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…
The original Thicket was positively dreamy. Clover and I hung out in it every day, reading books, nursing, napping, eating lunch, playing, waiting for the birds to land on the willow above us, listening to wind rush through the giant Maple leaves overhead. It also became the place where we’d retreat to during those volatile days in the life of a very assertive and expressive 2-3 year old. Whenever she’d get flooded with those high level emotions, we’d slowly walk out to the Thicket and just let it aaaaaaaaaaall out. It helped both of us calm down. It was such a comfort having this nurturing, safe spot to go do this “work” in. It became a healthy habit–of knowing it was okay to have those strong emotions and of developing the understanding that they would indeed pass.
During the warm Spring and Summer nights, Dan and I would escape to the Thicket after her bedtime as often as we could. We’d bring out candles, cocktails, and the baby monitor. (the latter was a bit of buzz kill at times) Those nights were magical. As new parents, we needed that time together. And Dan is such an incredible dreamer himself, our conversations in the Thicket often turned towards the blossoming CHEERIUP scheme. Every night out there, I wanted to figure out how more folks could experience this nurturing space. Who were they? How would I reach them? How on earth could I make these over and over again?
I began putting together a plan, talking to as many folks as I could about the viability of this as a business, making tiny prototypes, and researching how to scale up the entire process. If I was going to do this, it wasn’t going to be a hobby. And I’m too fixated on utilitarianism to just make pretty things. (Form follows function!) I remember being shocked that no one else had created a accessible “product” like this in the US. (Of course, there are fine artists doing public art peices or super high-end commissions to celebrity clients. And Judith Needham makes romantic woven playhouses in the UK) All natural materials, beautiful, human scale, sustainable, safe, hand-woven, etc. A simple and timely idea, it seemed like a “Duh” to me. The more I talked about it with people and hinted at it in my social media, the more momentum it picked up. Before I’d even gotten my first studio space, I had my first paying client and some local press in the works. I remember getting an email on my phone from someone at Martha Stewart Living while putting the baby down for the night. My website wasn’t even done at that point! And year one continued at that light speed pace, I barely kept up and couldn’t slow it down. I'm still catching up.
But I also remember the moment I realized WHY no one has done this before: it’s kiiiiiiiind of bananas. It requires a level of patience, tenacity, and endurance I'm pretty sure I learned during childbirth. It was after 8-9 months of driving around MN, countless cold calling and emailing to all kinds of Minnesotans who may/may not have access to wild willow–I’d finally made a connection with someone to do a large scale wildcrafted harvest, and it was in a very unexpected place. It took 9 months to a year, just to get a foothold on sourcing the raw materials for this work. (See? Kiiiiiiiind of bananas.)
It’s been beyond difficult to figure out and sustain this operation, almost impossible actually. Creatively, technically, and business-wise, it’s been a LOT to invent and solve all at once. There is no model for this: no “stick weaving” degree to attain; no industry standard for shipping weird, large, HEAVY hand-made items across the country; and certainly no standard process to respectfully wildcraft native plants here in MN at this scale. Most folks would have given up by now, certainly most business-minded folks anyway. But I also know, more than I’ve ever known–this is what I’m supposed to be doing. That's not to say I've answered all the questions, but I'm no longer fundamentally restless. And with every hiccup or failed experiment, a louder opportunity swoops in to egg me on. I try to really notice those too, to notice where the energy I’m putting forth grows and where it stalls.
Every facet of this work (well, maybe not insurance and taxes) taps into the things that make me the happiest: making, learning, working hard, cultivating social relationships, playing, teaching, designing, feeling, experimenting, inventing, and connecting with the natural world. And every time I make a Thicket for someone and witness how it activates them on a basic, sensory level–when they reach to touch it, comment on how it smells, widen their eyes, smile brightly, and just kind of soften overall– I’m reminded that function and beauty are not separate. The magical space a Thicket creates is valuable. Beauty and delight on a physical level, are necessary to our daily human life and a lot of us CRAVE that right now. I’m so lucky to be doing this work. And for the first time in my life (!), I wholeheartedly feel proud of this “art” skill I have.
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!