Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Value of a Handmade Gift

I have been thinking about my own handmade gift giving and choices to buy handmade this holiday season. There have been many years where I commit myself to a project only to realize the artwork will take three times the amount of time and resources predicted. For an artist to choose to invest time and energy into a project, it is never about being fast. It is about sharing the skills honed, the joy experienced in creating, and the distillation of thoughtful choices that go into a project. I now try to be honest with myself about how much time it will take to craft something by hand, and have more frequently budgeted for and enjoy purchasing handmade items that others have created.
Candlelight stroll during Christmas at Canterbury

In the December newsletter of Canterbury Shaker Village, Executive Director Funi Burdick writes, “But as with so many things Shaker, it turns out that mindfulness and intentionality was, and still is, the secret to cultivating and living the simple life no matter what the season, no matter how long the list.” She quotes a 1907 Shaker publication, "the true meaning of Christmas goes deeper than gift-giving...the gift is most truly a part of Christmas that has been prompted by love, respect, gratitude or charity.”

Matryoshka dolls painted by Master Artist, Marina Forbes
Many cultures have traditions of creating handmade items in groups or as a family. Marina Forbes is a Master Traditional Artist in Russian Icon Painting, and often teaches workshops throughout New England in the folk tradition of Russian Matryoshka (wooden nesting doll). Marina says that in Russian families, painting a set of Matryoshka dolls is, “about quality time together working on a family heirloom…Many times, I have had more than four generations of families come. Everyone signs their name on the bottom of the doll.”

Jeanne Brink is a Western Abenaki Master basket maker who has passed on her skills to several apprentices. During a 2005 interview discussing teaching her then current apprentice, Sherry Gould, Jeanne said “basket making to me, is it’s not that you just sit and make baskets. You’re teaching someone but you don’t say, okay, this is how you’re going to do this, so watch. It’s also a time when you talk, when we share things about our families, what we’ve been doing; we really get to know each other better. That’s part of it. Making baskets alone, it’s almost like quilting. You can quilt alone, but it’s better with a quilting bee; with someone else.”
Master Abenaki Basket maker Jeanne Brink with then Apprentice Sherry Gould. In 2010 Sherry Gould was juried as a Master Abenaki Basket maker.

I do admit to a secret hidden agenda when buying handmade items. The work of artisans are the products of labors of love, and I sometimes question whether or not the recipient will be able to appreciate the deep value that has been invested in the object, if they are not artists themselves. I then expose my hidden agenda of wanting to share with others how much handmade objects can enhance quality of life, by using the gift as an opportunity to share the story of the artisan or art form.

Ann Winterling (right) and Julie Robinson (left)
Julie Robinson, a marine biologist, has completed two apprenticeships with master rug hooker, Ann Winterling. Ann shared with Julie many fine arts principals that she used in her hooking. “I look at everything different now. I wasn’t raised with an artist’s background. I never took formal art classes. I never did any of that. And when I met Ann, I remember at first I was a little intimidated because she’s so artistic and her ability just flows out of her with no effort. She taught me to understand that we all have that within us, that if you work on it and you look at things differently than you ever have, you can see things. Like one of my favorite things… I think about it now all the time is in the winter, when the light is on the snow, you can see the pinks and the purples that Anne described to me when I did a piece that was a winter piece. And now I see it all the time. Not only has she given me a beautiful gift by teaching me to rug hook but she’s opened my eyes to look at everything differently and I think that’s through an artist’s eyes and I wouldn’t have had that experience without her.”

Whether you make, purchase, or receive a handmade gift, the thoughtful and careful skill, time, choices, and resources embodied in the work by the artisan will continually show the recipient your own gratitude.