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For the Joy of It: A Gift for the Impossible Person to Get Gifts For
Reflections on making art for art’s sake
When I was a kid, creativity was a great source of pleasure and happiness. I wrote and made art because it was fun, not because I was thinking about how to make a sale or what people would buy or who my audience was and how to build it. Capitalism tends to ruin creative joy for most folks once we reach adulthood. We are told we have to do practical things to “earn a living”1 and the stuff we love to do must take a back seat. That or we need to make it marketable2 to prove we are allowed to do it outside of our “free time.”
This is all bullshit, of course. We are under no obligation to commodify creative projects in order to justify spending time on them.
In 2022 I decided to reclaim the creative freedom of my childhood by making a point of creating art for the joy of it alone. This is a practice I intend to continue with in 2023 and one I want to invite ya’ll to try yourselves. I’m going to do this by sharing reflections on the growing Joy of It collection I started last year. I hope these reflections will inspire you, as joy is a precious and unlimited feeling we could all use more of.
For the Joy of It, installation #1
My Unicorn is a notoriously difficult person to get gifts for. They don’t want much, and when they do find something they want, they’ll just get it for themself. It’s always a thrill when I think of a gift idea for them because it means I came up with something they can’t get anywhere.
The idea to make them a piece of embroidery came to me after I got my Spotify Wrapped for 2021. I was in the top 1% of Ivy Sole’s listeners because I’d have the song Bones playing on a loop while gardening, running errands, or taking a walk in the neighbourhood. From the first time I heard this song, I adored it. Bones is the feeling of being with my person, loving them, and choosing them every day.
Music often inspires both my writing and artwork. I create playlists for characters in my books. I once wrote an entire fiction manuscript in response to how I felt listening to This Business of Art by Tegan & Sara. For years I created fun little text pieces featuring lyrics that resonated particularly strongly with me as I navigated drastic changes in my life. These pieces had always been something I’d done for the joy of it, never thinking they’d be marketable because of copyright. It had been years since I turned the lyrics of a song into a piece of art and I realised I really wanted to do so again with Bones.
Because the entire song resonates, my first challenge was choosing which set of lyrics to use. I played around with a few, but ultimately landed on “Always growing, never slowing, next to you” as the best standalone lyrics and most fitting—after all, we were about to move from our first home together, and our relationship has only been possible because of our shared embrace of impermanence.3
I knew I wanted the piece to include a wren, flowers, and bees, in an homage to our first shared, stable home. The next stage was figuring out the general layout of the words within a little garden-inspired scene. Thus arose the next challenge. When I start a piece of art I spend time sketching concepts and keeping them out where I can see them. Since this was a gift, and meant to be a surprise, I couldn’t be so open with my process. My Unicorn works from home and because of the ongoing pandemic, we are rarely not in each others company.
I also began this project just weeks before we started packing for our international move. I had an extremely long to do list and a finite timeline to get it done for moving day. I had to balance my stitching sprints with filling boxes up so my Unicorn wouldn’t wonder about why, on the rare occasions they were out of the house, nothing got packed. Working on any part of this project required subterfuge and intense bursts of activity, but it never felt stressful. If anything, the thirty or forty minutes I would spend on it each time were like pockets of calm in the tumult of the days leading up to our move.
The toughest decision I had to make was when the in-progress piece needed to be packed away. It really was the only way I would stop and rest in my day, but it couldn’t come along in the luggage I was keeping to hand: It could get damaged, I had limited room, and it would increase the risk of my Unicorn seeing it before it was done.
I reluctantly packed it with my other art supplies two weeks before our moving day. I figured it had maybe a couple of hours more work left to it and I’d complete it within a week of arriving at our new house. In my head, we would be relatively settled within a week, giving me a plenty of time to finish it.
*Insert guffaw of hindsight here*
Obviously, it takes far more than a week to unpack an entire house. This is even more true when the house you packed had significantly more space than the one you are unpacking into. My cursed inability to procrastinate meant I was spending six to eight hours a day unpacking boxes, barely taking breaks even for meals. It wasn’t good for my mental health at all. I was stressed beyond belief. The anxiety I was experiencing was some of the worst I’d felt in nearly a decade.
The process of making art is a mindful one, and I needed to quiet the list of tasks my brain kept insisting were all urgent and needed to be done instantaneously. My Unicorn’s birthday was just two days away when I finally sneaked the nearly finished piece from where it had spent weeks nestled in a box. I told my Unicorn I was heading to my parents house to write, to give myself a break from our house so I could focus on something else. Alongside my laptop I secretly packed embroidery supplies.
As soon as I threaded the needle I could feel my nervous system regulating. With each stitch my brain calmed down and focused just on the task at hand—adding the remaining blossoms of lavender and whip-stitching the last few words.
I managed to complete the piece just in time. It was received with as much joy as it had been to work on. My Unicorn said it was the single most lovely thing anyone had ever made them. It now hangs on a wall in our new home, alongside photos from our wedding and one of my older lyrics-inspired pieces. I see it there every day and every day I think about how it wasn’t just a gift for my person, but also a gift for me. It was a reminder to pause and take time, to let go and to rest. None of which are things you can put a price tag on.
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I am not the first person on the Interwebs to point out that the phrase “earn a living” sounds pretty ghoulish when you really think about it. Why do we have to earn life? Can’t we just…live it?
It’s a struggle to remind myself every day that the monetary price of something is not, in fact, a measure of it’s value or if it has worth.
The first four years of our relationship spanned four countries, three International moves, two immigration processes, and innumerable video calls and texts to compensate for the distance between us.