As creative people, and as consumers of creativity, we spend most of our lives pursuing beautiful things. So what happens when someone tells you to make the ugliest creature you have ever seen?
That’s exactly what happened at Design Week Portland (DWP14), a week-long celebration of the design fields featuring more than 200 events around this Northwest creative mecca.
On Sunday, at Tillamook Station a few blocks from the beautiful Willamette River, three artists and a handful of enthusiastic attendees gathered together to make something they’d never normally try to make . . . and in the process, discover something about beauty.
All of this was more than mere whim, however.
Workshop facilitators Betsy Greer, Kim Piper Werker, and Leanne Prain have long shared a passion for crafting and words, woven together. Not surprisingly, they’ve also authored a trio of books that speak directly to this blend.
Betsy’s Craftivism examines how crafts can be used in the service of great causes. Kim’s Make It Mighty Ugly is a quirky yet deeply insightful set of creative exercises designed to draw out beauty through the celebration of its opposite. And Leanne’s Strange Material—which I admit I’m partial to!—explores crafts as vehicles for powerful storytelling.
When we arrived, the three artists chatted with us over a table spread with coffee and Bernard Donuts, a Portland institution. Another table was scattered with even more delicious possibilities, if a bit less edible: fabric scraps, foam stuffing, old buttons, thread, binding tape, markers, etc. Kim invited us each to choose the materials for our creature, taking care to pair things we felt looked ugly together rather than beautiful.
For the next fifteen minutes or so our fingers flew stitching, gluing and taping together our ugly creatures. I admit, I found it hard not to slip into the mode of striving for “cute ugly” versus “just plain ugly.” Eventually I found that by deliberately doing the things I would never normally do as an artist, I ended up at a more satisfying version of ugly.
Along the way, Kim guided us through what she called, “a day of making things that might seem scary.” The process was not designed to be fear-inducing, however, but rather fear-relieving.
Kim shared her personal story of attending a friend’s crafting party and feeling embarrassed because she wasn’t accomplished at a certain crafting skill. To make it through the event, she decided to embrace the ugliness of her project—which ignited a journey of exploring this often untalked-about side of our creative selves.
“Everyone needs to make something ugly once in their lives,” she chuckled. “It forces you to confront your creative demons.”
After our creatures had taken shape—perhaps resembling our creative demons?—Leann stepped in to lead us on a series of writing exercises designed to explore the story behind our crafts.
We wrote from the perspective of our creatures. (Mine, it turns out, is named “Aldus McStitch” and considers himself a “wee bit of blarney from the wastebasket.”)
Leann also asked us to select several old buttons from a jar and write stories about them. Anthropomorphizing the buttons, we explored their personal journeys through a set of imagined adventures. Many of us (me included) found that the stories somehow wound up talking about us.
To round out the day, Betsy claimed the baton, sharing with us how stitchery can be a form of meditation, and of finding inner quietness in an increasingly noisy world. She set a timer for fifteen minutes.
For that length of time, we stitched randomly on our creatures, listening deliberately to the sounds of the needle slipping through the fabric and concentrating on the quietness.
Who knew that such an ugly thing could lead to such tranquility?
I left the workshop with a new perspective on the creative process, and some wonderful new friends, not the least of which is of course Aldus. I think I’m going to hang him up over my writing desk back home. (With a talk bubble that says, “A wee bit of blarney from the wastebasket,” no less.)
After all, the last thing my Inner Critic and Perfectionism want me to do is make something that might turn out ugly.
Been there, done that at DWP14, y’all.
And I lived to tell the story.
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