Category Archives: Book Review

purposeful crafting.

I love a flea market.  Used book sales.  Thrift stores.  And most especially, my local reuse center SCRAP.  We also have the grand dame of Northern California antique fairs at Alameda Point (first Sunday of the month).  Even if I’m making something with new supplies, I often add in a bit of old paper.  I feel like it anchors the piece in a wholly different time.  I also have crates of old books, vintage notions, and chipped plates all just waiting for divine inspiration.  Enter Blair Stocker’s new book, Wise Craft.


Stocker, Blair.

Wise Craft:Wise Craft front panel

Turning Thrift Store Finds, Fabric Scraps, and Natural Objects into Stuff You Love.

184pp.  Running Press, 2014. $20.

ISBN-10: 0762449691

ISBN-13: 978-0762449699

DDC 745.5

This soft-bound volume is jam-packed with ideas on resuscitating old things.  Its’ cover brings handicraft right into modern: embossed title cut from fabric and scraps, subtitle in a cursive chalk, author’s name on a garment label.  There are several tutorials simply illustrated by Lisa Congdon.  The book is well-indexed, and has a host of templates to help you complete the projects as seen.  Blair also recommends a crafter’s toolkit.  It’s a curated list that many people should have no trouble rounding up.  The book is arranged by season, though many projects could overlap.  I relish when cookbooks organize by season, and I can see why Blair takes this approach as we all go through seasons of creativity and making distinctly related to weather, light, and materials.

I find that the process of creating something new from a tired or neglected item makes it feel more special, more intentional.  I am not militantly “green” or obsessed with thrift.  I just find that creating original pieces from gathered goods gives me a more personal connection to my surroundings and environment.  It establishes a sense of value: of place, of family, of personal history.                          -Blair Stocker

Each of the 60 projects begins with a brief, but personal description; I enjoy knowing why and how a person was inspired to make something.  Some of Blair’s projects are very simple and easy for the new-to-crafting type.  This might be frustrating for the more seasoned DIY-er, but I prefer to see these seeds as starting points: how can I make that silhouette leather coaster more interesting for me (who loves to emboss/stitch leather).  The book is appropriate for all level of crafter.

Spring for Blair means cleaning and tidying, and the inspiration to make new things.  This chapter has home décor items like personalized statement dishes—easily accomplished with the right china marker, and a recycled flower mirror (the mirror frame has been embellished with soft fibers and felts cut into leaves and blossoms) that has me wracking my brain to remember where I tucked away those old sweaters I was saving for something special.  She made a series of glittered art wall pieces that features the Stocker Family made-up words.  I instantly thought of a short-list of words and phrases that would look great in glitterati for our house.

Summer, in the words of Blair, “is the peak season for garage sales.”  And when I saw her woven chair back, I was awed.  There are so many times when I pass up rattan or caned chairs because I’m slightly intimidated by the brittle material.  But this chair boasts a fresh seat and colorful woven backrest.  When I recently walked through Salvation Army, I heavily contemplated a gorgeous old chair with an upholstered seat, and a weathered rattan back.  I need to go back; I’m committed to trying something similar.

Fall is my favorite season–aside from that one holiday ALL arachnophobes loathe, therefore I do not decorate with webs or plastic creepies.  I stick to owls and ravens, pumpkins and bats.  So Blair’s spooky dishes are perfect for me.  Sweet, vintage plates with a seasonal surprise.  Even a drawing from a child—a mean pumpkin face or a grimacing candy corn—can be scanned and decaled onto a thrifted piece of china.   Also, the book features a tabletop garden that, even though it is spring right now, makes me want to renovate my current terrarium with rocks, sticks and driftwood.  It features three lonely succulents.  I tried to cajole my boys into a nature walk/treasure hunt for the purpose of terrarium adornments.  I have two sticks to show for it.  To be fair, they did present me with two stolen flower heads—one with a missing petal, and a feather that was supremely battered.  The flowers died by bedtime, and the feather is missing in action.  I think another walk is in order, but for now it looks like this:


Another classic project from the book is the miniature faux taxidermy mounted in deep shadowboxes.  I adore shadowboxes.  The hard part is editing what goes into them, and this project has inspired me to keep it simple.  Blair’s shadowbox trio features a single, perched, plumed bird—fake, of course—and a simple, scripted label which is an opportunity to practice your calligraphy or old-school cursive.  Maybe even ask your fourth-grader to pen it out for you.  Where am I at with this project? I have three shadowbox candidates.  I have sticks and dowels for perches.  But I do not have acceptable faux birds.  And even though I’m inspired by Blair’s simple, vintage birds, I haven’t found any remotely natural-looking.  I got lost in an internet rabbit-hole searching for fabric bird tutorials.  And I now have two books on bird-making headed in my direction.

While this book has jump-started several ideas and 50% complete projects, I do have one start-to-finish to share: the bead-bombed tote bag.  Blair made hers from a woebegone tablecloth.  I used a piece of vintage fabric that I’ve been saving for twenty years.  Twenty.  I am so glad to have put this piece of fabric to use!  Further, I live in San Francisco, where reusable bags are a requirement for all shopping (or pay a bag fee, and live with the scrutiny).  I have many bags for the grocery shopping, but I like to have separate ones for the library or new sweaters.  Enter this tote.  I followed Blair’s instructions from start to finish.  I think this is a note-worthy comment since I usually see a picture, and try to wing it.  But, for the purpose of this review, the instructions are clearly written, and yield a great, sturdy tote.  Mine is lined with a medium weight canvas (per instructions) that should support a load from the library, or a long day at the flea market.  In the spirit of making it mine, I added a simple pocket, off-centered for  right-hand wear, for keys and phone.  I started a small patch of beading on the reverse side.  It adds a bit of interest to the old fabric.  I am not sure how it will wear.  I considered sewing the beads in place, but for now, the fabric glue is completely invisible, and the beads are staying put!

beaded tote  bloom for wisecraft

Like the rest of us artists and makers, winter is a scramble to create holiday gifts, décor, cards, and treats, and if you live in reach of polar vortexes, major efforts to stay cozy.  Thus many of Blair’s winter projects are of the felted and fleeced variety.  My favorite from this chapter is a remix of the spring flower mirror, simplified into a single bloom brooch.  (I added one spring-like flower to the strap/bag intersection of my tote!)  This is the perfect, speedy gift for teachers and cousins. It would be a beautiful gift embellishment, or grace a bottle of wine or craft beer.  Or make a collection for your caroling group.  The thing I love most about this idea is that I’m thinking about it NOW, in May.  So I can spend the next few weeks hunting for tartans and plaids when no one else cares.  I feel ahead of the holidays already!

You can find Blair in all her handmade glory at:

Thanks, Blair Stocker, for crafting a book that presses into service all those special cast-offs I’ve been saving for just the right project.

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Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
—Arthur Ashe

or as my Grandmother used to say:

Make do.

You can find out more about me in the tab above, but in a nutshell, I am endlessly fascinated with art, craft, and creativity books. I own many, borrow many, and devour them all. I have found that I am collecting them more than making from them, and this site is in part to change that habit. In the spirit of appreciation for the authors/artists, I am reading the books cover to cover. Truly reading every word. And then, I am making! I will aim to create at least one share-able piece from each book I review. Please join me on this journey through the Dewey Decimal 700s (and spots beyond).

I’m beginning with a book by Carla Sonheim for a few reasons: 1) I met her and bought a small piece of her art in Portland several years ago, and I found her to be grounded and patient despite the chaos of the art fair. 2) This book, published four years ago, encourages the “just start” motto. And 3) pen and paper seem like step one for beginning. Pen to paper. No fancy supplies, no fresh journal to worry about, no adhesives or temperamental watercolors; all things I love and will delve into, but for now: pen to paper:

Drawing Lab

Sonheim, Carla.
Drawing Lab for Mixed Media Artists:
Creative Exercises to Make Drawing Fun.
Illustrated. 144pp. Quarry Books, 2010. $22.99
ISBN-10: 1592536131
ISBN-13: 978-1592536139
DDC 745.5

From Quarry Book’s Lab Series, Carla Sonheim presents a playful collection of 52 drawing exercises to keep the practice simple, get you started, and see interesting and unusual results. Her materials list is brief to allow for the use-what-you-have, do-what-you-can approach. Each prompt contains a materials list, a notable quotation, some examples from Carla or a contributor, step by step instructions, and—my favorite, a few suggestions for taking the prompt further. These ideas are where everyone will gain more mileage from the book—as they push beyond the typical drawing assignments—along with your own trial and experimentation. The book also contains a diverse selection of contributing artists, and a short-list of Carla’s favorite books on drawing and creativity.

Her “Taking It Further” suggestions are a step away from what you might expect of typical drawing primers. For example, a drawing standard for warming up are blind contour drawings: easy, loose, non-judgmental. Carla suggests this technique with a twist: layering several of the same subject. Her example yields a galumphing elephant with weight and movement, enhanced by simple orange highlights.

Another project that speaks to me is Lab #35: Drawing + Collage. This is an exercise where you select a fragment of a photo from a magazine, and add to it. Find an animal head, for example, and give it an alternative, out-of proportion, or multi-limbed reboot. I think this project would capture an elementary audience as well as a seasoned artist. I have seen similar renditions that are coltish and imaginative accomplished by children.

My favorite Sonheim prompt is to create a series of drawings using sidewalk cracks as inspiration. Akin to finding animal shapes in cloud formations, I think this prompt is endlessly fascinating. I see imaginary maps in many of the sidewalk cracks around my city, with lush islands of grass, and the occasional rogue poppy. This moment of focus on the ground underfoot is also a lesson in stopping to really look—a cornerstone in any art practice. It’s another exercise that can be done with all ages, with few tools, and endless source material. Carla’s featured illustration for this project is a series of weird animals, line-drawn, with contour shading and a bit of color for pop.

Sidewalk cracks. My city government is attentive to the condition of our sidewalks. Severely cracked squares are often marked, and repair or replacement is a homeowner requirement. The first afternoon I went out with camera in hand, I was almost disappointed with the pristine condition of our walks! But, I found a few with nice marbling. And, to my equal delight and shame, I had several fractured rectangles on the margins of my own house! Best to draw them now before the City paints a yellow scald for me to repair.

I drew a half-dozen creatures from the fractures I found, and played a bit with coloring pencil to give them life. But then I struck upon some old Letraset vellum and rolls of washi tape, and I like the result much better. They aren’t the anthropomorphized versions of Carla Sonheim’s, but they interest me all the same.
This exercise can be applied to all kinds of man-made distress. I spotted a patch of peeling paint which took on map-like qualities for me: a truncated, Florida-less outline of North America, France—squished. Ireland, largely out of proportion with the other two shapes. All this richness on a wall of aged orange paint or a broken dilapidated square on concrete.  Here are three of  my sidewalk crack drawings:
sidewalk crack 1193  sidewalk crack 2194 sidewalk crack 3195

After reading through the book, I caught myself seeing a great deal more in my surroundings: the sidewalks tufted with weeds, a bristly ranunculus bulb, a tall stadium light that begged to be drawn blindly. I felt encouraged to just try. So I blindly drew my sunglasses and a tea cup. I drew alien sidewalk creatures. I took more pictures than I did the week previous—all in the spirit of looking and focusing. This book lives at my house; I expect I’ll pull it out more often when I need a reminder that drawing should be fun.

For more about Carla, visit her website at She offers several “live” and self-paced on-line classes and tutorials on her website, as well as an up-to-date blog. The classes and e-books are a diverse range from drawing and watercolor to silly “Blobimals” and cereal box paper dolls.
Carla has published several books, including a new book on photography with her husband Steve Sonheim that I plan to review here soon.

the beginning.

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