Retrospective: Levine and Heimerl, Handmade Nation

I really enjoyed the film Handmade Nation, the work of Milwaukee documentarians. The review I authored entitled Manifest Dexterity originally posted February 8, 2009 on Sane Artworks Blog.

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Manifest Dexterity

Wanna stick it to the “the man”? What if I told you that you could do it in the comfort of your own home, on a park lawn, by yourself or with a crew of friends. What if I told you that you could and only reap the rewards of soul-inspiring fulfillment and not the affection of INTERPOL. Sounding unreasonable? The United States premiere of the film Handmade Nation made believers out of a capacity crowd at the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee.

Judging from the flock of movie-goers you would have thought the Dali Lama was in town. With the theatre’s Buddha statues mounted on the balconies presiding, Handmade Nation written and directed by Faythe Levine and Courtney Heimerl took us on an easy ride through the winding open road of ‘crafting’. HMN covers 19,000 miles worth of perspectives, traveling cross-country to interview crafters in all four corners of the continental US.

If your senses are easily overloaded this is not the film to see. HMN begins with a sentient needle scurrying across the screen, with beady friends and inky playmates, adding to the ever-morphing patchwork quilt and screen-printed background. They say you cant judge a book by its cover, but opening sequences definitely set the tone for great films in the 21st century and HMN‘s doesn’t disappoint.

Know Thyself

What is crafting anyway? Any person engaging in this activity will be reluctant to tell you with any certainty; that would ruin the fun. In different pockets of the US, HMN documentarians asked partakers of the tactile fellowship their thoughts on crafting. Harvesting various answers, a few common threads still ran threw the craft-persons’ responses each unique in the coloring and texture describing their ethics in relation to their preferred craft.

Without prompting, it became apparent that to a crafter our consumer culture is a bother and a bore. Consumerism is impersonal, mass produced, ruthless in its hoarding of resources, and most tragically mind-numbing. Fed up with corporate sales associates ringing-up cloned scarfs and greeting cards incubated on computer screens, the keepers of the crafting code urge you to stop and think before you brandish your magnetized plastic filled with money credits.

Here a distinction must be made. We’re not talking about the crafting that will take you to Michael’s after watching a couple of Martha Stewart episodes and cause you to break out the bedazzle gun. As HMN plays on, it’s clear that transforming reality, by taking a stand against idle fingers and the capitalist big-box, requires commitment to an ethic.

On the most fundamental level the crafter, born through a series of realizations, possesses an intriguing awareness of the relationship between using your hands to interact with the materials around you and the sensation of connectedness to your habitat. This process departs from the traditional artist, likely more concerned with conveying an idea, evoking irony, or a portraying a particular aesthetic. Seeking confirmation of life’s presence, the stimulation of senses provide crafters a motivating catalyst to create. The crafter removes the isolation of modern life by making things and sharing them.

The crafter locates self by eliminating the mysterious origin of objects both novel and utilitarian. Craft-culture rejects all-things paternal and challenges us to not hinder our personal maturation by standing in-line for things we want or need all the time. According to a certain social theorist, people are cooler in uptown Manhattan anyway.

Conservation Bandits

The need to conserve by recreating with the previously used is a renewable theme throughout the film. Rather than staging a workers rally, one with busy hands admits that she buys only pre-owned fabric to make her garments. Before tailoring a class piece of formal wear, another crafter contemplates the implications of cutting into a 50 year-old piece of fabric commenting, “what gives me the right to cut into this fabric?” Doing more than ‘tree-hugging’, a dedicated crafter uses recycled paper as the medium of choice for post cards and such, decreasing demand for felled trees. The principle is one less fiber purchased retail is one less environmentally inconsiderate product that needs to be re-stocked on the shelf.

It’s not coincidental that ‘Do-it-Yourself’ has an activist application. Conservation is kind of like the crafters’ Swiss army knife; it’s a versatile instrument of change. Endearingly, crafters are willing to engage social problems on a level that departs from an annoying issue-mongers’ tendency for screaming, guilt-tripping and proselytizing. Maybe we don’t need another hero, we just need a bunch of tiny creative moments to make change.

The limits of conservation extend beyond physical materials to preservation of ancient methods. In one scene, a young woman teetering light-reflecting safety goggles from her nose, donning a tattered long sleeve sweater with strings dangling from the wrist and a payload of necklaces B.A. Baracas-style, ignites a blue-flamed torch a foot from her face that looks like it could melt a diamond. We soon learn that Tracy Bull of Happy Owl Glassworks is nonchalantly risking her eyebrows to preserve a 2,000 year-old glass-beading technique. Now that is hardcore.

Minute sized paper cutouts of cultural symbols and fauna are carefully whittled with an Xacto blade at the fingertips of Nikki McClure, her works are anthropological manuscripts translating bygone creative eras practiced by Chinese, African, and Middle Eastern cultures, connecting us to what our human ancestors were doing with their energy.

Expressing conservation comes not only with their chosen mediums and techniques, but also with diet. Working from the inside out, for some, tuning-in to the craft wavelength requires the compassion for all living beings expressed through vegan practices. That’s how one participant entered the craft chamber, “just getting together with friends to craft and enjoy good food.” That’s the beauty of it. It’s just that simple.

Causing a Commotion

If human interaction and conservation are not motivation enough, crafting also appeals to the inner renegade rebel in all of us. It was hippy-ness and punk rock for the younger Baby Boomers and grunge for the Gen X-ers. Now since both are well into their thirties, forties and fifties, according to the fist law of thermodynamics, that rebellious energy has to go somewhere, but where? (I’m a young Gen X-er pardon my sarcasm, it is well intended). The recent generations are not immune.

Some of my favorite parts of HMN depict deviant behavior that is decidedly anti-establishment. The proprietor of Anti – Factory stages a public contest to see who could knit the best bootleg of the Burberry pattern. Receiving many demonstrations she is able to construct hand bags that soon become popular. Take that posh name brand!

A posse of Texas knitters take the proverbial cake. With nicknames like Notorious N.I.T and J – Nitty, the group Nitta’ takes crafting guerrilla. When night falls they pile into a compact economy car. Timing the precise opportunity-maximizing-moment they jump out, to stealth-bomb-knit a Technicolor muffler onto a street sign post and vanish into the night. Cleverly mocking municipal bureaucrats and graffiti artists simultaneously with a stab of the knitting needle, the least crafting can do for you is provide some amusement.

Handmade Nation (2009) Trailer, Levine and Heimerl

Thumping Pareto

There is a parallel story to this motion-picture look into an American subculture that adds instead of takes away from our collective wellbeing. One of the film’s makers, Levine, also runs a local Milwaukee outlet called Paper Boat Boutique and Gallery (kind of defunct now), which as recently as January 30th was set to close, nearly unfathomable given the talent and drive of Levine. However, crafting economics defy the conventional wisdom of enterprise enough for an imminent shutdown to make sense.

Presenting an alternative model for business proves a little trickier than selecting the perfect place for a new hem. Shamelessly labor and input intensive, craft-based shops snub the profit-maximizing formula in favor of unconventional antics. If you see a six-foot-tall canvas cuboid resembling a vending machine inching toward you, wildly painted with small pictures on the front and a slot for stuffing in dollar bills, you might think you are on Japanese television, but know that a starving crafter just wants to make ends meet with some of his prints.

Efforts of magnitude replace economies of scale and sweat-equity won’t cut it. Evidenced by a vendor’s ordeal, who while embellishing one of her craft fair displays accidentally staples her index finger, badly, you have to be willing to sign your check in blood. Ensuing film frames capture a friendly neighbor arriving, without cue, to lend some clot-aiding pressure and moral support. The HMN viewer then understands that ink runs thicker than water.

The mend of the crafting community weaves together a closely packed network of individuals devoted to a common bond. HMN confirms that interaction with objects is secondary to the magic that happens when humans decide to appreciate what they agree on. The turnout to last Thursday’s premiere gives an unequivocal testament to this fact. Levine and Heimerl have clearly dedicated their energies to the most deserving places. Smacking the smiles off the big yellow circle-faced end-caps that dominate our consumption habits, Levine’s film makes a strong case for the premium warranted for crafter-made items.

Crafters are giving much of themselves physically and emotionally to carry alternatives to commercial-merchandise. A splurge in Handmade Nation is a tithe that sustains the availability of choices that American’s crave. Their take is not so much gratitude, as just desserts. It’s the only way they can stay afloat. A good amount of the film’s craft fair footage takes place outside. That means you have plenty of time to plan an outing to a craft fair.

Riders of the Storm

Having a group ‘collective unconscious’ definitely does not preclude self-consciousness. Ironically, in the heat of the struggle to remain Indie and commercial-free, the Handmade Nation is aware that their experiment with creativity could turn on the doctor. There is a dark-side. Will the evil empire cunningly find a way to capture one of the last remaining reaches of uncharted market segments? High-end designers and retail executives need to stand down and mind their demographics. Although the odds are stacked against them, the craft guild and its admirers are a fortuitous bunch. It’s up to free thinkers to bestow the social and economic capital that can keep the penny hoarders at bay.

Upcoming screenings of Handmade Nation include stops in New York’s Museum of Art and Design next week, and venues in Toronto, Canada, Barcelona, Spain, Melbourne, Australia, returning to the area at Madison’s Wisconsin Film Festival April 2 – 5, 2009 details TBA. Handmade Nation is also in print! Check here for the latest HMN news.

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