The first of December is the start of the Advent season and at our house the bringing forth of the annual advent calendar. Advent means “coming”. The idea is simple: Count down the days in December leading up to Christmas Eve. Advent Calendars come from Germany where Christians marked doors with chalk and later created special calendars to count the days to Christmas.
When I was little, we had two Advent Calendars, one for me and one for my older sister. They were simple cardboard with pictures covered by little flaps. Each flap had a number, 1 to 25, marking the days until Christmas. My mother kept the same two calendars for many years and just switched them up. I’m not sure if that was because she was thrifty or because we needed to save the money. As a kid I always felt we had plenty of funds, but maybe not. My dad was a small businessman, selling ladies shoes in a small Wyoming town. While we lived comfortably, we certainly weren’t wealthy. Really, the repeat calendars were great because they served the purpose of starting holiday festivities early.
Nowadays, I get new calendars for my kids and my husband from Trader Joe’s. They are less than $2, filled with little pieces of chocolate and help mark the season and remind my family that I am the keeper of the family traditions. My husband eats all of the little candies at once. My son misplaces the calendar, remembers the calendar half way into January and gets a late Christmas treat. My daughter who is fastidious opens each box on the appropriate day and has 25 days of Christmas treats.
The variety of calendars is fascinating. There are basic picture calendars like I grew up with, legos, Hershey Kisses, beauty boxes, and varieties of tea. For those who want to celebrate the Yule Tide season daily, there are calendars with little bottles of whisky, wine and beer. For families who want to build a regular advent tradition there are expensive wooden calendars and hand sewn varieties which can be displayed prominently and refilled with treats and surprises every year.
If you don’t have an advent calendar by now it’s probably a little late to find one. But I would recommend putting on your shopping list for October/early November 2020. You can vote for President and then buy a calendar to hopefully celebrate ushering in a new administration.
Over Labor Day, my Sheltie, Shani carried out a successful panty raid on my daughter’s slumber party (greatly angering my daughter). Shani’s most recent offense was much closer to home. I have been working on paper mache hands for Ms. Bewitchingly Boo-tiful described in last week’s blog. I placed the hands outside on the three-feet-high fire pit to dry in the sun. The height of the pit provides a convincing alibi for Violet, the rat terrior, nicknamed the Terrorist for her ability to shred anything in a matter of minutes.
When I came home to check on the drying progress, the hands were missing. I was mystified. At first, I thought the wind had blown the hands off the granite ledge. Afterall, what could be appealing to a dog about something made of flour, water, and paper, surely this combination does not emit a wafting odor tantalizing a dog’s olfactory lobes. But alas, the wind was not the culprit. I wasn’t going to be given the gift of finding intact phalanges. My search through the yard uncovered a few small remnants
I was very surprised that both hands were gone. I mean one good chew and yuck! But this is where the accomplice comes in. My rat terrier, Violet, gets great joy in tearing up anything. Shani has been very discriminating in her destructive tendencies, limiting her tastes to extremely expensive Victoria Secret panties. Violet will grab whatever is handy and shake it violently while growling and then shred the with her teeth. I vision the hand dismemberment as a two dog crime. The dog with superior height and extremely long snout identified and retrieved the hands. The terrior gleefully shredded them as the sheltie ran in circles joyfully barking and egging Violet on.
The crime set back the paper mache project three days:
One to recreate both hands. I start with pipe cleaners and cardboard.
Two days for drying.
Two more days for painting and decorating.
Three days for Marine varnish to paint and dry
Final three days for varnish to cure.
cardboard and pipecleaners to start
All this has led me to develop the Pinocchio Theorem:
If you have a long nose, be careful it doesn’t lead you astray.
While innocently reading my email, I opened a challenge from the Idaho Botanical Gardens to create scarecrows for their annual scarecrow crawl the first weekend in October. Since retiring last year, I have been expanding my craft activities. This email literally shouted at me, “Do it! Make a paper mache scarecrow!” The Botanical Garden Theme was Idaho history and I immediately thought to make Sara Palin. Ms. Palin attended the University of Idaho so met the Idaho history criteria. But farther down in the rules, it stated scarecrows would not be allowed that had any political theme or were derogatory. I don’t have an expansive enough imagination to link scare crow, Palin and paper mache into any type of positive image. I immediately rejected the Palin concept and moved on to a scarecrow witch. I thought I could handle dressing some type of large doll and making a paper mache face and hands. The real challenge was getting the doll to stand up on a pole. The entry materials warned that the scarecrows would have to last seven weeks through potentially vile weather including rain, wind and hail. The apparatus to support the doll had to be substantial. Fortunately, I have a friend who does wood working and agreed to help me suspend the doll once decorated. So my entry went in as “Bewitching”. As the project grew in scope and scariness, I later added Boo-tiful. My final entry was the Bewitching Ms. Boo-tiful!
I researched online “big dolls”. I discovered there are many variations of inappropriate life-sized sex toys. I also discovered much to my delight that Mattel makes a My Size Barbie which stands over 3 feet tall, the perfect form to make a paper mache witch. I ordered my used Barbie princess on EBay. The big doll came in a golf clubs box. The shipping cost more than the doll. My daughter, Kayla, informed me she didn’t like large dolls and didn’t want the doll in the house. So when Barbie arrived, I invited her to sit with us for dinner a few nights in my son’s seat (he’s away at college).
Kayla was incensed to have Barbie sitting across the table at meal (this just proves that I am fundamentally a wicked mother).
I had planned on dressing Barbie in a black plastic garbage bag because of the weather concerns. I had years of 4-H many moons ago so I felt I would be able to sew a credible dress from a plastic bag. However, I discovered at Wal-Mart that My Size Barbie fits perfectly into size 2 toddler clothes. I bought her black hot pants, silver Lycra leggings, little tiny, black leather boots and a black lace shirt. A black cape, red wig, Halloween socks, black children’s mittens all came from the Dollar Store; as did glittery orange and black spiders and a flying bat. I ordered online a child’s witch’s broom for the cross bar of the scarecrow along with child’s witch’s hat. The broom arrived all bent up with the straw broken but it was too much bother to return so I taped on the little pieces of straw with black masking tape. I learned on this project that masking tape is a cure all for all sorts of production problems. When we had a week of rain as the project was coming together, I cut an orange cape out of an old plastic table cloth to keep downpours off Ms. Boo-tiful’s back (only the best for my witchy fiend).
Ms. Boo-tiful’s face and hands were the reason I started this wacky project to begin with. I wanted another venue for my paper mache crafting. The big concern was how to keep paper mache from dissolving when it has to be outside for seven weeks. Of course, the internet is full of advice on how to sustain paper mache. My favorite video was a research project conducted in England by a man who made paper mache creatures out of balloons, coated them with different varnishes and placed them outside to see which if any of the balloon people could survived England’s’ notorious wet climate. Regular varnish vanished into a caved in puddle of cardboard within a week but the balloon man coated with marine varnish (used on boats and quite expensive) made it through England’s winter looking largely the same only a little more yellow with age. Ms. Boo-tiful’s face and hands were coated four times with marine varnish and left to cure 4 days. Hopefully, this keeps her together through October.
The most enjoyable part of the project was assembly. My friend, Henry Reents, mounted Ms. Boo-tiful on a 4 foot pvc pipe using a large toggle bolt in the back. Her broom stick was also screwed into the CVP pipe. Her paper mache hands were screwed into the broom. She is wired at the waist to the PVC pipe. Her wig is screwed on and her hat is held in place with push pins Henry pounded into place with a hammer. We spent two delightful afternoons assembling Ms. Boo-itful. We found ourselves giggling evilly together as Henry continued to put screws and wires into the transformed Barbie. Who knew creating the perfect witch could be such devilish fun.
Ms. Boo-tiful went out to the Idaho Botanical Gardens on Thursday, September 29th. The Garden provided a rebar pipe in the ground and I just popped Ms. Boo-tiful on it. Sue and Henry Reents and my husband and I went out to see her at the Botanical Harvest Festival on Sunday. It was a beautiful fall day. There was music, arts and crafts booths, food vendors, and a beer garden. The place was packed with little children, running wildly about. A couple accidently tumbled into us as we strolled. There were 16 scarecrows entered in the Scarecrow Crawl. They were eclectic group and ranging from objects made by kindergarteners to gorgeous displays from Boise’s largest family-owned garden shop. After viewing Ms. Boo-itful who truly is a fantastical, scary, scarecrow, we spent time sitting in the shade watching all the activities. The Harvest festival is a “must do” for families in Boise the fall.
Ms. Boo-itful has to be removed between November 1 and 3. At that time, I’ll get to see up close how the marine varnish worked. I will hazard a guess now that she will be frightening indeed after being out in the Idaho fall weather for six weeks.
“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer
Albert Schweitzer and I have one thing in common, we like cats. When I am feeling down, I like to lay on my bed with Angel and listen to her purr.
It is not surprising that when I took up paper mache, cats are the first series I worked on. The cats I have created from various materials have some connections to my past. For example, the featured orange cat reminds me of my first cat, Puddy Cat, who we got when I was in first grade. Puddy Cat lived at our family home for 21 years (far longer than I did). Paper mache, Puddy, has a body entirely of newspaper to provide structure.
I wadded up paper into balls in the shape of a cat and then taped the paper in a few places to hold it together.
After I completed, Puddy Cat, I worked on a replica of the Satchel, the lord of the Ashtree Manor. My first effort at Satch was constructed of a toilet paper roll and Styrofoam ball for the head. There was no effort to capture the shape of a cat but rather to express the sleek, stylish nature of a cat through paper. I was pleased with the actual shape which I may try again. But the color was all wrong. I started with a black base coat and instead of creating a grey tiger stripe, I ended up with a brindle cat. I call this cat, “Cat with Coat of Many Colors”. My son told me that you always have to begin with base coat being light and then add on the darker colors later.
My next effort at Satch was a combination of experimenting with glue-based paste which creates a white clay and two toilet paper rolls. The cat structure that evolved from this effort was quite elaborate. I painted the cat all white and then layered on the various tones of gray. I am pleased with the coloring but probably won’t do such an elaborate cat structure in the future. To accurately capture Satch’s beautiful coat, I need to start with a gray base and then layer on.
I am working on paper mache prototypes because I need to have 10 items for a Christmas bazaar, a fundraiser for women’s scholarships. When I took in the cats to the planning committee, they didn’t think that cats would sell well at Christmas. I am now moving on to Christmas angels. I will blog about my angels, wood nymphs, and sprites soon.
I learned when I was visiting one of my good friends in Wyoming that she spends many hours joyfully engaged in adult coloring. She has many beautiful, brightly huged pictures she has produced. Coloring for her provides a grounding effect. Adult coloring has become very popular by providing stress relief and improved fine motor skills.
I told her I got similar joy from working on paper mache. The big different is the coloring books are easy to carry and the pens can be packed in a box. I have paper, paint, and glue strewn all over our upstairs playroom. Fortunately, the kids have outgrown the room so I can leave my objects out to dry and paint for long periods of time.
The distinction between art and craft is that art is a creation from an emotional response that cannot be replicated. Craft usually has a structure and can be replicated by others. Most of the time, I would define paper mache as a craft with structure and the ability for others to copy. However, I think in the case of my crafty kitties they are more art than craft. I will probably not make more cats but the ones I have made have reminded me of my furry feline friends.
The Essence of Art: man’s selective re-creation of reality(Ayn Rand)
Creating is in our DNA. The earliest documented art, found in Indonesia, are carvings in a shell with a shark’s tooth dating back 540,000 years (pre Homo sapiens). Just this week, scientists in France dated elaborate stalagmite structures in a cave underground back to those supposed stupid, rude and untalented Neanderthals thriving over 150,000 years ago.
Pottery, objects made from fired clay, are the first synthetic objects made by humans. Since clay is found throughout the world, a variety of objects from many places have been found dating about 30,000 years ago. Relatively, new in the scope of world affairs.
Man started making pottery when we evolved from a hunting and gathering into agricultural societies. That makes perfect sense to me. Nomads chasing wildebeests with rough edged arrow heads, hand-carved from rock, would probably not be inclined to haul a lot of earthenware around with them. Crockery, the growing of grain, and cooking seem to all go together not only in man’s development but in my sense of the history.
Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”. Since I retired in November, I have been awaking the inner child artist in me. As regular readers of this blog know, several weeks back I have been busy with papier-mâché (see https://wordpress.com/post/julierobinsonblog.com/2549 ). Starting in March, I took an 8-week beginning pottery class at our local community center. The class met every Wednesday for three and half hours. There were ten of us in the class. Most were seniors though we had one very talented younger woman, who had moved to Boise a year ago, and two young disabled male adults. Several of the retired women had taken the beginner class previously and worked on their own projects instead of following the prescribed class instructions.
Our instructor, Chris, is coordinator of the arts at the community center. He is Irish with bright red hair, a quick smile, great patience and kindness. He holds a degree in fine arts from Boise State and is a master potter, known in the region for some of his works. He told us he couldn’t imagine getting through college until he discovered pottery in high school.
Our class began with learning how to throw pots on the wheel. I found I was not good on the wheel. My legs would shake and subsequently my hands, braced on my legs couldn’t find “center”. “Center” is a key beginning point of pulling a beautiful tall pot. As a beginning class, most the wheel-thrown pots stayed at 4 or 5 inches and were shaped largely like coffee mugs. But my pots were only about an inch and that was after great help from Chris. I couldn’t find one of my pots to glaze but the one I did is glazed in my favorite blue.
Scott, my son, says it looks like an ash tray. But I’m using it on my dressing table to hold earrings. I love the color.
One of my thrown pots started to go off kilter. At about this time, Chris told us to start using our imagination to make our pots more whimsical. He meant different heights and designs on the wheel. But I took his directions to be an invitation to move into fantasy land. I pulled my thrown pot further off center. I subsequently marked up the skin of the pot with wood imprints. Once stained brown and green, I think of it as my “tree trunk” entry into Neverland and the lost boys.
I found I was in my element working with slabs of clay. The slabs are made by kneading the clay into bricks and then pulling the squares through a roller. The resulting slab is about ¼ inch thick when appropriately rolled. Our first slab assignment was a box with a lid.
The box is made by careful measuring, cutting with an exacto knife, piecing together the parts and then hitting the clay with flat wooden spatula to solidify the form for firing. My box has a Daisy on top. I had a grandmother named Daisy and my niece is named Daisy. The Daisy is also the symbol of PEO, a philanthropic organization that provides scholarships to women. My sister is the current state president of, Idaho PEO, an organization of over 3000 women. My mother was the state president of PEO in Wyoming when I was in high school. On the front is a white calla lily. My daughter, Kayla, is named after the calla lily which grows wild in China and Idaho (see https://wordpress.com/post/julierobinsonblog.com/1742).
I have my box sitting above my computer in my office, a reminder of how many strong women have supported me in my life. The colors are a little too greenish for my taste but this is the result of limited choices for our first glazing experience. We had a choice of two whites, a non-shiny copper and the green iridescent. I have learned while watching others glazing in class, glaze is not a precise science. One has to put on the glaze and wait to see what emerges from the interaction of fire and paint.
My final product and probably my artistically best object is a pinch pot. The pinch pot is made by taking a clay in the shape and size of a baseball and slowly pinching it into a pot. As the class went on, we all became more experimental and creative. I created stripes and circles on the pot with waxed paper coated on back with a sticky substance. Areas covered with paper when dipped in the first glaze could be left to turn black, the result of no glaze. This can be seen on the black areas of the daisy and calla lily on the box. I chose to pull off the paper and dip my pot again in the white bubble glaze. This glaze provides texture and resulted in the copper accents where previously I had paper strips. I have this pot proudly displayed in my living room on our bookcase of art objects. It seems to fit right in.
A number of my classmates chose to enroll in another class right away. I love the summers in Boise and would prefer to be outside rather than in a class room. After eight weeks, I picked up my tools, my pots, and donated my left-over clay to the community center.
I may choose to take the beginning class again in the fall or winter. If I choose to take it again, I will focus on the areas that gave me the most joy, i.e. the hand-crafted items. By taking the beginning class and trying both throwing pots on the wheel and creating free-form, I have much more respect for the technical skill necessary to throw a gorgeous pot.
Our instructor, Chris would tell us to listen to the clay and then your art will emerge. He cautioned us against starting with a preconceived idea of where to end up. Using this approach, I created an entrance to Neverland, a strong women’s box, and pinch pot dipped in the glaze called pond scum. I found as Pablo Picasso advised my inner artist.
Recently, I joined a women’s organization that hosts an annual Christmas bazaar to raise funds for education. We are all supposed to make something to sell. I was born with very few arts and craft genes. Since the first recorded cave art is over 500,000 years old, some of our early ancestors definitely had these genes and passed them on to a few lucky souls. You and I all know the person who shows up and can fashion a felt hat from a knit sweater or a gorgeous quilt from a rag bag, or takes home the hodge podge of objects contributed by parents to the school auction and produces a world class auction basket. I stand in awe of these people. I am not one of these people.
My freshman year in college, I took up knitting. I made dozens of extremely-long, odd- shaped scarves using the basic knit one/pearl one stitches. Everyone I knew ended up with one of these slinky reptilian beasts. As a child, my mother did her best to endow me with some homemaking skills. I was enrolled in 4-H for a few years. I turned out passable aprons and gathered skirts, resulting in blue, red and white ribbons at fair. My muffins had tunnels, little holes made by too much air–no ribbon at the county fair. I did win the purple ribbon and best in class, one year for my meal plan. In retrospect, this award is extremely ironic because I don’t cook much at all.
While suffering angst over the bazaar challenge, my sister, Jane, reminded me that as a child, I was a whiz at paper mache. My skill wasn’t because I wanted to produce great art. I was fascinated by puppetry. I’d make a variety of puppet heads with died cotton ball hair and whip up their outfits on our sewing machine. Then I would write elaborate plays for my friends and I to produce.
My first thought was there wasn’t much interest in paper mache anymore. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. When I looked up a paper mache refresher course on YouTube (source of all things educational),one sweet-looking elderly lady, Joni Good at http://www.ultimatepapermache.com has a blog, numerous books and dozens of YouTubes. Her recipe for paste has over a quarter of a million views. A second teenage girl has over 200,000 views demonstrating Joni’s recipe. One man has over two million views on how to make a piñata. An attractive lady making a paper mache bowl has over 1 million views.
Apparently, there are a lot folks out there making craft items out of paper and paste. My sixteen year old daughter, Kayla, says there are just lots of people who like to watch YouTube and aren’t making anything. Surely these high numbers of viewers reflect some papery product being produced somewhere and not just viral surfers and paper stalkers. Given this huge viewing volume, I thought why not give it a try again? After all in the scope of human affairs (homo sapiens as we know them have been around for more than 200,000 years), 52 years of not touching anything related to paper mache isn’t that long a time.
Paper mache originated in China during the Han Dynasty (BC 202 to 220). The Chinese made paper mache helmets that they hardened with lacquer. From China, the craft spread to Japan and Persia. Those elaborate oriental masks, you see when you travel are paper mache. When the art of paper mache reached France, the French, always unique, decided to create their art by chewing up the scraps of paper. Chewing paper would, of course, give you small pieces of sticky, damp paper to work with but sounds disgusting to me. When I began my paper mache project, I rejected the French approach and used the yellow pages approach, “let your fingers do the shredding”.
After reviewing some of the videos on new approaches to paste (joint compound, linseed oil, and Elmer’s glue), I elected to go traditional. My first project is made of paste from flour, salt and water (recipe below). A an empty toilet paper roll and Styrofoam round ball provided the infra structure. I used newspaper for the coating. Using household products did result in the bumps in odd places that led Joni Good to make up a more elaborate paste recipe. But I am still taken with the more modest approach to paper mache because as a child, I remember we could just go to the kitchen, whip up paste without the hassle of gathering together a lot special stuff and have our theater cast underway in no time. I think there is something to be said about being able to create when the urge strikes you, especially when children are involved. In addition, the flour and water is easy to clean up with soap and water, inexpensive and very forgiving when you make errors. Finally, it is not fast drying—a plus for joint compound and glue but a negative if you want to rip off some error you have made.
I am also taking a pottery class. In pottery, our teacher is always telling us that the clay speaks to us. I was originally going to make a reindeer (remember this project started for the Christmas bazaar in 9 months). When I got started on the reindeer, he morphed into a beagle.
I am very familiar with beagles, we had one when I was child. For those art critics out there, I know the snout on my paper beagle is too long and his feet too big (blame the reindeer). My sister, Jane, and I called our beagle, Barney the Beagle with the goo-goo-googlie eyes. The entire time I was crafting my paper dog, I was thinking about Barney. As you can see, Barney the Beagle has goo-goo-googlie eyes.
Barney was finished off with acrylic paints, spray-on shiny varnish, and repurposed eyes, nose and tongue from the reindeer I was trying to clone. I found an unused cat harness in my pet drawer. Any of you, who have read my blogs on my pets know that Satchel, the big gray Tom Cat wouldn’t be caught dead in a whoosie harness (one has to question my sanity for buying it at some point in time). I cut up the offending harness and made a realistic collar for Barney. Satchel was pleased.
I am proud of Barney for a first effort.
He obviously isn’t good enough to sell at a bazaar, too many nasty little dings and bumps. But he is good enough to give to my husband, Pete, for Father’s Day. Pete has an office full of items the kids and I have made and seems delighted with whatever we give him no matter how low quality.
I have roughed out an angel and cat to see if I can’t still produce something that someone might buy. I may try the joint compound bending to the will of the masses to have a saleable product. Also from my pottery instructor, art takes time and patience. I have nine months but at my age I’m not sure I will every produce a financially viable product. That’s the beauty of paper mache. There isn’t much of an investment if the outcome is poor and you can also toss it in the recycling bin.