoy. Our collective creativity is a great gift and, like all gifts, it grows more powerful when shared with others. Happy New Year to all.

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Comments (9)

pattiwirkkala writes: Jeff - I live in Upper Michigan and there are still many resourceful people who live like your parents did - and many who will be going back to living that way, considering the economy. I love your work - and appreciate you sharing your experiences. Some things the old Finns would do: make rugs out of rags and plastic bread bags, make pot scrubbers out of plastic mesh bags. Save every plastic container rather than buying tupper ware or rubber maid containers. (and I would think they were silly!)
Posted: 7:28 am on February 28th
Jeff_Rudell writes: Amaryllis is absolutely correct in her evaluation. At the time, some years ago, the combination of "crazy-seeming" behavior, poor hygiene, and the unsanitary raw materials, made me loath to accept a paper crane from the street vendor. I would like to think I have since matured a little in my attitudes. Now, far from repulsing me, crazy-seeming behavior is something I am drawn to; hygiene (especially in this case) is often outside ones control, and; now that I've become a "trash picker" in my own right, I admire his resourcefulness. I'd like to think that, were I to happen upon the same situation today, I would offer money, accept a crane, and venture to share an origami recipe or two with that enterprising street crafter so that he could expand his product line and improve his lot. As I wrote in a recent post (DIY: A Manifesto (of sorts)), I've grown much more interested in passing along (craft) knowledge to others whenever the opportunity to do so arises. Thank you, Amaryllis, for your insightful comment.
Posted: 12:07 pm on January 6th
Amaryllis writes: Love the bicycle!
I'm curious, though . . . why did you not take a paper crane? You needn't have had the one with the ketchup on it. (And you needn't have kept it, either; some child of your acquaintance might have thought it was neat.) He was selling a product, not asking for handouts . . . You were being generous, but I think you dissed his craft, as well as him.
Posted: 9:20 am on January 6th
quitethecrow writes: Jeffery, thank you for sharing this perspective. It seems that our perceptions design our world. I worked with homeless populations for around 10 years as an RN and found it to be inspirational and transcendent. I miss that work after leaving that position a year ago. I miss the people who befriended me and let me in. Today I work with clients who have great means and yet they seem paupers of sorts, furtively looking for more and worrying about losing what they have. Hmmm...

And again, as usual your "sketch book" is remarkable as is your writing. Thank you for this treat. Thank you for reminding us of the need to connect and meet each person on their own terms. Dignity should never be measured by appearances but rather by the fact that we are human. Thank you, thank you for sharing this!
Posted: 11:46 am on January 3rd
Jen_W writes: This is so beautifully thought out and beautifully written. It provides me with new inspiration when I'm feeling, frankly, a bit burnt out as a writer and crafter. It makes me think back to my very handy parents and grandparents, who just looked around and made do. I'm going to adopt your resolutions as best I can and build on them if possible. Thanks!
Posted: 7:05 pm on December 29th
maisykay writes: Okay, I confess, I have been gleaning all the wonderful inspiration of this site in sideline mode. Your article made me commit and create an account just to be able to comment on what you wrote, it is brilliant. The link to the creche was frosting on the cake.

I love the picture of your hardworking parents who were doing what needed to be done, but beautifully with (perhaps) unacknowledged creativity. It seems that many people like them who simply 'make do' with what is available don't even realize that not everybody has that mindset or ability.

Also fascinating is the crane folding homeless man. How did he learn this? He obviously has memory in his hands, something at which I marvel when I can still fold paper into the German bells my 5th grade teacher taught us - when I am decades beyond 5th grade! What other crafty things are hidden in this homeless man's head and hands?

Great photos of the yarn crafters - again, I am touched by the woman using something that was stored in her mind and hands by her grandmother. Beautiful!

It is so interesting to me when people express the need to create - in a similar way to needing to eat or drink. Thank you for your article, now I need to go and make something.
Posted: 12:11 pm on December 29th
LAURAMCHUGH writes: Jeff Happy Holidays and Healthy and Safe New Year to you and your family. Thank you for not only showing, sharing and teaching your crafts to us but for your wonderful writings and stories. I feel I have learned alot from you in the way of crafting and trying to step it up with my own crafts. You also have shared alot about yourself and your family, and I thank you for sharing that as well.. You are a thoughful and kind man. Keep up the great work. Can't wait to see what you have in store for the New Year.
Posted: 11:57 am on December 29th
FaveCrafts writes: I really enjoyed this article. Thanks!
Posted: 10:08 am on December 29th
croqzine writes: Great article. Thanks for sharing.
Posted: 5:55 am on December 29th
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