Discover your inner artisan
How to make art part of your everyday life
Let’s go back to when you were 5 years old. Every moment was a chance to create. The Lego pieces of your spaceship hid in the carpet and drew some colorful words when your mother stepped on them. Blankets became a wall to a fort. You glued sticks together for picture frames and packed snow to make weapons, snowmen and sledding ramps.
When did making things stop being a part of who we are?
Today, we don’t often solve a problem with our own two hands. We go out and buy something to fix it. “We used to live in a society where everyone made,” says Jon Kay, director of Traditional Arts Indiana. Yet in the past 100 years or so, he says we’ve stepped back into the role of consumer.
But it’s not too late to reverse that trend. Southern Indiana has long been known for its self-sufficiency and artisanship. These once necessary and utilitarian skills have become traditional arts. In the engulfment of consumerism, the idea of artisanship stands out, and it’s what we’re beginning to go back to.
Learning to make something beautiful can be an escape from a stressful day at the office. It can be three hours of “me” time. It can be your legacy – something tangible to share with the world. Sure, you could make money. But you don’t have to. “Art isn’t about the product,” Jon says. “It’s the process.”
You can begin by taking a formal class, getting some one-on-one coaching or learning enough from a pro to experiment on your own. To find my own “inner artisan,” I tried my hand at shaping a cereal bowl at Seymour’s Southern Indiana Center of the Arts, weaving a rag rug in a studio outside Columbus and making candles with tips from a Franklin craftsman. I never considered myself an “artsy” person, but getting out of the car and giving it a go was all I needed – I’m on an art kick now.
You can do the same. And in the process you’ll begin to appreciate the time true artisans devote to a skill. Here’s how.
Mold your “scents” of creativity
Middle Davids Artisan Candles
152 E. Jefferson St.
Franklin, IN 46131
FIVE-YEAR-OLD ZOE CATLIN gazes at her dad as he grabs pot after pot of wax. The kitchen fills with the scent of pumpkin as Dan feels a tug on his jeans.
“Daddy, I want a candy-corn candle.”
Zoe puts her foot down. “It has to be orange on the bottom, yellow in the middle and white on the top, just like the candy. And it has to smell like it, too.”
Who knew a 5-year-old would invent that fall’s top seller? Since then, Dan’s other daughters, Bethany and Charissa, have created their own candy cane and Celtic-inspired candles. All three are on the top 10 candle list. “The best ideas come from the craziest of places,” Dan says.
If three little girls can do it, you can too. While Dan doesn’t teach formal classes on candle-making, he’s happy to share some tips. All you need are the basics, which is how Dan got started.
Dan’s dad, David, was a broke seminary student when he started making candles as presents for his family. They were an immediate hit, and it became a regular father-son activity. For Dan, cold-weather days meant bringing out the boiler and smashing paraffin wax with a ball-peen hammer, dancing around the room with his dad as they created new scents and types of candles.
Today, Dan practices his craft on the steel rows of tables in the workroom of his shop in Franklin. “I always tell people candle-making is a lot like cooking,” he says.
All you need is wax, a wick, and something to hold the whole candle in. But since candles are meant to complement a beach theme in the bathroom or be pops of crimson in a kitchen, fragrance and color are critical. They make the process more complicated.
“There’s a whole lot of chemistry involved,” Dan says, “but I only pretend to know it.” It’s all about testing and retesting – that’s what separates a hobbyist from the professional. Here are his tips.
First, the wax.
Wax is the base – the fuel. Middle Davids uses soy wax that’s cleaner, renewable, sustainable and made from locally grown beans.
TIP: When melting wax, you live by the thermometer. Soy wax’s melting point ranges from 120-180 degrees, and you need to make sure it cools enough before you pour it into the container. Otherwise, you’ll get “snowflaking” or bubbles in the wax that will crackle and pop as the candle burns. You can find soy wax flakes at just about any craft store in your area.
Then the wick.
While you could hold a match up to the side of a candle, it would drip all over your hands…but never light. An all-cotton wick pulls wax up to the flame, where it mixes with air. Dan uses what he calls a wickimajig to set the wicks. It’s a long wooden box with metal pegs sticking out of nine sections. The wickimajig holds the wicks upside down so that he can dab hot glue on the end and put the jar over it, creating a strong bond without burning his fingers with the 200-degree glue.
TIP: Don’t use wicks with a metal center. The metal may be sturdier for placement in the container, but the fumes aren’t great for the environment. You’re also going to want to use a thicker wick for a “thicker” scent – and this takes quite a bit of trial and error. If it’s too smoky, you used too big of a wick.
Choose a container.
Back in the day, stores used to buy back glass soda bottles for 10 cents. Dan gives customers store credit when they bring in used candle jars. “Yeah we’re tree huggers,” he admits.
TIP: You can use anything to contain your candle, but Dan recommends glass or metal because they’re the sturdiest materials to hold the wax.
Finish with color and scent.
This is where the testing and retesting come in. Dan gets little tester bottles of fragrances from his fragrance supplier and mixes them with the soy wax to see if they’re up to par. You can’t just stick your nose in the bottle and take a whiff – sometimes the reaction with the fragrance and the wax ends up smelling a whole lot like wet dog rather than the pine tree scent you were expecting. Although his shelves hold 50 to 60 scents, Dan has tested over 200. With each fragrance purchase, you’ll usually get about .5 oz.
TIP FOR FRAGRANCE: In order for the fragrance to mix thoroughly with the wax, the wax needs to be heated to about 185 degrees. Some fragrances won’t work with soy wax, or won’t smell the same as they did in the bottle.
TIP FOR COLOR: Make sure the color of the candle is associated with the scent –the brain processes it faster.
Candle-making, like any skill, takes some time, but in learning about the creative process you begin to appreciate the art. So give it a try. Or stop by Dan’s shop and pick up one of his ready-made creations, which range in price from $12-20.
Weaving trash into treasure
Homestead Weaving Studio, LLC
6285 S Hamilton Creek Road
Columbus, IN 47201
STEP ON TREADLE ONE. The heddles hanging from harnesses one and three shoot up and the warp threads lock into place. Slide the shuttle through the shed to the selvage on the other side, making a thumbprint in the weft. Beat the threads into place and step on treadle six. Now really beat it this time. Repeat.
Don’t be fooled by all the jargon – weaving can be simple. It may take a few flashcards at first, but before you know it, you’ll be speaking the language fluently. But warning: Weaving can be slightly addictive.
Chris Gustin, 66, lives in an idyllic farmhouse hidden in the woods outside Columbus. The queen of the hill is her studio – a quaint wood building with a multi-colored picket fence and lawn ornaments speckling the grass. Inside,16 looms are scattered around and over 6,000 pounds of fabric, yarn and thread. I feel a little claustrophobic at first. Then Chris tells me she has 10 more looms in her house. “I know all of their names, too,” she chuckles.
Chris started with a modest potholder loom when she was 5 years old. Using loops of fabric from the local store, she weaved so many potholders she sold them door-to-door in her neighborhood. That passion was rekindled in her junior year of college when she saw a sign for a weaving class.
“This is my weaving class,” Chris says as she sweeps her arm across the studio – where cones of yarn spill off the shelves and piles of fabric and rugs line the edges of the room. “This is what I’ve tried to re-create.”
After taking a few decades off to pursue journalism as editors and photographers in Colorado, she and her husband, Bob, moved to Columbus in 1974. Chris said, “I’m doing my weaving.” She started weaving rugs with button-down shirts she found at a thrift shop. Since then, her weaving materials have expanded to socks, upholstery selvage and even bubble wrap and paper. “If I see something that could have another life, then I want to give it another life,” she says.
If you’d like to move beyond making potholders, a great way to try out Chris’s looms is at one of her day-long weaving classes on her studio porch from April to early November. She takes four students at a time from 10 a.m. to 4 or 5 p.m. and you walk away with a rug. You can hop around different types of looms and create rugs to last a lifetime. But don’t expect to be perfect the first time.
“Some people won’t allow themselves to fail,” Chris says. There are going to be some air pockets in the first two rows, but that’s life. Once you get the hang of it, the thread will become tighter, you’ll change sheds more quickly and you’ll play the loom like a piano.
Classes might include 13-year-old daughters with their moms, students on their annual “weaving camp” and weeklong girlfriend getaways.
If you’re serious about weaving, you can find good deals on looms on Chris’s website or at farm auctions around the area. As far as weaving material goes, check your Goodwill pile: stained jeans, old socks – anything that will hold up in the wash. Even bubble wrap!
Learn the Language
- Loom: the machine used to weave
- Dressing the loom: to set up the loom on a warping board
- Warp: the threads of fabric stretched lengthwise on the loom under high tension
- Weft: the threads of fabric stretched horizontally, perpendicular to warp thread
- Selvage: the sides of the fabric that are sealed
- Shuttle: a device that holds the remaining weft you pass back and forth during the weaving process, usually shaped like a flat stick or a boat
- Harness: the top, horizontal parts of the loom that move up when you step on the treadle
- Heddles: the metal, needle-like pieces dangling from the harness that have “eyes” through which the warp threads are threaded
- Shed: the area that opens under some of the warp threads when the harnesses go up, allowing the shuttle to pass through
Shaping the way you see clay
Southern Indiana Center for the Arts
2001 N. Ewing St.
Seymour, IN 47274
WHEN BETTY JOHNSON DROVE up the gravel driveway to the Southern Indiana Center for the Arts in 2005, she panicked. She sat with her hand on the door handle asking herself, “Why am I here? I should just go home.” After an encouraging phone call with a girlfriend, she mustered the courage to walk up to the door and take a class.
“I’d never had a passion,” Betty says. “But when my hands hit that clay, it was like something from my head to my heart kind of exploded.” She wanted to be at the wheel every day, with clay caked in every crease of her hands and buried under her fingernails. As she talks, she rolls a ball of clay in her hands and wedges it on a taut piece of string stretched out from the wall. The man who owns the old-fashioned print shop next door asked her to make some inkwells.
Over the past nine years, Betty has evolved from an amateur potter to a teacher in the open studios at SICA every Saturday. From 11 to 1 she helps kids 13 and younger make face masks and castles and bowls, if their arms are long enough to reach the wheel.
Hand-building is the easiest form of pottery and suitable for kids who aren’t quite steady or big enough to try the wheel. “It’s like making cookies,” Betty says. The kids roll the “dough” out on the table and sculpt their piece entirely by hand. The shelves of the barn are filled to the brim with leftover dinosaurs, castles and face masks waiting to be claimed.
Then, from 1 to 4 in the afternoon, aspiring artists 14 and older have a turn at the five wheels that line the wall of the Don Hill Arts Barn.
Using the wheel is a whole different game, more elegant, but more complicated and unpredictable. You have to sit down at the wheel without a preconceived notion of what’s going to come out, Betty says. It makes the experience less stressful.
The process isn’t over when the pot comes off of the wheel. These steps will finish the project.
Drying - A piece sits on the shelves for about two to three weeks until it is fully dry. It’s at its most fragile state, called greenware. A thicker piece will take longer to dry, especially if it’s cold in the barn.
Bisque firing - The piece is put in the kiln at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The clay is still very porous after firing.
Glazing – This is the substance that makes the piece shine. Low-fire glazes are often used for kids, because what you see in the bottle is what you get when the piece comes out of the kiln. With high-fire glazes, the color in the bottle can look vastly different from the end product, so you have to know what the glazes do. It’s all trial and error, and you’ll find some beautiful combinations along the way. “It’s like a box of chocolates on Christmas morning,” Betty says.
High firing – In one of the barn’s three kilns, the piece is fired at 2455 degrees. No one is in the barn when the kilns are going, because the glazes can give off toxic fumes at that temperature. If you try to speed up the process by firing a piece before it’s fully dry, the clay can explode, taking out other pieces in the kiln as well – what Betty calls a “claytastrophe.” After a day and a half in the fire, the piece is finished.
Saturday classes at SICA are $16 per class for members and $20 per class for non-members. You’ll need at least two visits: one to throw your masterpiece on the wheel and one about three weeks later to glaze it.
Finding my inner artisan
I DID MY FAIR SHARE of pottery back in third grade. My lumpy, multicolored dinosaur paperweight is still gathering dust in the back of my parents’ kitchen shelves. It’s the thought that counts, right?
Never before had I touched a pottery wheel. My art ability is limited to sketching flowers and a very loose, holey scarf I knitted for Girl Scouts in the fourth grade. But pottery was the art I was most excited about learning.
Betty says the hardest part of using the wheel is getting your ball of clay centered. So I smacked my snowball-sized chunk down on the middle of the bat (the plate that sits on the wheel head – my canvas, if you will). I pressed down the pedal, and we were off.
I doused my hands in the water bucket next to me to reduce the friction between my hands and the clay. I soon learned when the clay gets warm, you have to step back and re-wet your hands.
Betty explained the three steps: centering, compressing and opening. I had already centered the clay, so compressing was next. Betty told me to squeeze the ball of clay from the outside, feeling the air pockets in the clay pop. Now it was time to open it up.
As I pressed my thumbs down, it was surprisingly easy to make that lump of clay begin to look like something I could eat cereal out of. Over and over, I pressed my thumbs down and slowly – painfully so, as I’m an impatient person – dragged my fingers up the side of the clay, supporting it with my hand on the outside.
After it seemed open enough, we turned the wheel down from a clothes-dryer pace to a leisurely carousel ride. I took a tiny sponge from the water bucket and dragged it along the inside edge of the clay, opening it up just enough more. It was cool to see something form so smoothly and easily with just light touches.
What boosted my confidence was the bowl looked “professional” to me when it came off of the wheel. I’ve tried my fair share of Pinterest crafts, but they always look a little too homemade. But just 10 minutes on the wheel produced something I could be proud of.
I wouldn’t say I’m addicted yet, but I definitely want to do it again. There’s something about watching the piece form before your eyes that makes you feel powerful. Focusing on the clay allowed me to put aside the stress of papers and work and life and be fully present in shaping that cereal bowl. I can’t wait to go back to glaze it… and maybe make some presents.
JON DIDN'T HAVE TO CONVINCE me of his love for art – especially musical instruments. As he sat back in his desk chair, handmade banjos hanging on his wall surrounded him. In his shadow sat a cylindrical container of hand-carved, hand-painted walking sticks crafted by a man in the last 30 years of his life. Draped on his desk was a multi-colored rug woven from recycled fabrics. But his eyes lit up when he started to pick at the strings of the instrument he built himself. A red and green cigar box from the dollar store, a few pieces of wood and three strings sang the twangy melody of a brand-new ukulele.
“Look at it - it’s junk!” Jon said. “But it’s cool to know with five dollars and three hours on a Saturday afternoon, I can makesomething like this.”
Imagine being able to step back at the end of the process, hold that candle or scarf or rug in your hand and say, “I made this.” It’s divine. “If you think about the whole worldview of creation, it’s a metaphor for aspects of humanity,” Jon says. “You’ve brought something into existence that did not exist before.”
Bear in mind – you’re not going to be good at it at first. There will be holes in your knitting and bubbles in your candles and chips in your pottery. But investing time in art is investing time in yourself. You’re developing another skill for your library. “These are things that’ll stay with you throughout your life. You either nurture them or they’ll wither and die,” Jon says.
By the numbers
Wax – $10 for two pounds at Hobby Lobby
Glass containers – about $4 for 20-oz clear container
Wick – $2.99 for 5 wax wicks and tabs or $2.79 for 18 feet of braided wick rope
Fragrance - $3 for .5 oz
$29 for a soy candle-making kit
Time: about 2 days
Loom – about $1,600
Yarn –$15 to $30, but you can also weave with scraps of old T-shirts, button-down shirts from Goodwill or call furniture stores and ask to buy their leftover selvage
Time: 4-5 hours
Price per class: $16 for members, $20 for non-members (need 2 visits)
Time: 2-3 weeks