human behavior

Alphabet Art Made Easy

Posted in Art, Crafts, Home improvement by humanb on November 12, 2013

At 37 weeks and 2 days pregnant, my days of crafting will soon be over – at least for some time. So after the successful completion and installation of my handmade nursery yarn mobile, I spent the last two days making a piece of art for over the baby’s chest of drawers while I still have the time and energy.

A traditionalist to some degree, I was particularly keen on making some sort of alphabet art, but the recyclist in me wanted to use things I already owned. The compromise was to use a blank canvas that had lived under my bed for a year and my old acrylic paint with a set of MDF letters from the local hardware store.


The fun part of this project was in trying to work with the materials on hand. Because I’d insisted on using the 18 in x 24 in canvas I already had, I was forced to make the letters fit by randomly staggering them. The effect is quite different from an ordered and equally-spaced arrangement.

I painted the letters one colour at a time, mixing my own colours rather than using paint straight from the tubes.


To ensure that no two letters of the same colour were too close together, I made a Microsoft Word version of the final colour arrangement before beginning, but still re-evaluated my colour arrangements as I worked.


After all the letters had been painted, I considered the background.


The white looked fresh, but unfinished when considering the piece as a whole.


I considered newspaper, dictionary pages and Word Find Puzzle pages as possible backdrops – even going so far as to buy a book of Word Find Puzzles, thinking this was the best option. But while I was cutting out pages to cover the canvas, I placed the letters on my dark grey ottoman to see how a darker background might look…


As suspected, the colours popped! My husband thought as much too, and declared unequivocally that dark grey would be a superior background to a printed page.

So I made my own grey paint – always a better choice than simply mixing black and white. There’s an infinite number of shades of grey, some cooler, some warmer. Using the remainders of my blue and purple paints, I added black, white and yellow oxide to make a rich, warm colour.


The result is a bold and individual take on a thoroughly unoriginal idea.


It’s a bit in-your-face, this artwork, with its letters so large, bright and crowded. But as it hangs quite high (and alone) on a clean, white wall, its energy feels contained.



At $1.83 per MDF letter, and with 26 letters to buy, this project ended up costing much more than I would’ve liked, but it was quick and easy to produce. And while it’s by no means a great piece, it is fun without being garish or cheesy. Moreover, seeing as there are no cartoon monkeys, butterflies or bumblebees painted on the letters (Google nursery alphabet art), I see no reason why it can’t can’t find a home on our walls for many years to come – even after our son has moved well beyond his A-B-Cs.

Just not in my bedroom forever. 😉



A Grown-Up’s Nursery Mobile

Posted in Art, Crafts, Home improvement by humanb on November 7, 2013

In March I wrote a post about my weight loss on the 5:2 Diet. I lost seven pounds in three weeks on calorie restriction alone, and had every intention of continuing my experiment when something unexpected happened.


Our baby is due in three weeks and we won’t discuss how much I weigh now. Sufficed to say, all weight loss experiments are on hold until December and I’ve shifted gears to more creative endeavours now that I’m officially on maternity leave.

My husband and I live in a 1.5 bedroom unit in Sydney, and as the second, smaller room serves as a very necessary study, the baby will share a bedroom with us. This means two things:

1) This boy will not be accumulating more stuff than is necessary given space constraints (and my resistance to gross materialism in general); and

2) Our bedroom will now have to harmonize the tastes of three different people to become something neither too adult nor too infantile.

In other words, no cartoon choo choo trains on the walls, but no more muted colours either.

After clearing the wall on my side of the room, I invested in the Grotime Turin Cot, a European space-saving crib considerably smaller than the standard, and bought an Ikea Hemnes Chest of Drawers to store our new roommate’s clothing and other bits and bobs.

That leaves the fun but challenging task of decorating a baby’s space in a grown-up’s room.  What better place to start than with a nursery mobile?

So that was project number one. A quick search of nursery mobiles yielded lots of delicate and cutesy (but boring) examples; just as much garish and clichéd kiddy stuff; and a smaller number of DIY, crafty pieces of varying appeal.

But one mobile featured on Pinterest stood out among the rest.


Glorious, simple, colourful yarn balls!

This one was deceiving, however, as it was more a long line of suspended balls of yarn than a proper mobile, and would not have worked nearly as well above a crib as it does in a brick-walled loft.

But the idea was a gem, and a Google search of “yarn mobiles” yielded plenty of other examples. Given my lust for upcycling, recycling, leftovers and used everything, I was delighted that I’d found a mobile whose materials I didn’t have to buy. I knew my mother would have plenty of scrap yarn from the crocheted hats and blankets she makes under the brand GaGa Originals.


So once my box of scrap yarn arrived from the US, I set to work. Thinking, that is. It took a surprisingly long time to decide how to tackle this project…

Which colours do I use? How do I make the balls? Do I make them different sizes or the same size? How do I hang the balls? How many balls on a string? How do they stay fixed on the string? What kind of string? What should the string hang from? How long and how wide should the whole thing be?

In the end, I was fairly happy with my choices.



But this project was more difficult to complete than it looks.

Choosing My Colors. My mother sent me more colors than I ultimately used, and four different types of yarn. I had hoped to only use the Lion Suede, with its soft, velvety texture (see the green, for example), but I found the palette too limited as I didn’t have enough, so I was forced to use the coarser yarn as well. After spending several days(!) selecting my colors, I realised the palette was still wanting for lack of any orange. Reluctantly, I hit the craft store and bought a ball of orange yarn of an entirely different texture from everything else. To my relief, it worked just fine and communicated nicely with the hair of my childhood Annie doll.


With only small amounts of my favourite colours, I had to find a way to make them stretch, so I decided to use styrofoam balls that I could wrap with the absolute minimum amount of yarn. Of course, that meant having to go back to the craft store to buy styrofoam balls. 😦

Creating the Yarn Balls. Having looked at a number of mobiles online that used balls of varying sizes, I decided the effect was interesting at the expense of elegance, so made all the balls the same size for my project.

Most of the tutorials online involved randomly wrapping yarn into or on to a ball. Only one tutorial advocated a single layer technique using glue. The effect seemed cleaner but proved impossible (for me) to execute.


Clearly, my craft glues were too toxic for the styrofoam, as they ate away at the darn things before I could get any yarn around them. When I tried a less toxic glue of weaker strength, I found it impossible to get the yarn to stay put or to stay clean. The green ball represents my abandonment of that technique for a simple wrap-around approach with a small dot of nontoxic glue to seal the end. Note the small dot of discolouration from glue on the centre orange ball pictured below. Once I’d realised how easy it could be, I finished the lot in no time.  😉


Threading the Balls. Initially I thought clear fishing wire would work best, creating a floating effect like in the brick-walled loft example. But my husband convinced me that it was an inappropriate mix of ideas and materials and that twine was a better partner to yarn than fishing wire or string.


Threading the balls was easy enough with an extra-large (and long) sewing needle. Securing the balls on the string was as easy as tying a knot in the twine before the next ball was strung, leaving roughly 3 inches between each ball for symmetry.


Suspending the Balls.  Most of the mobiles online suspended the balls from one or more wooden rings. After initially trialling a single wooden ring, I decided it looked too nursery-esque, and opted for the equally traditional but edgier wooden cross.


To create the cross, I chose the extremely lightweight material, balsa wood, which is remarkably easy to dent and score, but reliably strong. After staining the wood, I glued two pieces together, wrapped the centre in copious amounts of twine, and wrapped the four ends with blue Lion Suede. Before tying the strands of yarn balls to the cross, I scored its four sides where I planned to tie the strands.


The addition of a large ball suspended from the middle was an afterthought when I realised the project still seemed to be lacking something. I have my husband to thank for the suggestion that it be red, a colour I generally dislike, but acknowledge has a particular vibrancy.


The Finished Product. The end result is a mobile that I think can appeal to grown-ups and babies alike, with its simple forms, vibrant colour, different textures and nods to both traditional and contemporary elements. This mobile proves that art, craft and interior design need not be infantile to appeal to infants. There’s no reason that I know of why a baby would prefer a collection of cartoony stuffed elephants, half moons and owls hanging over his head instead of this.

Completing the Space. The abstract paintings on the nursery wall were painted by my two nieces a few years ago. They’re a bit too free-form to remain there, I think, but they’re fun place-fillers for a future project. The children’s book was written and illustrated by a family friend and will move when I make a proper home for the baby’s burgeoning library. The baby shoes were my mother’s from the 1950s and will remain there. And the Ikea chest of drawers is begging to be hacked, as soon as I figure out how to embellish it.

Whatever the final design, it will hopefully blend well with the rest of the room, while clearly defining the baby’s dedicated space. There’s still plenty to be done in terms of storage solutions, decoration and final placement of things.

But I reckon my old Annie is there to stay.


Seashell Art that Isn’t Ugly

Posted in Art, Crafts by humanb on June 25, 2013

No woman can visit a beach without picking up seashells. It’s a biological impossibility. Collecting shells is like a female tic – a disruptive compulsion that inevitably tarnishes every trip to the shore we women take.

Half of the time we throw them away before we get back to the car. If the shells actually make it home, most of us will stash them in a drawer, leaving them to rattle, break, and take up space for years until we can’t remember when and where we collected them. (Or why.)

For those of us who actually display them, I’d wager less than 5% of us manage to do so in a way that isn’t hideous. This usually takes the form of a small collection of carefully chosen, larger specimens in a simple glass container.


What the rest of us do with our shells can only be described as a right hot mess. Google “seashell art” and “seashell craft” and you’ll see what I mean.

Making anything worth displaying out of seashells is almost impossible, because seashell art isn’t just kitsch. It’s ugly. I’m not sure why it’s so ugly when individual shells are so pretty. Maybe because shells are little more than glorified sea carcasses. They’re all that’s left of a bunch of dead animals, after all, and what’s so beautiful about a pile of bones?

Well I was determined to find out, and so resolved to make something aesthetically pleasing out of the seashells that I’d collected with my driftwood in Tasmania. Bear in mind that I went to Tasmania 13 months ago, so this project took a long time to come to fruition. I spent most of that time struggling to figure out what to do with the darn things, before embarking on a horrific failure of a project. The result was actually terrifying. So I packed up the surviving shells in my frustration and threw them to the back of the closet. I still couldn’t bring myself to throw them away though – convinced as I was that there was something worthwhile to be done with them. I just needed more time, I told myself, and a little inspiration.

In the end, my inspiration had always been there. It actually came from Tasmania all those many months ago, through the display window of a high-end tourist shop that was closed on the day I’d left town.


I don’t particularly like this piece. It’s boring, for one thing. But at least it’s not ugly. On the contrary, it has a casual, coastal sophistication about it because it’s simple.

And that is the key to seashell art that isn’t kitsch.

The frame is plain white wood with a flat profile. The mat is also white with multiple, clean cut-outs. The shells are all the same – in color, size and species. (Is it species?) And the arrangement is uniform: the southwest orientation of each shell, identical. Only the rotation of the shells differs, to reveal a central diamond pattern.

This is how you make seashell art that’s safe. But what about art that’s beautiful and compelling? Perhaps the mat could be bolder and the collection of shells more interesting. Too bad then, that my Tasmanian seashell collection represented only the most common varieties, and that I was only willing to use the mat board I already had in the closet.

But I’m still pretty satisfied with the results.


The mats are all the same size: 11 x 14 with long, rectangular windows. I grouped the shells by similar pattern, shape or color, but not size.


The mats are all white, but not the mounting boards, which differ in keeping with what I could find in the house, and what seemed to work best.


In one instance, the similarity of the shells is harder to discern, so the result is even more interesting, if not elegant. It dances on the border between pretty and ugly and just one more shell in the mix would have crossed that line.


The piece most like the one in that Tasmanian shop window is also the least interesting, and for the same reason: its uniformity. It’s pretty though.


Not content with using only most of my shells, I opted for smaller (5×7) works to use the remaining ones worth showcasing. I was delightfully surprised that a few shells actually became more interesting when they commanded attention in such small arrangements.


And I was excited to be able to inject some bolder color into the mix. Coral was the perfect choice for this background.


I LOVE this project – not least because I didn’t spend a dime. I’d bought the 11×14 mats years ago and had never found a use for them. The  5×7 mats I cut myself with my handheld mat cutter. The shells were free (of course). And the level of difficulty of the project was low – that is, if you exclude the 13 months I spent struggling to make something that wasn’t terrifying with these shells. Which leads me to the number one reason why I love this project.

It ain’t ugly. And it ain’t kitsch.


Aesthetics aside, the only other threat to success was the adhesive. How to affix shells on mat board?

I thought ahead – testing small shells on scrap with three different adhesives, and leaving them to dry overnight.


I was concerned about the strength of PVA Wood Glue, but knew it would be the easiest and cleanest to use. I suspected that Mosaic Adhesive would work well, seeing as shells were similar to ceramic tiles in texture, but I had very little left in the bottle and would certainly run out. I knew that industrial grade Gorilla Glue would get the job done, but I’d never used it before and had no idea how it behaved. Thank goodness I pre-tested.


Apparently, Gorilla Glue expands by 4 or 5 times as it dries.

Luckily, Mosaic Adhesive and PVA Wood Glue both got the job done too and dried clear, without expanding. And since I had two bottles of PVA, problem solved.


That leaves framing. Like the source of my inspiration, I’m thinking white wood (or driftwood) frames with flat profiles to finish them off.

Once framed, there’s only the small matter of a home for these works. Unfortunately, I haven’t an inch of wall space remaining in my tiny Sydney flat, so I’m hoping that my mother in Virginia Beach(!) of all places, loves this project as much as I do.

Cause she’s about to inherit nine pieces of seashell art.

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The Art of Politics

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Art, Crafts by humanb on December 29, 2012

This Christmas holiday I was determined to create something artistic. I even promised as much to a nurse at work who shares my arts & craft obsession. I call it an ‘obsession’ and not an ‘addiction’ as I spend infinitely more time thinking about arts and crafts than doing them. But this week was different.

I actually produced something again.

I’d had this project in mind since the US presidential election. After receiving my billionth fundraising email from the Obama campaign, I decided to respond differently: rather than giving the campaign money (which I’d done already), or reflexively deleting the email (which I’d done 99% of the time), I went shopping at the Obama online store.

I bought a retro T-shirt (which I have the audacity to wear around Sydney), a pair of tube socks (which I’ve yet to wear), a few bumper stickers (which never made it to my bumper), and the complete collection of Obama 2012 political buttons.

People who obsess about arts & crafts rather than doing them, tend to have ample supplies – including paint and stretched canvases of varying size. So here’s what you can do in a matter of hours with a bag of buttons:


‘Made in the USA’, 24 in x 24 in, acrylic paint and buttons on stretched canvas

I fixed the buttons to the canvas the traditional way – i.e., pinned them to the canvas as they would be to a shirt. For some reason it was very important to me that I do it this way. Unfortunately, pinning the buttons equidistantly proved a much trickier proposition than other methods and so required laborious measurements.

The fun part was selecting my shades of red, blue and grey, and arranging the buttons over certain colors and in specific patterns so as to best present each one…


As one button was much larger than the rest (and much funnier), I made it the centerpiece:


A closer view…


Given the relative ease of the craft process and simplicity of the idea, I was rather pleased with the result, and declared it ready to hang. As it wouldn’t be framed, I made sure to extend the paint colors to the sides of the picture.


Whatever happens over the next four years, Obama’s presidency will remain an historic one, and so this project will forever be a talking point and memorial to one of America’s seminal moments. Perhaps I should’ve done something like this for the 2008 election.

Ah well.

I consider his 2012 victory almost as remarkable as his first.

Descent into Kitsch: Mosaic Cityscape

Posted in Art, Crafts, Sydney by humanb on October 13, 2012

I blame Mosaic Magic.

I was going pretty well with my mosaic art and craft. Not too kitsch. Definitely not chintzy. This was in large part due to the fact that I’ve avoided pictorials or any representation of real places or objects. My tables, benches and house numbers featured tesserae arranged in provocative color combinations – ordered or random – but never pictorial. That’s it.

But I still had a ton of unused tiles from Mosaic Magic in colors that didn’t excite me on their own, though when seen as a pile on the store website, had looked marvellous:

And worse, I only had a few of each color such that whatever I’d make would require most of these tiles in unrelated colours.

So I went representational.

I blame my neighbourhood church too.

The Church by the Bridge in my neighbourhood of Kirribilli hosts an annual art competition called “I Heart Kirribilli“. Anyone – regardless of residential address – is invited to submit to the competition an art work that features our neighbourhood. I’ve always wanted to enter the competition – not because I’d ever thought I’d be a serious contender for a prize. It just seemed like a fun excuse for drawing or painting any number of lovely scenes that can be found in my neighbourhood on any given day.

It really is a beautiful place to live:

One of the most memorable (and most seen) views of my neighbourhood is from the ferry in Sydney Harbour, looking directly at Kirribilli’s most exclusive waterfront apartments at the foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I’ve always thought the neighbourhood looked very village-like from this view: a little city by the sea. Cozy, charming and fun. Pretty even, despite the ugliness of many of the individual buildings.

You know – like a cityscape mosaic made of unwanted tiles.

Look closely, and you’ll notice that many of the neighbourhood buildings feature render and brick in ugly reds, browns and greys, as well as roof tiles in variations of orange – precisely the colours I was struggling to use.

A Kirribilli mosaic seemed like a brilliant solution to my overstock problem. All of the pieces were literally falling into place.

One by one…

Building by building…

My tesserae were only 1 cm x 1 cm, which I had always thought too small in previous projects. For this project, however, the tesserae proved too big. My buildings looked pixellated like some 1980s Macintosh game…

The individual tiles were also impossible to glue on straight. Remember, these tiles are the size of fingernails.

Gluing the tiles took much longer than I’d expected – a good two days in front of the TV. Fortunately, the grouting took less than an hour.

And then came the fun part – wiping away the excess to reveal the (hopefully) beautiful picture beneath…

Okay. In sections, it looks promising. But the result was a bit of a disappointment.


This picture is the very definition of kitsch. Period. The colours are still ugly. The representation, dodgy. The execution, wobbly. It’s a bit of a mess, really.

So I did what every hack artist does in such a situation. I spent three days trying to frame it properly as if it were fine art worthy of such treatment.

I cut the pine planks with my jigsaw and painted the frame with a coat of thin, white watercolor paint. I think I’ve improved the mosaic with this frame. The simple, whitewashed wood has a calming effect – bringing order and refinement to the cacophony of loud and shiny colour.

But this mosaic by no means does justice to my little village by the sea. It does however, suggest it, I think, and for that I’m quietly satisfied. It’ll be a pleasant enough memory of this neighbourhood when I leave it.

And hey, it also uses 998 unwanted tiles!

It was also conveniently completed one week before the I Heart Kirribilli competition deadline. Would I be laughed at for deigning to enter this mess into the neighbourhood competition? Perhaps not, given the theme this year:

Seriously, if this mosaic doesn’t scream discord, contrast, friction and brokenness, what does? Surely there’s a place in the competition for my piece. A dark, back corner even?


I kept reading – something I really should have done before I started this project:

Um… where’s the mosaic category?


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