Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Maps: The Big Picture
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 7, 2015

Maps help fulfill “the need to visualize our little lives in the context of a grander scale.”

   -Ken Jennings

Before I take a trip to an unfamiliar place, I go to AAA to get a free map of the area. Yes, I have a cell phone, but a fold-out map gives me the big picture and all the details at the same time.  My cell phone, with its tiny screen, can’t do that.  After I’ve unpacked my bags, it’s time to unfold the map, spread it out on the bed, and plan my next move. Once I know my destination, the cell phone will help me find my way.

Attributed to prolific Dutch mapmaker Joan Vinkeboons, 1650. Even though Cabrillo had proven California to be part of North America in his 1542 expedition, some European cartographers continued to depict California as an island well into the 18th century—cultivating its mythic mystique.

Maps: Depth and comprehensiveness
The big picture is important, and so, maps still serve a useful purpose—they show you things you don’t know, in relation to things you do know. If you decide you need to know where Ukraine is for example, a map will show you that it’s two countries away from Germany, with Poland in between. It will also show you that it shares the Black Sea coastline with Russia and Turkey and three other countries. And yes, I had to look at a map to tell you that.

Maps help us understand what’s going on in the world. “We live in an increasingly inter-linked world where developments an ocean away affect our daily lives in countless ways,” says Ken Jennings of “Jeopardy!” fame. If we know where Ukraine, or North Korea, or Nigeria is on the world map, we can “synthesize and remember the events that we hear about taking place there.”  Otherwise, they just become names that wash over us.

Jennings wrote the book “Maphead” in 2011 about his life-long fascination with maps. “My childhood love of maps…was something much more than casual weirdness,” he writes. “I could literally look at maps for hours. Each page of an atlas was an almost inexhaustible trove of names and shapes and places, and I relished that sense of depth, of comprehensiveness.”

In “Maphead” Jennings sees geographic illiteracy as a serious societal problem in the U.S., and gives lots of examples including a National Geographic poll showing that one in ten American college students can’t find California or Texas on a map. Geographers trace our decline in geographic knowledge to the widespread adoption of “social studies” in grade schools over clear-cut history and geography classes in the 1960s and 1970s. “The United States is now the only country in the developed world where a student can go from preschool to grad school without ever cracking a geography text,” says Jennings.

Author Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City-A San Francisco Atlas”
 features various Bay Area maps, including this one called
 “Poison/Palate” which shows the proximity of gourmet treasures 
to toxic waste in the Bay Area, and features mutant mermaids
 and a fruit tree “to both whet and ruin your appetite.”
Geography: How humans relate to the planet
Geography of course, isn’t just about reading maps or understanding the Earth’s physical features. It’s about how humans relate to the planet. “Geography explains the map: why this city is on this river, why this canyon is deeper than that one, why the language spoken here is related to the one spoken there—even perhaps, why this nation is rich and that one is poor,” says Jennings.

A great example of maps that help us make sense of our complex relationship to the planet is “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” by Rebecca Solnit. Her book features maps (created by various artists), that make surprising and intriguing connections. “Poison/Palate” shows the proximity of gourmet treasures to toxic waste in the Bay Area. “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders” plots the little-noticed salmon migrations in the Bay Area, beside the practice of Zen Buddhism. And “The Names before the Names” charts the 140 or so indigenous tribes that lived in the Bay Area prior to 1769—an astounding density of communities which have since completely vanished.

Mapmaking: A reflection of the maker
Scudder takes many months to draw each
 of his city maps.  The series now includes
 Santa Cruz, Monterey, Palo Alto and Boston.
The Santa Cruz poster was so popular, he also
 made a 30-foot mural version for the corner
 of Bay and Mission Streets.
All mapmakers choose what to include as well as what to leave out—and accordingly, a map is a reflection of its maker and how it will be used. Santa Cruz artist Kirby Scudder created a poster of Santa Cruz in 2012 that included only the features he found most emblematic of the city. To create large city maps, he uses Google Earth for research and Photoshop with a Wacom tablet to painstakingly draw people, vehicles, buildings, shadows, land and water features from an angled aerial perspective. He takes great liberties with spatial accuracy—bending and foreshortening land masses, selectively showing only the resonant landmarks, streets and buildings he believes are the essence of “The Cruz.”

Historically, mapmakers have always had a point of view, and many wanted to tell stories of adventure and discovery. They rarely had the firsthand experience they needed to be certain of all the details on their maps, so they listened to surveyors and explorers, read books and studied existing maps, and made educated guesses. Oftentimes, they made mistakes. One of my favorite books of historical maps is Vincent Virga’s “California, Mapping the Golden State through History” which begins with the famous 1650 Map of California shown as an island. By the mid 1700s, California was finally attached to the rest of the continent on maps, but with very few details, remaining on the fringes of the world as the Europeans knew it.

Mapmakers are also influenced by commercial concerns: they want to sell maps. A U.S. map produced in 1849 shows most of North American in great detail with two insets on either side: one of South America, and the other of the California gold country, to make it more appealing to map-buying gold-seekers.

Some of the best old maps of California are romanticized versions of the frontier. They depict the carefully planned streets and grandest structures of farm cities like Fresno and Bakersfield at the turn of the 20th century from that same vanishing point perspective in the sky as in Kirby Scudder’s Santa Cruz. But each map is bordered with a series of hand-tinted photos or drawings of various businesses, impressive homes and civic structures. These flat, hot central valley towns were trying to attract new residents by making their city look substantial, thriving and full of opportunity.

“Map of Fresno, California, 1901” from the Library of Congress
“Map of Bakersfield, California, 1901” from the Library of Congress
Jill K. Berry and Linden McNeilly, the authors of “Map Art Lab,” also recognize the fiction inherent in many maps. “The truth is,” they say, “many historical maps are fiction posing as fact, and are artful rather than scientific.” Their DIY book is intended to entice map lovers to become mapmakers as a tool for self-discovery, storytelling and art exploration. They break the complex task of mapmaking into its various components and provide ideas for constructing and using maps in art pieces.

On the Map

However accurate a map is intended to be, it can only offer a snapshot of what things were like at a certain point in time, and is already out-of-date when published. Fortunately, most maps are not intended to accurately describe spatial relationships. They are intended to make a point. Whether you use GPS, Google Earth or paper, maps are essentially a collection of cartographic symbols—straight and wavy lines that help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Binding Love
What to do with all those books you can't let go of
 Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel January 30, 2015

Freestanding, easy to assemble, and highly transportable
, ladder shelves can be made from a ladder of any
 height that works for your space (preferably an old
 wooden one) and some wood planks.
In the movie “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) sets out alone to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—one of the country’s longest and toughest through-trails—with little outdoor experience and a backpack so heavy she develops nasty, raw welts on her hips and shoulders. A helpful guy she meets along the trail shows her how to lighten her load by paring down the items she’s carrying to the absolutely essentials. When they get to her books, he suggests carrying only the chapters she hasn’t yet read, and burning the rest. He demonstrates by tearing out a big hunk of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.”

Which just about killed me.

Destroying, defacing, even just drawing in the margins of a book—especially one you love—still strikes me as barbaric. (Don’t even get me started on the disrespect of dog-earring pages.) Yeah, I eventually learned to underline the heck out of a dry college textbook, but even then I did so with a light pencil mark and a ruler. Books are precious, sacred and deserve our respect.

But of course repurposing enthusiasts have other ideas. They excise pages from books and fold, cut, crumple and print on them. They carve the covers, contort the spines. They make jewelry, vases, wreaths, bouquets, collages, garlands, even pumpkins out of books. I suppose they gravitate towards book pages because the text will give their project a nice mottled-gray surface pattern, or imply a sense of literary sophistication, or convey a message, or just give new life to an object they might otherwise add to the landfill.

If you want to explore making household objects both decorative and utilitarian, artist/author Lisa Occhipinti’s 2011 book “The Repurposed Library” is a good place to start. In 33 projects she demonstrates how to deconstruct books to make lampshades, journals, mirrors, clocks, birdhouses and more.

But Occhipinti’s more recent book takes a somewhat different approach to books. “’Novel Living,’” she says, “is a hymnal to actual, physical books, their forms and their functions.” She talks lovingly about the physicality of books, as only an avid reader and collector would. She describes how reading a book stirs our senses: we are aware of its scent and tactile qualities as we cradle a book “as we would an infant child,” close to our heart. She compares the intimate interaction we have with bound books—“the tender, nearly silent turning of pages, like tucking a lock of hair behind the ear”—to the much less visceral swipe of a screen.

Her writing takes me back to my junior high days when, after school, I walked out of my way to the small branch library to check out “Lad: A Dog” and every other noble collie tale by Albert Payson Terhune, who was instantly my favorite author from my teacher Mrs. Faus’s classic reading list.

To create a lighted book box, basic wooden crates,
whether purchased new or sourced from a flea
 market, are outfitted with a little mood lighting
 and textile or wallpaper design, then hung on the wall.
 The little light inside illuminates the books like art.
It also reminds me of my parents’ childhood books I have stored in stacked cardboard boxes in the garage, like my dad’s “Peter Rabbit,” “Oz” and “Big Little Books,” or my mom’s copies of “Jane Eyre” and Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” Occhipinti inspires me to retrieve those beloved books from the cold, damp garage to preserve and conserve them, and perhaps even display them.

Our books, she says, represent our cultural and personal histories. She wants our haphazard book collections to become inviting, conveniently accessed libraries. “A library organizes books into a snapshot of who you are,” she says. “To live with them reminds us of who we are and where we came from.” When Occhipinti uses the word “library,” she’s not suggesting a dark-paneled room, with a fireplace, over-stuffed chair, and a ladder on wheels (although, that would be nice to have too). A library can be set-up in just about any room of the house, and arranged on various configurations of shelves, carts or cabinets. (One of her most clever and portable display ideas is an old wooden ladder with spans of plywood for shelves.)

The Gallery Table project—made from
 an IKEA Lack table—is based on museum
 furniture for exhibiting books and other
 ephemera like valuable antiquities.
A collection of books don’t become a library, the author says, until they are curated and organized. Bibliographic order—by subject, author and/or title—will help keep books easy to find. But aesthetic considerations such as color and size can be part of the equation too. “To alleviate the needle-in-a-haystack-ness that is part of the color or size-based system of arrangement, merge aesthetics with function by covering your books in color-coded paper and writing their titles on the spines,” she suggests.

Occhipinti also wants us to design with books by creating small tableaux she calls “bookscapes.” Books can be placed in idle places such as a non-operating fireplace (kind of an unsettling association, if you ask me), or stacked on a rarely used accent chair. A thematic seashore tableau can be created with nautical books and seashells on top of a dresser.

To me, though, decorating with books downplays their content and higher purpose. If a special book is to be displayed outside the library context, it should be in the spotlighted like a prima ballerina. Occhipinti’s two best project ideas exhibit books like works of art: her IKEA hack is a Gallery Table that mimics a museum display case, using an IKEA Lack table, four wooden spacers and tabletop glass; her Lighted Book Box, made from a wooden wine crate, vintage wallpaper and a wireless puck light, would be perfect for my dad’s “Peter Rabbit” series.

On an excursion to San Francisco last fall, we came across a small North Beach jewelry shop that must have had over 1,000 old books. The whole place had that musty-tangy perfume of aged paper, ink and adhesive. These hardcover rescues—some masked with construction paper—were arranged in myriad ways to hold and display necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Yes, they were using books in a “supporting” role, but, for me, the jewelry wasn’t really there—it was all about the books. I wanted to sit on the floor, open each one and see what was inside. I wanted to give each book a little moment of solemn recognition before we both headed off down the trail.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The meaning of family
Beyond a coat of arms: creating new symbols for family
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 2014

In artist Anna Church’s “Insignia” series  she arranges evocative found
 objects to illustrate the badges we create 
to identify ourselves. I
 decided to give her concept
 a try, and created a new badge-
crest for my family 
after scouring the house for just the right items.
My immediate family—all four of us—will be together at Christmas for the first time in three years. More than any other holiday, Christmas has been the catalyst for some of our family’s happiest times together. When my daughters were young, all I could think about was the joy of watching them tear open gifts on Christmas morning, and I shopped like crazy. This year, shopping seems so beside the point. Being together as a family is the sweetest gift of all.

Of course being part of a family is not always easy, and family holidays may, for some, heighten that feeling of not fitting in. A family is made up of distinct individuals, each with their own complex mixture of talents, needs and goals. Family members can sometimes get in the way of who we want to be as individuals. But family can also be a powerful means of support and encouragement simply by making us feel like we belong and matter.

I suppose a family too—as a group bonded by blood and shared experience—has its own distinct character and identity. A few years ago we received an unusual Christmas gift from my brother-in-law: a McBean/McBain clan crest-badge. It’s a small wooden plaque with tartan fabric, and a fierce gray cat holding a red shield surrounded by a belt bearing the family motto: “Touch not a catt bot a targe.” According to the Clan MacBean website, the old Scottish translates to “don’t mess with this cat unless you have a shield to protect yourself!”

According to the Clan MacBean website, the old
 Scottish on our clan crest-badge translates to
 “don’t mess with this cat unless you have a shield to
 protect yourself!”
Through the years, as my husband and I tackled home projects and repairs, we came up with our own family motto: “Nothing’s easy.” It was more a comment on our combined lack of handiness, than it was about life itself.  As my husband recently wrote, “After many years as a homeowner, I'm not any closer to fix-it man competence than I am to first violin at the New York Philharmonic.”

So now the Baine family has two mottos: one that’s fearless and warrior-like, and the other that’s inept and pathetic. Who is our family really?

In 2010 we arranged to have a family photo taken by a professional on Lincoln Beach. The resulting portrait is hanging in our hallway—a lovely Photoshopped version of the four of us with our arms around each other at sunset. Our hair is windblown, our teeth are white, our skin is perfect. Like the two family mottos, it’s kind of us, but it kind of isn’t us.

Anna Church’s “Insignia” series features this image
called "Union."  (
An art magazine published in Canada called “Uppercase,” recently featured artist Anna Church, who photographs artfully arranged found objects, creating images very reminiscent of a family crest or coat of arms. Her homage to marriage called “Union,” for example, features some traditional masculine objects on one side and some traditional feminine objects on the other, but it’s all tied together with vines, mirrored candle sconces and crossed wine goblets—all metaphors for the complex, identity-challenging unification that is coupledom. The nature of the bond that defines “family" is no less complex or challenging to pin down in a symbolic way, and Church’s intriguing concept makes me think I should create a new, more representative family crest-badge.

Way back in the 1999, on the eve of the new millennia, we bought a chiminea to gather the family around at night in our front yard. Our chiminea, strangely enough, looks a bit like the face of that fierce cat on the Baine clan crest-badge, with his mouth wide open, ready to devour our firewood. We built a brick platform to elevate the chiminea to sitting height, and inside the cube-shaped structure we buried a time capsule.

I wish I had a record of what we put in that plastic container (or was it glass?), but I only remember that all four of us contributed something personal. Our hope was that some day in the far distant future, someone else would own our house, demolish the platform, and find our buried treasure. I think we each selected symbolic items that would make us come alive, as individuals and as a family, in the minds of our future counterparts.

Donna Tartt's book "The Goldfinch"
features the famous painting of a
chained bird by Renaissance
artist Carel Fabritius, which I was
fortunate enough to see at the
De Young Museum in 2013.
I’ve always been a slow reader, but I recently finished the 800-page, Pulitzer winning novel, “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt—without a doubt the longest book I’ve ever tackled. Even though Stephen King in his New York Times review, likened Tartt’s storytelling to Dickens’, I still felt like I had missed a grander message when I finally finished the book.

The story is about a 13-year-old boy, Theo, who loses his beloved mother in a terrorist attack in a New York City museum, but survives himself, and rescues (and keeps) a priceless Renaissance painting of a chained pet bird, “The Goldfinch.” He ends up in Las Vegas with his alcoholic, poor-excuse-for-a-father, who also dies an untimely death; but Theo can’t let go of the painting. “It’s his prize” writes King, “his guilt and his burden, ‘this lonely little captive,’ ‘chained to his perch.’ Theo is also chained — not just to the painting, but to the memory of his mother and to the unwavering belief that in the end, come what may, art lifts us above ourselves.”

To keep your signpost lasting a long time, paint the boards
with white primer, use acrylic or latex paints, and an
 after-coat of clear acrylic spray. 
So, upon further consideration, I have finally come to think of “The Goldfinch” as being about the life force of art and family. King says that the book’s “brave theme” is that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.’” In Theo’s case, the painting was a more dependable substitute for a family lost to happenstance and compulsion. Theo needed saving desperately because he no longer belonged anywhere and couldn’t count on anything. He didn’t have that constant safe haven of family.

In 2005, I gave each member of my family three redwood boards and asked them to paint the names of three places they would like to visit, and the distance between each place and us. The signpost we created still stands in our backyard, with all of our inscribed real and fictional destinations: Transylvania – 4714 miles; Temple of Athena – 8179 km; Emerald City – 3271 miles; Cayseeopia – 879,246 light-years. If I meant to encourage travel and exploration, or at least the creation of a symbol of potential and possibility, it was a very successful project, since next month both my daughters will be living on other continents.

But this Christmas, we will all be on the same continent, coming together in the place we four have always known as home.  I’m not sure what this means to my nonprovincial daughters, or if this house even feels like home to them anymore; but to me it means that our family has been restored. And being together as a family is the sweetest gift of all.
Bead Lust
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 15, 2014

Even though he no longer participates in Open Studios or exhibits much, Thom Atkins makes quilts that are absolutely worth seeking out. You can see his work on his website,, but there’s nothing like seeing it in person. His beaded quilts are a visual and textural wonderland.

The beads added to this beaded-quilt sample used for teaching
 compliment the fabric design in perfect harmony—a symphony,
 of dots, some recessed and others rising off the surface.
 This piece also features buttons and tiny mirrors as embellishments.
The textures come from beads of all shapes, sizes and dimensions, from the tiniest little seed beads with microscopic holes, to large polished cabochons, that are also somehow skillfully attached with needle, thread and beads. He also uses sequins, buttons, mirrors and glass—anything that will add dimension, color and sparkle to his weighty pieces. They are quilts in a descriptive sense, but art is the truest sense—never meant for use on a bed.

Examining Thom’s quilts I am reminded of the impressionist painter Claude Monet, for whom the effects of light on a subject became as important as the subject itself. For Thom, I think the effects of beads—and light reflected by beads—has that same over-powering attraction. The shiniest beads catch the light and give his quilts movement and a shimmering quality like sunlight on water or summer leaves fluttering in the breeze.

This beaded bag, made by Thom, features a
 cabochon in the center, attached by a network
 of seed beads embroidered around the edges
 of the stone holding it in place.
They also add saturated colors that capture the startling tones of nature itself: the flashing turquoise scales of tropical fish, the bright rainbow beak of a toucan, the luminous red-orange of flames. Thom is in love with color, and is never reluctant to add more beads if that’s what the quilt needs. As a viewer, you can’t help but also appreciating the time and skill required to sew every last bead securely in place on both his small and larger quilts, and of the vision that gives him the dedication and patience to keep on sewing.

Although there are thousands of books about quilt-making, there is only a handful about adding beads to quilts, and of those, beads are typically treated as an embellishment rather than a major design element. Of course making a quilt is also about fabric choices, but as Thom writes in his own book, “Beading Artistry for Quilts,” “My ultimate goal…has been to find the balance between the fabric and the beads.” And it’s that willingness to seek that balance—even if it means many months of attaching beads—that makes his quilts (and his book) so revolutionary.

Not all Thom Atkins’ quilts are heavily beaded.
Using fabric printed with a photograph of his
 wife feeding pigeons in Piazza San Marcos
 Square in Venice, Thom knows intuitively
 how to add just the right amount of beads
 to complement each image.  “Some pieces
 don’t need that many beads to say what
 they need to say. Some need a lot. The beads
 tell me when to stop,” says Thom.
Technically speaking, making a fairly large, densely beaded quilt, is a daring undertaking because beads make a large quilt very heavy and, if not attached meticulously, might cause the quilt to sag and not hang well. Where the beading is denser, the fabric may shrink unevenly as more and more beads are attached, and the original shape may become distorted. Thom’s book addresses these technical challenges, as well as why and where you might want to use beads.
In defense of beads, Thom writes, “Why use plain stitching when you can use a bead with a color or finish that will add to the surface? Should you become a ‘beadaholic’ like me, you may find yourself using beads for everything…”

As a life-long artist, Thom Atkins has worked in many different two- and three-dimensional media including oil paint, stained glass and bronze casting. When a 2002 traffic accident damaged his wrist and thumbs, he took up bead-embellished quilting. His sister, Robin Atkins, a national known bead artist, author and instructor, initially taught Thom the basis stitches. “I needed a new job. I looked at what quilt people were doing at that time and there was a little dab of beads here and a little dab there. That isn't fair to the beads,” he says.


Diedra Kmetovic has made a series of necklaces inspired
 by the migrating Monarchs which cling to eucalyptus
 branches in groves along the Monterey Bay coastline
 from October through February each year. She knows
 how to take what could be cliché subject, and elevate it
 to a piece of stunning wearable art.
On an outing with a friend, Diedra 
was inspired to make this set of 
lavender-hued pieces after discovering
 an alleyway full of lilacs.
Another artist who has spent many years redefining and intensifying the creative possibilities of beads, is jewelry-maker Diedra Kmetovic. She was first attracted to beads when her grandmother gave her a box of beads when she was eight. Back then, she used macramé cord to make jewelry for her friends. These days, she makes intricately woven necklaces and bracelets using tiny glass beads and thread. Often forgoing the incorporation of traditional metal findings, she cleverly uses beads to make all parts of a necklace, including clasps, bales and bezels.

“I like versatile jewelry,” says Diedra, holding up a necklace that can be easily disconnected to be become three bracelets. Another necklace she has designed has a clasp with a large bead, so that if the clasp/bead combination is worn in front instead of the back, it looks like a pendant—essentially giving you two necklaces for the price of one. “My goal,” she says, “is never having someone say, ‘Oh, your clasp is in the front,’” as if it were a mistake. She makes her clasp designs worthy of being the focal point.

Undoubtedly some of Diedra’s most spectacular pieces of jewelry are her butterfly necklaces, inspired by the Monarchs which cling to branches in the eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, beginning each year in October. Her butterfly wings—made from hundreds of tiny orange, white and black seed beads—are every bit as beautiful as the real thing. Her most ambitious Monarch-inspired necklace is made from thousands of beads. “It took me 15 years to figure out how to do it,” she says, “and then three months to actually do it.”
Diedra’s turquoise bracelet shows how she uses beads
 instead of metal findings, to make the toggle clasp.
 Diedra taught beading until her all her teaching supplies
 were recently stolen from her car. “My summer beading
 classes were instantly full,” she says. Currently she
 teaches metal working at the Mountain Arts Center
 in Ben Lomond and in an after school program at San
 Lorenzo Valley Middle School in Felton.
There are many ways to use beads in jewelry making, including stringing (the most common), bead crochet, loom weaving and macramé. Diedra’s Monarchs are a good example of off-loom beadweaving, a family of beadwork techniques in which tiny glass seed beads are woven together into a flat fabric or a three-dimensional object. Each bead is just an element in the larger pattern and the overall design, and no single bead stands out. There are a number of different stitches used in beadweaving and each stitch produces a piece with a distinct texture, shape and pattern. People all over the world have created these complex woven patterns for centuries using only beads and thread.

Diedra says she is largely self-taught, although she uses magazines and books at times when she can find new techniques she doesn’t yet know. She describes herself as a tactile learner and her inspiration comes from the world around her. “Whenever I go on a trip I have to make something when I come back that captures that trip,” he says. “I have to come back and “sketch” it into beads.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The simple pleasure of hand embroidery
An old fashioned art is still practiced fervently by those who love it

My mom took up embroidery when I was in high
 school and made me this crewelwork piece,
 which she created using at least a dozen
different stitches.
When I was in high school, my stay-at-home mom took up embroidery for a time. What most people today call crewelwork, she called stitchery. It was like painting with thread. She would buy a kit that had white fabric with a printed design, a needle, embroidery floss and instructions, and then hand stitch the image onto the fabric with in a variety of stitch patterns.

I have a framed piece of her work that I recently pulled out of storage (sorry mom) and hung in my bedroom: a whimsical picture of a smiling mouse and a bird with an arm and a wing around the other, as if for a photograph.

Crewelwork kits are still sold, but these days, needlepoint and cross stitch are the bread and butter of most needlework shops. You’ve probably seen cross stitch before—a series of tiny Xs on a field of white linen—created using a chart and by counting threads. Needlepoint, on the other hand, requires no counting because it’s done on a special type of loose-weave canvas which very often has a design hand-painted onto it. In addition, needlepoint can employ a variety of stitches whereas cross stitch employs primarily just one.

Crewel, cross stitch and needlepoint are all types of embroidery, and there are many more types such as beadwork, goldwork, couching, ribbon embroidery, monogramming, and smocking. Embroidery was basic knowledge for colonial school girls in early America, who learned to sew, count and read by stitching letters, numbers and verses into samplers. But today, hand embroidery has largely been replaced by machine embroidery, and relatively few stitchers carry on the tradition.

Elisa Papa demonstrates cross stitch in the Harvest Building at the Santa Cruz County Fair.
Papa was creating a frameable Victorian-style piece with images of ten symbolic
 pigs—a gift that she hoped would bring good luck to her brother who has leukemia.
To find out who’s still doing embroidery and why, I joined several members of Stitchers by the Sea (a local chapter of The Embroiders’ Guild of America) at the Santa Cruz County Fair last month, as they stitched away on their projects and conversed with curious fair-goers in the Harvest Building.

Elisa Papa—a member of the group for 27 years—was making teeny tiny cross stitches on 40-count linen (40 threads per inch), while Sandy Rich was making larger stitches on 14-count plastic canvas. Papa was creating a frameable Victorian-style piece with images of ten symbolic pigs—a gift that she hoped would bring good luck to her brother who has leukemia. “If pigs bring good luck, my brother will have ten times good luck,” she said. Rich was stitching butterfly wings which she would later cut out from the canvas and join together with clips as Christmas tree ornaments.

Georgann Lane won first prize at the Santa
Cruz County Fair this year for her original
 embroidery piece, “Slice of Lime.”
A newer member of the group, Brandy Shaw was just starting a counted cross stitch Celtic cross with an Irish blessing. She said that doing embroidery is “kind of like meditation, a time when your brain free-floats.” She also likes to multi-task, so she reads books on tape, takes her stitching projects to doctors’ waiting rooms and on vacation. “You’re doing something that people have been doing for thousands of years, so you experience continuity with humanity,” she said.

Only one member of The Stitchers—Georgann Lane—submitted work to the fair for judging this year. Although she submitted two pieces in the home arts department, the judge thought her work belonged with the paintings and sculpture in the fine art department. And there, in the Fine Arts Building, I found her two, small pieces with 1st and 2nd place ribbons.

Lane—a certified master of traditional Japanese embroidery and past judge for the Embroiderers’ Guild of America—learned to embroider as a girl. “My mother taught me to do pillowcases when I was 10 years old,” she said. She majored in clothing and textiles in college and isn’t afraid to create works of her own design. Most of the other Stitchers stopped entering work at the fair several years ago, when some works were stolen. “I’d like to see [the fair] create a category in fine art for needle art,” said Lane.

Mary Kelly’s sampler collection covers two
 walls of her dining room, and includes lots
 of examples from the 1930s and ‘40s when
 stitching samplers from patterns in books
 was a popular pastime.
Currently The Stitchers by the Sea have only 23 members—down from a much higher number in the 1980s when the group was formed. “It’s kind of dwindling,” admitted Elisa Papa. “Many have retired or moved away. And we don’t have a needlework store in Santa Cruz.” So she and other Stitchers take field trips to a shop they love—“Needle in a Haystack”—in Alameda, to stock up on supplies. Online purchases are difficult for textile artists, they said, because they like to feel the fabrics and check the colors.

A few days after the fair I visited another member of The Stitchers by the Sea—Mary Kelly—to see her collection of vintage samplers. Kelly’s collection features several samplers from early America and many more from the 1930s and 40s when making samplers was again in vogue, and patterns were available in books. The early ones were created by girls to learn stitches, and to keep samples for later reference. Kelly has an impressive collection covering several walls, many with sweet, sentimental verses on them, like, “Warm friendship like the setting sun sheds kindly light on everyone.”

Kelly points to one of her oldest and most treasured samplers, created by a girl in Vermont almost 300 years ago. The dark-with-age, oblong sampler has a cross stitched saying and these identifying words at the bottom: “Sarah Bellows in the eleven year of her age done in the year of our Lord 1738.”

Mary Kelly and I met again later that day at the home of her good friend, Dorothy Clarke, a founding member of The Stitchers by the Sea, who, at 96, still does cross stitch every day despite her failing vision due to macular degeneration. Clarke brought out a box of small projects from stitching workshops she attended over the years.

Good friends Dorothy Clarke and Mary Kelly hold two needlework
 pieces made by Dorothy that she is especially proud of. The two
 friends are both members of The Stitchers by the Sea, a local chapter
 of The Embroiderers’ Guild of America.
It looked like she had tried (and mostly mastered) all 260 of the stitches in the “Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Embroidery Stitches,” from blackwork to Battenburg lace to hardanger to drawn-thread work. It finally hit home to me how endlessly varied the art of embroidery is, and how lovely it is in a quiet, unassuming way. And these women were a lot like embroidery themselves.

Mary Kelly admitted that not many people these days don’t take time for embroidery. It’s intricate, detailed work, demanding good eyesight, commitment and the willingness to spend good money on quality materials. “Let’s face it,” said Kelly. “It’s kind of fussy. But the ones who do love it, love it to death.”

The Stitchers By the Sea is the local chapter of Embroiderers’ Guild of America. They meet at 7:00 p.m. the third Monday of the each month at the Live Oak Senior Center in Santa Cruz. The gatherings include a short business meeting, refreshments and stitching programs which vary each month and cover a wide variety of techniques and methods.
Ten tips to taking selfies at any age

 Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel September 12, 2014
self·ie noun \ˈsel-fē\

  1. A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. (

  1. Shy and selfie just don’t go together. After all, since you wanted to be your camera’s center of attention in the first place, there has to be at least a part of you that’s narcissistic. (
Here’s a collage of selfies I created during my own one-week self-portrait challenge. 

Selfie experts abound and the proof is in the hundreds of websites ready to coach you on taking better selfies. The advice ranges from standard photography rules about good lighting, framing, and backgrounds, to, “Abs look best taken from the side. For males, leave the shirt off, it’s better than pulling it up, which looks sloppy and half-hearted.”

In 2013, when “selfie” was Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year, there was a flurry of reactions running the gamut from selfies being the hallmark of Western decline and image-conscious narcissism, to a few brave souls defending the practice of casual self-promotion as maybe being not so bad, especially for girls. Self-promotion, pointed out Rachel Simmons in Slate Magazine, is a skill which will serve girls well later on when they interview for jobs, and negotiate for raises and advancement.

The photo my husband posted on Facebook to mark my
 birthday last month was taken 20+ years ago of the two
 us on a hiking trip. As many women my age might do,
 I asked him to not post a recent photo. 
If you can see the selfie as empowering—a chance to create and interpret the way you want to be seen by others—then you begin to understand how selfies present an opportunity. One savvy student, Elizabeth Alvarado, writing under the headline “Selfie-esteem” in her college newspaper, defended selfies by young women, saying that, “They challenge the idea that we should always remain modest, and instead they say, ‘This is me, and I deserve to be seen,’ because in the end, no one deserves to be invisible. This is an entirely different experience than when someone takes a picture of you because in the latter case, you have no control . . .”

My husband recently posted a photograph on Facebook to mark my birthday, and I asked him to please not use a recent photo. So he found a selfie we took on vacation 20+ years ago—looking so much younger and bohemian than we do now. It seems many women like me reach an age at which they no longer want to be photographed—which is sad. Perhaps it’s time to take control of our image-making and turn around that impulse to hide from the camera.

A new photo idea book named after a DIY website, “A Beautiful Mess,” created by two young women, Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman, got me thinking about how women of my age—or any age—can begin to feel good about themselves in photographs through selfies. In the process we can not only use photography to our advantage, but also become better photographers in general.

So, extrapolating on the photo-taking ideas in Larson and Chapmen’s book, here are my ten tips to taking terrific selfies at any age.

     Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman’s 2014 photo idea
     book, “A Beautiful Mess,” is named after their
     popular DIY website,
    Their newest book, “Happy Handmade Home”
     was just released last month. 
  1. Selfies don’t have to be distorted arm’s length close-ups. You can use a camera with a timer or shoot into a mirror, so that the photo includes more of you, your friends and your surroundings. To use your cell phone for better selfies, download a free timer app, and use a selfie stick, which extends your camera out three feet beyond your reach.

  1. Make the picture say something about you. Surround yourself with you things you love: your garden, your home, your hobbies, your collections, your daily routine, your favorite gathering place or hiking trail.

  1. Use beautiful light. Shoot in open shade or window light, rather than direct sun. Shoot your silhouette or shadow. Use backlighting to highlight your hair. Consider dim or diffused light such as candles, string lights, or city lights at night.

  1. Highlight your best features. Let your gorgeous black hair, your ice-blue eyes, your shapely calves take center stage.

  1. Experiment with styling. Wear a fun hat, sunglasses, a scarf, a bandana. Add jewelry, a new hairstyle or dramatic make-up. Get dressed up. Wear a costume. Use props.

    “A Beautiful Mess Photo Idea Book” has lots
    of tips and examples for capturing yourself. 
  1. Don’t just stand there. Sit, kneel, squat, lie down. Look over your shoulder or through your legs. Bend. Twist. Cover your eyes and laugh. Hold the camera over your head, upside-down, at an angle. 

  1. Crop to your advantage. Use a photo-editing program or two L-shaped pieces of cardboard to find the essential, defining elements of you in a photograph.

  1. Add motion to your images. Let your hair blow. Jump, run, spin. Speed by on your bike. Slow the shutter speed down to accentuate the motion. Be a photojournalist: shoot a lot and serendipitous moments will happen.

  1. Consider smartphone apps or photo editing programs. Try black and white, tinting, filters, and other enhancements.

  1. Take the 30-Day Self-Portrait Challenge. Each day, the portraits have to be of you and shared with a close friend, your spouse, or online via Facebook. At the end of the month you will end up with some photos you will actually want to share. You’ll also experiment with photography techniques that can help you take better photos of your friends and family, or whatever else you decide to capture.
In Korea recently, I witnessed hundreds of young tourists using
 selfie sticks (also called handheld monopods) to their advantage.
 Lightweight and retractable, a selfie stick holds your cell phone
 further away, allowing your photos to include much more of your
 surroundings or a whole gang of friends. Free timer apps are easy
to download and use. 
Quiet that anxious little voice of discomfort in your head. Are people going to think that you think that you look good, and that you want others to know it? Absolutely. This is your chance to shine—outwardly and inwardly. And you may be making a more lasting contribution to ageless self-confidence than you realize. Selfies of people like you and me may have the potential to reset the air-brushed, Botoxed, movie star standard of beauty to something more realistic.