What I Do: Vision Statement #makered

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My friend Stephanie challenged me to write a marketing plan for my business (Watermountain Studios), in sonnets.  I don’t know that I can write a marketing plan in sonnets, but I can write two that qualify as a vision statement, I suppose.

The human hand used to shape all our needs
and make all our wants from creche to casket;
the old factory is now choked with weeds,
and we mock those who can make a basket.
Robots build cars, machines sew our raiment
and the sweat of slaves dapples our plastic toys…
our children sit idle, workshops vacant —
we test to exhaustion both girls and boys.
Yet numbers and letters can still be learned
through artisan’s arts of loom, forge, and press.
By hand and eye’s labor are truth discerned
and concrete order made from abstract mess.
Children learn best when their hands learn to make,
for artistry helps our minds to awake.

To start a MakerSpace right now is hard:
we sold off the shop tools and burned the scrap,
put abstract thought on every student’s card,
and put computers in each student’s lap.
We tested for phonics and random facts,
and jumped for joy at every new reform —
yet abstraction has been a kind of trap
to make a man who thinks instead of acts.
Ask me — I’ll guide you through these thickets,
to where your students thrive with tools in hand
making theater props, posters and tickets,
costumes, the stage — instruments for a band.
When children make, they become more adept
at fixing the world that broke while we slept.


Paper: 2D to 3D

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One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about is the sort of principles one should adopt in a MakerSpace.  And one of those critical principles is this one:

Principle #2: 2D makes 3D

What does that mean? It means that a student or an adult should take a 2-dimensional material, such as paper or fabric or plywood or sheet metal, and turn it into a 3-dimensional object. (I watched a video of Adam Savage making a box using a metal brake recently, and it was inspiring to see a box made so easily. [see about 6:33 and following]).

It’s better if that object has a fold or a bend or a twist in in, or has some sort of functional purpose — but just folding or bending or shaping a piece of paper in a deliberate or conscious way can turn a flat thing into a product. Sometimes it’s a box, sometimes it’s a house-shape, sometimes it’s a bag, sometimes it’s a yarn-winder. Sometimes it’s a question of folding or stacking pieces, sometimes it’s bending them.

What does that look like?

How do we know when a student’s efforts at working Principle #2 have succeeded? How do we know when our own efforts have succeeded?

How do we succeed if we don’t have a metal brake in the workshop (or a hundred bucks of leather for each and every student to make their own Chewbacca bandolier??).

It’s worth remembering the cheapness and versatility of that key material:


Paper is enormously versatile.  I think I got a sense of that with the Paper Roller Coasters people, and the work of Rob Ives.  You can do amazing things with paper.  But pop-up cards have tremendous versatility as a way of teaching the basics of 2D to 3D thinking. In these few cards, you can see one that turns into an easel, several that turn into steps, and several that turn into folded panels. There’s even a Japanese envelope-letter: write on one side of the paper, and then fold it, and it becomes its own envelope.

What are the benefits of working with paper first, before working with metal or leather or cloth? First it’s a lot cheaper.  A sheet of paper starts at around a penny a square foot (though it can get more expensive), while fabric starts at around a penny a square inch.  Paper is the place to teach conservation of materials, 2d to 3d, and the principles of cutting and measuring carefully. This is where the work begins. This — and drawing.

If you have to equip a MakerSpace, and you only have a $100 budget for the year, start with a lot of paper in a lot of weights, and invest in cutting and folding tools like Xacto knives, rulers, and bone folders.  You can download all the origami and pop-up card designs you could possibly want from the Internet.  Measure, cut, fold — make templates ,and cutting and folding diagrams, and set up production lines.  Teach the industrial revolution, Hallmark card-style, and reinvigorate letter-writing culture at the same time.

(While you’re at it, teach students to make the Platonic and Archimedean solids — geometry learning should go along with Maker learning. That’s practically standard).

Remember: No matter what you build, it’ll be a beginning. And everything you teach about folding, cutting, bending and scoring will ultimately be useful when you do get around to having a metal brake.

Poetry for April?


[This post is pinned to the top of my blog for April. Scroll down to read other stuff.]

Looking for some poetry to read during April? Consider buying the ebook of one of my collections of poetry:

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-3-59-28-pmThe Mansions of the Moon

In this collection are a series of poems celebrating the twenty-eight angels and traditional astrological images of the positions that the Moon cycles through every month. In this collection, you receive twenty-eight poems in the traditional ode format.

Based in part on a close reading of Christopher Warnock’s Mansions of the Moon (a remarkable book in and of itself, with brilliant illustrations by Nigel Jackson), this is effectively a collection of hymns or prayers to the angels of the Mansions, asking for their assistance and focus in the life of the reader.  It can be read aloud as part of a magical and spiritual practice, or simply as a way of reflecting on the ways in which the Moon spoke to ancient and medieval peoples, and told them stories based on the sky.

I’ve found that this collection has been quite useful to me, personally, and not just because people have bought it.  It’s spoken to me personally, even though I wrote the poems — and part of it had to do with the process by which they were written. I waited until the Moon was in the part of the sky associated with the particular Mansion, and then wrote the poem while ‘listening’ to what the Moon seemed to say; I also made an effort to write each poem when the Moon was waxing or full, and depressed the particular power of the moon at that time of each month.

510f0dXWciLThe Sun’s Paces: Poems for the Decans

This is another collection of astrological poetry.  At least since ancient Egypt, the sky has been divided into twelve signs of the Zodiac… but also into thirty-six sub-signs called Faces or Decans (because they’re each ten degrees of arc across the sky).  The Sun’s Paces is a collection of thirty-six poems to the thirty-six Decans or faces of the Zodiac. About every ten days, the Sun passes from one of these decans to the next. More refined and subtle than the Zodiac, the Decans can help zero in more clearly and particularly on the elements of a horoscope; and they also demonstrate that some times of year are better for working on particular problems or issues than others.

And, of course, each planet is also in each Decan at some point during its ambulation around the Sun. Each planet also gets reflected through the powers and capacities of each Decan, and these are explored in gentle ways through the poems in this book.

Based in part on Austin Coppock’s elegant book, Thirty-Six Faces, you’ll find that this is a great collection of poetry to round out your poetic, magical or spiritual library.

The Tai Chi Poem

Although you can download a copy of this for free, here, you can also also buy one for your Kindle reader. You’ll also be supporting my work as a poet.

This collection of poetry is not actually a collection — it’s a single poem, where each verse is a sonnet, running to some sixty-three poems describing the sixty-three movements of the Tai Chi form I learned at Star Farm in the late 1990s. I attempted to create a guide to the postures and positions based on my own practice of the form for four years.  I don’t know that you could learn Tai Chi by reading this poem and then doing it, but my goal was to create and celebrate the way in which martial arts manuals celebrate movement and spirituality through poetic language.  This book was an attempt to capture and realize that mindset in a standard form so celebrated in English-language poetry.

51zuU7LxzcL.jpg Festae: Poetry for the Roman Calendar

This is a collection of hymns or odes for deities associated with the Greco-Roman pagan calendar. Here you’ll find celebrations of Neptune and Salacia (the goddess of brine wells, used in ancient and medieval Italy for curing cheeses and making Parma hams, among other things).  There is a hymn for the Feast of All the Heras, and festivals for the three weeks in June dedicated to Vesta as the keeper of the hearth-flame.

The collection of poems is organized by month — Each of the twelve months of the year is marked with at least three festival dates that more or less match up with our own calendar.  There are several dates for Dionysius/Bacchus, both as the wine-god and as the patron of the theater; here are poems for Artemis as the goddess of the Moon, and as the patroness of trance-states achieved through music.

As with nearly all of the poetry in these collections, these are composed as odes: three-stanza poems of thirty lines in length, that speak to the gods and goddesses of old with an awareness of their traditional imagery, and their modern relevance.

51j6AYSu8zL-1.jpgPoems for the Behenian Stars

The last collection of astrological poetry I intend to create for a while, this was the first to be published in 2017 (this year!).

The Behenian (or ‘root’) Stars are a list of fifteen traditional stars from Arabic and European astrological and astronomical lore dating back at least a thousand years. Mostly, they’re the brightest and most distinctive stars in the northern hemisphere, all through the year: the terrifying Caput Algol, the head of Medusa; Aldebaran, the eye of the Bull; Sirius the Dog Star; Regulus the heart of the Lion; Algorab in the Crow’s wing; and many others.  In astrological lore, the presence of a planet in close conjunction with one of these stars signified a particular eminence in the person born at that hour.

Yet I’ve found that knowing and naming and celebrating these stars is a way of connecting to the sky above us, and a way of becoming both more human, and more humane.  The lore of the stars has extraordinary things to teach us about how ancient and medieval peoples saw the sky above their heads, and the world around them.  This collection of poems speaks to those truths.  As a special for April, I’m reducing the price of this collection from $9.99 to $2.99… You can also buy it in a printable format through my website at Etsy.com.

And thank you, always, for your support!

Magic: chops

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Owl chop

I recently read Benebell Wen’s brilliant book The Tao of Craft after hearing her on Gordon’s show.

One of the things that really caught my attention in the book was the idea that a Fu sigil or talisman should really be signed and sealed — that is, in the same way that a decree from the emperor would be signed and sealed, a Fu sigil carries the authority and mark of the creator. I explained this idea to my partner, who thought it was equally interesting. And so I decided to make a chop — a seal stick — for her, in part as practice for making my own. Which is part of the reason I made that captive ball a few days ago: I want to get better at wood carving, because it’s a useful skill to pair with woodworking generally, and because it will be a nice fit with the automata work I intend to do when the woodworking shop is up and functional again.

My partner frequently uses an owl as her emblem, so I went online and searched for how to carve an owl. This isn’t the one that I used, but it’s close enough — a series of photos of an owl carving.  I used basswood, because I don’t carve jade or soapstone (slightly different and sharper tools, more patience and care required); and I had the tools for this already. It’s a fairly simple procedure to carve an owl. It was also fairly simple to reverse and cut the runic-style emblem my partner uses for her magical sign, into the base of the chop. Except, I still screwed it up — and I’m going to have plane the bottom of her chop flat, and then cut it again.  I don’t have the tools out to do that yet, butI can certainly do something else while I wait to make that set of tools available.

img_3232From there, it was fairly simple to find a procedure for carving a bear. His advice about frequent sharpening is good — I sharpened my cutting tools about six times in the course of carving the bear, and I still wound up using too much force and chipping his right arm off.   I chose to do a statue against a pillar for my bear, because I want to have a place to practice chip carving, on the back of his pedestal; I already completed the small chip-carvings around the base, and I cut my own version of an emblem into the bottom of this seal.  I still think this won’t be my final seal, for me — the missing arm is a bummer.

So here we have an object that shares kinship with a magical-scribal-calligraphic tool from Chinese Taoist magic: a seal. But it’s carved in a Western style, with a Western character sign that indicates a person. And it could be used in western magic to do the same thing it does in Taoist magic: sign and authenticate and command the results in the name of the practitioner.

Is it cultural appropriation — Or cultural inspiration— to draw on the techniques and tools of other traditions to add to and build to the existing Western tradition? Ironically, I think this is part of the reason why I broke my bear at the last possible moment… because the character on the base of my chop is one I chose for myself from Chinese characters a decade or more ago.  But it’s not my emblem to use, nor my tradition. And so, this one is broken, and I’ll have to make it again.

But I still think it showcases what’s possible, what’s within the realm of workability.  The folk tradition of carving already exists in the West; the tradition of ‘enlivening’ statues and statuettes has been part of Western magic since Egypt; the idea of a personal seal to accompany a signature has fallen out of favor in the last two hundred years, but there are still signet rings in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and early Enlightenment periods… and we have evidence of signets or seals all the way back into Babylon and Sumer, at least.

Maybe it’s time to re-awaken the idea of a personal seal.

Wood: captive ball

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Stage two unlocked!

One of the basic exercises for woodcarvers is the creation of the Captive Ball, or Ball in a Cage.  Usually carved of a relatively soft wood like this basswood at first, then moving up to more complicated materials, the idea is to improve both knife and safety skills.

I only managed to get one small cut on the tip of my index finger while making this.  No bleeding — just a nip of the blade and a small pain.  When woodcarving, it’s difficult to aim the blade away from oneself the whole time; therefore the blade needs to be extra sharp so that you avoid trying to force it.  Chip Barton, the master woodcarver, explains in his book that you should sharpen your woodcarving tools at a fairly steep angle, first of all; and second that you should use a coarse stone, a fine stone, and then sandpaper mounted to paint stirrer-sticks at 800 grit, 1500 grit, 2000 grit, and 2500 grit if you can find it.  I made a set of sticks like that, and it was awe-inspiring how sharp I could get my blades; with practice, I’m sure I can get them even sharper.

Sharp tools are scary to some people, and I suppose with good reason. The assumption is that you’re at greater risk from a sharp tool, because it will cut deeper into the person holding it during an accident. But dull tools put one in the mindset that more force needs to be applied… and so there’s this Catch-22 (as in the novel by Joseph Heller) — a dull tool inspires its user to apply more force, which increases the likelihood that the tool will break or slip, and cause an injury; a sharp tool cuts more cleanly and carefully, and so less force needs to be applied… BUT, of course, the act of using a very sharp tool gradually dulls it. Which means that as the user gets tired, the tool is also getting ‘tired’, and the chances of an accident rises with the length of time one works with hand tools.

Quilt Squares

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One of the things that came up recently was how to use Making to teach traditional subjects like, for example, history. I’m of the opinion that teaching Making for the sake of making things is valuable, but not everyone finds that argument convincing. So I figured, its time to learn some more advanced quilting techniques. A lot of the techniques, though, involve cut and reassemble: that is, assemble nine squares into a 3×3 block (or assemble 3 strips into a square);  use a rotary cutter or scissors to slice and dice the 3×3 in a variety of ways — mostly diagonals, and side-midpoints; and then sew and re-assemble. The first step, therefore, was the assembly process. I had to make up a number of 3×3 squares out of experimental fabric squares of various sorts. This has led to the creation of the various squares of fabric that illustrate this post. These are mostly 5″x5″ squares of fabric that I cut up from the remnants of my scrap bin — none of these squares would exist, were it not for other projects. But I find that I’m not entirely ready to slice and dice the 3×3 grids to make new things….Except that finally, I got over my fears. I did a four by four grid, to make an approximation of the form called the “Card Trick.”. I learned quite a bit about quilting from this one— the card trick is usually produced on a diagonal, and out of triangles.
 Finally, I got out the rotary cutter. And I sliced up one uninspiring 3×3 grid both directions: both diagonals, and both side-midpoints. Then I sewed these triangles together to form this crazy form of a cross. You can see that I need more practice at accurate cutting — but you can also see that complexity emerges from the Solve Et Coagula: the dissolution and recombination of parts. 
That is to say, when we take the raw material and subject it to both geometry and the knife, to both the straight edge and the rotation, new properties emerge from the old ones.

This isn’t to say that all of these patterns are beautiful — some of the cutting and sewing results in asymmetry or dullness or plainness. Some patterns won out for being more interesting or vibrant — some lost for being less interesting or uninspiring.  But it’s clear to me that quilt patterns emerged from certain standard practices to preserve fabric waste, and the discovery that the principles of geometry (not necessarily formal geometry, but more practical elements of it — straight edges, diagonals, rotation, and other practices) could be applied to fabric. 

Remarkable realities lurk inside any raw material — wood, glass, paper, metal, plastic, and yes even textiles — but it’s the mind and hands of the artisan that bring these materials to the surface. 



I had a couple of video interviews this past week for jobs. It’s hard to tell sometimes if you’re being invited to express a free opinion as a consultant, or if you’re being considered for an actually-open position. No matter. You have to dress the part. That means putting on a tie, and something serious.img_3108

Like a pinstriped business apron.  My mother had the idea several months ago, when she pointed out that in the 1800s, before the factory floor did away with them, that serious-minded artisans and master makers often wore ties to show their professionalism (and their membership in various trade organizations, too), and aprons over their work apparel. Part of it was that the economic and political revolutions of the 1800s had made work clothes and business clothes more or less synonymous.  Everyone wore more or less the same designs of shirts, jackets, coats — the industrialization of the printing of patterns affected all of the classes together (chances are, most armchair historians have never thought about the way that women on the frontier had to make their own patterns, and not just their own dresses; or that they were stuck with the styles of clothes they’d brought with them. Have you ever made a pattern from an existing piece of clothing? I have — it’s relatively easy; and some of it boils down to taking a worn garment apart quite carefully, tracing the shapes of the pieces onto paper or even directly onto new fabric, and then cutting and assembling carefully. Before the advent of photography, think about the level of commitment and care and memory this required!

img_3110No matter… I have the Internet.  I must have looked at dozens of apron designs before selecting mine.  I made a pattern, figured out the fabric I wanted to use —  bright jewel-tone blue for the backing, and some serious gray pinstripes for the front.  I figured this was a good way to show off my interest in color theory, and to demonstrate a commitment to good artisanry.

Any good business costume should have a pocket close to the heart.  I put my businesslike apron’s fabric to work by cutting a square of fabric out, and applying it counter to the pattern, with horizontal stripes contrasting against the vertical stripes of the pinstripes.  This pocket was the hardest to make, and taught me a great deal about making dedicated pockets for pens, pencils and bone folders (a bookbinding tool), which always seem to go missing at the worst possible moment during a project.

The waist pockets were less specifically dedicated to particular tools.  I wanted them large enough to let my hands go in them easily, and I wound up setting up eight pockets in the waist of various sizes. Some are large enough, and deep enough, for a pair of full-size fabric scissors; others will only hold a bobbin, if I’m changing thread colors often.  Here you can see the jewel tones of the back side of the apron.img_3118

Once the pockets are attached, it’s time to zipper-stitch lickety-split the back and front together, neck strap and waist ties inside, right sides together. The result, an apron — a sort-of three-dimensional garment assembled out of essentially flat materials like fabric.  Turn the work, poke out the corners, press… voila. An apron.

It’s funny. I think about the number of times that former students complained about getting sawdust on their nice clothes, or having oil or grease from a tool or from a project on their hands.  How nice it would have been to have a place to wash it, to smear it, to remove it; or to remove the sweat from your hands when you’re sawing a board or planing a chair leg, or carving a stamp for leather or paper.  I should have had the students make aprons. They could have personalized and kept them, or made them in general purpose ways for the use of the students that came after them.  They’re an important part of a workshop’s culture, and they have a place and purpose in them — not a noble and glorious purpose, so to speak, but a proper place in the world, nonetheless.

Because there is something important about dressing the part you intend to play in the world — and not simply looking the part, but playing the part, and being the part.  If you’re going to be a Maker, or more than that, an artisan, it’s beneficial to know your tools well enough that you can use them to make yourself look good… you know, like a professional in pinstripes.


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