Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Doctorow's "Makers" points the way to the future of art

Makers make the Future

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel August 7, 2010

Cory Doctorow’s 2009 futurist novel “Makers” is about people who thrive on labors of love. The main characters—Perry and Lester—are heard to say, “I just want to make stuff,” on more than one occasion. They are inventor artists…or junkyard engineers—however you want to look at it—who tinker and devise new ways of reusing and repurposing (and even glorifying) just about everything obsolete—from old technology, to abandoned malls, to homeless shanty-town residents.

Perry and Lester are okay with feeding the ravenous appetite of a public who is quickly bored and impatient for the next big thing. To their credit, though, they care much more about making stuff than about making money. (This is also a love story, so making good relationships is also a part of the happiness equation.) They also represent the sharing ethic of open-source hacker culture—allowing and encouraging fellow hackers and even users to easily change the content of just about everything they design.

Is Doctorow giving us a glimpse of what the near future will look like for crafters? Will the depressed economy encourage artists to down-size their lifestyles so that money-making doesn’t get in the way of creating? Will the future demand that we be more honest with ourselves, and recognize that most of what we make will ultimately become landfill? Will we happily embrace the restless nature of consumer demands and tastes, and become less proprietary about our designs?

Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between what Perry and Lester are making from discarded Barbie heads, conch shells, garden gnomes and Boogie Woogie Elmo dolls—and whatever we are making. But there’s a big macramé monstrosity hanging in my parents’ hallway that tells me otherwise. Not everything we make is a timeless masterpiece.

Maybe turning an abandoned mall (or tannery) into a living/workspace for hundreds of people (even the homeless)—which, in turn, renders cars an occasional convenience rather than a daily necessity—seems too unlikely. But technology-enabled telecommuting has already begun to erode the paradigm of the centralized work place. Many more of us could do our jobs without leaving home.

Perhaps repurposing an empty Wal-Mart into a crowd-sourced theme-park ride, sounds too idyllic. But I’ve seen Halloween stores, health clubs, thrift shops, and charter schools pop up in these ghost store locations with more and more regularity.

The fact that “Makers” is not set in some unimaginably distant future, but in the teens and 20s of our own century, makes it seem much more ponder-worthy—and maybe even possible. The near-future world Doctorow paints is also rife with crime, poverty and unscrupulous boardroom “suits.” But optimism prevails in the boundless energy and imagination of open source hacker culture. If you’re a crafter/artist, you could be a source of that much-needed optimism in the future.

(In the true spirit of open source sharing, you can download “Makers” from the author’s website,

  • (Long shop of quilt and close up.) Photographic images can be printed onto fabric without having to buy expensive commercial inkjet fabric sheets. The resulting fabric can be cut up and pieced into a quilt in a variety of ways. The images can be used very literally--portraits of family members, for instance, for a family tree quilt--or in a more abstract way. The resulting quilt can be like a fabric photo album, or simply referential, evoking a sense of time or place that might not be otherwise possible with store-bought fabrics. (see for instructions)

Open source crafters’ haven: Instructables

I gave myself an assignment recently, to become a contributing member of the DIY community. I’ve perused the San Francisco-based website for a year or two, always amused by the variety of the projects and astounded by the ingenuity of its members. Now I appreciate even more these hacker/crafters who are so willing to share their expertise and great ideas, because I realize the extra effort it took to do so.

It’s not difficult to submit a project, but it takes time to photograph all the steps along the way, and then write succinct descriptions of each step. I made a photo quilt for my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary (to replace that ghastly macramé wall hanging) and kept my camera near the sewing table at all times, so I wouldn’t miss photographing a step (I did any way). You can see my 9-step project at:

If you become a member (free) you’ll receive the weekly project list. This week’s list includes:

Build an artificial reef

Easy Rain Barrel

Magnetic Rubik’s Dice Cube

Paper Wallet

Weld a Barbecue

How to Freeze Blueberries

Trash-Burning Car

Giant Bristlebot

25 Cent Ring

Clone a Tomato Plant

Beach Towel for Two

Stainless Steel Patio Heater

  • My husband made this beautiful plate for his parents by adding words to an image via Photoshop, printing and cutting out the image to fit the bottom of the plate, then adhering the image with Modge Podge glue. Rice paper was then glued to the entire back of the plate. Finally, a gold edge of acrylic paint was added around the rim and on the bottom of the plate.

August Milestones

Besides my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, our family will also be celebrating my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary in Raleigh, North Carolina. So July has been weekend project month. For his parents, my husband made a great 15-minute video with music and voice-overs on his iMac, with the help of iMovie, other downloaded conversion software, digitized home movies from childhood, and lots of still photographs. His brothers, who live in North Carolina near his folks, helped by photographing all the homes the family has lived in over the years and filming short clips of congratulations from friends.

Other anniversary gift ideas

  • A personalized anniversary greeting from the white house (see for instructions)
  • An anniversary greeting from another famous person (we got Clay Aiken to send his best wishes on an 8x10 photo, by writing to his publicist in Los Angeles)
  • A glass plate Modge-Podged with a special photo in the center and rice paper around the rim.
  • A scrapbook of photos and personal greetings from friends
  • A photo quilt, incorporating special people or places
  • A professional photograph of the whole family (we used A.K. Rowland, who took beautiful photos of us on a Santa Cruz beach at sunset)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Little Odors and Simple Pleasures

Making my home town--AROMAS--the subject of art.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz , August 28, 2010

My family’s home is situated on the Mexican land grant, Rancho Las Aromitas y Agua Caliente, which translates as “little odors and warm waters.” The rancho’s name was made official in 1835 when Juan Miguel Anzar received a grant of 8600 acres northwest of the San Juan Bautista mission.

The inspiration for the Rancho’s name is a bit of a mystery to those of us living in Aromas today. Many think that “little odors” refers to the sulfur/rotten eggs smell one encounters when driving west on Highway 129—not a very romantic notion. The bigger mystery is the whereabouts of the hot springs—which must be hidden on someone’s private property, since the location is not commonly known.

When the town of Aromas made its name official about 100 years ago, “Aromitas” was also a contender, and, in my opinion, a much lovelier sounding and perhaps less misleading word. But, despite the implied promise of olfactory delights, Aromas does not have any distinctive aromas I’m aware of—certainly none to rival its northern neighbor, Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world.

So “Aromas” is simply the name of our town, without any further implications. It’s a small country town with a funny name that tries to make its location more widely known once a year on Aromas Day. Perhaps it is a sign of my own ambivalence about Aromas, that I invited a friend to Aromas Day with the dubious sales pitch of “yard sales as far as the eye can see.” In fact, the downtown festivities are actually kind of special, in a low-key, small-town sort of way. There’s a parade with Girl Scouts, classic cars and tractors, horses and other livestock. The 4H sells plants and homemade jam. The Boy Scouts sell hot dogs. A horse-drawn wagon gives folks a free ride from the field parking lot. The Grange serves a warm pancake breakfast. And Aromas Hills Artisans (AHA) has an art sale in the rejuvenated downtown park. What could be sweeter?

My contribution to AHA’s art sale was pending until I decided to roam around downtown with my camera to explore Aromas’ identity through its civic architecture: the school, the library, the post office, the fire station, the water department, and the Rogge Lane Bridge. It seemed like a good idea: spell A-R-O-M-A-S with a photo of each letter. The letters wouldn’t be literal letters found on signs, but rather implied letters, found in architectural embellishments. But I soon discovered that, although a few of Aromas’ buildings are over 100 years old, they were all built with an emphasis on functionality. Only one building—The Old Firehouse, which was originally a K-8 school designed in 1925 by the famous Bay Area architect William H. Weeks—has tile work, wrought iron and a few other flourishes of the Mission Revival style. I had my work cut out for me.

So I widened my parameters just a bit. Aromas (pop. 2797) doesn’t have a sit-down restaurant (although the two markets make great take-out burritos and barbecue on Sundays), a city hall (we aren’t a city), a high school (that’s in San Juan Bautista), or a hotel. But it does have Aromas Feed (with lots of great garden ornaments), Marshall’s Grocery (with its creaky wooden floor and squeaky screen door), the Grange (our social event center), and Granite Rock Quarry (a little difficult to photograph without permission, but very visual in an industrial sort of way). Thank goodness Aromas is only six letters, or it would have taken me much longer than a weekend to find the requisite number of decent images.

After I printed each letter as a 4x6 black and white image I had several ideas about how to present them. The customary choice is a white mat with 6 openings and a black frame, and I found several of these online for around $20. A slightly less expensive idea is to use glass clip frames (the kind that don’t require a frame) adhered to a black strip of wood. I found clip frames online for $2 each. My bargain basement idea is to use small plastic Fotoclips ($10 for 100) and clip the photos together in one long vertical strip.

So, on Sunday, we’ll see if my A-R-O-M-A-S photo collage actually sells, or inspires any civic pride. I rekindled my own bit of hometown pride when I encountered some helpful fellow Aromans while making my photographs. One woman said she’d seen me all around town with my camera, asked what I was doing, and then told me about the yard sale she has planned for Aromas Day. Another inquired about my project and then suggested a place to find good “As.” And at the fire station, one young firefighter offered to open the bay doors of the garage where the fire engines are parked, then looked inside and outside the truck compartments, and all around the station yard with me, trying to help me find a better “A” and “M.”

One thing I love about photography is that it opens your eyes and helps you see things in a whole new way. Looking for ways to describe my small town through photographs, enabled me to see more clearly what Aromas has going for it. And despite our deficits in architecture, amenities, and aromas, I kind of liked what I saw.