Using What We’ve Got

We climbed the sweeping stone staircase into the Carnegie wing of our local library–into the oldest, original part, lovingly preserved through several renovations.  We walked through an arch into a long, high-ceiling, gracious room; it was a room which curved forward and beckoned visitors in and on.  The late afternoon light gentled in through soaring windows.

People mingled, chatting softly; a man bent to sign a guest book on a little table, mid-room, that also offered visitors a dipper of punch and a sweet little nosh. But mostly people browsed and angled, stepping up close to, backing away from, cocking their heads at, exploring from every angle, the colorful art of John Taylor-Lehman. ( http://www.taylor-lehman-studio.com/)

He’s a bottle cap artist, Taylor-Lehman is.  He pounds and flattens, cuts and trims; he molds and he builds up and out.  He works with the colors of the bottle caps themselves; he gradiates, for instance, the bottle-cap blues of a sky, deepening into the almost navy of Bud Light.

Mark stepped close to see how the caps attached to canvas. Nail gun, he posited.

There was a simple flower in a vase–happiness.  There was an intricately realistic sideview of a car (that one was ‘NFS’–claimed, already) On the grand piano, a dog sculpture stood about two feet high, complete with red, lolling, bottle cap tongue. Animals. Flowers. A leering skull, a preying water beast.

We marveled at the creativity.  We joked about the sacrifice many people must have made to empty all those bottles.

On the way out, we stopped to admire a sign Taylor-Lehman made to welcome people. It’s a carved and polished wooden bottle cap, maybe 18 inches round. “Use what you’ve got,” it reads.

I think about that all week.

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I think about, for instance, another local artist, a man known as the “Old Man from the Mountain,” “Blind Sculptor,” and “Boom Maker,” Rick Crooks. Crooks has been blind since age 16, when a gun accident robbed him of his eyesight, but he sees, ironically, things other people don’t. Crooks takes scraps–rusted metal gas cans, spent spark plugs, discarded tools, and he turns them into pieces of art–dragonflies and pelicans, turtles and alligators, tall giraffes and lumbering elephants. He uses the materials at hand. He hones the senses available to him.

Crooks’ work has been featured in private galleries. At the Y-Bridge Art Festival in Zanesville, Ohio, this August, his art won The People’s Choice award. Crooks takes what anyone else might call trash, what anyone else might throw away,–he takes the things he has– and he makes them into something compelling. (https://www.whiznews.com/2011/08/a-blind-artist-a-clear-vision/)

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I think about a wonderfully crafted, historically rich, mystery novel by Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club. Dallas tells the story of a group of women quilters in Dust Bowl Kansas in the 1930’s. They are farm wives and widows, mostly, or the businesses their husbands run depend upon the success of local farms to stay afloat. It is a time of parched drought and dangerous winds.

Queenie is the narrator, a valiant, young woman, buoyed by the love of a good man. Which is essential, because she has lost everyone else–parents dead, no extended family, and the baby she and Grover tried so hard to conceive born early with no chance of survival. The women of the Club surround and protect her, and still she is lonely–lonely for spark and adventure and youthful fun.

And that’s when Rita, the flashy, big city wife of Tom, Grover’s best friend, enters the scene.  Rita is rash and blunt and perfectly turned out.  She doesn’t understand the kind of life these women endure–the daily grind of farmwork appalls her.  And yet she tries to fit in, to match her hurried, slapdash stitches to the careful artistry of these women who have been quilting together, in one configuration or another, since the oldest of them received a gift of Persian Pickle fabric from her brand new husband years and years and years ago.

Rita comes to the quilters’ group with her mother-in-law; she admires the work of the women. She says that she wants to be a quilter, too, and she says she thinks that she’ll send Tom down to the five and dime to pick her up some  fabric so she can start.

There is a careful silence; the women don’t want to offend this hot-house flower, this exotic creature with whom Queenie longs, so deeply, to be friends. And then they reach into their bags of scraps, each of them, and they snip off bits of fabric.  They pass them to Rita. They tell her stories of where that fabric came from–whose dress, which shirt, which bridal bower. They anchor the swatches in time and place.  They give Rita the history of the bits and snippets of cloth they pass her way.

Because they know something Rita, for all her city ways and worldly knowledge, does not. They know that true art is created by salvaging the usable parts from the finally unredeemable dress, saving the scraps from the careful piecing of a shirt made for a hard-working brother, cutting the sheet–worn thin in the middle, into pieces for the scrap bag. Real art is made by taking these and crafting them into a blanket, a thing of beauty and vision.

Real art, Queenie knows, but cannot find the words to share with Rita–real art is made by using what you’ve got.

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Quilting wasn’t invented in the United States, but it seems to me a representation of the best kind of American spirit–that frontier, figure-it-out, what’s on hand, kind of passion and ingenuity. So you have the amazing creations of the women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated hamlet that somehow encouraged generations of poor women to create bold, imaginative, out-of-the-box creations celebrated in a book called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.(http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers)

You have the bridal quilt, carefully folded and wrapped in tissue, kept in an aging cedar chest–a gift to a young bride in 1890 from her new mother-in-law.  Made from scraps, made into what most women recognized as the wedding ring pattern, the quilt warmed the marriage bed, soothed sick children, flapped on a clothes line in an autumn wind, became a treasured heirloom.  A thing created from leftovers, castaway bits, become a family treasure.

Now we try to buy that quality, rather than creating it.

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Don’t get me wrong. There is something wonderful about purchasing a piece of art from a creator like John Taylor-Lehman, about proudly displaying one of Rick Crooks’ sculptures on the family shelves. But it seems to me we’ve lost that urge to improvise, that creative spark that says, Hmm. What do I have that I could use instead?

So we watch Chip and Joanna Gaines uncover and celebrate the ship-lap paneling in an old Texas house, and we think, “I want that!” And we go out and buy ship-lap paneling to apply to, say, our northeastern walls. And it looks great, probably–it’s wonderful to recreate a warm and welcoming household ambience.

But.

The point of a ‘fixer-upper’ is to fix what you’ve got. Maybe I should be thinking, What’s under MY wall?

I think about artistic friends, Kay and Brian, who renovated an old gas station into an amazing sprawl of a funky, innovative, smile-making home.  In their little bathroom, parts of the plaster wall have chipped away, revealing the brick beneath. Brian and Kay, instead of patching or covering, have celebrated and highlighted the exposed brick, and the bathroom’s charm benefits incredibly.  Exposed brick: the north’s answer to ship-lap?

Only if you’ve got it. Use what you’ve got.

There’s a reason we loved MacGyver so much, loved that he cracked an egg into an overheated radiator to plug up its leaks and make his escape in a rusting, supposedly useless, beater he leveraged in an arid southwestern town.  MacGyver could take what was on hand, spread out his choices, pick and choose and cut and trim to fit. He could make machines work and messages fly and bad guys stop.  MacGyver had that thing we called ‘Yankee Ingenuity.’

If he didn’t have what he needed, he used what he had to make it.

These days, we’d often just go out and buy it.

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I’m missing something, I think, when I do that. I’m missing something when I run out of disposable wet-pads for my Swiffer and think, Well, I can’t wash the floor! Then I run across a pattern on Pinterest that tells me how to knit Swiffer pads, and I think: Wait a minute. I go searching for my rag bag, and I pull out a batch of soft white t-shirts, worn thin and holey in the armpits, that Mark has just let go of.  I trace a Swiffer pad onto the stack of t-shirts. I cut the soft cloth, which fits snugly onto the cleaning tool. I mix up a batch of cleaning potion, and I dip the improvised Swiffer pad into it.

Huh.  Looky there. I AM able to clean my floor.

I slip old socks onto my duster instead of buying disposable refills for that, too.

I amaze myself by being able to clean without shopping.

Use what you’ve got, I think.

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And what else could I be doing? We need baskets for the eternally messy cubbies in the dining room, and I think about running to the home store to buy them. And then I remember the stack of boxes in the basement, shoe boxes and packing boxes–boxes that, when I bring them up and slide them into the openings, fit perfectly into the cubbies.  They’re not pretty, though, and they don’t match, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a way to make them do.

I think of mod podge and my stack of glossy magazines and I think I can morph those boxes into organizing containers that fit snugly into the currently messy spaces.

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I find a children’s book in a stack in my closet. It’s boldly illustrated in blacks and reds and yellows–the colors, in fact, are the same colors I favor in my kitchen.  The book is old and tattered and not worthy of sharing with a child, and I could throw it out. Or–I could dig out the old picture frames and my matting tools, buried under those boxes I want to re-purpose. I could cull the prettiest, brightest pictures. I could matte and frame and hang them in my kitchen.

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I’m thinking of using the sad, limp veggies in the crisper to make some broth.

I’m thinking of crunching up the last of the frosted flakes to make tiger cookies, a recipe I loved as a child.

I’m thinking of long-simmered stews and casseroles and skillets that deftly, tastily, combine the things we have on hand.

I’m thinking of gift wrap and greetings and the yarn patiently waiting in my big craft basket.

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I’m thinking, this week, of quelling the impulse to shop out my needs.

I’m thinking of how to embrace the challenge.

I’m thinking I need to get better at using what I’ve got.

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9 thoughts on “Using What We’ve Got

  1. I love how you tied all these thoughts of using what you’ve got into the quilting. It reminds me of my family. We made it, no one starving because of my mother’s ingenuity. She took some crap for not always being there but the truth is, she was a magician with limp vegetables and old clothing. Everything was useful and she made the best soups. I ate a lot of soup and stew but I never went hungry. I took from it the knowledge of how to make do and how to use every bit of a chicken.

    1. I love that! I have learned, just in recent years, to make broth with the chicken bones…and it’s soooo much better than store-bought. Your mother sounds like a bit of an artist in her own right!

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