Handmade NationYears ago, if you would have asked me to go to a craft fair, I would have laughed. Why would I want to go to a craft fair? Weren’t craft fairs filled with crocheted toilet cozies and gingham-clad rag dolls made by blue-haired grannies? That wasn’t my scene. Well, my attitude changed when I attended my first Art vs. Craft Fair here in Milwaukee in 2006. I was overwhelmed by the multitude of interesting and creative crafts made by young men and women (some with blue hair). I was so impressed by the T-shirts, candles, jewelry, toys, journals, knitwear and assorted artistic items. I bought a few things, and talked to the crafters about their wares. Crafting to them wasn’t just a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon; it was a calling.

Art vs. Craft was the brain child of Milwaukee crafter, musician, documentary film maker and boutique owner, Faythe Levine. And along with Cortney Heimerl, Ms. Levine has written the book Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design. In Handmade Nation, Levine and Heimerl interviewed various crafters throughout the United States and tells their stories in the crafters’ own words. The crafters make everything from jewelry to toys to clothing. Some of the crafters are able to support themselves through their work while others have regular day jobs and work on their projects in their spare time. In the essays, the crafters explain how they came to crafting and why they create. And they don’t just describe the nuts and bolts of crafting, they describe the philosophy behind their work. Many of the crafters profiled said they got into crafts not only for the creative aspect, but because its also an escape from the generic and mass-produced. There is more joy in purchasing something unique at a craft fair than the same-old thing at the mall.

Crafting is also a community, with many crafters talking about the support they receive from other crafters, sharing ideas and advice about all aspects of crafting. The crafters profiled aren’t just funky artistic types; they’re also business people, organizing craft fairs and setting up their own shops on Etsy.com. And I’m happy to say that I know two of the people profiled in Handmade Nation, JW and Melissa Buchanan from Little Friends of Printmaking. JW and Melissa have been designing art posters for years and they also teach how to create silk screen prints. I was fortunate to work with them at Milwaukee’s Discovery World where they ran the print lab and I was a copywriter. To see two such talented people profiled in Handmade Nation is quite a thrill.

Aesthetically, Handmade Nation is wonderfully designed. The photographs lovingly capture the crafters’ themselves, their work and their workspaces. The words give life to what each person profiled creates. I also liked the hand-drawn timeline of the DIY crafting scene. Not only is the timeline charmingly drawn, it’s also very informative. Even after I was finished with this book, I found myself looking through it again and again. Sure, I was jealous of the huge workspace some of the crafters had. It can be a bit toiling and trying to make my soap and other bath products in my tiny kitchen. But mostly I felt inspired to do more crafting, and not just making bath soap. Now I just have to get some of my crafting supplies more organized and figure out what I want to create. My brain is filled with possibilities.

Still, Handmade Nation left me wanting more. I wanted to learn more about the crafters and other crafters throughout the United States. And Handmade Nation isn’t just a book; it’s also a documentary. *

In the end, Handmade Nation is an excellent primer on the world of crafting and DIY projects, and an interesting read for both crafting veterans and crafting novices.

* I was fortunate to see this documentary when it was shown at the Milwaukee Art Museum a few years ago, and I will post a review of it shortly.

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