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Years ago, I sold a “niche market” pot to granola types and had an Etsy shop. Then it gathered cobwebs for a decade or so.

Let’s just pretend the cat hair and dust are on your screen, ok?

Now that Pandemic and studio closure have thrown my focus onto making jewelry (which I call “dangly bits” because I consider myself hilarious) – I am relearning the world of Etsy, which has apparently evolved from an online shopping mall to a gigantic market machine that requires lots of tutorial watching in order to navigate.

This may not scream Christmas, but there is frankincense in the little glass bottle.
See also: Buddha

As a middle aged person with older parents and younger kids, I do my best to keep up with technologies that didn’t exist until I was grown with kids of my own. So I’m doing my best. Mostly that means doing what Etsy tells me.

I quickly lost interest in standing six feet from other masked post office customers waiting to mail a package, so I learned how to buy and print my postage through Etsy and ship same day or next day without interacting with potential cootie-carriers. My packaging game is strong, and I post pix of my necklaces and earrings on my facebook page as often as I can without feeling like I’m abusing my friends for marketing purposes.

My daughter – masked and carrying a chlorox wipe – is visiting from her lonesome college town apartment for thanksgiving, and I’m going to have her model some stuff and help me make videos, which Etsy says I need.

Etsy also strongarmed me into offering 20% off of everything for a cyberweek sale, so I did that too.

Anyway, if all y’all are shopping from home this season, bookmark my shop maybe and stop back when you are in giftie mode? I am happy to gift wrap stuff and add your personal note.

Here’s my link:

Some time in September, (because who needs a calendar anymore?) Jeff lost his job and we fled to the family cottage in Michigan, bringing the cats and some boxes of art supplies.

My gelatin printing stuff didn’t make the “essential” list, so when I started making more of my little wooden houses for my jewelry and wanted to gelli print them to get the cool weathered layered surfaces I love, I had to improvise.

I bought a bottle of glycerine in a drug store, and boxes of knox unflavored gelatin at the grocery store, and reduced the batch size of the homemade gelli print recipe here.

I make my own gelatin plates because a) I teach, and want to keep classes affordable and b) I can abuse them and then microwave and repour them in any shape I want and 3) I hate projects that start with “drop 60 bucks at a big chain craft store”.

So I melted the stuff in a pyrex measuring cup and poured it into a plastic magic wok carry out container (don’t judge me, fast food is fast.)

Gelli plate. It’s better to pour them into something flat bottomed actually so you can flip them and use both sides, but I’m at the lake and using whatever I can find. Dollar tree metal brownie pans are my first choice.

So I have some odds and ends of acrylics up here, but they are the tube kind real painters (like Jeff) use. I prefer the cheap bottle ones but these are fine if you give them time to dry before messing with them.

Gelli printing involves rolling paint onto this rubbery surface that feels very much like a sturdier jello jiggler, making patterns and layers in it, and then pressing paper (or whatever) onto it to pull a monoprint. I roll square wooden dowels across the surface and then turn those into little houses like this:

But while I was at it, I decided I should gelli print some paper to cut into strips for rolled paper beads that would match my houses (that’s maybe my next blog post) and also gelli print the backs of the playing cards I use to ship earrings because OMG some of those are super ugly.

So the backs of these cards went from Eeeeww to Oooooooo.

Also the beads, which I will go into later, look like this:

Of course, I didn’t have my brayers, and those are not cheap, but I had the little plastic fuzzy roller that comes in a paint roller kit for a buck from dollar tree. I wrapped it in some black electrical tape looking stuff I found in a junk drawer, like the stuff they wrap around hockey sticks, and it worked fine.

Also: if you can get your hands on thin styro, like meat or produce trays from the supermarket or the top of a styro egg carton, you can draw a design in it by pressing hard with a pen or pencil, and experiment with that while making prints. The little faces on the photo below were from a sheet of thin styro. I ordered some a long time ago and keep a few in my journal to doodle on when I am bored, ie: board meetings of any sort.

Just remember any words will have to be backward if you want them to be legible.

I have to throw one more thing in here, because I stayed up late last night listening to my audiobook and making gelli strip rolled paper beads. This morning I was painting them with clear nail polish one by one by one and suddenly had an idea. Check me out, lol:

So there’s my project for today. More later on rolled paper beads and anything else you ask for, just shoot me a note.

Here’s a link to my Etsy store, if you want to see the end results:

Ecoprinting is an art form unto itself. I encourage everyone to learn more about it! My purpose here is just a fun experiment you can do with minimal supplies, while camping or after a gathering hike. Spring, summer and fall leaves will all ecoprint!

You can find silk and wool cheaply by looking at labels in the Goodwill or at garage sales. A particular style of grandpa shirts with buttons and short sleeves are often wool. Off whites and light yellows work fine. If you prefer to buy fabric. I like Dharma Trading Company. Any 100% cotton will work, including muslin, sheets and even t shirt fabric.
The key to campfire steaming is water, water, water. These can be boiled in a can or mess kit. If you make foil packets, be aware that they can dry out quickly! Keep adding water. I use a garage sale steamer clearly markered STUDIO USE ONLY.
These prints will darken as they are exposed to air, and again as they are ironed. I use them to cover journals, sew little gathering pouches, and roll into beads for my jewelry here.
Experiment with boiling leaves and papers between ceramic tiles tied of clamped together — rolling fabric around rusty pipe, or using a copper pipe which gives leaves a greener tint. You can soak leaves in alum, or rust-water, for different effects. My girl scouts were good as spotting wild roses because they are a sure print, and a reason to learn about bilateral symmetry in design. For orange, try onion skins, or ask your florist for eucalyptus trimmings. (They smell lovely while steaming, but take a full two hours to print.) Enjoy!

Questions? You can always send me a note:

Here’s another great fall project that can be done at home, at camp or in the woods. Like the pokeberry ink, it can start discussions (homeschool projects, scout badgework, etc) linked to history, chemistry, tree and leaf ID, art, traditional trades and crafts, and more. Step by step below. I will post a quick video on how to accordion fold fabric in a future post.
Walnut trees are easy to find this time of year. Drive along a country road and look for the bruised green tennis-ball-like walnuts on the ground. Walnut leaves turn yellow in fall and have a distinctive look. Once you get familiar with these you can almost locate them by smell in the woods. Neighbors with walnut trees would probably thank you for picking them up before they have to rake or mow their lawns!
I show my scouts this leaf as an example of bilateral symmetry. Both sides mirror each other down a central line. (If you can find a daisy or sunflower shaped blossom while you are hiking, you can throw radial symmetry into the conversation as well.) Save a few of these leaves for an ecoprinting project we’re going to do later.
While you are out poking around, gather up bits of rusty metal. Even in wilderness area I found old bottle caps and Copenhagen lids. I am not above wiggling a rusty nail out of a rotting wooden fence. Drop these into a plastic bottle. (If you are planning ahead for a backpacking trip, pack an empty water bottle with a tight lid and a few inches of vinegar in the bottom, well labeled, to collect your bits of iron.)
Gather walnuts into a bag using gloves. The juice in these green protective husks is pale and yellow, but when oxygen hits it, it will turn into a dark brown stain famous for its permanence. If you slice one, you can watch it turn brown before your eyes.
The camping version of this involves dropping walnuts into a steel soup can or a coffee can full of water to tuck into the coals of your campfire overnight. It doesn’t have to be very big. I camp with an extra mess kit that is just for art supplies. At home or at a camp with electricity I have a well labeled garage sale crockpot for this purpose. Fill the container with walnuts and add as much water as it will hold. In both cases I do this in the evening to finish the project in the morning.
This is a flour sack. You can buy them cheaply in the kitchen aisle at a Walmart, or pay more money in the craft/fabric aisle or at a craft store. They are just woven cotton and a good size for camping purposes. I wash them out by hand with Dawn dish detergent to remove any sizing, rinse well and air dry. Make sure they are not exposed to weird laundry chemicals or fabric softener. I usually do an accordion fold, which is just a simple back and forth like you would use to make a paper fan in grade school. Then you can either roll it up like sushi or zigzag it up like this one. Tie it with a scrap of fabric or piece of twine, pretty tightly.
The juice from the walnuts, whether they spent the night in the crockpot or the campfire, will be a deep brown. Dip one side of your folded bundle in the walnut.
For this project I went with the sure fire method even though it meant I would not get reds. That bottle full of vinegar and rusty nails, after sitting overnight, made a pretty powerful solution. (You are still wearing gloves, right?) I poured a little of my rust vinegar into the bottom of a can (foil would work) and dipped the un-walnutted side of my bundle. Then I set the whole thing aside and went off to do some other project.
The longer you let this bundle rest and start to dry, the more crisp your lines will be. If you unwrap it wet, it can start to bleed at the edges. Hang on a line to dry. Rinse and wash it, and use as a towel, a gathering bag, a sitting space. The colors should be permanent.
This one turned out nicely. The solid brown stripes are pure walnut. The dark blue is where the rust vinegar interacted with the walnut. The light tan spots were pinched into the folds by the tight binding and made kind of a tie-dye effect. If you are working with scouts or kids make sure before you start that everybody has sharpied their initials onto a corner of their fabric so they will be able to find theirs on the clothesline later.

The best things in life are free. Here’s a nature craft project that’s great for scouts and camping trips:

How to identify pokeberries. They are everywhere. Because birds poop them.

When I do a nature art week at girl scout camp, this is one of the first projects we do. Pokeberries are not edible, and will stain hands, but the colors are glorious and it can lead to some great experiments with ink making, dye, and how acidity/alkalinity affects color. This year I gathered them into a big ziploc bag.

So much pink and purple, and it stains. Wear gloves.

If you are getting set for camping or backpacking, bring along a heavy duty resealable bag, a couple pinches of baking soda, a scrap of white fabric (cotton, silk or wool), a little vinegar, some salt, and rubber gloves. You will want to bring or reuse a plastic beverage bottle of some sort to store the juice.


Pokeberry has been used to make ink for a long time. Civil war soldier, settlers and others used it to write letters. It started out purple, and over time went orangey-brown. If it was tucked into a book or otherwise away from light it stayed darker.

If you are camping or just doing a quick experiment, you won’t have time to experiment with different preparations, but if you want to store the ink for a longer time, you’ll need to take some extra steps.

Preserve, or ferment if you plant to store it for any length of time!

The only real difference between an ink, a paint and a dye is how thick it is. If you want to keep your pokeberry juice long enough to experiment with it, you will want to preserve or ferment it. I once set up a fermentation experiment in my studio, with glass bottles and tight corks. I came back after a long hot weekend to find the bottle labeled “plain pokeberry juice” had dispersed its contents onto my ceiling.
Preserve, ferment intentionally, or risk a colorful explosion. How’s that for interesting art supplies?

Color magic and a chemistry demo for homeschoolers, scouts and curious grown ups.
These are the changes after a couple of days. The dark purple/high PH stripes are more fugitive than the higher acid, but the pink is darkening.

Here’s an easy list if you want something to print:

1.) Cut pokeberries into a large ziploc bag. Label carefully and keep away from little kids, the berry seeds are poisonous.

2.) Squeeze out the juice with your hands, then snip off a bottom corner of the bag and let the juice run into a bottle. If you are home, a dollar-tree, (craft-use-only) colander and funnel can help, but are not required.

3.) Pokeberry juice stored tightly will ferment and explode, so add salt, or vinegar, or alcohol, ferment it yourself with yeast, or let its own wild yeast do the job. There are lots of articles on different approaches, look them up or experiment on your own.

4.) Acidity makes colors bright pink, and alkalinity turns it purple which eventually fades to tan. Experiment with combinations on paper, fabric, and other surfaces, keeping in mind that exposure to light will make the brightest colors temporary.

I will be going into specifics about ink making in an upcoming blog when I am working with walnut ink and handmade quill pens. Stay tuned.

My daughter Molly at a fashion show fundraiser in a dress I dyed with pokeberry… and pokeberry earrings made from black glass beads strung on magenta. It is kind of a dusty rose color a year later.

My friends keep telling me to publish a book. I’m working on it, but in the meantime I feel like the old nature based skills should belong to everyone. They are history, science and art, and demos like this might be useful for homeschoolers, scout leaders, outdoorsy creatives and other quirky folks.

My favorite creative projects do NOT begin with a trip to the craft store, and you sure don’t have to pay to watch me do this stuff on my blog. But if you have a zillion extra dollars and want to see more of these, a few bucks would be awesome. I added a link below. I kind of hate it (monthly? yearly? omg) and this whole concept is embarrassing but it’s boilerplate and I can’t find anything smaller or more subtle. Anyway thanks.


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I wrote this in 2018 on a college parents’ page, and while 2020 has its own challenges, it still might ring true for parents navigating this path. Hopefully it will privide a trail of breadcrumbs:

Thoughts from a mom of 2 upperclassmen Falcons, and a longtime teacher of college students: (for what it’s worth). One of the things I wish I’d figured out earlier was how to step back, without worrying, and let my kid make messes and clean them up, get stuck and learn how to fix it.

Because this safe middle-ground between school and job, between having parents and being parents, is practice for the adult world.

If you have an annoying roommate, you learn skills to deal with an annoying coworker. If your teacher is demanding, so might be your boss one day. If your advanced math teacher speaks English with a strong “foreign” accent, you can practice a job skill for an Engineering career full of people from different nations.

I know now that on a bad day or in a weak moment, a kid will call home and lament – be comforted – and then hang up, cheer up, and have a great week, while I worried and wondered and didn’t hear a peep. So I learned to listen and then let it go.

I learned to answer their drama-du-jour with some version of: “What’s the resource there? Who can help you figure this out? Talk to your people. You’ve got this.” If you believe they can handle things, so will they. Fake it ’til you make it.

I learned that a lot of kids still think they are earning grades for their parents, so if the wheels start coming off the wagon, some will preemptively call home to blame the teacher, the advisor, the college, the technology. None of these are perfect, of course, but sometimes we aren’t getting the whole story.

The old parental urge to put on a cape and come to the rescue doesn’t fit here anymore, no matter how many times we Insist that We Are Paying For This and demand satisfaction. If you would not march into your adult child’s future workplace and confront the boss, you shouldn’t get involved here, either.

They will have to handle all kinds of bureaucracy, administrivia and complications in life, from doing taxes to waiting at motor vehicles to balancing their budgets. This is a practice ground for adulting. And since students are adults, the college (and its teachers and staff) are not even legally allowed to talk to parents about a kid’s grades, behavior or finances unless they have written advance permission. Trust your kid to work it out.

When my toddlers – and later, students – used to come to tattle or report some problem, I used the line a wise mom taught me: I listened sympathetically and asked, “How did you handle that?” (It still works for college kids.)

Remember that it’s just college. We have not sent them off to sea or off to war. Our fortunate kids are in a safe place, surrounded by other young people also working toward the future. They have shelter, food and amenities, a place to gather and make friends, teachers and tutors and counselors, a health center when they are sick, security guards on campus, RAs in the dorms. They will learn (or not) to do school without reminders and hand holding, to make choices without fear of parental consequences, and they will find their way.

About half won’t finish college – that can be ok too. But while they are at school, they have both freedom and a safety net. It’s a good place to try your wings. So we all need to lean back, relax, trust the system. We can’t manage their lives from home any more than we could drive the car from the passenger seat (or hit that imaginary brake) when they were just learning to drive. Trust that our kids will reinvent themselves, go through phases and try on attitudes, test their own beliefs, lose friends and make new ones.

(I’ve learned to keep my thoughts to myself when they come home with wild looks or wild friends… “This, too, will pass.”)

Lean back, relax, trust your kid. It’s not about us, anymore – and if it is, it shouldn’t be.

One more: It was weird when my kids went off to school. My house felt empty, I wasn’t sure who I was if you took “mom” out of my job description. Two things happened: 1.) Parents who had BTDT predicted (correctly) that those kids would be back to the nest – summers, life changes, job hunting, in betweens. And 2) “New Normal” slowly but surely took over my house, life and marriage. After all, there was life *before* kids and would be a long life *after* – and before long our energy went in a lot of fun and freeing directions. (Even to the point where bird coming back to the nest took a little… accommodating. lol. )

Sorry so long winded. I’m just smiling over the annual flow of this list and the regularity of what comes next and next. High five to all the Falcon parents – we did the best we could to parent them with all our flaws and good intentions – and now they are grown and we can call it a job well done. The journey from here – for better or worse – belongs to them.

It’s been a weird summer, right?
But people in pandemic mode are staying home, planting gardens, tending flowerbeds and otherwise spending more time appreciating their own back yards, balconies and community planting spots.

So: here’s a fun and creative project, sweetened by some random prizes. Before your corn, peas, tomatoes and strawberries start tempting the birds, woodchucks and rabbits, it’s time to make a scarecrow! Here are the rules:

  • Make a scarecrow! Deadline is the 4th of July, 2020.
  • Post a picture of your entry “at work” on the Scarecrow Challenge facebook page. (If you’re not a facebooker, email it to me at and I will add it for you! I will also post images here on the public blog.
  • PRIZES include:

A $70 mani-pedi at Lisa’s Nails

A $30 gift card for Black Frog Brewery

A $30 gift card at Big C’s BBQ

And lots of great second hand gardening books!

Scarecrow in garden
I got involved in our library system’s “Maketober” program and have been taking gelatin printing classes on a rolling cart to different libraries all month, teaching up to 12 students per class.  I am making barely enough to cover supplies but wanted a chance to offer classes to folks who can’t always afford them.
In case it’s useful, here’s my setup:
Go to a dollar store and buy 10 square metal brownie pans for a buck each, and 10 square glass cutting boards, also a buck each.  In the hardware aisle you will find little paint roller touch up kits for a buck, a black plastic tray and a foam roller and brush.
Then, in the storage and tupperware aisle,  get 10 plastic boxes that are at least as wide as the rollers (stackable).  Mine are for silverware and have a grey textured rubber floor. Get a stack of one dollar plastic tablecloths in the birthday party department, and a stack of kids scribble pads in the craft/journals area.  Throw in some dollar refill packs of diaper wipes for students to wipe gloved hands and gelli plates.
I order glycerine in big bottles from Amazon, buy gelatin at the grocery store, and make several batches of gelli plate recipe with the recipe on the frugal crafter website. (I also print it out to give students.) I also get a box of non latex rubber gloves.
I pour the hot mix into the brownie pans – use a junk mail credit card or the edge of a postcard to drag any bubbles to the edge – and let them harden overnight. Not too thick – maybe 1/4 inch?
The next day I loosen the edges by pressing gently and pull each plate out, centering it on a glass cutting board and trimming the ragged edges square with an exacto blade. (I sometimes cut the corners off, because the cutting boards have little rubber feet and I intend to stack these for transport and storage.)
I leave these out for another day to cure.
I get the cheapest acrylics I can find, apple barrel or craft (something) at Walmart or on sale with a coupon at craft stores, or look for bargains on sets of paints on line.
I open all the paint roller kits and take out the foam rollers – toss the brushes in a drawer for some other project. Foam rollers actually work better than expensive brayers for beginners, who tend to use too much paint and pull just the top layer when they print. Let them hear the sticky-sticky noise and see the textured surface of a thin enough layer.
The kids’ drawing pad paper has a lot of “tooth” and makes good prints, as it grabs onto the paint and absorbs better than printer paper. I always throw in a couple of pads of construction paper just for experimentation.
A couple times a year when the gelli plates start looking a little ragged – (newbies press hard with stencils and foam stamps) – I cut them in cubes, put them in a big pyrex measuring cup, nuke them in the microwave and then repour through a (dollar tree) strainer (catches paint chips) to make new plates.
When I “set the table” for class, everybody gets a plate and a stack of papers. I put a row of the plastic boxes down the center of the table with a generous blob of paint in each one, each color with its own foam roller. Students face each other across a narrow table to better reach, and we say “please pass” for colors. I sprinkle assorted small stencils, textured foam sheets and fat foam stamps down the table.
Teaching tips: It’s hard to get non-arty beginners to relax and stop overthinking the process. I have them pencil their initials on a stack of papers and I string a clothesline for wet prints, telling them “more is more – learn as you go – ugly prints can be a background for something you discover later – it’s just a piece of paper, and nobody is going to make gallery quality work today, it’s all about discovery and happy accident and play”.
I don’t talk too long up front, just do a quick demo on two plates: a row of red dots UNDER a full surface coating of yellow, and then a row of red dots on TOP of a full surface coating of yellow. I can show them through the glass base that painting on top of paint is a waste of time – then I pull the prints to show them.
They like to start with stencils – removing paint with one paper to roll new color into the shapes – remove the stencil, add a second color – and then get more adventurous as they go.
I’m from the Midwest where people ask “what’s it FOR?” so I bring my print-modpodged journal, and my clear phone case with the print cut to fit.
I bring a set of blank greeting cards and envelopes and pull them out toward the end of class once students have discovered a stencil or effect they like best. They slip a sheet of paper inside the card to print it without smudging up the back, and then we do just the flap of a matching envelope.
At the end of class I put all the wet paint rollers in a giant ziploc bag, stack the painty stencils between diaper wipes in another bag, stack the paint trays, and take the whole mess back to the studio to drop in a sink full of soapy water.
Student prints are usually dry enough to stack and take home, though I advise students to unstack them once home so they can cure without sticking together.

Hope any of this is useful for teachers. I usually teach adults, but cub scouts and girl scouts get a kick out of this class as well.  All the supplies stack neatly into a storage tub with the brownie pans and glycerine/gelatin bottles for later batches. Remind everybody to dress for mess, or provide aprons – acrylic will ruin clothes.16864273_10208596570928275_5241680280271889462_n

A rising tide lifts all boats, folks, and people who make art learn to appreciate what they are seeing when they shop for art! Get out there and share the joy!

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!


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.