Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday, August 02, 2015 - 1 comment

This Whole Creativity Business

When I was in Grade 6, Mrs. Bandstra wrote on my report card that I had “improved greatly in art class” because I now “drew people with necks.”  

Suffice it to say, drawing was never my forté.  Even now, my (mostly stick-figure) people, while they have evolved so far as to have not just necks but eyebrows and ears as well, still look like a seven-year-old drew them.  But “crafting” - making something with fun materials and my own two hands - now, that was much more up my alley.  

My favourite birthday gifts were always things like Gimp to make friendship bracelets, smelly felts, or puff paint and a t-shirt to decorate.  And the presents I gave were (and still are) pretty much always handmade.  On Christmas Eve, I was forever putting up my “Santa’s workshop” sign and disappearing into my room to make “just one more gift.”  Those little plaster ornaments from Dundee Hobby Craft - shaped like Santa or a dog in a stocking and covered with glitter paint - made the rounds several years in a row.  And I distinctly recall a last-minute yogurt container lid decorated with a Plasticine face that I was sure Mom would absolutely love.  (She did, of course.  Knowing her, it’s still in storage somewhere...)   My cousins and I would look forward all summer to the week we’d spend at Auntie Robin’s house playing Monopoly and “getting crafty.”  This always involved some sort of creation that ended up in the oven - Fimo and Friendly Plastics jewelry or Shrinkydink keychains.  And then, when I was a bit older, my favourite part of babysitting was the fact that it was an excuse to get into the Play-Doh and crayons.  

In high school, most of my creative energy was expressed through writing.  In Grade 9, Mr. Wiebe had us make poetry books - binders filled with our own original work.  Even though I hit the minimum requirement, I just kept on writing - churning out page after page of “inspired rhyme”, right up until the day before I needed to turn it in.  In Grade 10, the “journalling” portion of Humanities class was a happy excuse to keep up on my diary.  (Bless Mrs. Semke for letting us write “Do not read” at the top of any page we wanted to keep private, or she would’ve had a backstage pass to all the class drama...)  And then there was the development of my writing talent that came in the form of doodled-on notes passed back and forth between friends under the clever (and, I’m sure, undetected) guise of “borrowing a calculator.”  (We got so good at folding notes so tightly that we could even fit one inside the empty barrel of a ballpoint pen!)

In high school, my best friend and I talked about how fun it would be to start a greeting card company.  She’d do the artwork (for obvious, neckless reasons) and I’d come up with the words. While we never actually launched this dream together, I did get to see it fulfilled myself a few years later.

It started when I discovered there was a market for thank you cards amongst the expats at my language school in Guadalajara, Mexico back in 2001.  My tools were a grand total of two ink pads in shades of blue and a box full of stamps.  The cards mostly involved a stamped pattern around the edges (or sometimes a painstakingly doodles flower border) and a carefully written out quote or verse in the centre.  Each one took a good half hour to make, and I think I sold them for a dollar.

I wanted to feel professional, so I came up with my own logo - a coffee cup and the name “Cafecito” - Spanish for “a little cup of coffee” - and I etched this on the back of each card by hand.  Later, I got a rubber stamp made of my logo so I could save time in branding them - way less hand cramps and way more consistent results that way!  The next development in my little business was the acquisition of an “embossing tool” - a blowdryer-ish thing that melted fine glitter powder spread over stamped ink to give it a raised look and some shine.  (Friends were always volunteering to help me “make cards” purely for the power-rush of using that thing!)

Shortly before I went to photo school in 2006, I heard a teaching on “What do you have in your hand?”  The story of David and Goliath and the idea that my camera was the “five smooth stones” I had in my slingshot with which to slay the giant led me to change my brand from Cafecito to Five Smooth Stones.  And when I made the move to Turkey, I also made the switch from stamped cards to photo ones.  This may have been partially motivated by the fact that stamps are heavy and we no longer get 70 pound luggage allowances, but I think it also had a lot to do with the fact that I had grown up.  Stamps and doodles felt young and amateur.  I was launching a photo business and there wasn’t really room for glitter powder and that embossing-blowdryer - in my suitcase or my portfolio.  

Lest you think I’d abandoned the “handmade process” altogether, here’s a glimpse into the process of the original Five Smooth Stones photo cards.  I learned the Turkish for “I’d like 10 prints of this, please” and found myself a trustworthy photo shop in Istanbul.  I’d print pictures and then cut off a centimetre-wide strip from the edge so it would fit on the paper I had.  Then I’d take a piece of black cardstock and fold it in half, lick the crease back and forth, run my thumbnail along the crease to really make the cut clean, and then tear the paper in half.   (I could still do this motion in my sleep...)  Folded in half again, that would make the bases for two cards.  The same process would be repeated with a piece of cream-coloured cardstock, except I’d tear it into quarters and those would be for the inserts.  I’d use a gluestick (and later, when I was really in the big leagues, double-sided tape) to affix the cream insert into the black card and then use black photo corners to stick the photo to the front.  And voila, a card!  

Oh, except for the label on the back.  That came from a sheet of sticker paper with my “Five Smooth Stones” label on it and my contact info.  I had to cut along the lines and then pry that stubborn sticker off by trying to slide my fingernail under the corner to get it to release.  (What a blessed day it was when I discovered the wonder of Avery address labels!)  My incredibly self-sacrificing roommates would chip in when I had a big order and help me with the tearing and sticking - though I did all the photo trimming myself cuz I was kinda anal about that.  :)  We’d sit and watch episodes of Everwood or Avrupa Yakası and tear and stick til our tongues and fingernails had turned black and we had papercuts under our thumbnails and a pile of the torn edges and photo corner backs lying in the middle of the floor.

Those were the days.

It was right around that time that I discovered the wonderful world of Shutterfly and moved my cards from handmade-ish to professionally printed.  The ease of it was amazing - just upload and order!  No tearing, cutting, peeling or sticking.  (Except for the label on the back.)  Soon after that, I started selling cards online through my Etsy site.  I can still remember the thrill the first time someone favourited one of my products...and then how exciting it was to have people I’d never met ordering my stuff!  I moved into doing calendars and photo coasters, and eventually started paying extra to have Shutterfly print my own logo (instead of theirs) on the back of my cards.  I was the real deal now!

The cards look so crisp and professional - no rough edges, no crooked labels, no inserts falling out when the Mediterranean heat melts the glue and renders it useless.  But honestly, as proud as I am to be selling great looking products that people love, sometimes I really miss the good ol’ days of tearing paper and trying to cut the photos straight.  I loved the fact that I was involved in every bit of making that card, save for the actual developing of the photo.  (I didn’t inherit my dad’s darkroom, unfortunately...)  I got to feel the paper in my hands and really interact with it like a piece of art.  There’s a pleasure in working with my hands that just can’t be replaced by the satisfaction of a professionally produced product.  (See, Mr. Wiebe?  I haven’t lost my knack for alliteration!)  And while I know it’s a smart business practice to think like a consumer and make images I know people would buy on a card, it’s way more fun to just shoot what I like and then consider it a bonus if someone buys it. I love to make things I’m proud of, not just things that sell.

Even though I love my photo cards, the ones I really adore are the ones I made with my own two hands - the patterned paper coffee cups and making sticker-lettered Christmas cards.  The ones that I didn’t just “find and shoot” but actually “imagined and made.”  I come alive when I am able to get hands-on in my creative pursuits - making placecards for Thanksgiving dinners, decorating personalized gift bags, doing crafts for friends’ weddings or making my own wrapping paper.  

And every once in awhile, when my brain is cluttered with “adult responsibilities” or my creative juices are, well, constipated, or I have a day off and just need some “creative release”, the very best thing for me - the thing that makes me feel alive and happy - is to pull out all my pretty papers and cut and tear and paste and make a piece of artwork - maybe a card, or maybe something useless just for fun, just for me.  It takes me back to the days when art was play - for pleasure and nothing else.  When finger painting was “a good use of my time” and jewelry no one would ever wear was a magnificent work of art simply because I made it.  

All that to say... it’s fun to see the way I’ve “matured” in my creative pursuits.  It’s such a rare privilege to be able to make a business out of something you’re passionate about, and the fact that I’ve been able to make some extra money by creating things that bring beauty into others’ lives makes me super happy.  But I hope I never lose the “childlike” side of creating - the side connected to torn paper and photo corners and my imaginary friend Boovoofoo and the cotton ball Santa Claus Mom hangs on the cabinet door every Christmas.  

May we never be too old for crayons.


I love that pic of the chair and table on the deck outside the cabin. Hey Jamie I'm starting a blog and I've never done it before! Would you take a look and give me some feedback? www.hunterkelmfamily.weebly/bhk-blog :)