Monday, March 31, 2014

Estate Sales as Cabinets of Curiosities

"Nan" -- somebody's great grandmother
I think that one of the biggest reasons I like to go to estate sales is because it's like stepping into a house-sized cabinet of curiosities, somebody's collection of a lifetime, curated room by room by someone who has done their best to arrange another person's worldly possessions in some logical way to accommodate visiting strangers, acquaintances, neighbors, and friends; the curious as well as the bargain hunter and salvager.

And even as we pick and forage like magpies through the objects laid out before us, we, the pickers, are mindful that these things tell a story about someone's life of which we are only privy to disjointed bits and pieces, with no one to weave the narrative thread for us.

So we speculate and wonder, and sometimes converse with each other about the objects and the people they once belonged to.

I'm often fascinated by the interests revealed by the books and magazines someone leaves behind. I remember one house with a preponderance of books on Catholic theology, philosophy, and mythology, along with dozens of paperback mysteries. How interesting it would have been to talk with that person!

Among the things I buy are old pictures, like the one above, for the frames. When I got home with that one, however, I opened the back and found a note tucked between the layers, in handwriting that echoed that of my older relatives, which said:

Belle Louise Gebhart
nee Bailey
"Nan"       great grand mother

I couldn't bring myself to remove the photo after finding that, so I taped the note to the back of the frame and kept it intact. It sits on a shelf just so. A stranger to me; yet I know her name.

I am especially interested in old toys. I don't always buy them, but I like to look at them and wonder about the story behind them. Did they belong to this person's children? Or did they buy them in later years for visiting grandchildren to play with?

If I can find very small toys to include in the little treasure boxes I assemble and sell in my Etsy shop, all the better. So imagine my delight when I came across a box full of small wooden figures, above, none more than an inch and a half tall, with the trees topping out at maybe 3 inches. The picture shows just a sampling of the contents. One man working at this estate sale was clearly pleased I had selected them, glad that someone else recognized their intrinsic value, and speculated that they must be from Europe, for neither of us had seen any like them before.

This person's books made it pretty clear that he must have been an engineer of some sort, for many sturdy hardcovers were about engineering topics. I bought two of the books for the content—one on soil engineering (as an organic gardener, I am a bit of a dirt geek) . . .

An illustration from Soil Engineering, by Merlin Grant Spangler

. . . and another on number theory, which has a wonderful frontispiece.

The other two books I bought, quite honestly, for the covers. They're both about stress analysis, and I couldn't help but think they would make terrific journal covers.

Sometimes, when people learn that I like to go to estate sales, they'll tell me about some shop that sells vintage items, assuming I'll like that just as much. And I do like vintage shops and frequent a few of them in my neighborhood, but they can never replace the experience of visiting estate sales for me. 

For while I appreciate the objects for their intrinsic value, they are transformed in meaning by their migration to a different setting, just as they are changed materially when I use them as raw material, such as using book covers to make a journal. Their story changes when they are removed from their original context. And I like the stories as much as the objects themselves, even though I do not know exactly what those stories are.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Little Pocket Doll Creatures

I like to play around with free-form knitting, making small things that I figure out as I go along. I use wool or wool-mohair blends that will felt in the washing machine, a transformative process that continues to fascinate me.

Until recently my smallest projects all ended up as cat toys, because I didn't have any other use in mind, and I was making them for practice, just to figure a few things out.

Lately I've started making little pocket dolls as small as I can make them, with the intent to make some small enough to go in one of my treasure boxes that I call "Stuff! — an amusement kit for kids," which are the size of an Altoids tin. The boxes each contain a random mix of items, both new and old, and each has an original collage on the lid, which I now make digitally, using scans of my drawings and altered photos. Functional art for kids! I sell them in my Etsy shop, and some of these critters are also showing up there.

A few knit-felted critters, with an egg.
Usually, when you see little animals this size —and smaller— they are made either with needle felting or crochet. I prefer to knit and then felt in the washing machine, and I don't think I can get my critters as small as some of those made by those other methods because the knitting needles kind of get in the way, especially working in the round as I prefer to do. I also am using worsted weight yarn and size 8 needles because I find that is a good combination when knitting things to be felted after. But they still end up pretty small, as you can see when I put them next to an egg for size reference.

I find it takes about 6 or 7 long agitation cycles, using hot water, a low water level, and enough sturdy garments (jeans and towels, usually) to make everything rub together vigorously to get the felting effect needed. I put the small items I want felted into a lingerie bag so they don't get lost amongst the other items or end up getting sucked into the drain. The mesh bag also captures some of the lint to keep it from clogging the drain, though such tiny items as these don't really produce a lot of lint.

I enjoy making them, because they are small and relatively quick to knit, I can use remnants of yarn left over from other projects, and the process of improvising is much more creative and interesting to me than following a pattern. 

I also make adaptations or add embellishments when something doesn't look quite right to me. 

For example, I didn't like how the green creature looked with his plain round head; it seemed incomplete, so I added some yarn to make him a redhead.

Only this guy and the pink gnome with the wooden bead head turned out small enough to fit in one of the little tins I use for my treasure boxes for kids, which you can find in my Etsy shop.

More works-in-progress photos will be showing up on my Arty Didact Facebook page, which you could follow if you like those kinds of behind-the-scenes glimpses.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Not Much Green on this Gray St. Patrick's Day

A little tip: If you want to grow your own clover for St. Patrick's Day, you should probably start the seeds on the 1st of February, and not the 11th, as I did this year. My notes from previous years did suggest that six weeks' lead time would be about right, but I just wasn't thinking about it at the beginning of February. Perhaps I'll try putting a reminder into my computer's calendar for next year.

Even so, any little bit of green is a welcome site on this gray day with sleet pelleting our windows and plenty of dirty snow still on the ground. And I am quite pleased that the little cyclamen and orchid plants I bought a few weeks ago are still sitting pretty in Grandma's old china. Those wee baby clover are nestled into a handmade porcelain cup by Minneapolis artist Dyann Myers, which I bought a few years ago in the spring at the St. Paul Art Crawl.

I have three little pots of clover; perhaps I'll transplant them to an Easter basket after today. They should be positively robust by the 20th of April.