Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why I make things, Part One: It's Genetic

My parents and grandparents were creative people, and so I grew up thinking that making things is a normal thing to do.

My mother's parents were tailors back in the early 20th century, in Taipei, Taiwan. They made school uniforms, engagement dresses, suits, etc. I remember a long, pale blue dress they made just for me when I was 8 or 10 years old. They came to visit us in the US and my grand mother took my measurements. After they went home to Taiwan, some time later a package came in the mail and there were the dresses they made for me and my sister. We have many pictures of my sister and me wearing matching handmade dresses that we adored.

As I grew older, I realized that after we kids went to bed, my parents would stay up and practice calligraphy and writing poetry. In Chinese, which I can't read, but still, it was evidence of the creative urge. During the day, my dad was a civil engineer and my mom was a housewife and mother of 4 kids, but during the day, they let their creativity loose.

Once my youngest siblings started school, my mother would take cake decorating classes one night a week at the community college. Those were the nights my dad would make what we called "Salvation Army stew." Basically, he would make a big pot of ramen noodles, throw in leftovers, and that was dinner.

I don't remember if it was good or bad, but I'm sure it was good. My mom's a great cook, like her mom was. My mom never used a recipe, that I can remember. She would just think about how flavors combine and make it work. That's another way her creativity expressed itself.

When we moved to Taiwan, she would take classes on flower arranging, how to make flowers and bas relief panels using modeling clay, etc. I remember a family project where all six of us made a clown out of the clay, glued it to a backing board, and each of us painted our clowns.

My dad was very creative too, and engineering requires some level of creativity. I'm not sure what all my dad did at work, but I know he designed and built a 2 story shed/playhouse with stairs and slide, and also did home improvement projects like laying pavers for a patio and building a portico out of wooden beams.

These days, shows like This Old House and all those shows on HGTV are all about how to do home improvement projects. But back in the 1980s, those shows weren't around and my dad did it all by himself.

I was conscious that we didn't have a ton of money, and now I realize, that a household of 6 with only one wage-earner living in the neighborhood we lived in at the time, we didn't have a ton of money. But my parents carved out the time and money so that my mom could take those cake decorating classes.

Because they make art, my parents buy art. Their home now holds large handcarved wooden panels depicting dragons, phoenixes, clouds. They have a wooden peacock that's at least 6 feet tall. The woodworking shop is down the block from their townhouse, so they know where the wood comes from, they know the artisan making their piece, and they can go see the artisan in action and see the many steps involved in making that one piece.

It's very similar to how my mom grew up watching her parents making a dress or suit, from measuring the client, to choosing the fabric, ironing, cutting, sewing, fitting, finishing, down to the buttons and zippers.

This was not sweatshop labor. It was artistic labor, skilled labor, that required not only capable hands, but a sharp and creative mind as well.

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