Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Basket Update

Just wanted to update my progress on my last holiday gift basket, which I have worked on a bit over the last few days.

This is the end that is closest to being done.  I added the little Christmas tree and bunnies:

I worked on the mountain end, adding trees that wrap around to the side slats:

The other slat side is waiting for some details:

So there's still plenty to do.  I probably worked about four hours on it since my last update.  

We had a bit of cooler, drier air make it this far south this week.  It felt great!  But cold fronts don't last long at this time of year, if they even make it here.  It'll stay in the upper 80's to low 90's for the next few weeks most likely.  Here I am painting winter holiday scenes when it's still subtropical summer outside!  Oh, and I wanted to share a photo of an orchid blooming in our yard.  It's pretty neglected outside, but the humid hot weather, shade, and summer rains seem to suit it.  Guess that comes of being a rainforest plant living in central Florida!  The flowers are huge and have lasted for weeks.  Bye for now!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Catching Up!

I took a break from blogging for two weeks while I was finishing up some things and starting some others.  

About a month ago I wrote about sewing a ballroom dance dress for our friend Heather, who also dances with my daughter Laura's partner Dakota.  They have a competition in North Carolina in a few weeks (Laura's not competing in this one) and I needed to finish the dress.  Fortunately it fit pretty well and didn't need a lot of work to finish.  Here's a couple of photos of it fitted, embellished and hemmed.

I also finished painting another holiday/gift basket to list in my etsy shop, which I did, just yesterday...and today it was purchased by a family member!  I have a great family.  I feel very honored when anyone wants to have something I have made, and when that someone is family, it just makes it more meaningful to me. This is the one I finished, listed and sold within a couple of days!


I've also been working on my last basket of the six we made.  I thought I would show a progression of how I paint them from start to finish.  I made good progress this weekend.  Here is where it begins on the first day, with the wood already sealed:

I put base coat paint layers on it, in this case white:
Next, for this basket, I used a sponge to put layers of darker and lighter blue paint over the base coat and then a brush to start the design:

I did get more done; one side is nearly done but I didn't get the last photo before it got too dark out on the enclosed porch where I work. I'll put that in the next progress blog.  This basket is going pretty fast so far.  Plenty left to do though!

Lastly, I'm working on other ideas for things for my shop.  I think I'm in an exploration phase as I try things to see how I like making them, and how people respond to them, and if they will sell or not.  It may take a year or more to sort out what shape this venture will take.  It's fun to experiment and see what happens.  The hard part is trusting myself, and the process of trying different things and evaluating the results, to lead me to the best choices.  Being true to myself and following my heart is my intention.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

I Put a Bird On It, Part 2

I addressed some of the general issues generated by Alexandra Lange's article and Ellison's etsy blog post in my previous post, but I have a more personal take on them as well that I hope to delve into in this follow up post.  I hope you will bear with me!

I feel there is a reflection of this issue in my own current work, which makes me uneasy. The thing is, I'm a fine art painter....and I'm a crafter. I love to paint canvases with portraits, landscapes and other subjects with serious intent to capture likeness, attitude, mood, and good composition, using and stretching my skills and knowledge.

The Mountains Beyond, by Penny Birch-Williams

As I shared in a previous blog post, I was so moved by a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in April, viewing in person incredible works of fine art by some of the world's greatest artists.  I have been inspired by great art all my life, and without any expectation of ever reaching such heights of achievement, I have been propelled by the desire to be better than I am, to push myself to learn and grow, to be a 'real' artist.

"Mommy's Hat" a portrait of Laura, by Penny Birch-Williams

But I also love to make crafts, and to paint crafts. Some of my craft painting is also what I would call serious....but some is definitely on the cute side. I have always loved cute things. I melt for babies, kittens, and puppies, little felted creatures, anything with big eyes, anything furry, fuzzy, fluffy. I love to make cute things.  It seems to me that most holiday decorations are cute, appealing to children (or the child within us!) 

Most of the Christmas baskets I'm working on now are meant to be cute in subject, while painted with the same care and detail I would use on a canvas. 

And yes, I put a bird on it! (Actually there are birds on a couple of my baskets now.)

So what makes me uneasy is the question of whether taking my abilities, and my etsy shop, into the cute zone somehow cheapens, or reflects negatively, on my painting as a whole, and myself as an artist? Can I be both a fine art painter, and a crafter? Can serious Art, or serious Craft such as the type Lange was writing about in her article, coexist with the cute and fuzzy little-c craft, and be worthy of the same respect?


My personal uneasiness is not a particularly weighty issue for anyone besides me, of course.  I have no critics watching my career, who might have an opinion on what I do one way or another.  I will likely never know if it puts anyone off, who happens upon my etsy shop and thinks less of me for having crafts among my canvases. 

Sometime in the future I may decide to open a second etsy shop, and split off the crafts from the fine art, but the question remains.  I'm the one doing the work, no matter where it's put up for sale.  

Maybe this is more about the labels I use, and how I want to merit the label "Artist", at least in my own mind.  I hope I can make peace with myself, when I can accept that there are within me different facets of how I express art, and find equal respect for each.  


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

I Put a Bird On It, Part 1

I read a thought-provoking blog post on etsy recently that kind of hit home for me.  It was by Chappell Ellison, titled Is Cuteness Bad for Craft? on 8/21/12.  Click here if you would like to read her post. 

She was commenting on an article in the New Yorker by Alexandra Lange on 8/1/12, Don't Put a Bird On It: Saving "Craft" from CutenessYou can read her article here. 

Lange's article was commenting on the TLC show Craft Wars.  She states that "What "craft" mostly means on Craft Wars is the act of making things cuter," as contrasted with her "old-school definition of craft: make it yourself, buy better quality items, think about each purchase, keep it for a long time." 
Mid Century Modern Eames Inspired Coffee Table
Mid Century Modern Eames Inspired Coffee Table, $349.00
As I understand it, she believes the show's wasteful use of the materials used, rushed construction, and the focus on decorating rather than usefulness and sturdiness, cheapens the idea of craft.  She says, "Making things cute is not a business.  It's not even a part-time job.  Instead, it's a hobby."  According to Ellison's etsy blog post, Lange's article received many angry comments from crafters calling her a snob.

There are currently 290 comments on Ellison's post from etsy sellers-artists-makers, and most of them saying that cuteness does not have to prevent craft from having value and meaning. With Michaels as sponsor of the show, it can't be too surprising that the competition is set up as little more than decorate-the-box-best.  The contestants are shortchanged in that they get little opportunity to show what they are really capable of.  The show does little to show crafting in a way that enhances its image or proves its value, in my opinion.

However, Lange is incorrect: many people do make a full-time or part-time living from "making things cute".  Etsy is full of sellers doing just that.  Does that mean those felted creatures, polymer clay mice, cupcake keychains, knitted frog baby hats have no value?  to those that enjoy them, wear them, use them, and buy them, clearly they do have value.  To those that make them, with care and pride in their work, they have value. 

3-6 Month, Frog Hat, Baby Hat, Crochet Baby Hat, Photo Prop
3-6 Month Frog Hat,, $14

Even her use of the word "hobby" as a negative description is an unnecessary put-down for millions of people who devote countless hours developing skills and producing lovely things in their off-work hours.  Not all of us are blessed with the choice to devote ourselves to an art, craft, or other loved and enjoyable activity as a career.  There need not be derision from critics regarding the quality of hobby pursuits, sight unseen, no less.

Kawaii Cupcake Charm Keychain, Strawberry :)
Kawaii Cupcake Charm Keychain,, $4

I do agree with this point in Lange's article:  there is a current movement toward returning to the Arts and Crafts era attitude regarding material goods, for good quality, durable, useful, beautifully made items.  Possibly this is a backlash against years of factory-made, endlessly duplicated items, cheaply made and often needing replaced, found in every mega-mart and dollar store.  There is, to me--and I believe for a growing number of people--an inherent soullessness to such things.

Little White Mouse with Cake Ornament Sculpture Cake Topper
Little White Mouse with Cake,, $24.49

Individual people hand make nearly everything you could need or want, such as clothing, toys, notebooks, cards, aprons, quilts, pillows, hats, jewelry, chocolates, pet beds, treats, furniture, shampoo, and on and on.  They can be found at art shows, craft fairs, consignment shops, websites, and online venues such as etsy.  Nearly anything can be made with skill and expertise, using quality, durable materials, and often with unique design and personal expression.

Hand Knit Hat Womens Hat - Pixie Hat, Gnome Hat, Elf Hat, Olive Green - READY TO SHIP - Fall Fashion Autumn Fashion
Hand Knit Hat Womens Pixie Hat,, $50

Slutty Brownies -  Cookie Oreo Chocolate Fudge Brownie Bars
Slutty Brownies- Cookie Oreo Chocolate Fudge Brownie Bars,, $16

Luscious Plum Soap - notes of plum, orchid, jasmine, musk, and vanilla
Luscious Plum Soap,, $5.75

As consumers we often buy the cheap mass-produced things because we don't have the money today for products that will last for years to come.  Many of us are cash-strapped, but more people are starting to think critically about how they spend their limited dollars, seeking out what appeals to them as well as what will last. Some are even considering such things as the sustainability of materials used, and supporting local small businesses and individual artisans.  With growing consciousness, we are finding new ways to express concern for our shared world in our personal lives.

Next blog post:  I Put a Bird On It, Part 2...why this hit home for me      

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Warning for Pet Owning Crafters

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of our cat Jack.  It's always sad, even heartbreaking, to lose a beloved pet.  Those of us who share our lives with pets know how much a part of us our furry friends become over years of living together.  But there is a reason I am blogging about Jack's death beyond the normal feelings of loss.  

I'm sharing this with you because Jack died due to my carelessness and as a result of my crafting.

He was a character, mischievious and charming, with long silky fur and golden eyes, and a meow like a squeak toy.  Only 6 years old, he was a rescue kitten we had adopted at the Humane Society when they were trying to make room for pets coming in from areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.  He won our hearts in a matter of days. There was just something about him that made him truly special.  He was especially bonded to my daughter and their love was very deep.

One year ago I was making dresses for my daughter to wear for a ballroom dance competition.  I often spent weekends and evenings working on dresses over the last five years.  Jack liked to watch me and often got in my way, sitting on the material as I cut out the pieces and so on. It could be aggravating, but I loved his company too.

He liked to bite at the thread on my sewing machine. I knew this, and had a habit of removing the thread from the machine and putting it away when I finished for the day, or covering the machine with a towel.  But on this night I walked away from it, intending to return in a few moments, without covering it.  Jack had been watching and playing with everything I was working with.  I left the room, got distracted, and when I returned Jack was on the floor, gagging, pawing at his mouth, with thread winding from the machine across the floor, into his mouth.  Cats can't spit things out.  They just keep swallowing and swallowing.

I held him and pulled on the thread, hoping he hadn't ingested much yet.  The thread caught on a back tooth and broke.  He calmed down, but coughed, and kept coughing.  He wouldn't eat.  When I attempted to look in his mouth to see if I could find the thread, he panicked and freaked out, leaving me with several deep scratches on my chest and hands.  He had never done that before. It was late at night by then.  I hoped it would pass through his system.  

The next morning he was still coughing, still not eating.  I took him to a veterinarian specializing in cats, whom I had just recently starting taking my elderly cat, Misty, to see. After watching him and x-rays that day, she did surgery the following morning to remove the thread.  He had eaten about a yard of it.  

I took him home the next day and spent the day trying to get him to eat and drink.  He moved around a little, but looked very uncomfortable.  I found he was bleeding and called the vet, who seemed overwhelmed and uncertain.  That night I took him to an emergency vet multi-speciality office.  

They sedated and stabilized him overnight, but testing revealed infection setting in.  What happens is that thread acts like a thin razor as it gets pulled tight by contractions of the intestines, making tiny cuts in the soft tissue, and from there bacteria escapes and causes serious infection.  We were told Jack would need more surgery to find and repair the cuts, a transfusion, flushing out of his abdominal cavity, possibly lengthy hospitalization.  And even then, his odds of survival were 50/50.  If he did live, he could be sickly for the rest of his life. And it would cost upwards of 5000 dollars.  We had already charged $3000 for his care over the last four days that we could not afford.  

To say this was staggering is a vast understatement. I was desperate with grief and guilt, desperate to save him.  My family gathered, and after heart wrenching discussion, we knew we could not put him through more suffering, and we could not financially cripple our family any further.  We all took turns holding him and trying to say goodbye.  It was one of the hardest things we have experienced.  We still miss him very much.  I still struggle to forgive myself for having failed him so completely, and caused my daughter, and all of us, such an unnecessary and traumatic loss. 

All I can do, to somehow create some redeeming element to what happened, is to tell the story with the hope that other families, other artists, others who sew and craft, will better understand the dangers of such things to our pets, and will take the steps necessary to protect them.  Pets don't know what can happen to them, only we do.  I was told by the vets that many dogs and cats suffer the same fate as Jack did, due to thread, Easter grass, string, fishing line, yarn, and other similar materials.  

If this does happen to your pet, please rush it to a veterinary practice that does emergency care, one that can do endoscopy if at all possible.  Only immediate care can remove the thread before it enters the intestines and thereby prevent the internal cutting and infection.  It's costly, but far less than major surgery.  If I had acted immediately, the outcome could have been very different.  I made poor choices that only made a bad situation into a deadly one.  I wish I had done so many things differently.

I wish you and your furbabies long happy lives together.  Please take care of them.