A Season of Exploring, Playing and Making

Collage of Projects Completed This Summer and a Book Read

The past few months, I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring, playing and making. Not venturing far on most days, at least not physically.

It was a beautiful, long-lasting spring here in Northern Illinois this year – mild temps in the day, cool nights, rain at (mostly) the right times and in the right amounts. Magnolia trees actually held their blossoms for an extended period. Beautiful. Would we slide into a summer that was just as perfect?

With the start of fall, we now know the summer has been a challenging one: drought conditions in many parts of the country and devastating rainfall elsewhere are reminders of a changing climate; continued health worries with the delta variant…

With all that is going on out in the world and, perhaps, close to home in our daily lives, a creative practice for expressing where you’re at in all of this can give shape to your thoughts, ideas, solutions… In other words, a creative practice can act as an elixir of sorts that provides much-needed breathing space for processing and making/doing.

Key to my creative practice is making time to explore and play. Over the last few months, here’s where the journey has taken me…

Reading

Escaping into books is something I’ve done since childhood. This summer, I closed each day with reading in bed for a bit. Not light summer reading mind you. Instead, I went for some pretty intense stories that covered all the emotions but at the end of the day, shine a light on that which is most important and serve as a reminder to live into each day fully. Two favorites – Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad and Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch by Erin French. Find both at your local library or independent bookstore. I am currently reading Pastoral Song: A Farmers Journey by James Rebanks.

Knitting

For some reason, I love to knit in the summer – and, not light airy things. More like wool knits to use in the coming winter months. Last summer, I knit up a half-dozen scarves or so for Christmas gifts. Continuing on my mission to clear out my yarn stash, this year I tackled a sweater pattern. I look at the finished piece now with amazement – because I actually knit a whole sweater and finished it! (Many thanks to my wonderful, talented neighbor who had a lot of patience!) Using a simple pattern and focusing on each piece at a time kept it fun (for the most part), rather than overwhelming. I chose a classic sweater design (“Great Tunics,” View 2) from 25 Gorgeous Sweaters for the Brand New Knitter by Catherine Ham. Find it a the library or used on Amazon or at yard sales.

Quilting

A trip to the Art Institute of Chicago was all about finding inspiration. First stop was the Bisa Butler exhibit, “Bisa Butler: Portraits.” The quilts were breathtaking and the story behind each one a glimpse into Black life. This field trip also made me realize just how much I have missed going to museums during the pandemic.

Dyeing with Plants and Embroidery

I took an online steam-dyeing class from the folks at Lady Farmer. After the class, I spent a few evenings embellishing the project with embroidery. Since then, I’ve dyed small amounts of fabric using kitchen scraps and plants from our yard. So cool!

Cooking

No doubt about it, by late spring, we had fallen into a menu rut at our house, cycling through the same recipes each week. With summer, we had to change things up to take advantage of the vegetables coming out of our very small garden and the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box arriving each week. I dug into cookbooks and began experimenting with new recipes. One favorite book – Food52 Mighty Salads: 60 New Ways to Turn Salad into Dinner. A favorite soup recipe (that we modified based on what was on hand – like substituting spinach for the chard) – was this Moroccan Red Lentil Soup with Chard from the Feed Me Phoebe blog.

Gardening

At this point in the season, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the yard is what it is. My focus has shifted to laying out plans for next year. Plans that include expanding the garden to – hopefully – get rid of the lawn (and the lawn mower) within the next couple of years. My preliminary sketches on graph paper look somewhat like a quilt design!

Mapping Out Places to Explore in the Coming Months

Making time for exploring and playing, in my opinion, is just as important as time spent making. Map out your own path for exploring and playing in the months ahead. Your map can take many forms but ideally reflects where you are at right now. Young kids? Break habits and visit a new park or walk down a different street. Not feeling a 100%? How are the trees outside your window changing right now? What else do you notice this time of year? Work dominates life right now? Find a good book to really sink into, or take a few minutes to explore a favorite museum’s online collection. Yes, in person is more fun, but sometimes it’s just not possible.

Follow your interests to explore and play. Then, when the time is right, take all this inspiration into your studio* and make/do. Make beauty. Do good.

*The word “studio” is used to mean wherever you go to make all those ideas. A place where the energy shifts for a bit of time as you sink into a project and others (ideally) recognize that you are “in the zone.” For many years mine was borrowed space in a small room that also functioned as homework space and home office. When I lived in a studio apartment in Chicago, it was the breakfast bar that divided the kitchen from the living/sleeping area.

Unplugging to Create and Explore

Brown and Orange striped knitted scarf

Election Day seems to be a good day to post about the break I’ve taken in this space, especially since I’m trying to tune out the news for at least part of the day. So, about that break…

My studio is where I go to create, express ideas, find peace, and get lost in the flow. Occasionally, it feels more like work than play – usually a sign that my creativity is tapped out. So, I took a break – or, as I like to say, cleared the table for awhile. Critical was unplugging from social media and engaging in activities that I find restorative:

  • Playing with color and texture. Finding a box of yarn for a sweater that I know I will never knit started me down this path. Now, 4-1/2 scarves later, I’ve got some ideas for future quilts and embroidered pieces – and gifts for my family.
  • Sketching found objects. When out on walks, I like to pick up leaves, acorns and other items lying on the ground. When the objects are too big or stationary (like tree bark), I snap a picture and then begin sketching at home. My sketches are not how you might see it, but they are as I see and interpret the object. Again, more ideas going into the creative tank.
  • Breaking out of a cooking rut to make some pretty terrific meals. There have been a couple of flops so not all has been perfect but I am learning and my taste buds are quite happy. The meal we are still talking about: Zuni Cafe’s Roasted Chicken with Bread Salad. I’ve never eaten at this San Francisco restaurant but I know exactly what I’d order!
  • Connecting with family and friends via phone, Zoom, or in person. It is amazing how much your schedule opens up when you unplug. All of sudden, you have a bit more time – and energy – to connect with people one-on-one. One blustery, chilly day we sat around our friends’ table to enjoy a great meal and conversation, then watched My Octopus Teacher. (We first checked to make sure we had been following CDC guidelines when it comes to social distancing.)
  • Steeping myself in nature. Walks, sitting outside – even with a blanket wrapped tightly round – or just opening a window and taking a deep breath in to connect with the natural world.

I am working on making these activities daily/weekly habits to keep my creative tank from becoming depleted again. I’ve also established more clear boundaries around social media – checking in once or twice a day for 30 minutes or less and unplugging during the weekends. Exceptions will happen but that’s what they will be, not the norm. Focusing and prioritizing those things that matter most – like family, friendships and my creative practice – will get the most attention.

So, on this big day, go vote if you have not already. Next, unplug to find a few minutes to slow down and do what restores you on a regular basis. Then starting at home, create and do to build a better world for today and for future generations, a world that unites, is kind and inclusive, is built on science and truth.

Mini Twig Sculptures

Twig wrapped in perle cotton beneath woven through leaves

Some years back, my family and I took in Steve Tobin’s Steelroots exhibit at The Morton Arboretum. Inspired by what we saw, my daughter and I came home and made our own mini sculptures from twigs we collected in our yard and perle cotton. Recently, I came across one of the twigs stuck in a vase that had somehow made its way to the back of a cabinet.

To make the sculptures, we looked for twigs with an interesting form – if there were scars or other interesting marks, we left those sections unwrapped. We played with different lengths of perle cotton – sometimes using just pinks or greens, other times using multiple colors.

When finished, we laid them on a table in the hallway where they were constantly rearranged every time someone walked by. Other found made their way into the “exhibit” – rocks, an acorn, a paper snake, origami birds… This time around, I pulled an interesting (but pesky) weed from the yard and put it in a vase on the kitchen table. And, then of course, the play began: weaving the wrapped twig into the leaves different ways, laying it beneath the leaves, propping it up alongside the vase…

For a fun creative break today, take a walk and gather some interesting twigs of your own, then wrap them in perle cotton, yarn, twine, kitchen string, cording or whatever fiber you have on hand. Arrange the mini sculptures on a table or your desk – and then rearrange again and again!

Exercising Your Creativity Muscle

Basket with Vegetable Garden Plant Markers to Decorate

Creativity has been likened to a muscle: We all have it – we just have to work to strengthen it so that we can reap the rewards.

Over the last few months, with sheltering in place and social distancing the new normal, implementing a daily creative practice is as important as ever. Our world feels a bit smaller, our days a tad mixed up (“Is this Sunday or Monday?”), and our work-life boundaries totally blurred (think kids playing at your feet while you’re trying to get work done, office texts and emails still flowing in at 8 or 9pm, or extra long shifts at the hospital). Expressing ourselves through writing, drawing, painting, sewing, quilting… can help provide a much-needed, nourishing break from the challenges we are facing in our lives right now.

And, if setting aside time to make and create sounds a bit indulgent these days, it’s not. The spillover effect I mention here – Step #6 on the Art Everyday page – is well documented. For example, this Fast Company article from a few years back talks about that spark we feel or breakthrough we have after engaging in a creative practice.

Decide on the best time to fit a creative break into your day, experimenting to see when you get the most benefit: Do you want to use the practice as a warm-up exercise for the day, a mid-day boost, or a transition from your workday to home life. It does not have to be a big chunk of time – committing to 15 minutes a day can make a big difference.

I’ve always got several projects going on in my studio at any given time. However, I keep a basket for just one simple, self-contained project. It sits in my office, ready to go when I need a creative break (usually at the end of the day). The projects rotate: Right now, I’ve stashed a vegetable marker kit from Target. The original kit had paints, which now look dried up, but we’ll see when I get to work. I might instead fill the space up with different patterns using Sharpies instead. It might take me all week to finish the project but the point is that it’s easy to start and stop and all my supplies are in one place, making it hard not to begin. Once this project is finished, I’ll find something else to put in the basket.

My recommendation is that as you develop a creative habit, keep it simple and start with what you enjoy – at least at the beginning. First find a container, something that works for the space you are working in and is portable – a basket or tote bag works best. Then, if you like to write, add a journal or notebook and your favorite pen or pencil to the basket. If you want to spend time each day working with watercolors, stash a small water color set, brush, and a 6″ x 6″ pad of watercolor paper in the basket…

If you have kids, consider making a basket up for each of them that is age appropriate and, ideally, something they can do by themselves at a time when they most need it. For example, a potholder kit, paper and instructions for making paper airplanes (include different kinds of paper to see what flies best!), or a coloring book and crayons.

I’ve long said that when I have a problem to be solved, the best way to figure it out, is to spend time in my studio making. Getting lost in the flow of making frees up headspace to think more creatively, beyond the box – first, in what I am actually doing in the studio and then for the problem/issue I’m trying to resolve.

In the coming weeks, months, and years, creativity will be key to generating new ideas for rebuilding our lives, our communities, our healthcare systems and, well, pretty much everything. And, throughout this process of creating new, focusing on lessons learned from the past, listening to experts, and cultivating out-of-the box thinking so that the end result benefits everyone and addresses what hasn’t worked in the past. Like many things, we can start at home – thinking more creatively about how we solve problems there and at work, then build from there.

So start flexing your creative muscle by building a daily creative practice, stick to it, and enjoy the process and spillover effect! Read more about building a creative habit here. Connect with us on Facebook to see some additional ideas in the coming days of what to put in your basket.