handmade nation *special edition* interview

by anne

in 2006 faythe levine traveled the country, putting 19,000 miles under her belt and visiting 15 cities to document the new wave of craft in the usa. in 2007 the trailer hit the web and the buzz built around this film. in 2008 the companion book (co-authored with cortney heimerl), handmade nation: the rise of diy, art, craft and design hit shelves. on thursday handmade nation premiers stateside in milwaukee, wisconsin (home base for faythe and cortney) and next week makes its way to the museum of art and design in nyc. while one chapter ends, the next is just beginning. we couldn’t let this labor of love go un-noticed, so lucky for us faythe and cortney agreed to take the time out of their incredibly busy schedules for an interview and insider look at the film and how it came to be. CLICK HERE for the full interview and behind the scenes images, or just click “read more” below. and for all the latest news including screenings and special events surrounding the film, check out the official blog. [thanks faythe and cortney! and congratulations to all who were involved in the film!]anne

CLICK HERE to read more.

Let’s start at the beginning. What are your backgrounds? How did you get into this?
[Faythe Levine] I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle where I became exposed to the underground punk scene in the early 1990’s including the female friendly riotgrrrl movement that was based out of Olympia, WA. The combination of having incredibly supportive parents and being a part of an underground community of progressive people taught me what D.I.Y. was. This led me to where I am today. After I graduated from High School I skipped out on going to college and stuck with my path of traveling, documenting (taking photos) and making stuff where ever I was. In 2001 I became aware of what I would now call the online D.I.Y. craft community and became hooked. I couldn’t believe I had found a group of like minded people motivated to create on their own terms- undefinable and creating a vast body of amazing work.

[Cortney Heimerl] I grew up making things.  My mother taught me how to sew at a very young age and my grandmothers taught me knitting and crocheting.  My mother is an incredibly creative woman and with her guidance, it seemed like it was possible to make absolutely anything.  I ended up getting my BFA in printmaking and art history.  While I was earning this, I co-directed a design collective called Fasten.  Fasten specialized in wearable art and sold at a local farmers market on Saturdays (this is actually where I met Faythe, who was selling at the time under her designer and gallery name Flying Fish Design.)  I produced a clothing line that utilized a lot of recycled materials and surface design methods that I had learned through art school.  I had always made stuff, but Fasten catapulted me into the realm of DIY and made me really interested in promoting arts locally, what women were doing with their creative skills and how easy it was (and incredibly challenging and rewarding at the same time) to run your own business.  After I graduated, I moved to NYC to attend NYU.  I earned my master’s in cultural theory.  When I returned to Milwaukee, Faythe and I reconnected and she approached me to help her write the book, Handmade Nation.

How have you been influenced by the wider craft movement? by other designers? which ones in particular?
[FL] When I still was making work under my name Flying Fish Design I think I was heavily influenced by other work in the indie craft scene. But a lot of my influence has followed me from my earlier punk days. The raw, hands-on, cut and paste and photocopied aesthetic still comes through in my work- I’d rather hand letter a flyer then use photoshop. Certain designers who’s work I respect definitely push me to want to make more, make better work and keep pushing forward. I am particularly love work by Kate Bingaman-Burt, Catherine Ryan, Maya Hayuk and Kelly Lynn Jones to name a few.

[CH] I think that the craft community is a burgeoning melting pot of ideas.  You can never tell what you are going to run into online, at craft fairs or at brick and mortar boutiques that will blow you away.  I am always on the lookout for these moments.

Do either of you have higher education art training? If so, how did that contribute to your craft? What advice would you give to anyone considering going to school vs. doing it on their own?
[FL] I feel my experience with not going to college is particularly successful. However, I can say that I am, and have always been, incredibly resourceful and motivated. I think that if one knows that they have the ability to set goals, finish projects and network outside an institution then skipping school to start (or forever) can be a very positive decision. There is something to be said for the resources that art school can provide, the supplies, the skills and the training are obviously incredibly important on a certain level. I think that following your gut is the best option, take community college classes first to see if you want to peruse certain fields then find a specialty school to invest in. Or look for masters of the trade and do an apprenticeship.

[CH] I have my BFA in printmaking and art history from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and my MA in cultural theory from New York University.  I was influenced to make things myself at an early age because of my mother and wanted to continue exploring that interest after I finished high school.  I would never give up the knowledge that I gained through academia or the hours in studio or critique.  I absolutely love to learn and thrived within the walls of academia.  I was constantly able to challenge myself and came into contact with professors that pushed me to explore new areas and push boundaries.  That being said, I do not think that higher education in the arts is necessary.  Academia is a place that I hold dear, but think that if you are a person that knows what you want and are motivated to go for it, the arts is a perfect place for individuals who are willing to work hard and contribute without the institutional backing that is required in other fields.  I would recommend that individuals considering academia or doing it on their own should look at themselves and consider what they have to gain and what environments they thrive in.

Faythe, you started out making sock monkeys. You’re an artist, business owner, author, band member (her band provides the soundtrack for the film) and filmmaker – what don’t you do? or rather, what’s next? what are your personal goals?
[FL] I’d love to take some time off, slow down and rest, but the reality is, now is not the time for that, and I would probably only be able to do so for a few weeks anyhow. I am currently working on a proposal for my second book with Princeton Architectural Press surrounding topics like craft, creativity, community and politics. I would love to spend 6 months in India exploring, photographing, breathing and learning. I would love to get a curating job somewhere and continue to promote all these amazing artists I have become familiar with. I would also really like to take some textile classes at some point and learn how to use a loom.

I love when peoples various interests come together for something bigger. [Faythe] Did you always know your band would be part of this project? How does your music relate to your art? Which came first?
[FL] Funny you should ask that. It never occurred to me to use my band Wooden Robot as the soundtrack to Handmade Nation. Then in March of 2007 when Cris Siqueira, my editor, was putting together the clip we launched on Youtube.com wanted to know what music to use it seemed like the easiest option so we didn’t have to worry about getting the rights to someone else’s songs. BUT, I didn’t think we would use Wooden Robot for the entire film people were responding so well to the clip and giving feedback about the music we went for it. It was really synchronous that we had just finished recording our album (still unreleased at this time) and had a lot of tracks to work with.

Where did the idea for this film come from? Is it something that just hit you one day or was it floating around in your head for awhile?
[FL] After vending in my first indie craft fair (Renegade Chicago, 2003) I knew something big was going on. Since I have always compulsively photographed all parts of my life, right away I wanted to do some sort of coffee table book. Then my business took off with the popularity of my “Messenger Owl” and I pushed it to the back burner until 2006. It’s funny that the book did end up coming out first since that was my original idea to start. I ended up making a film because I had the resources, like a best friend who was a fantastic filmmaker (Micaela O’Herlihy, director of photography) and a number of other important people who helped that work in production.

In general, where do you find your inspiration?
[FL] I have a difficult time not being inspired. There is always so much to do, so much going on, so many beautiful things to loose oneself in. I think there is also a ton of crap and ugliness out there but when you look at what amazing work is coming out of our generation it makes me want to burst, but before bursting I want to tell people about it. It’s so empowering that we are making this new creative revolution happen right now.

Before this project, did you collaborate with others? How do you collaborate with others?
[FL] Really my only other collaboration to speak of previous to the film and book is my shop Paper Boat Boutique & Gallery which I co-own with Kim Kisiolek. We work incredibly well together partially because we both fill very different rolls within our business.

I actually find it really difficult to collaborate with others so working on this film with Micaela and Cris and the book with Cortney has been a real challenge (for me and them dealing with me). I’d like to partially blame being an only child, but I think it’s more about wanting to work at my own pace, make all the decisions and have full creative control. I’ve learned a lot about myself from this process and will probably do something solo next.

One of my favorite aspects about this film is that it’s coming out Milwaukee. I think it makes the message that much more powerful than, say, it were to come out of NYC. Can you tell us about the design scene there and how it’s inspired you?
[FL] I have lived in Milwaukee for about 8 years; since I arrived it has changed drastically, but still holds the charm that lured me here in the first place. People often ask me how I ended up living here and why I don’t live in a more metropolitan city with a more established art scene. I had a pen pal from when I was 17 (who I had met a number of times over the years) who lived here, I was living in Minneapolis, ready to move, visited Milwaukee and became enamored. The city has a great music and art scene that teeters between D.I.Y. and very professional, it is also incredibly affordable and centrally located, which for me is a huge plus since I am traveling all the time- no 6+ hour flights from LA to NY for me. Again, going back to the self-motivation aspect of my personality, if you live somewhere that has room for growth then you can fill in that empty space and Milwaukee has provided me a canvas for just that.

[CH] Milwaukee is a gem of a city.  I left it to live in NYC for two years and after graduating, missed it enough to move back.  The cost of living is low; you can work a service industry job a few hours a week and earn enough to have your own apartment and a studio and still have enough time to market yourself and reach out to others.  We have a few really successful and independent businesses and galleries that create a very interesting community revolving around the arts.  Young people have the opportunity to work their day jobs while contributing to the art scene.  Every year it becomes bigger and better and stronger.  Amazing things come out of New York, but it is really inspiring to me to be a part of an arts community that is a little unexpected, but still packs a mean punch.

I once heard a director say your first film is your best film because you have no idea what you’re doing. Do you think being a first time filmmaker helped you in this case? Can we expect a follow up?
[FL] Ha! Not any time soon. It’s definitely true I had no idea what I was doing but things fell into place really well. I would not start production on another film unless I had funding in order a head of time, but I could see directing another project. I do a lot of art direction for my friend Sam Macon (director of the opening credits for Handmade Nation) and really enjoy that- I would love to work on a film with a budget and get to go wild with set design.

How long was the process from start to finish? Did the film or your expectations change during the process?
[FL] I started pre-production in early 2006, we started shooting in June and will of wrapped up production this January (but there is still so much to do!) The film most definitely changed along the way as well as my expectations—but I really tried to keep an open mind and listen to Cris when we were editing. She and Micaela had as much of a hand in shaping the final film as I did.

How did you manage to balance everything else you have going on while making a feature length documentary?
[FL] People ask me this all the time. I don’t know. Certain things suffer while some things get more attention. I work all the time. I had the incredible support of my close friends and family, specifically Nathan Lilley. That made a huge difference. I’m pretty wiped out though, I have learned that I need to say no to some stuff, sometimes, it’s not very easy for me to do.

The film is not out yet, but already has received a lot of attention. You even got a book out of it! Did any of this catch you off guard?
[FL] It all caught me off guard. The pre-success of the film is insane, I just hope people like it, or benefit from it, it’s not a traditional documentary at all. A lot of people have told Cortney and I that the book is very inspiring, empowering and educational. I can only hope the film evokes the same emotions.

What surprised you most in making this film? What did you learn about yourself in the process?
[FL] The continual support and kind words from the community has been so encouraging. I wasn’t expecting everyone to be so invested in the process and outcome. I learned that it is possible to spread yourself too thin, but sometimes that is the best choice to get shit done. I also learned I am really good at spending money I don’t have!!

Obviously there are so many talented folks out there. How did you choose the ones for the documentary and book?
[FL] I choose to work with people who were in the locations we were shooting in of course. I also had a working relationship with over 90% of the folks I interviewed either through Paper Boat, Art vs. Craft (the indie craft fair I produce) and online. This made the producer element of the film really smooth- people knew who I was so they were really willing to let me talk with them, let me into their studios, etc. The featured makers for the book were pulled out from our film footage.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the DIY movement since you started the film?
[FL] The biggest change was the co-opting of the aesthetic, similar to punk, by advertisers and corporations. The realization that we were a marketable demographic- it was and is insane to watch.

Where do you see this movement going in 5 years? In 10? Do you ever fear it will get “too big”? How do you see yourselves fitting into it?
[FL] I think D.I.Y will always exist; it’s been around forever, it just takes different shapes. For some of us it is a lifestyle not just a trend and for others it’s vice versa—but what a positive trend you know? I’m not worried about it getting too big, it’s a positive movement, people creating can only be a good thing. I see my roll as a promoter and curator within the movement continuing, I hope I can continue to discover new work that keeps me motivated to keep wanting to tell people about it.

[CH] I think that there will always be a place for people who want to do it themselves.  I want crafting and making things by hand to infiltrate regular commerce and create a counter force to the global economy. Making things yourself stimulates the local economy and creates strong individuals that contribute to society.  It also makes things a lot less cookie-cutter and a lot more interesting.  I do not think about crafting becoming too big, but instead I hope that continues to influence individuals to create their own place in the world that challenges them and inspires them.  I hope that it is contagious and many, many people will consider doing things creative with their time- starting creative businesses- supporting other people who make things- etc.

This project was obviously a labor of love. What advice do you have for anyone thinking of undertaking a major project? Would you do it all over again if given the chance?
[FL] Oh, it was more than worth it for me to do this project and I would do it again in a second. I’m not one to tell anyone to not do something they have a drive for so my advice would be to stay organized, follow through and document the process.

[CH] I would never give up the opportunity to write Handmade Nation or be an assistant producer on the film.  I have a love of people who make things because they feel that certain things should exist and Handmade Nation was my thing.  There is nothing like it anywhere in the world and I am thrilled with the amount of attention it has received.  My advice is to concentrate on your love of the project and not monetary gain – because there probably won’t be much of it.  Your love of a project will carry you through the dark times and you will feel incredibly rewarded when it is completed.

Clearly d*s readers are well aware of the handmade/DIY movement, but to this day I’m still surprised how many people I encounter that are still not familiar with Etsy or similar sites. What’s your advice for the best way to spread the word?
[FL] I think that passing on links of websites, blogs and brick and mortar shops that support independent artists is the best way to educate people that you can support the arts.

[CH] This is always a really tough question to answer.  Even explaining exactly what we are trying to cover in Handmade Nation is a challenge.  My grandmother constantly asks me why I did not put my mother in my book and I attempt to explain the depth and breadth of the word craft and how we are concentrating on this small, fairly radical, very specific group of younger people.  I do not believe that one type of making is more important than another or that one generation is more influential.  I think that the more people make stuff, hopefully the more inspired others will become by that stuff.  People who are inspired will seek out ways to be able to learn or join or support.  Keep showing people your stuff, keep talking about how you love making it and give good advice on where others can get started.  The crafting community has been growing in leaps and bounds and will continue to.  The internet is a valuable resource that is an extremely easy place to get started looking.  Magazines like Bust and Make: and Craft: are resources that can point you in one direction or another.  The information is widely available, people who want to learn just need to look.

What kind of events will be accompanying the film openings? Where can people expect to see showings? How can people become involved?
[FL] Different events will happen in different cities, we have a panel following the screening opening with Mandy Greer, Kate Bingaman-Burt and myself led by Callie Janoff at the NY screening at the Museum of Arts and Design. I am just starting to schedule events around the finished film, it’s just me doing all the bookings and emailing so it’s unfolding slowly, however we will be in Portland, San Francisco, Melbourne Australia to name a few scheduled spots. I’m always updating the blog with new events- if people want to receive updates I send an email once every month or so to our mailing list that you can sign up for at www.handmadenationmovie.com.

Thank you, Cortney and Faythe! Best wishes to you both, the book, the film and everything else!!

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