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Clay is in the soil layer under our feet in many parts of the country.  Creeks and rivers cut through the soil and expose it. Construction sites and roadwork produce hard chunks of clay soil drying in the sun. If you take your troop rafting, canoeing or tubing, you can often find clay in the riverbanks you pass. If you stay at a scout camp, the counselors often know where it can be found. Finding clay is the first step here: there is a nice discussion of how to find clay in Kiko Denzer’s book “EARTH OVEN” available from handprint press, since it’s used to build wood fired pizza and bread ovens (but that’s another project, see that HERE)

When I camped with my troop, I often took a ziploc bag in my kayak or filled my shoe with clay pulled out of a river of creek bank. We would make beads and fire them in the campfire and the girls could save them – some tied them to walking staffs – as a souvenir of the trip.

So: finding clay.

 

Clay looks slick and slippery when wet, rock hard and broken in angles or mud cracks when dry.  Scouts will approach it cautiously, but will likely end up smeared with clay and loving it.  I watched one shy child up to her ankles in clay with mud caked hands shrug, and reach up to draw tribal stripes on both of her cheeks  with clay – and soon they all were sliming each other, rubbing clay on their arms and legs, and thoroughly enjoying getting dirty.

  • Clay is not just dirt. There are facial masks made of clay, spa treatments, and some tribal people use clay on their skin for ritual purposes or to repel mosquitos or prevent sunburn.
  • Girls use clay every day. They will offer up dishes as example of clay in their homes, but remind them that their sinks and toilets are kiln fired porcelain – as are their parents’ capped teeth or grandparents’ dentures. There is clay in makeup, toothpaste, foods that list “bentonite”, medicines like Kaopectate (Kaolinn clay + pectin). Bricks are made from (often local) clay so their schools and the big buildings downtown are really large square pieces of pottery.
  • Ask if they ever tried to dig a hole and fill it with water. What happened? If there are ponds near your area farms, they are often made by bulldozers digging down to the layer of clay, then smearing clay up the sides of the pond to waterproof it. Clay is waterproof – (THIS IS WHY WE CLEAN UP IN A CREEK, AT A HOSE OR OUTDOOR SPIGOT and not in a bathroom or kitchen sink, because large amounts of clay will waterproof drains as well. )

So: bring the clay back to camp. It will be full of rocks and sticks and roots, so it needs to be “refined”. This is because clay shrinks when dried or fired, and pebbles do not – so anything you make will crack if it has a stone in it.

There are a couple of ways to refine clay, depending on the weather, the length of your stay and the size of the project.

1.) Have the girls roll or squeeze the clay into long coils (snakes) and lay them out in the sun on a picnic table, board or big rock or log. These will dry quickly, and can be crushed (with rolling pins, stones, or by walking on them with shoes on a board) and the resulting bits sifted through a wire colander or (if you are backpacking) they can just pick out pebbles and sticks. The powdery crumbly stuff can be rehydrated the way you would with bread dough — enough water to make it workable, kneaded on a pile of clay dust “flour”.

 

When it’s time to make things out of clay: Rules and explanations

  • Earthenware clay was used for pottery since prehistoric times – and lasts for thousands of years once fired.  Art museums have examples of pottery that dates back to the earliest records of human life, and often it’s the only thing – besides stone and bones — remaining as a clue to how people lived.  But earthenware is not like the stoneware or porcelain we use for dishes – it is more like the clay in a terra cotta plant pot or a brick. It can be stiff and sandy, and crack when it starts to dry out.
  • Simple forms work best – solid and small with no attachments.  I usually bring bamboo skewers to help with making beads and small pendants – but insist on one piece beads, and caution the girls that anything with parts attached or sticking off the sides will likely not survive.
  • Finished pieces are strung on loops of wire to keep them together. They will dry that way.  IMPORTANT: clay pieces have to be thoroughly dried or they will pop like popcorn when put in the fire! I don’t care what your art teacher told you, air bubbles do not make clay explode: steam does. Many hours in the hot sun, on a dark surface if possible — or in a camp oven at 200 degrees (no hotter) for a couple of hours should do it.
  • Every girl makes a small pendant with her initials or count off number. This will be fired on a twist of wire with all her other work so she can identify it after the firing.

 

 

Firing: If you are backpacking, keep a can from your food and fire inside of it. You can put in some dried leaves and pine needles and such or dry moss to make interesting marks. Beads will finish in a variety of ways, depending whether they got exposed to oxygen: black, grey, browns, reds and smoky colors. If you can bring along a can with a tightly fitting lid (a cookie tin or metal recipe box from goodwill, altoids tin, etc) you can load them inside and wrap it with wire to keep the lid tight for blackest black beads.

I wait until after meals are cooked on a fire (paint will burn off of the cans) and then put the beads NEAR the fire at first, listening carefully for the popcorn sound of a bead exploding. After a bit I move the can closer and then finally build the fire over and around it until it is right in the center of the fire. The longer it fires, the firmer the finished beads will be – but after an hour or so in the hottest part they should be permanent and last a few thousand years 🙂

In the morning you can sort through the ashes and find your treasures.  Dip them in water to cool and remove ash. Often the wires will not survive the firing but should hold on long enough to identify whose are whose.20597295_10209838490175480_5967969923039418489_nBadgework tip: The Junior outdoor art badge requires a musical instrument. I rolled two pieces of clay into flat circles, and put them on plastic wrap, and pressed them wrap side down into the top edges of two same-sized cups so they made two little bowl shapes.

I asked the girls to make a very small bead with a letter on it that represents a wish they have for themselves or the troop or the world. I wrapped each one in a bit of toilet paper so they wouldn’t stick together and put them in one of the bowls. Then I scratched up the rims of both bowls (scoring) and put one upside down on the other like a closed clamshell, and pinched the edges shut. I poked little holes all around to let it dry and let the steam out and warned the girls that it might not survive firing (but it did).

After the firing, dunk beads in water to cool and wash off any ash.

There are ways to polish your beads before firing, using a burnishing tool or a clay slip concoction called Terra Sigillata, but that is a project for another post!

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Here’s what I’ve learned by this point in midlife, for what it’s worth:

1.) Surround yourself with creative people who say yes first and work out the details later. Learn to do the same.

2.) Seek critique from people whose work you respect — and know the difference between your ego and your art.

3.) Try anything, even if it’s doomed to failure, then learn from your results.

4.) Experiment in areas in which you have no skill. Try unfamiliar media, challenge your comfort zone.

5.) Resist the temptation to “plead artist” and surrender when it comes to the business, math, marketing and accounting aspects of your studio. It’s never too late to challenge self imposed limits.

6.) Process matters more than product. Evolve. Give it hours, days, months, years of practice: there are no shortcuts.

7.) Nothing is a waste of time for an artist. Everything you love will feed your work: the shape of an eggplant in your garden, a bit of history trivia, the art of others, your own struggles, are all fuel for your work and will feed it in ways you never planned. Don’t force or overthink it — it just happens.

8.) Make what people will buy if you have to pay the bills, but also make what you love with no thought for the market. Having one deeply personal line of inquiry keeps us centered, sane, and moving forward, even if nobody “gets it”.

9.) Poet Nikki Giovanni once told me that learning to write well is only one small piece of the process: good writing comes from life experience, not from workshops. I find this to be true in any creative pursuit. Have adventures. Create a rich and interesting life for yourself and your work will reflect it.

10.) There is no substitute for time spent making. No tutorial, teacher, technique or tool will move you forward more than time spent at work. Not planning, discussing, list making, or waiting for inspiration: actual work. Learn while doing. Go.

I have been scribbling my thoughts, notes, lists and poems, appointments and sketches since grade school. Somewhere in an attic is a box of spiral notebooks containing every stupid thing I did in my youth, stories of boys I shouldn’t have dated, experiments in excess, self important embarrassments.  My brother and I once had an agreement: if I was hit by a bus, my parents (and now, children) must never see the contents of those journals.

As I am not a linear thinker, (coughADDcough) I also have several bales of paper bits around my house with urgent things scribbled on them. I will find next to my toothbrush a sticky note that says IMPORTANT THURSDAY 2PM with no clue as to what was important, where I am supposed to be or which year this was written. My approach seems to be to scribble messages, contacts, ideas and urgencies on the back of a receipt or envelope, then fling them to the wind, where they will enter the tornado of paperwork, tax receipts and unpaid bills that is my life. Sometimes they turn up a sodden wad in the pocket of my laundered jeans. Sometimes I take it to the next level,  and use a spiral notebook to organize my budget, home life, studio work flow, and then lose THE ENTIRE NOTEBOOK which is more efficient, really, than losing things one at a time.

Somewhere along the way, the concept of bullet journalling entered my world. It’s a method of consolidating all those paper bits into a single book that can actually be located on a regular basis. Maybe I saw it on facebook, pinterest, or somewhere out in the sea of social media that has replaced my journalling habit. Because I’ll confess: after all those years of having a favorite pen and an appreciation for good writing pages, I had chucked it all for a keyboard. My years of dear-diary journals had given way to wordy, self important announcements on facebook about plans for my tomato garden, the quality of my dinner, and other mundane accomplishments and fails. (With the miracle of modern technology, I had also mastered the art of asking Siri to remind me about appointments and things to do, and then failing to check my reminder list until items were long past irrelevant).

I looked up bullet journal lists, facebook groups, blogs and pins. Like any new phenomenon, it seemed to have a consumerist frenzy attached. Many of the participants seemed to start with a BUY ALL THE THINGS! approach, and discussions were awash in photos of the piles of washi tape purchased at a bargain price, the expensive journals apparently bound in Lithuanian Iguana Leather by monks who stitch in handmade pages one at a time. And of course, the pens. So that’s a little intimidating. I went directly to Dollar Tree and bought a stack of journals, took them to the studio and heartily applied mod podge and colorful paper detritus to the covers.

Then there were the photos of journallers’ sample pages. Apparently the method is attractive to scrapbookers, stampers and other paper craft fans who approached this with their practiced graphic-layout eye, shelves full of art supplies and maybe a little OCD. Looking at their pages, with seven fonts, three colors and a professional graph of symbols (water consumed, barometric pressure, menstrual cycle, items marked by level of urgency, all color coded with a box legend)  gave me a familiar feeling: both awe and a little shame. It was like looking at those home decor magazines of glorious living spaces while sitting on my battered couch in a pile of laundry, among garage sale decor, with a “pop” of dirty dishes and an overflowing cat litter box providing the “focal point” of the environment.

But I began anyway. As a 50+ woman I have practice in letting go of unrealistic expectation. Healthy as I may strive to be, my bikini days are over (and good riddance.) So I adjusted my well calibrated giveashit meter, and set about bullet journalling.

Something about the fact that I had spent one entire dollar on my journal freed me from the fear of marking on that first white page. In fact, it quickly became clear that this entire book was going to be a rough draft. I tried some of the more interesting ideas I saw on line: a simple layout of this week on the left page, with an associated things-to-do list on the right. A gratitude page,  a bucket list, an ideas-for-the-studio list, books to read, a schedule of upcoming classes. I grabbed the book when we planned a grocery store trip, when I met someone I was supposed to email, and the pages between the “titled” pages quickly filled with daily detritus. I tried putting sticky tabs on the pages I needed to find again, and made a table of contents with ONLY the things I wanted to find again. I made my own lists: “Things I didn’t fail at today”. “Healthy snacks the kids swear they will eat if I buy them”. I began to enjoy coloring in little boxes at the end of the day, reminding myself that my fitbit approved of my walking, I kept on my weight watchers path, I got the daily hug I determined I needed. Other things I decided were too fussy, not relevant, not the way my brain worked of needed major tweaking. I X’ed out those pages and moved on.

By the time I got to my second journal, I loved that I could start fresh, move only the lists and pages I liked into the new journal, stick the battered and scribbled rough draft on a shelf. I had a bunch of women over to the studio to decorate journal covers and compare notes. A few were so lovely I wondered how there could be time to DO the things on those beautiful, calligraphic lists, but others admitted to being a little overwhelmed. “I bought a gorgeous journal but I don’t want to ruin it.” Or “My handwriting is awful.” Or “I can’t make them as pretty as the ones on line.” So we had kind of a dare-to-be-mediocre encounter group session. Washi tape? Well, you can use it to cover up a false start, a horrible misspelling, or that week where you wrote WEDNESDAY twice. We became braver as we showed each other our scribbles and fails. I began to OWN my lack of giveashit as a valid option.

I am not completely immune to the call of the wallet on this. I have developed a fondness for a dot-grid page that feels nice under the fingertips and doesn’t bleed ink through to the other side. I have found a set of sharpie pens that say NO BLEED and they don’t create blobs and shadows on the back of the page. I found thin chapter paper-cover Moleskine journals on clearance that fit into my dayrunner, and I like the collaged up covers. But I felt the urge do “come out” in public as a bullet journaller who makes crooked lines, scribbles awkwardly, doodles when bored, and draws sketches of things that look like a grade schooler drew them (just because it helps me see and remember the thing, when my hand gets involved instead of my cell phone camera.)

If I had a legend of symbols to help others interpret my journal, it would look like this:
_________________________________

Blue ink : I found a blue pen.
[X]  : finished this task
Crossed out:  Screw this task.

Brown spot  : Spilled my coffee

X-ed out page : Aint nobody got time for that.
Fancy, wiggly font : wrote this on a train, bumpy track.
_________________________________________

In short, my bullet journal has made me more productive, less worried, less likely to go to bed at night feeling like I GOT NOTHING DONE, as my usual internal inventory only tracks my failed intentions and doesn’t give me credit for accomplishments. Like my life, it’s frugal and no frills, a little creative and messy, prettier on the outside, hard to figure out and crusted with clay at the edges. Like my house, if I think you are judgy, you’ll never get to see the inside.

IMG_3199[1] If you want to begin bullet journalling, the one item I suggest you use for the process is an adjustable,self-calibrating giveashit meter.

 

I found some beige sheer curtains with latticework tops for six bucks at the Goodwill. I had made curtains in the past for the bedroom end of my camper, but it had made it stuffy and trapped the heat — so I liked the idea of curtains that would allow a breeze across the top. I don’t need privacy curtains exactly because it’s just me camping, these days, but I like the idea of having a separation between bedroom and kitchen/eating area.

I ordered some camper curtain tabs on line and they arrived today, but they were too big. I sliced the little round end of the tab in half with a razor to make the fit in the track. I had no patience for sewing the things on so I used a stapler. My kind of project.

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Also: the local discount stores like Big Lots have summer clearance on stuff like solar lights right now. I got a string of solar rope light on the cheap, indoor outdoor, and ran it behind the curtain rail down the side of the camper and above the kitchen end. I dropped the solar charger — a flat thing about the size of a wallet — face out against the window screen, tucked inside the cover (i could zip it in there, it’s weatherproof) and it charged in a semi shady spot from afternoon onward. I am going to like coming home in the dark and having a nice non-electric “night light” helping me find the switch.

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I had one of those tall shelf units meant to go over a toilet, for towels and such — and I had no real place for it. When I looked at it closely, it had come in a short box and the legs had been assembled tent-pole-style and attached with screws. I took the top part off of the bottom part and voila, it was really shallow in depth and just the right height to go over my pop up sink for a toothbrush cup, makeup mirror, alarm clock, etc.

The legs were sharp metal at the bottom and it obviously would have to be removed to fold up the ‘pup, (fits beautifully under the table area) so I bought four white rubber feet slightly larger than the shelf posts and stuck them to the countertop with removable “Command” hook adhesives. (I fear commitment.) So the unit can be placed in the feet and won’t scoot right, left, front or back. It lifts out when it’s time to roll.

So happy.

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For 88 cents each I got these stick down floor tiles to cover the stained and dated linoleum. They were easy to cut and fit with a ruler and box cutter which is good, because nothing in a pop up is square. I spent maybe an hour on it last night and finished up this morning — a couple of hours of work for a really nice result.

I found the perfect sized plastic storage boxes — roughly shoe box size — to fit under the kitchen sink. One has my first aid and toiletries, one has emergency candles, batteries, matches, etc — and in that pile of stuff I found three of those dollar-tree, aluminum-foil-looking emergency blankets, still in their little wallet-sized packages.

I put one in the box and set two aside. Later, I found an old flat sheet nobody uses (we are duvet people) and laid out the emergency blanket on top of it. I rolled up all four sides in a makeshift hem and used staples (friend Joe calls them “Man stitches”) to “sew” the hems. I rolled the whole thing up and put a rubber band around it, and will see if it is a suitable replacement for the popular but expensive reflective covers sold to top the bed-end canvas roofs on a pop up.  http://www.popupgizmos.com/bunkcoverpage.htmIMG_0547[1] IMG_0548[1]

Updates when I camp in an unshaded spot. They are supposed to lower the inside temp by a considerable amount. I thought about sewing them together in crosswise strips like a quilt but I suspect the thin reflective stuff would tear. So we’ll see.

What should I put in that hollow bottom slot? cutting boards? some kind of cover?

What should I put in that hollow bottom slot? cutting boards? some kind of cover?

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Mouse hole cut tidy, ready to stitch.

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Mouse hole patch secured on the outside (temporarily) with painter’s tape so I can sew

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This mess was the ancient bungee cord that ran through the bottom edge of the canvas and secured the canvas ends under the slide-outs. Replaced it with nice new black stretchy cording.

I primered and painted the top to see how it would look... then went back and primered and painted the base as well.

I primered and painted the top to see how it would look… then went back and primered and painted the base as well.

Time flies. I got my morning coffee and was going to get a few things done on the pop up in the morning — and when I looked up, Jeff was coming home from work and it was dinnertime.

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This base piece and the one under the other bench were problematic crumbly mdf bard. I hid them under maps. They don't look perfect but they were awful before so it's a net improvement.

This base piece and the one under the other bench were problematic crumbly mdf bard. I hid them under maps. They don’t look perfect but they were awful before so it’s a net improvement.

The cupboard and drawer fronts were in good shape but particle board sections like under the bench seats are showing their age. I filled crumbled corners with plastic wood and then mod podged maps over the whole surface, using the podge (furniture finish kind) to seal the unseen bottoms and edges.

When I put the cupboard doors and drawers back in, I added little felt sticky pads in the corner so they wouldn't BANG when they closed on  the spring loaded hinges.

When I put the cupboard doors and drawers back in, I added little felt sticky pads in the corner so they wouldn’t BANG when they closed on the spring loaded hinges.

OK so it’s midnight and it’s possible that I am obsessing a little, but I just finished all the maps and primered the part of the pop-up I intend to paint. How lucky is it that the falling-apart Rand McNally atlas pages Jeff gave me are the EXACT SIZE of the inset on some of the cupboard doors? I lined them up so at least the bottom edge and one side got the ABC-123 grid numbers for a border. On a couple of wider ones I used a full page and then a strip of “city detail inset” maps to fill the gap. The smaller ones were easily cut down.

I was going to pick places we’ve lived, places I have traveled, but in the end I chose for a nice mix of colors and patterns. If I needed more greens I went to Canada, more blues, the Great Lakes… a little yellow in the deserts…

I need to go to bed and stop for a while. I hope the fabric patch arrives tomorrow. IMG_0447