It takes a while to truly feel at home in a new space, right? When I moved in to my current space last October, I was deep in production with two big projects–Tiny Diner restaurant and Bing Nursery School. I got the keys, immediately filled the space up with fresh harvest and was weaving like crazy. I seriously didn’t even unpack until December. I had big dreams for the space, but just wasn’t able to get to it right away. This Winter, I spent a lot of energy nesting in here–mapping it out in terms of workflow and function, making room for a perfect balance of work and life to occur, and awakening it to (hopefully) reflect the bright tone of CHEERIUP. As a one woman operation, the process has been slow. There’s still lots left to do, but it’s really feeling quite right in here now. I might even host a party soon…
I'm often asked, “How did you start doing this?!” I’m always initially surprised by how impressed folks seem to be by CHEERIUP. While being all-consuming and tremendously difficult, making these structures and building this business has always “felt” right to me. That said, as I go through telling the story of how I changed the whole trajectory of my life to start this, there are always two parallel trains of thought going through my mind: 1) Whoa. I have accomplished A LOT by myself in this, and 2) I’m clearly bananas for doing this.
In all my previous work–ceramics, fashion retail, graphic design, art direction, branding, new product development, creative direction, academia–there were always big questions for me about the work. Questions about it’s purpose, about it’s quality, it’s culture, it’s ethics. I chalked it up to being a critical thinker and a “deep diver.” (When I get inspired, I dive deeply into every nook and cranny of the topic. This can be kiiiiiiind of annoying to be around.) In hindsight, I realize I was always restless. But every day with CHEERIUP, I access skills and truths I learned from those various roles, disciplines, and industries. I realize it was all leading me here.
In 2009 I had a baby, something I never thought I’d do. Like so many Mothers, I was blind-sighted by the hugeness of it all. Pregnancy, birth, postpartum depression, sleep deprivation–it exploded my self and my entire world into bits high up into the air. And when things fell back down again, they settled in a very different, but very true configuration. I had clarity of self, clarity of purpose. First ring of truth: I knew I had to stay at home to nurture this inspiring little creature vs. go back to work. That was one of the best, but most challenging choices of my life–simultaneously very dark and blissfully bright. I lost friends and colleagues, but eventually gained truer and deeper relationships with new friends and future collaborators. I also gained crucial insight to my future clients–primarily Mothers of young children. As a compulsive maker, the creative frustration I felt during those two + years as a SAHM was deep. Then came my iPhone 4s, which our then 9 month old daughter learned to use all on her own, and coincidentally, I’d started reading Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” where he talks about “the staggering divide between children and the outdoors.” Lastly, mix in my own preexisting snobbery for natural materials (way too much plastic in kids’ lives) and finally learning to knit after decades of unsuccessfully trying. I was inspired to try to “knit” my daughter an outdoor play dwelling with found vines and saplings.
I started hunting for material to weave this “wigwam” out of via Craigslist ads and FB messages. People were SO excited to support me. It was kind of overwhelming. This was the first taste I had of CHEERIUP’s momentum. Some Design friends offered to let me come cut some TALL sumac from their yard. My adventurous and ever supportive hubby was thrilled to help tie those 10-12 ft saplings to the top of our hatchback and drive them across town. Over the next six months, I’d steal away a couple hours here and there when the baby was napping or off with Papa, weaving this giant thing in our backyard. It was empowering, therapeutic, and oddly logical. Clover (my daughter) was STOKED about the entire process too. It really felt like we were doing it together. When the original “Thicket” was finally done, I wasn’t. The more time we spent in it, the more inspired I was to make another one. I began putting together a plan, a life-changing (and clearly bananas) plan.
Today is a very Minnesotan April Fool’s day: it’s snowing and 21 degrees. After most of the snow around the Twin Cities has melted, it can be especially disappointing to folks here who’ve already shifted their expectations towards Spring living. Mukluks and all woolens have probably been packed away with ritualistic rebellion as if to say, “Winter, we are DONE.” I’ve learned not to do that anymore. It makes mornings like this sad–where I have to don wool socks, arm warmers, and sensible boots. Instead, I plan on keeping the studio teapot busy while I/we snuggle under the sheepskin and do “computer work,” of catching up on emails and finally blawging.
With this work, I’m truly a slave to the whim of the seasons. But I love it. (I say this, as my harvesting plans for this week may now be thwarted. We’ll see how grateful of this servitude I am in May) It sounds super corny, but I love being tuned-in with the natural world. Stepping to the pace of it’s cycles and meeting it’s deadlines–there’s a balance to all of it that feels right. And it’s not an even balance nor a steady pace. Here in MN (and in Georgia, where I grew up) it tends to be pretty extreme. I love how it challenges me to stay open, flexible, and nimble. I love how it determines the flow of my work. Here's a year in the life of CHEERIUP:
Winter: Deeeeep hibernation, rest, family and friends, a compact existence, incubation of and experimentation with new ideas, weaving on a very small scale or of indoor Thickets, spiffing up the studio, and planning planning planning. It starts out very physical, very much about repairing and balancing my body. Then finishes in a very heady way, with so much mental energy towards planning for Spring, Summer, and Fall. By the end (now), I feel like I've over thought just about every aspect of my business.
Spring: Action, harvesting, preparation, building, connecting with clients and my “good crew” of seasonal helpers. April (and May) tend to be SO intense. It’s filled with the pent-up energy from the end of Winter, ready to do do do. The tendency is to start running, but MN Winter is never quite done until May, so harvesting is a lot of hurry-up and wait. (It’s especially tough for my out-of-state clients who are READY for their Spring Thickets.)
Summer: MAKING, weaving, building, harvesting, coordinating, traveling, connecting with clients (one of my favorite aspects of this work). It’s a wonderfully social time, but also physical exhausting. The pace is non-stop. I sleep GREAT in the Summer. Not a lot of space for thinking, it’s aaaaaaaaall doing. This is why I spend so much time planning during Winter.
Fall: This looks a lot like Summer, actually. It’s the last big push of outdoor Thicket production and installation. It’s also the last chance to harvest as much willow as possible to get through any indoor Winter production. The harvesting during this time can really get bananas. I’m starting to get really exhausted by this point, but it’s also very energizing in terms of having been able to first-hand witness the joy of my clients as they meet their Thickets.
During the weaving process, I'm generally bending 50-70# of sticks a day. It's tough on the hands and wrists, but it's also a full body effort. I'm often throwing my entire weight into twisting and pulling sticks that are most often longer than I am tall. It usually leaves me pretty physically beat by the end of the day. But I've had so much energy on this project. I'm convinced it's due to the 1) tremendously nurturing environment here at Bing and 2) these amazing kids.
Engaging with the young kids who will eventually inhabit the Thickets has been one of my favorite aspects of this work. I'm always up for answering questions, finding ways they can help and/or experiment with parts of the process, or making space for them to just hang out and watch. But doing so here at Bing, in a child-centered learning environment, where the attitude is open and trusting, where experiential learning and process–however messy, imperfect, and non-linear it is–are embraced, has been phenomenally fun. Note to self: figure out how CHEERIUP can partner with young kids in settings like this more often in the future.
The fun and joy is also mixed with twangs of sadness: I miss my own little one SO much. (Or as she'd say, "Really, really, really, really, really, reeeeeeeeealy a lot.") She'll be here in just two days! And I can't wait for her to experience this place. I keep wondering which kids will she connect with? Which Teachers? Which area of the yard will she gravitate towards first? Right before pick-up time Friday, I met a little one who somehow hadn't visited me and the Thicket before. She was the first child who was very much like my own, in terms of personality, maturity, temperament, and fashion sense. And she was STOKED to tell me how her Birthday was the next day. (My girl just had her Birthday) I wonder if they'll be friends...
Okay, less saying and more seeing...
*A note on privacy: It's my hope to respect the privacy of the kiddos here as much as possible, which is why you'll mainly see kid's backs, heads, and hands. But if you feel at all uncomfortable with the way your child has been represented here, please email me and I'll gladly remove the image immediately. Thanks!
Every time I say this out loud, I knock on wood: "My clients are each uniquely amazing and inspiring." I'm truly charmed to be connecting with each and every one of them through this work. My current client is so incredible, they've inspired me to finally start blogging for CHEERIUP. Here goes...
PRETEXT: When CHEERIUP was featured in the New York Times, I received many incredible inquiries, but two in particular were so powerful they literally brought tears to my eyes. One was from Jennifer Winters, the Director of Bing Nursery School at Stanford University. She requested three Thickets for Bing, one for each of the three half-acre green space yards of each of the three preschool rooms. (Yup. Each classroom has it's own half-acre of green space to play in.) We ended up having an energetic chat about kids in Thickets and all that happens at Bing. It was an instant connection.
From my own nerding-out on Early Childhood research as a parent, I knew of Bing. It's a place where early childhood development has been researched and honored since the 1960's. Many of the major pieces of research in child development, known throughout the world, have been conducted at Bing Nursery School. Alongside the research, thoughtful design has always been honored at Bing–from the tools, toys, materials, and furnishings in the classroom to the architectural and landscape design of it's environment. Their philosophy inspires me as a parent and aligns with my own, in terms of my own child's education. To be invited to make a footprint here, in these open and free yards, is a tremendous honor and deeply affirming. Sigh.
NOW: After months of planning, and harvesting, and weaving, I'm finally here in Palo Alto, California. Tomorrow I start my first official day constructing the "West" classroom's Thicket. I toured the grounds today to assess site logistics. I'm already overwhelmed with every nook and cranny of this dreamy place, and it's not even inhabited by humans yet. (Although there are plenty of chickens and bunnies!) This place is bursting with a high level of intention, honor, and care–from the current community here, and from decades of folks who've dedicated themselves to the magic moment of early childhood. I'm excited to share my experience working with them. And I'm THRILLED my own daughter will be coming to visit and get to soak up a bit of this special time and place.