Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Art of Making Art

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly artistic person. I can’t draw a straight line to save my life; my attempts at a self-portrait are barely recognizable as human, never mind as myself; and the only thing I’d ever be able to sculpt from a lump of clay would be, well, a lump of clay. I do, however, consider myself to be creative. And there are two places where I consider myself most creative: at the stove and at the sewing machine.

Although I generally like projects that require precision, I dislike the need for perfect accuracy in baking, so my kitchen exploits have always leaned more toward cooking than baking. Baking involves chemical reactions and balanced equations, and a bit too much of this or not quite enough of that changes not just the taste but the texture, and indeed the entire composition. You can’t just “play with” the amount of baking soda or salt or butter in a pastry recipe and come out with a good result.

Cooking, in contrast, allows the chef a huge amount of creative freedom. Recipe calls for shallots but you don’t have any? Throw in some onions, maybe some scallions, whatever you happen to have on hand that sounds good. Like it spicy? Go ahead, double the Tabasco. Got a more delicate palate? Scant that tablespoon of chili powder. Leave out what’s not to your taste, add things that aren’t called for but that sound interesting, test and taste and fiddle and create.

My favorite cooking category for creativity is soup. I rarely use a recipe for soup. I pretty much start with a basic idea, perhaps “chicken soup” or “bean soup,” so I pour some chicken or beef broth into a pot and start adding whatever I have on hand that sounds good. Some vegetables, some meat, some pasta, some herbs. The problem is that I usually keep thinking of more and more good things to add, and although the final result is invariably delicious, there also tends to be a lot more of it than I intended by the time I’m done.

This weekend I discovered that making a hat is very much like making soup: You start with a general idea, but then you look around you and keep finding wonderful additions, and you end up with a delicious concoction but one that is quite different – and significantly more voluminous – than your initial idea.

The reason I was making a hat is that my husband and I were attending a Kentucky Derby party. We had attended the party last year, and it included a competition for the best hat. My hat had been one of the winners. 

That particular hat was intended to be tall, voluminous, and bold. I knew I would have a tough time outdoing myself in terms of sheer size, so I decided to take a totally different direction and make a funky but petite fascinator. I poked around my sewing table and came up with a piece of fake leather that I had bought to make a grill cover that I could use for a base. A few more minutes of poking unearthed some lime green chiffon left over from a Tinkerbell costume I had made for my daughter a few years ago. I made a couple of small chiffon florets and stitched them to the base, but although the color was striking, the overall effect was a bit dull. So I dug out a few fancy buttons I had cut off an old, worn-out dress and added them to the flower centers. Better, but still too two-dimensional. I needed a bit of architectural structure. Perhaps some brightly colored pipe cleaners? A quick forage through my kids’ art drawer yielded only brown pipe cleaners, and once curled they didn’t have the height or visual interest I had in mind. One brief Google search and one trip to the recycling bin later and I was cutting an empty water bottle into a spiral, covering it with ruched fabric, twisting it into a funky coil, and stapling it on.

My creation was beginning to earn the name of “fascinator,” but it wasn’t quite done yet. It needed some kind of backdrop behind the plastic coil, so I dug back through my fabric bag, coming up with some bits of green and white tulle. I zipped them through the sewing machine, stapled them on, and surveyed my work. It was coming together, but something was still lacking: color. The fabric was bright and eye-catching, but it needed some contrast. I had learned many years ago in a theatrical costuming class about a concept called a “poison color.” A poison color is a small splash of contrasting, even clashing, color that sets off everything around it. A bright blue dress might have a vivid orange sash as its poison color; a pale pink shawl could be held in place with a deep emerald brooch. I needed a solid contrast to my acid green. Yet another trip to my craft drawers unearthed one of the red roses that had graced last year’s hat – perfect for the Run for the Roses! And right alongside it were a few black and white feathers from last year. In for a penny, in for a pound – three or four staples later, and I had my poison. My petite, graceful, feminine, delicate fascinator was complete!

Well, okay, it was neither petite nor delicate. But it was graceful and feminine. And cool. And much like my results when I make soup, it was unlike anything I have ever made before, and I don’t think I could recreate it if I tried. But it was wonderful in its uniqueness. And in its creativity. I suppose, if you were feeling generous, you could even call it art.

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