To Craft or Not to Craft...

Editor’s Note: This post delves into some very personal reasons behind Mathew’s creative life. Be aware that there are mentions of depression and other darker aspects of human psyche. Reading discretion is advised.

This twist on the age-old Hamlet quote is essentially asking, “Why do you make things?” Usually as crafters and tradesfolk, we are asked “How do you make things?” Rarely are we asked why.

The answer is many-faceted and nuanced — as full of variety as there are people who craft.

Some of the answers I have heard when I ask this question of other creative people are:

-Tradition
-Creative outlet
-Charity
-Sense of Accomplishment
-Therapeutic and calming
-It’s fun

For me, there was never a choice when it came to crafting. One of my earliest memories is watching my father repair his guitar case by taking a coat hanger and fashioning a new handle after the old handle broke. I remember sitting there on the floor, watching him figure out how he wanted to make it. I remember him slipping as he bent the hanger and cutting his hand. I remember every detail like it was a photograph. Watching him fix his case by making something new out of something else has always stuck with me.

As I grew older, I remember being fearless about learning a new craft. By the time I was 6 I had started using the children’s section of the public library where I worked my way, alphabetically, through the crafts section. About halfway through that summer, I hit the “K”s. There, I found knitting. I think I lost my mind a little bit after seeing everything that could be achieved with nothing but sticks and string. From there I found macrame and weaving, which are also passions, but they don’t hold nearly the elevated status of knitting in my pantheon of crafts.

I remember the books from the 60s and 70s that were the primary makeup of the knitting section in the children’s portion of the library. Even worse was that the Children’s section was divided into boys and girls sections at the time. Even then, I didn’t know what to do since the only craft books were in the girls’ section. Man…that gender divide was so weird to a 6 year old. When I was finally old enough, I moved over to the adult section of the library (which was not gendered) and began again at the letter “A.” I proceeded to work my way through all the crafts once again, this time learning them from a more mature, less playful and a more technical perspective. I spent more time on each craft. Each summer would be devoted to one, maybe two crafts at a time. No more than that because now I had it in my head that I wanted to be good at them. Like, really good at them.

 
 

Craft became important in my life as I grew into my teenage years. There were certain aspects of my existence of which I had been taught to be ashamed and for me, the only way to relieve the feelings of guilt, shame and otherness was to lose myself in the making of complex, beautiful things. I remember the energy I poured into those projects. I remember the fervor with which I would practice. From practicing the piano or cello for up to 4 hours per day, to sitting on my bed listening to Mozart and weaving complicated tablet-woven belts one after another. I dedicated entire days to mastering those crafts. I remember the elation of throwing my first pot on the potter’s wheel and the excitement I felt when I successfully set my first hand-made brass rivet in a jewelry class.

Growing up in Kansas, while other friends and peers turned to drugs and partying, I would throw myself into my crafts; using them as an emotional crutch when I felt like I didn’t belong or had suffered abuse from bullies at school. Crafting became its own form of addiction, likely stemming from the endorphin rush after successfully completing a project. In the darkest days of my teen years, it was the ever-present crafting and music study that saved my life.

I remember one particular summer, I was probably about 16, and I was feeling so dark, angry and alone that I considered taking my own life. I remember that it was all of my unfinished projects that won out over the various ways I had thought to end things. I thought “well, if I’m not here…I might not get to knit anymore. That won’t do!” Craft, and my inability to finish projects that year, made me choose life over death. From then on, if I ever got to that level of darkness again, I would laugh and say… “Nope, too many projects to finish!” It became a sort of Patronus (to coin a term from the Potterverse) against the darkness. It still is, though the relationship to the Patronus has changed over the years.

 
 

What crafts began to offer, as I mastered the skills, was affirmation and praise. With each successive work, I received praise from my parents, teachers and the art community in my home town. By transforming myself into a skilled craftsman at such a young age, I could sidestep the judgment that I assumed I would get from others because I was different…that I was other and instead I could distract them with my works of art and craft. When I graduated and left my home town, I had to learn how to find a new balance. But with all those formative years of self-discipline in mastering different crafts, it was easy to find ways in my adult life to make myself an expert at whatever I chose to study. That discipline has stayed with me, right up to the present day.

If there is one thing that rings true though, its that crafting can be a powerful tool for good in a person’s life. If, through the course of my life and work, I can help even a handful of people feel that and know that they’re good, and worthy of love, of capable of creating beauty with the simplest of materials…then I have succeeded in every way that matters.

So now, dear crafters, I ask you:

  • What got you started on making things?

  • How has it improved your quality of life?

  • Has it helped you through tough times?

We invite you to share your stories. We are a crafting family and we pour our hearts into everything we make, whether we realize it or not. Let’s remember that we all share the joy of making things in common and that bonds us. At the end the day, we are community and we are here for each other.

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Allan Gnagy1 Comment