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 V.18 No.35 | August 27 - September 2, 2009 

Film Review

Handmade Nation

She’s crafty: DIY documentary chronicles indie crafts movement

Handmade Nation

Directed by Faythe Levine

Several years ago, Faythe Levinephotographer, businesswoman and prominent figure in the growing indie craft movementset out to document the world of DIY art, craft and design. This deeply personal quest led to the creation of a just-released feature documentary called Handmade Nation and a popular companion book of the same name. Camera in hand, Levine traveled the country to interview a tight-knit (so to speak) community of creators who have thrown off the yoke of traditional, well-segregated arts (sculpture, photography, painting, lithography) to embrace knitting, embroidery, printmaking, zine publishing, glass jewelry fabrication, whateversometimes all at once.

Handmade Nation begins with a charming stop-motion animated credit sequence that gives viewers a crash course in the sort of rough-but-beautiful style we’re talking about. Over the course of her short-but-sweet film, Levine journeys to basements, garages, galleries and art collectives around the nation to see how and why these do-it-yourself crafts are being produced. Some creators are amateur, some are professional, all are exuberant about what they do.

Among the people we meet are the pioneering Austin Craft Mafia, the editor of KnitKnit magazine, the Dirt Palace feminist collective in Rhode Island and a couple of enterprising entrepreneurs in Washington who started BuyOlympia.com. In listening to these diverse artists, it’s clear there’s no single, overarching philosophy behind this movement. Some are in it because they love to sew. Others are in it because they’re committed to the idea of recycling, reusing and repurposing. Still others are excited to be “subverting capitalist, big-box retail culture.” As each person talks about his or her work, however, common threads (pun intended) emerge. In today’s impersonal, mass-market culture, the idea of owning somethingbe it a screenprinted T-shirt or an embroidered portrait of Loretta Lynnthat was actually made by a real human being is somewhat revolutionary.

A stitch in time saves nine. (Whatever that means.)
A stitch in time saves nine. (Whatever that means.)

Clearly, many of the creators on display in Handmade Nation are trying to turn the idea of traditional arts and crafts on its ear. Most are self-taught. The few that did go to art school are quick to point out the uselessness of their education. These people aren’t interested in filling the shelves of Wal-Mart (or the walls of the Getty, for that matter). Take, for example, Whitney Lee, who works in the medium of latch-hook rugsthe favored hobby of grandmothers in the ’70s. Instead of rainbows or unicorns, however, Lee’s subject matter is pinups, nudes and other typically “pornographic” imagery. Or witness the work of Knitta Please, a Houston-based guerilla art movement that “tags” lamp posts, street signs and utility poles with colorful knit sheathes.

There’s also a strong feminist philosophy at work in this needle-and-thread, glitter-and-glue movement. At first, that might sound odd. Knitting, quilting and embroidery were traditionally “women’s work”domestic tasks taught to every aspiring housewife. Feminist movements of the ’60s and ’70s were happy to overthrow such old-fashioned notions. But today, where nearly every commodity we touch is mass-produced in China, making something with your own two hands is a mighty empowering concept. And it’s not just women who are getting into it. At one point, Levine interviews a husband-and-wife team of fabric artists. The husband grew up playing hockey and quilting. He highlights and even lampoons this dichotomy by showing off an elaborate quilt with the subtly stitched logo “Quilting Is for Pussies.” Humor, irreverence and counterculture expression are the watchwords of today’s crafty creators.

Admittedly, first-time filmmaker Levine isn’t the most accomplished of camera-slingers. Her focus is often fuzzy and there’s some egregious use of the zoom lens. (At least there are no star wipes.) In most other documentaries, these things would be viewed as weaknesses. But with Handmade Nation, they’re somehow appropriate, evoking the quirky, unpolished, handmade style of the subject matter. There’s no guiding narration here, either. But as Levine’s interviews skip haphazardly from city to city, from craft to craft, a vivid collage portrait begins to emerge.

Given the explosive popularity in craft sites like etsy.com and the fact that everyone from Todd Oldham to Amy Sedaris is writing craft books, it’s safe to say that DIY crafts are “of the moment.” Levine’s film has captured that zeitgeist in a sparkle-knit tea cozy. Whether this trend will be the next green/organic/local and get co-opted by corporate America remains to be seen. In the meantime, Handmade Nation is sure to inspire you to do one of two things: Make more art or buy more art. Hopefully both.


Handmade Nation

68 minutes (Opens Tuesday 9/1)

 

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