Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Save the Art Department!

I was both disgusted and saddened this week to learn that the Lakeville school system that I once attended as a 7th through 12th grader is talking about cutting the art department due to budget cuts.  Not trim, but completely cut.

Things like this make me furious, not just because art is at the core of my career, my passion, and my life, but because it is yet more evidence of the pure ignorance and lack of respect that the art and design field receives from the general public...those who interact with artists' and designers' output nearly every moment of every day.  So many people have no idea that artists can enter very well respected and well paying careers.  And part of that problem, is that the schools themselves, designed to prepare children for life after school, don't show respect for this field.  Music and the arts always seem to be the first thing that school boards cut when money is tight.  These school years are when it is most important to get this message across...when young kids are at the age where they are exploring their own natural gifts and passions, and making decisions about their own careers.

Not all artists are "starving."  And not all artists only make paintings.  I could go on and on about the subject, and if you are a designer yourself, chances are you've come across these scenarios in your own life and are as frustrated as me.  One of my high school art teachers reached out to my family in hopes that we could write a few words to the school board in support of the art program.  I've copied my letter below...if any of you fellow artists or designers out there would care to add your own arguments for the art department, feel free to comment, or email me for an address where you can send a letter to everyone on the Lakeville school board!

Dear Lakeville School Board Members,

Nineteen years ago I entered the Lakeville school system through McGuire Jr. High as the awkward “new girl” in the 7th grade. I was one of those kids who was always picked last for teams in gym class.  From 7th grade on, I was bullied and picked on throughout much of the rest of my schooling.  However, one thing enabled me to hold on to my sense of pride, accomplishment, and self-esteem, and that was art. 

As a kid who earned good grades but was not the greatest in sports, I DID excel in the arts.  Art class was my one solace that got me through the school day.   When I walked through the door to my art room, I was entering MY world: my escape from the teasing and bullies...the one area of the school where I could stand tall, stop looking over my back, and do what I did best…where I could be myself and I was GOOD at it.  As I became engulfed in my projects, I was able to block out everything else, boost my spirits to get through the remainder of the day.  I learned to find pride and self esteem through my own inner gifts, not by cutting other people down.

So what about AFTER high school?  What is the big deal about art, anyway?  Don’t artists just make paintings that hang on the walls of stuffy museums, where only the elite art critics can afford them and interpret the meaning behind them?  Art adorned walls are not among Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so we really don’t NEED art to live, do we? After all, most artists are “struggling” or “starving,” right?  That is what so many people believe, but these people have no idea how many careers stem from art and how it impacts EVERYONE on a daily basis.

So many schools offer huge scholarships for their local sports stars.  The Lakeville Sr High School art department pulled together a $200 scholarship, which was awarded to me my senior year.  The work that the art department put into raising that money meant more to me than any big donor’s contribution could. I went straight on to college where I majored in Graphic Design for a couple years, ultimately graduating with honors from The Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial design.

Industrial design is one of the many, many highly respected and even well-paying professions that people don’t realize that artists can enter, and many don’t even realize exists.  Industrial designers play a part in the creation of nearly every physical object created.  They design everything from the car you drive to work, the desk you sit in, to the pen in your hand.  They design the shoes that your basketball players wear, and the helmets that protect your football players’ heads. So far in my career, I have spent time designing everything from products themselves, to the graphics that represent them, the packages they are sold in, the store fixtures they are displayed on, and the overall retail environments they reside in. Today I run three of my own successful businesses, all using my artistic skills. But I am only one small example of a where art classes can launch a Lakeville student.  I am also a mother of two, and I know for certain that if the art department were cut entirely from their school, we would take them elsewhere.

Art classes give to creative students what sports give to athletic students. Art, to an artist, is just like any field to someone who is passionate about it…it is an enormous part of what defines them.  And when you send a message that art is expendable, you send a message that they and their future success too, are expendable.

The thought that a creative and artistic student could enter and exit the Lakeville school system without ever realizing their full potential is devastating.  Not just for the student, but for the community as well.  I hope that for the sake of your students’ futures, you will strongly consider continuing your art program in any way possible.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Gretchen Fleener, Class of 1997

Sunday, January 23, 2011

DIY Circus / Carnival Themed Birthday Party!

My baby boy just turned one.  While I am still in denial that my baby is 1, I did somehow manage to throw him a party.  It's tough to figure out what a kid likes at this age, so you kindof have to wing it when coming up with a theme.  Toby loves balloons, like I'm sure most toddlers do, so I thought a circus / carnival theme would be a good theme to bring in lots of bright colors and balloons.  I always like to start with the invitation...


I decided to make Toby's invitation in the form of a circus poster, with him being the star "act."  I used a mix of hand drawing and Photoshop to create the final design, which included an illustration of Toby eating cake and the description, "Witness the amazing 1 year old Toby as he devours an entire birthday cake right before your very eyes!" 

I splurged and spent a few bucks to have these printed at Kinko's on the larger 11" x 17" paper, since my standard letter sized paper just didn't give that poster effect.

I didn't want to fold them, but wanted to treat it like a real poster, so I rolled them up.  I took some empty cardboard tubes, left over from Christmas wrapping paper, and cut them into the right length to hold each poster.  Then I just slid the poster inside and folded the edges in to close off the tubes.
I made a little banner that read, "the Circus is coming to town," printed it on sticky paper, and stuck those around the tube to dress it up a bit.


I hung the usual crepe paper and some balloons, and cut out the letters to spell Toby's name using some construction paper.  You'd be surprised how many decorations you can make with a little construction paper!  I also hung several extra invitation posters around the house.

Then I remembered that I recently started carrying balloons and balloon pumps for clowns and balloon twisters in my Paintertainment shop, so I bought some from myself.  I looked up some how-to videos on YouTube for making balloon animals, and there are a LOT of them.  It was just a few minutes before I had a dog, a cat, and a couple swans.  (I also had a pretty cool flower that popped!)  I thought these would make cute decorations too, so I hung a few with thread from the light in the kitchen.  Toby LOVED watching them spin around as they hung from the ceiling, and I figured I could give them to the kids as they leave the party.


I didn't really do any "games" for Sammy's 1st birthday, because, well 1-year-olds are really too small to participate in games anyway.  But, since we had 6 cousins and 1 big brother at Toby's party, and most of them are old enough for games, I decided to do a pinata.

I made a circus tent pinata, which turned out cuter than I thought it would.  I actually did the paper mache part last summer, while I had all the supplies out doing Sammy's Thomas wagon for Halloween and his Thomas pinata. Multitasking at it's best!  I pulled it out closer to the party to paint it up and fill it with candy.  The flags are just construction paper glued to pieces of bamboo skewers, topped with a wood bead.  The balloons are construction paper with jewelry wire for strings, to make them "float."  I found some circus illustrations via Google Images that I glued around the edges, and a circus tent scene that I glued inside the tent "door" entrance.

The bottom has a trap door with one ribbon that opens it, along with many other ribbons that just come off when pulled.  Each kid gets to pull a ribbon until someone gets the one that dumps the candy!  Where to put the candy?  Why, in your goodie bags, of course...

I think moms have a love-hate relationship with the goodie bag.  Many times it is full of stuff that breaks or ends up in the trash once you get home.  When Sammy gets a goodie bag at a party, often times I'll stash away the little prizes and pull them out later as entertainment on a road trip, or while waiting at the doctor's office or a restaurant.

I tried to find a few little items to put in the bags, made my own labels with the kids' names on them, and then we used them mainly as a place for the kids' pinata winnings. Toby's party goodie bags included little stuffed elephants that I found in the dollar bins at Target, a couple suckers, and clown rubber balls & clown noses that I ordered online.
The clown noses actually ended up making for some pretty funny pictures of the kids!

I had to do a chocolate tunnel of fudge cake because, well,
A) I love chocolate cake,
B) Toby is 1; he couldn't care less what type of cake I baked, and
C) I'm the one who went through the hours of labor on his birth day.  See reason A.

I decorated it with colorful sprinkles, some cute balloon candles, and a little circus train cake decoration that my mom used to use on our cakes when my siblings and I were little.

I have another bundt pan that makes 6 little cakes, so I filled one cavity to make a miniature version just for Toby to dig into!

Turns out the mini bundt shape was perfect for him to pick up and eat, much like a doughnut!

While surfing the web I came across this idea for making cupcakes that look like little popcorn cups. Sure, I have a cake already, but what the heck...why not add another form of cake.  Especially when it's a cupcake that looks like some other food.  You all know from this post, and this post, that I have a thing for cupcakes that look like other foods.

You'd think that red and white striped cupcake liners would be easy to find, but they are not.  Most recipes online want you to buy some fancy, expensive snack cups or use markers to color the paper.  I did not want to spend the money on cupcake liners, and could not picture lifting a cupcake to my nose only to smell Sharpie fumes.  So, I ultimately decided to just make my own popcorn box design on the computer that would wrap around the cupcakes.

Fortunately for you, you don't even have to make your own, because I am going to give you a copy of my little cupcake covers to download for FREE!  Just click the link to download the pdf, print it out, cut, and tape around your cupcakes.  If you have some scrapbooking scissors, try doing a decorative edge along the top like I did, for an added touch! Here's the one I used:

So, to make the popcorn cupcakes, here's what I did...

1) Bake some cupcakes.  I used a yellow cake mix.

2)  Tape the cupcake "popcorn tub" sleeves into circles, using a cupcake as a guide.  You want the circumference of the sleeve to basically match the circumference of the top of the cupcake liner.  Set these aside, so you don't get them full of frosting or food coloring while you decorate.

3) Frost the cupcakes.  I used cream cheese frosting.  Something white or off-white that blends with the color of the "popcorn" looks best.

4) Top the cupcake with mini marshmallows.

5) Cut each one of the marshmallows in an "X" shape.  This is the most time consuming step, but don't skip it!!  This is what makes them look so much like popcorn!  I used my Tiny Bites Food Shears and they worked great.  I found that after 1 cupcake, I'd usually get a little bit of sticky marshmallow on the blades, and then the marshmallows wanted to stick to the scissors and come off.  To remedy that, I rinsed off the tips of the scissors whenever something got on them.  I didn't totally dry them off...just shook off the excess water.  A little water left on the blades helped them to glide right through the marshmallows.

6) Apply the popcorn "butter."  The recipe suggests that aerosol spray food coloring, but I tried several  grocery stores with no luck.  In the end I decided to mix some yellow food coloring and water and spray it on with a clean spray bottle.  You could also try brushing it on with a basting brush, however, don't get them TOO wet or you'll dissolve the marshmallows.

7) Slip each cupcake into a popcorn tub sleeve, and you're done!

The rest of the menu really stressed me out this time for a little while as I just wasn't sure what to make.  The popcorn cupcakes were the starting point, and I thought, why not let the carnival theme flow through the whole menu?  So, in addition to these little popcorn cups, I served...

Mini & Regular Sized Corn Dogs...normally I wouldn't serve frozen junk food like this at a party, but hey, what's a carnival without corn dogs?  Plus, every kid loves corn dogs, and these are easy.  

To add something a little more adult to the mix but still within the corn dog realm, I found this corn dog casserole online and gave it a try. My husband thought it sounded gross, but everyone liked it in the end (or said they did) so I'm glad I tried it!  It's made with cut up hot dogs, cornbread mix, green onions, celery, sage, egg, milk, cheddar cheese and pepper. It's an easy thing to prep ahead of time and then assemble and stick in the oven a half hour before party time.

You can't have a circus without peanuts, so I made sure to put out a bowl of peanuts.  (with a warning, of course, to please not feed the elephants!)  

It looked pretty cute with a little sign and Toby's stuffed elephant nearby.  I was going to get those circus peanut candies, however, I couldn't find them at my grocery store and decided they aren't really all that good anyway.  At least these have some protein...

We also had a big, bear-shaped container of animal crackers out. Although, if you got those little individual boxes that look like little circus train cars, they'd look really cute on the table too!

Luckily we live less than 10 miles away from the Mall of America, and it's amusement park, Nickelodeon Universe.  So, we have access to carnival type food year-round.  I was able to make a trip out in below zero temperatures the night before the party to pick up a big bag of cotton candy for 3 bucks.  When I got home, I divided it up into little ziploc baggies and made tags to fold over and staple to the top.  They turned out really cute and looked pretty in a big, glass bowl!  If you can find your own cotton candy, you can download my labels here and make your own little servings!

While cleaning and packing stuff for our move next week, I came across an ice shaver that my mom had gotten from Pampered Chef years ago, and had passed down to me.  I don't think I've used it in at least 10 years but I thought it would be a great way to offer another carnival food item...Sno Kones!  A week before the party I started freezing ice "pucks" and stashing a supply in the freezer.  I printed a little sign to hang above the shaver, set a glass of straws and some cups nearby, and even found a recipe to make your own snow cone syrup.  I've also uploaded a page of my little food signs for you to use, if you like here!!

Oh yeah, and I threw in a veggie tray with dip, fruit, pasta salad and some chips too for people who wanted some "actual" food.  Gotta have a few veggies to counteract my guilt from serving an entire table of fat and sugar!  But hey, nobody goes to the carnival to eat vegetables anyway, right?!

All in all I think it was a fun time, and the birthday boy seemed to enjoy it all very much!  (except for the scary candy falling from the sky during the pinata!)

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Tiger Mothers"

I recently came across this article, "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," via a Facebook friend's link.  In it, author Amy Chua explains the differences that she sees between Chinese and "Western" mothers, and the reason that she feels Chinese children turn out to be more successful.  Chua sites one example of how she was able to degrade, demoralize, abuse and insult her daughter into playing a perfect piano recital piece, if you can believe it, in support of her methods.

In reaction to this article, Lac Su, author of "I Love Yous are for White People," writes about the deep scars that he has from being raised by two "Tigers."
 I Love Yous Are for White People: A Memoir (P.S.)

I'm pretty sure the debate over who has the best mothering methods has gone on for as long as there were at least two mothers on the earth. I always hate to hear moms comparing and cutting each other's parenting methods down, but when I hear someone bragging about how emotionally and even physically abusing their children has turned them into more "successful" adults, it makes my stomach turn.

There is so much I'd love to write in response to this article, but alas, being in the midst of raising two boys with a husband out of the country at the moment, running 3 businesses, getting ready for a birthday party and packing to move in a week have left me with less time than I'd like to blog.

I am especially leery of any mother who looks back and says they would not do a single thing differently if they had it to do all over again.  We all have our parenting regrets and no mom is perfect.  Anyone who thinks they are is living in a fairy land of denial.  It leads me to believe that this poor woman was raised the same way, and in her pursuit to carry over her parents' forced "perfection" into her parenting methods, she is living a life of deep-down denial, struggling to overcome her own feelings of failure.  If she were to admit that even the smallest thing she had done in raising her girls was a mistake, it would throw off her entire theory.  It would question not only her own parenting methods and those of the generations before her, but would require her to admit that even SHE is not perfect.  And that is not acceptable.  Seeing her girls excel in music and academia is still not enough to feed her self esteem, so she has to justify her method of parenting with the world in a desperate attempt to gain approval of other "tiger mothers," to justify everything she has done...to feed her own self esteem which deep down is clearly low. 

I think the main difference in opinion lies in the fact that we have different definitions of "success."  Personally, for me, success does not mean getting straight A's and playing flawless musical pieces.  Really, in the end, is God going to care if you got good grades, performed a flawless piano recital, or climbed to the top of the corporate ladder?  To me, I will know I have been a successful parent if I see my boys turn into young men of character and integrity, who fear God and treat women with love and respect, become contributing members of society in a profession that they are good at and they enjoy doing, and in the end, are happy.  Yes, happy.  I know that probably sounds really pathetic and foreign to a "tiger mother," but they don't know what they are missing in life if they have not enjoyed true happiness.  I am sad for them and their children.  And if, along the way, my boys excel in music or art, math or science, I will of course foster that and be beaming from ear to ear with pride just like any mother, not just because of their skill or talent, but because they are enjoying doing it out of their own free will...because they are developing their own skill, confidence and pride in something they truly are good at and have earned, not because I spent countless hours abusively forcing them to memorize or repeat something to perfection.

Of course, I most definitely agree that we should challenge and push our children to excel where they have talent, to work hard and experience the pride and satisfaction that can only come from really earning something.  But I feel so sorry for this mother and for her girls. They are caught in a cycle that has gone on for countless generations.  I can only pray that one day, one of her girls will wake up unhappy, and like Lac Su, realize the pursuit of perfection is not worth the damage done by her "tiger mother" upbringing, realize that there are much more important things in life, and cut her own children a little slack. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Geeze, where have I been for two weeks?!

Hello, friends!  Woah, I think this may be the longest stretch I've gone without blogging.  My excuse is that we are currently in the process of packing, moving, and getting our house ready to put back up on the market.  My days have consisted of: put things in boxes, carry boxes, take things out of boxes, repeat.  So, you may not hear quite as much from me over the next few weeks because I just don't have time to do much that doesn't involve cardboard and packing tape.  But who knows, maybe some cool cardboard box projects may surface...

However, in the midst of this chaos, I'm also getting ready for my baby boy's 1st birthday party!  We'll be doing a circus/carnival theme.  I've been having a lot of fun with it, and after it all plays out this weekend, I will be sure to share lots of photos, and even some free download-ables that you can use for your own circus party.  So, stay tuned!!  In the meantime, here is a peek at his invite.  I did a circus poster, printed on 11" x 17" paper and sent out in cardboard tubes to our immediate family...

I've got his pinata done, and right now I'm trying to figure out the menu, which will no doubt include various carnival-food-type menu items...without the carnies and yellow heat lamps, of course.

Stay tuned for more next week!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Homemade Holidays

Now that we just finished my family's Christmas celebration, it is safe for me to share all of the homemade gifts I gave this year without fear of spoiling any surprises!  I know this may be too little too late, for those of you who were looking for ideas to give this year...but if you like to make stuff, you may want to tuck this one away for next year!  (Or start now...why not?!)

First, a little background...spending 7 months trying to sell our house was incredibly stressful for me, and when I am under unusual amounts of stress, I have found that I turn into an uncontrollable art and design monster.  (Hand felting was one of my favorite new pastimes that came from those 7 months, due to the therapeutic benefits of repeatedly stabbing something with a barbed needle!)  The last time I had a big upset in my life, I started my business Junk Mail Gems, took on a 2 year volunteer role as the chair of the IDSA Minnesota chapter, left my corporate job and started a design firm with two partners.  So, as you can see, I try to channel my negative energy into something positive which is very healing AND rewarding in the end.  Anyway, during these past 7 months of house selling (or lack thereof) I tried to channel this unquenchable creative desire into making something useful: Christmas gifts!  And there you have it.

This first one sounds really ridiculous but looks cool, so I'm glad I tried it.  It really was an experiment that came out pretty sweet. If you have little kids who love Play-Doh like I do, you may recognize the little colored bits in this pendant as being those tiny pieces of dried up Play-Doh that get stuck in the perforated plastic heads of those barber shop guys. Yup, I was just nutty enough to see an art project in these little dried up Play-Doh scraps.  I filled a silicone mini muffin pan with the Play-Doh bits, poured in some resin, and out popped a cool, shiny disc.  I bent a loop with some jewelry wire, glued it to the back, attached a cord, and gave one to my sister.  Oh, and I have one in my jewelry box now too.  It's definitely a conversation piece!

This is NOT something that I made, but something that I bought from my dad to give to all of my in-laws.  My dad keeps bees and makes beautiful honey, and this year he sold quite a few jars to people thanks to my mom's email and Facebook marketing! He has his own labels and everything. 

I made some recycled record bowls for my sister and sisters-in-law, as well as my Grandma.   They really are not tough to make.  I picked up some records at the thrift store, and besides that, all you need are some mixing bowls.  I started with this video online.  I did have a little trial and error and in the end figured out that I get a lot more space inside the bowl to hold things, if I form the record between TWO bowls.  So, basically I set a record on an inverted bowl and put it in the oven just like the video shows, but then instead of smooshing it inside a bowl, I forced a slightly larger bowl over the top, sandwiching the record between two bowls, forming it from the inside AND outside.  They are very fun and quick to make and sure make a fun gift for a music lover! I have step by step pictures and will try to share that in the future.

In my needle felting frenzy I ended up with several things started and not quite finished yet, but I did manage to finish a few gift items. Above is a little felted cactus that I made for my mother-in-law who lives in Arizona.  I got one of those teeny tiny little clay pots for him to sit in.  The internal "structure" is made from some rolled up scraps of wool sweaters that I felted, and then I needle felted the pieces together and all of the colors on the surface.  I think he turned out pretty cute!

 I made needle felted pins for my Grandma (the daisy, as her middle name is Daisy), and for my mom (the paint palette, since she's an amazing artist).  They were some of my very early experiments with needle felting, and I have tons of pin backs for my Junk Mail Gems pins, so turned them into pins!  Come to think of it, they would have made great magnets as well, because they are so light weight.

 Next up are some sets of necklaces and earrings that I made for my mom and sister.  I hand made these little beads that look like Christmas cookies that my mom makes every year, out of Sculpey clay.  These were a lot of fun.  I sat down one night and baked up dozens of miniature cookies in my oven and later strung them into necklaces.
 Of course, it made way more little cookie beads than I think I'll ever be able to use, although I ended up making one for myself too, but they were really fun!  I also made a few magnets for my frig that were a little larger while I was at it.

I'm always looking for fun ways to preserve my kids' artwork, and have been continuously scanning and photographing Sammy's art as he does it, so that I have digital copies.  This year I made Sammy's own art calendar for each of his grandparents.  Each month showcases another work of art created by Sammy.  I included a page with his recycled magazine collage, as well as his nature collage.  Some months have a small photo in the corner of him actually making the art.  This works great for 3D art too...I set up all of his little painted wooden models and took a photo for one month as well!  This would be a fun way to preserve your kids' art, catalog it by year, and share it with others.

 This particular piece of Sammy art was called "Water and a Boat."  Since Sammy was drawing Grandpa's boat when he did this, I had it printed on a cap for Grandpa to wear.  (with a title along the bottom, just in case the average art aficionado couldn't tell it was water and a boat!)

I remembered my grandma mentioning on the phone to me recently that it's so hard to even find pretty stationery anymore in the stores, because people are doing so much email these days.  So, of course, the light turned on in my head.  I had some personalized stationery printed using another scanned piece of Sammy's artwork, along with a sheet of address labels and a pen with her name on it.  It turned out really cool!

 Also for my grandma, I made this Scrabble serving tray.  You may remember this from a previous post.  My favorite parts are the handles made from the wood trays! ;-)

 This one I made for my sister-in-law, who plays piano and is an elementary school music teacher.  I found some old sheet music (there are boxes and boxes at the thrift store) and decoupaged the tray.  I sprinkled a tiny bit of glitter in the varnish and then poured some clear resin over the top.  I also gave her an old magazine, maybe from the 20's or 30's, published for teachers...it was another thrift store find that I found really fun to read and thought she might as well!  I particularly loved all of the ads offering vacation packages and other side jobs to give teachers an escape from their crazy classrooms! ;-)

This is a wine bottle carrying case that I made for my dad, who happens to make his own wine.  The fun part about it is not just that it is made from recycled wool, but that this plaid wool came from an old pair of hunting pants that HIS dad (my grandpa) used to wear, which were passed down.  When my dad found out that I was felting old wool sweaters from thrift stores to make stuff, he gave me these hunting pants to turn into whatever I wanted.  They were getting pretty worn, but I still found them to be special since they were Grandpa's pants.  My grandpa made wine too, so I thought he too would approve of this fun way to repurpose his pants!  The metal eyelets and the lace were actually part of the pants...the bottoms, on each ankle, had laces.  I thought this was the most interesting part of the pants so I utilized that piece.  I would like to make him a couple more, but between my need to utilize my seam ripper more than 4 times, and my sewing machine needle breaking, I was uttering too many bad words to continue.  I think I'll take a step back and make more in the future!

There were a couple other gifts that I gave made from felted wool sweaters that I can't seem to find photos of...a stack of felt coasters for my sister, and some stacking baby blocks for my nephew.  I'll post 'em if I find the pics!

I received some other great homemade gifts as well, which I hope to share here soon...I hope this helps to inspire you to make some fun things for next year!  (or for other birthdays and holidays in 2011!)


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