"...No longer required to make with our hands in order to assure our survival or to make a living, more and more of us now do so by choice. What was once a necessity has become, for many, a joy, a privilege, and a call to action."
These words are written by Melanie Falick in the introduction of her book “Making a Life”. It came recommended by a friend, and I must admit that there has been so much to mull over in just the intro that I haven’t read beyond that (yet)!
But before I talk more on that book, here's a story about another one:
Just under a year ago, with some holiday gift money, I bought Jaana Mattson’s how-to book “Landscapes in Wool”. After many years working with fiber, I was ready to experiment with a new direction. Using a tutorial from Mattson’s book, I tried my hand at needle-felting a painting -- trees backlit by a glowing moon, all purple shadows and moonbeams. I was ok with the results, but not thrilled (this was due to my own limitations, not the book's!).
My second attempt was of a scene from the farm. In the background was the apple barn, a historic building of wood and stone, and in the foreground, grazing sheep.
We all have a feeling when we are on to something good. What does it feel like for you? For me, there is a rising pressure in my chest, like my lungs and heart are actually expanding (they probably are). I felt that when I worked on this pastoral painting. Not only was I on to something, but I wanted more of it!
Returning to Melanie Fralick’s book, here is more from the intro of “Making a Life”:
"All the people featured in these pages are, without a doubt, very talented; however, I chose them not because they are “the best” but because the way they are leading their lives is both relatable and inspiring. For some, making by hand is a way of earning a living - but more important for each of them, it is a way of taking agency over their own lives. They have shown me what their version of a good life looks like."
Taking agency through slow work with one's own hands to create a life. I can't stop thinking about this.
Since the pandemic began in 2020, I’ve become a farmer (because “farm” is a verb, and I am doing it, even though I’m new at it). This is not just working with my hands – it is working with my whole body in partnership with other animals, weather, my community. I’ve never felt such immense satisfaction.
And then I began re-creating the farm in paintings, and this augmented the satisfaction.
And then I began teaching others how to express their imaginations through wool – and again, such feelings of gratitude and fulfillment!
A photo from a workshop at Salish Sea Yarn Co., in which we felted pumpkins (with inspiration from the shape and color palette of the real things.
Before you think I am all sweetness and light, I will also say this: The world is a horrible mess. We, the inhabitants of this planet, have created such a terrible, terrible situation. In my quest for balance and coping I have worked with my doctor and therapist, and am currently on medication to help with depression (I acknowledge that this access to care is a priviledge). I have two young adult children, and it is heartbreaking to watch them face this world full of war, shootings, pandemic, global warming disasters, political attacks on personal freedoms.
To feel some sort of agency in this mind-bending dichotomy, I work with my hands. I use materials that come from other living creatures, some of whom my hands literally welcomed into this world. And with their wool, I “paint” images from the most beautiful things around me, so as to draw attention to them.
Not to divert attention away from the terrible things, as they need to be addressed in all the ways in which we are capable. But so that the terrible is not the only thing. It feels like an act of hospitality to welcome you in to a space that can offer respite, reminders of beauty, and possibly fond memories or dreams of times to come.
This coming year I encourage you to work with your hands. Find that feeling of expansion in your chest, or however a good thing feels in you. I would like to quote another friend, Ann Hedly, who said in her podcast “What is Going On Anyway?”:
"My task this season is to slow down and kindle the fires that matter to me, so that when they do alight, I’m warmed by the fire of desire. And that, for me, comes out as my creative pursuits.
...Tend to your fires this season — your inner fires, your outer fires, your symbolic fires., kindling ideas and holding flames to some of your piles and seeing if they are ready to ignite."
This past month I focused on creating some small paintings (4-inch) to sell at the farm. They are fun because their scale makes it possible to complete one in a day and yet there is still so much color and depth to translate! Below is the process of creating the painting that turned out to be my favorite in this series:
Here's what I started with. I have been preferring to start by wet-felting my own "canvas" for the painting, but I was short on time. So I began with a very unceremoniously cut square of flat felt.
Not sure where to begin, I added a base of color. I like knowing that this blue is under all the other shades... or maybe this was just the color I was feeling at the time!
Next I layered on the background colors. Lots and lots of layers -- maybe not the most conserving of wool, but I like how hints of different colors show through,
Once my background was mostly finished, I started working in the shape of the grazing sheep. For more detailed portraits, I'll use a template -- but for these studies I am enjoying building the form through shape and color. This sheep was tricky because it was actually turning its head away from the viewer (I was working from a photo).
Again, it's just a matter of layering on color. I am loving combining blues and yellows on the sheep's "white" wool to indicate shadow and light.
I finished the sheep and grounded her with a nice warm shadow. While I dislike the dryess of summer, I really love the ochres and burnt siennas of the season. I'm sure at the time this sheep was longing for some greener grass.
As indicated by this post, I'm a sucker for a good read, and if you've made it all the way to these words, clearly you are too! In the comments, share titles of your favorite "working with your hands" books (fiction, non fiction, memoir.......)
A detail from one of the other paintings, dirty fingernails for scale.