Pack Rat pledges allegiance to the United States of Craft
If you have been reading this blog, or have in any other way been clued in to the arena of indie craft, then you’ve probably heard the buzz surrounding Handmade Nation, an independent film directed by the co-owner of Paper Boat Boutique & Gallery , Faythe Levine, with Michaela O’Herlihy as the director of photography. I was fortunate enough (and for once in my life, on the ball) to see the New York Premier last Thursday, February 12th. And what an exciting event it was!
The premier was hosted by the Museum of Arts and Design in their new Columbus Circle digs. The show was sold out, but the viewing space was on the small side which made the atmosphere cozy and intimate. Around the room, it was a veritable who’s who of people in the D.I.Y./craft world. I spotted Andrew Wagner (Editor in chief for American Craft magazine) right away, looking stylish as always in a navy fleece and the only accessory a man ever needs: his handle bar mustache. And I just about fell out of my seat when I realized that I was only a seat and an aisle away from THE Debbie Stoller of BUST magazine fame.
But obviously, I didn’t come to rub elbows with celebrities (well…maybe just a little). What I really came for was to see the film that takes a loving look at a subject near and dear to me, new wave craft. As first time film makers, Levine and O’Herlihy did an excellent job. They cover a large swath of creators in the field, interviewing a bevy of people who use the whole spectrum of materials. From Nikki McClure‘s paper cuttings, to Jenny Hart‘s famous embroidery, to Deb Dormody‘s book making, the range of talent that Levine taps is huge; not to mention the personalities. The guys who run the ubiquitous buyolympia.com, the original online source for quality indie crafts, are pretty hilarious as they describe what it was like to package shipments while standing up for nine hours at a clip, for four months before they could afford to get chairs. And the down to earth, straight talk about the nature of the relationship between the artist and consumer from Andrew Scott and Breezy Culbertson, of the San Francisco shop Needles and Pens, is insightful and a bit edgy (in a refreshing way).
Levine and O’Herlihy are wise in opening up the forum of D.I.Y. discussion to not only those people who make the precious and precocious trinkets that we all devour, but also to the purveyors (those who love and believe in the artists enough to hock their goods but aren’t necessarily part of the creative process themselves), as well as magazine editors, presidents of organizations, and an assortment of other people who exist on the periphery of this cultural movement. It’s heartening to have everyone’s suspicions confirmed; that this new era in crafts is being driven by socially conscious creators and consumers alike, who turn to indie craft for complicated reasons, not just for a cute owl emblem. Certain themes keep resurfacing with everyone Levine speaks to. The idea of anti-mass production, of a one of a kind sensibility; the concept of reused materials, re-purposed items, and provisions used completely; and a freedom/expansion from the claustrophobic world of “fine art” are repeating motifs.
In the end, however, the film left me wanting more. There is such a massive consensus among everyone involved about what the movement means and why it’s occurring, that there doesn’t seem to be any narrative tension to move the film along. The aforementioned ideas reappear over and over again, almost to the person. I kept asking myself as I viewed Handmade Nation, “if I was a complete neophyte, with little to no interest in this subject, how would I feel about this movie?” And I found myself wishing for something more inviting, more compelling for outsiders. Levine takes a democratic approach, inviting all of her guests to have equal screen time. Which is exactly what a good friend should do…but maybe not a director. Interviewees with real screen presence, insightful points of view, and captivating stories are dutifully left behind in favor of some elaborate, yet drab discussions of favorite pieces, fun craft shows, etc.
And while the truth is that in indie craft, you end up seeing a lot of the same images over and over again, (someone in the film commented that the concern is always, how many bird and apple printed things can people buy?) as someone pretty familiar with the topic, I was hoping for more innovation, for more surprises. Although there is still plenty to be said for the pieces featured in Handmade Nation. I especially fell in love with the segment on Knitta, the guerrilla group of urban knit “taggers.” And Mandy Greer‘s crochet installation pieces are so dramatic and enchanting that you feel like your stepping through the rabbit hole while you’re looking at them. (Side note: Greer was on a discussion panel after the film. While explaining what place her crochet has in her life, she mentioned that while she is creating a piece, she carries it everywhere with her, working on it in little increments all day long until it is done. And in this way, her life gets woven into the larger picture of what she is creating. I thought that was such a wonderful idea.)
Ultimately, however, these small issues do little to mar the whole. Handmade Nation is an exhilarating portrait of a movement propelling forward, seeming to gain in power as our country wakes up to the realization that the gold cow of consumerism is a crappy false idol. Hopefully Levine and O’Herlihy can help introduce a new path.