Maker culture

Knowing how to make things was part of our human birthright. Who stole it?
Little Giant, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Camden Falls Gallery.
I have a to-do list a mile long. One item on it is a muslin mockup of a dress for my granddaughter Grace, who will be the flower girl in her aunt’s wedding in May. I’ll see Grace in Buffalo as I finish my Alabama trip, and I need this mockup to check her measurements. Grace is two years old and growing like a weed. I’ll make the bodice and skirt separately and stitch them together at the last minute, between my workshop in Rye and the wedding.
On Sunday I complained that I’d have to give up my Sunday nap to finish it. “Is there anything you can’t do?” a friend laughed. In truth, I’m only good at things that require spatial skills. That includes math, art and sewing. I can’t cook, although I don’t mind cleaning up afterward.
I learned to sew in 4H. That’s a venerable old organization dedicated to developing citizenship, leadership, and responsibility by teaching life skills. It’s also where I learned basic carpentry, animal husbandry, and how to make a pie crust. The first speech I ever gave was at the County Fair. It was on leavening agents and was called Lovely or Lumpy.

Catskill Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Other things I learned at home: how to paint (from my father), how to garden, how to can vegetables, and how to put up hay. My parents were not farmers: my father was a psychologist and my mother a nurse. They were practitioners of the back-to-the-land movement, but everyone of their generation knew how to make and mend things. Today, if we do those things at all, we do them as hobbies or artisanal work.
When my twins were infants, I made them sleepers. It cost me more than they cost ready-made at Kmart. After that, I only sewed for special occasions.
That’s true across most of our economy. It’s cheaper to buy a new toaster than fix the one you have. It’s cheaper to buy baked beans than make them yourself. It’s certainly cheaper to buy a chair than build one. The consequence of this is that our kids have grown up in a world of consumption rather than creation. They have no idea that for humans, creativity is a natural part of life.
Still life, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, someone sent me this irritating little piece in Smithsonian, which suggests we “leave the cairn-building to the experts.” Ours is certainly a scolding culture, and the goal of all that hectoring is to keep us as passive recipients of others’ experiences.
Why the passion for stacking up rocks on the beach anyway? The human animal is designed for creativity. Our throwaway culture has stolen that from us.
In Maine, there’s still much more of a make-or-mend culture than in other parts of the country. People really do patch up their cars and boots for another go-round. It’s also a more entrepreneurial society than our cosmopolitan centers. I don’t mean that in the Bill Gates sense. Kids who grow up with skilled laborers as parents understand that they don’t need a college degree to be useful, productive, self-supporting members of the community. Kids who grow up with self-employed parents understand there are more ways than a 9-to-5 job to earn a living.
It would be nice if we could add that to our measure of performance when we tote up how well a community does at preparing its kids for the future.

Making pictures while the sun don’t shine

"Cadet," 8X6, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

“Cadet,” 8X6, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas
My friends taught me to cook scallops a few years ago. Of course, to cook them, you have to have them. Last year and this, they’ve gotten me a gallon of the beautiful bivalves from their own fisherman source up in Castine.
Berna and Harry are cooking connoisseurs, but I’m usually a deeply insecure cook. Something snapped during the Christmas holiday, though. Over coffee, I confessed to Berna that I’d spent a good deal of the week in front of a stove. I’d run up a few batches of Christmas cookies, made sauce and meatballs, fried some cod, made a chicken pot pie and then schnitzel and red cabbage. As I have been known to not cook for years at a time, this greatly surprised my family.
My "Christmas Angel," was a 4H project. I trot it out every year on Facebook to amuse my childhood chums.

My “Christmas Angel,” (the real thing, not the painting) was a 4H project. I trot it out every year to amuse my childhood chums.
A childhood chum recently told me that my mother, who was our 4H cooking leader, had fostered his love of cooking. I didn’t seem to catch that from her, but it’s true that most of my foundational knowledge about cooking, baking, and sewing came from 4H. That group, an outgrowth of the Cooperative Extension, shows up in the most surprising places. Berna, it turns out, was also a 4H-er. We talked about the County Fair, baking sponges, and other joys of our youth.
I sure did enough canning as a kid. Putting up scallops reminds me of that (although it’s a lot easier). How, I wonder, did Mainers put up seafood before the invention of little plastic freezer bags?
Preparing luxurious pet food for Max.

Preparing luxurious pet food for Max.

I know that I could do something thrifty with all those bivalve feet—like make stock—but my 19-year-old Jack Russell terrier really loves them. Since he won’t be around next scallop season, I gave them to him. The ‘foot’ seems to be just a muscle attached to a bigger muscle. It’s tough, but it’s not like the toothless old guy chews his food anyway.
I frittered away my lunch hour chattering with Berna, so I had to work past dark. For my readers in more southerly climes, that means 4 PM in Maine in January. I finished my little painting of the Cadet under artificial light.
Years ago, I studied with Cornelia Foss. She would never turn the studio lights on at dusk, insisting that dim light was actually good for color management—it caused your paintings to be brighter and lighter than you expected. In general, I’ve found that to be true, but you have to wait until dawn to see the results.
I’m generally early to bed and early to rise so my dimly-lit studio is usually not a problem, but it does mean I have to make pictures while the sun shines.