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Nothing was ever good enough for Grandma Laura. She had a sort of creative obsessive-compulsive disorder, a tinkering impulse that she’d take out on any object in her sight that was “straight out of the box.” Every plain sweater, every piece of ormolu porcelain, needed at least a dash of alteration to fit her ideas — every scrap of fine lace, every salesman’s sample of gimp, every leftover button represented the possibility that these bland objects the world was responsible for could be made right.
Looking back on it, it sounds like my Grandmother was the opposite of a Shaker: someone who embellished with a righteous zeal.
It’s not that she was sophisticated — she painted a single painting in her life, a bowl of perfect, perhaps wax, fruit in a brassy footed bowl, bourgeois with bossing, on black velvet. The frame was crazy gold baroque: a very respectable painting for a 50s New York apartment: that arrangement was DONE. The painting was formulaic and still without being peaceful, but it conveyed her restlessless and her satisfaction with her own handiwork. We looked idly at it while scampering to put on our winter coats, or while coming in to that ochre apartment redolent of homemade chicken stock.
It seemed to us, as artists in training, that there was no interest in process in the person who’d painted that still life (to us as to the Dutch, “still life” meant “dead”). It wasn’t about learning or getting better at something, or a skill at all: she needed a piece for that spot of hallway and so she’d made it. Simple.
Nothing fancy: Grandma’s creative impulse was irrepressible and endlessly inventive.
The pendant above is a perfect example. Sure, she glued a bunch of seashells and a scrap of coral (dead animal alert!) together to make a huge chunk of necklace that fit in perfectly in the 70s. The brass fish at bottom was plundered from some other less fortunate bauble, and bereft forever of beads or some smaller things that used to hang from its belly, now a series of empty wire eyes. And I am fairly sure that the hole at top through which the chain went was poked with an impatient pencil. But to give it substance, she built this monstrosity on a base consisting of an orange-brown prescription medicine bottle melted in the oven (on tinfoil). That crinkly edge is an organic reminder of that vital step: simulaneously “make do” and alchemy, trash transmuted into gold.
It’s hideous, of course, but you could buy hideous at any jewelry counter back then. This one, she MADE. I remember her showing off to us, before dinner one evening, a series of these, some of them using several bottles and no shells, organic looking, orange and brown and enormous. Each was more baroque than the last, and also broken: now it seems she foresaw just how much too far recycling could go.
Perhaps the enamel compact she converted to a locket (at left) is more timeless. (My family’s in that tight and dented box). The piece looks bound, contained, and therefore less frightening, but it didn’t occur to her to cut the photos in any way that would conceal her handiwork. Best of all, as a matte for the upper photo, she cut from an existing greeting card: look closely for traces of blue ball point cursive smudged behind thick layers of glue. (Her husband has been hastily added in on the lower panel, as if he’s a photo on the wall behind my mother and sister).
My sister and I took away different lessons and sensibilities from Grandma’s joyous overuse of Duco cement, which today you’d call “craft.” Her eye, her enthusiasm, her originality, I’d like to think we inherited.
But my grandmother’s crafts will never be surpassed — or even replicated — because her work was never about the finish: but about the DONE.