Sunday, December 11, 2011

Finding inspiration where you least expect it

Seeking inspiration: Take the “Work of Art” challenge
Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 3, 2011

“La Fille aux Yeux Verts” by Henri Matisse
There are things about Bravo’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” that really annoy me—like mentor Simon de Pury’s forced enthusiasm (Be bold! Be amazing! Go for it!), host China Chow’s icy goodbye send-offs (“It’s time for you to go.”), and petty clashes between the contestants. But, on the whole, I’m fascinated by the weekly challenge to create museum-quality pieces in a relatively limited amount of time and space.

Typically the hosts take the remaining group of young artists somewhere in New York City, to a location or experience that will generate inspiration for their work of art. This season, their inspiration has come from some pretty diverse sources: kitsch, creative movement called Parkour, children’s art, pop art, newspaper headlines, a brick wall in Brooklyn, and a disassembled Fiat 500.

Although the source of artistic inspiration can be just about anything, I’m intrigued by the notion of an imposed source of inspiration. A group of artists are actually playing along each week with “Work of Art,” taking the same challenges and posting their results at (What will these metal artists do with a brick wall in Brooklyn?)

In the same spirit, I decided to seek my own artistic inspiration from some unlikely sources. I chose three new books as my point of departure, and created three crafty projects. Here are the books—all of which I highly recommend—and the results:

Book #1: PARIS PORTRAITS by Harriet Lane Levy
When she died in 1950, Levy left the San Francisco Museum
 of Modern Art a trove of art, including La Fille aux Yeux
 Verts (The Girl with Green Eyes) which she bought from
 Matisse in 1908. I used Web images of this painting and several
 others to create Matisse-inspired pendants on Scrabble tiles
or in small frames.
My favorite movie of 2011 is Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in which Owen Wilson’s character is magically transported back 100 years to a romanticized Paris where he meets and hangs out with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, Dali and many other artistic giants of the era. San Francisco native Harriet Lane Levy had her own real-life close encounters with Matisse, Picasso and other legendary artists when she and Alice B. Toklas, joined their friend Sarah Stein in Paris in the summer of 1908. Levy recalls her 2-year Paris adventure in, “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle,” a beautiful little memoir that has not been published in its entirety until now. In it, she recalls the eccentricities of her Paris friends, her regret at not buying a $50 Picasso from Sarah Stein, and learning to love modern art—Henri Matisse’s paintings in particular. Like Woody Allen’s movie, “Paris Portraits” is an enchanted portal to a time of unequaled charm and luminosity

Project #1: An audacious pendant
When Harriet Lane Levy died in 1950, she left the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art a trove of art, including “La Fille aux Yeux Verts” (The Girl with Green Eyes) which, when her friends declined it, she bought from Matisse in 1908 while in Paris. Like Harriet Levy, I didn’t initially take to Matisse’s modernist style; but the joyous, audacious color in his portraits of women gradually won me over. So, I made pendants using printed images from Matisse and Matisse-inspired paintings, reduced to a size tiny enough to fit on the back of a Scrabble tile. There are several websites and YouTube tutorials that show you how. Just Google “Scrabble tile pendant” or “resin jewelry” for instructions.

Book #2: JUST MY TYPE: A BOOK ABOUT FONTS by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield likes to tackle topics that make people wrinkle up their nose and ask, “How could that be a good book?” Among other historical topics, he’s written about postage stamp collecting and the color mauve. Reading his latest book “Just My Type: A Book About Fonts,” I found myself unexpectedly absorbed in the history and evolution of the ampersand, the controversial switch by Ikea from Futura to Verdana, and a typeface called Gotham, that has been embraced by both President Obama and Sarah Palin. Fonts carry a wide range of subliminal messages that go way beyond mere words, and Garfield has wisely included lots of visual examples to demonstrate the subtle powers of type.

“Retrofonts” by Gregory Stawinski is a good follow-up that allows you to simply bask in the lovely inventiveness of over 400 classic 19th and 20th century fonts. It includes a CD with 222 featured fonts, although many of these can be downloaded for free from the internet.

I used “Retrofonts” to find the distinctive font “Renold Art Deco”
 which had great Fs, Is, Es and Ss, and downloaded it onto my
 computer using I then created stencils so I could
 spray-paint the letters for my address along the driveway fence.
Project #2: A distinctive address
To make your address more distinctive, spell out your numbers with letters in a distinctive font. Flip through “Retrofonts” to find fonts with good capitalized letters occurring in your address. Use to downloaded your font, then enlarge and print to the desired size, taping pieces of paper together if necessary.

Create a stencil by taping each large letter to poster board and cutting through paper and board using a craft knife. (If you have an “O” or “R” or any other letter with an island in the middle, leave narrow connecting bridges to hold the center of the “O” or “R” in place.) Tape or tack the letters to your fence or wall and add newsprint extensions to catch any overspray. Apply three layers of spray paint for good coverage.

After an afternoon of cutting and folding two
 2011 calendars, I had created three sets of
 origami earrings and several origami gift boxes. 

Origami can be complex and intimidating at times, but the projects in this book are refreshingly simple and practical. The authors show you how to make useful objects such as boxes, checkers sets, photo cubes, bowls and envelopes out of found papers. At a time of year when calendars, catalogs, gift wrap and greeting cards are quickly filling up your recycling bin, Trash Origami offers these paper products—and just about any other kind of waste paper—a great second life.

Project #3: The gift is origami
Use the instructions in “Trash Origami” or search to make gift boxes with lids from 2011 calendars, used gift wrap, or other colorful, not-too-thick source of paper. Take “Trash Origami” one step further by also folding a gift to go inside the box. Search the Web for instructions on making an origami pendant or earrings. Use shredded paper as fluff inside the box and fold an origami decoration for the top and you’ll have a completely upcycled, handmade gift.

4 Ways to Feel Good About Sewing Again
Originally published November 5, 2011 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

My completed duct tape dress form.
This column is for those of you who, like me, used to sew clothes. But somewhere along the way you became disenchanted with the process due to one or more of the following:
1) lack of style in commercial patterns
2) low quality of readily available fabrics
3) bad fit of clothes you made, which always looked like you had made them
4) high cost of patterns and fabrics.

Mrs. Woods taught me to sew in her home economics class in junior high and I made lots of my own clothes throughout my teens and 20s. In college, I distinctly remember the dank basement sewing room in the girls’ dorm, where I spent Saturday nights sewing and listening to Elton John sing about a much crazier kind of Saturday Night. When I graduated from college, my parents bought me a really nice, indestructible Necchi sewing machine—which I still use to hem pants and occasionally make quilts.

My husband applies the 3 layers of duct tape.
But gradually my enthusiasm faded as I realized that I could buy clothes for less than I could make them, in fabrics and styles that were trendy. And I didn’t have to buy anything that didn’t fit right—or at least could be easily altered when I got home. So, this summer when I got a fabric store coupon for five patterns for $5, and I needed a cocktail dress for a wedding reception, and I didn’t want to spend a lot for a potential one-use dress, I decided to flip through the pattern books and roam through the fabric aisles, like I used to.

I did end up buying five Simplicity patterns for $1 each (I saved $80?!), but no fabric. When I got home, I put the patterns away for another day, and borrowed an appropriate dress from a friend for the wedding. Sewing still seemed like it had too much potential for disappointment.

But I am reminded of how much I used to love sewing every time I watch Project Runway. As a devoted fan and fantasy-league fashion designer, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bulging envelope of money to spend at a high-rise New York City fabric emporium? (How challenging it must be to spend $500 just to make one dress!) Wouldn’t it be dreamy to drape fabric on a dress form, to lay-out and cut fabric on a huge table in a spacious workroom, and sew on a powerful machine like an 8-spool serger? The spin-off show I would love to see--“Project Sewing Secrets”—would, unfortunately, lack the interpersonal drama demanded for prime time.

Perhaps due to the popularity of Project Runway, there has been a renewed interest in sewing and clothing design. In September, the annual runway event, Santa Cruz FashionArt, thrilled a sold-out crowd at the Civic Auditorium, debuting avant-garde fashions for both men and women. Nationally, applications for fashion design colleges have increased steadily over the last ten years. And, as further proof, a burst of books on repurposing, fitting, and sewing techniques have displaced some of the abundant knitting and quilting books on the shelves of libraries and bookshops.

This renewed interest in clothing design has prompted remarkable improvements in the home sewing realm as well. For example, commercial patterns have become more customizable, each one including four or more sizes. And even if Butterick or McCalls don’t have the style you’d like, many patterns now include tips on fitting which make it much easier to modify a pattern and make improvements. In addition, books on sewing techniques are now available on very specific topics, such as fit, adapting patterns, and couture design. And the internet—which didn’t exist when I first learned to sew—is full of free sewing tips and products, including printable patterns and YouTube sewing tutorials. The Web also provides unlimited sources for finding the fabric you want at a price that’s affordable. (You can even bid on fabric on eBay.)

Here are a few more reasons to feel good about sewing again:

  1. A new line of dress patterns created by Simplicity called “Amazing Fit,” actually walks you through the process of altering a pattern to make it fit your own unique body, step by step. The process involves taking accurate measurements of your body and using those to select individual pattern pieces before cutting fabric. Seam allowances are larger and machine basted until there is enough dress to try on and check for fit. Once adjustments are made, seams are permanently sewn and trimmed to 5/8-inch. It’s a longer process, but by the end you will know your body dimensions and exactly how future patterns need to be adjusted before cutting and sewing.
  1. There are lots of books about making clothes that fit and flatter. One that I found easy to follow is, “How to Use, Adapt, and Design Sewing Patterns” by Lee Hollahan, which walks you through altering commercial patterns and designing your own patterns. I learned useful techniques such as how to line up the grain correctly, how to download patterns and print them on 8 ½ x 11 inch paper, and how to measure a body accurately. This book also names and discusses body shapes and what styles complement a “top-heavy triangle, a circle, an oval, a narrow rectangle, an hourglass, or a bottom-heavy triangle” body type.
  1. Websites can also offer sewing tips and free patterns. Check out: – for free printable patterns for classic styles – for instructions on making a duct tape dress-form (also papier-mâché or paper tape)  - for styling practice by dragging and dropping a variety of separates and fabrics to a model to see how they look together. The monthly blog also contains fashion design tools for making or selecting clothes that flatter different body types.

  1. “Little Green Dresses” by Tina Sparkles, offers a new take on fashion repurposing. Instead of being another book on how to turn jeans into skirts or tee-shirts into shrugs, this one is about actually drafting new patterns and creating very polished finished pieces of clothing. It encourages the use of thrift store and garage sale clothes and linens that will have the yardage necessary to completely remake them into something very wearable. After roaming the aisles of Jo-Ann Fabrics and seeing lots of Prop 65 signs warning about the formaldehyde content in an unspecified number of their fabrics, I’m more sold than ever on reusing thrift shop apparel that may have already been washed a number of times. (You’ll be relieved to know that I haven’t seen these warnings signs at any of the fabric stores in Santa Cruz County.) There’s also a good chance you’ll find higher quality fabrics at a very reasonable price at the thrift shop. I recently purchased nine long dresses with enough fabric to sew nine tops, for about $30 at Salvation Army.
 So dust off the ol’ Singer and give sewing another try.  Dank basement and Elton John are optional.