By LESLIE LINSLEY Citizen Columnist
My friend Sophie volunteers one night a week at the Monroe County Jail. Along with her friend Barbara, they bring stimulation from the outside to a group of women in the form of speakers, classes, reading material and, the other night, a craft class that I facilitated. As a former craft editor for Family Circle magazine and author of many craft books, I am used to designing projects for all skill levels and creating craft projects with how-to instructions. Not knowing anything about their skill levels, the materials they would be allowed to use or what project would be appropriate, I reasoned that probably everyone would have a photograph or a card or something of that nature in their personal possession. Making a frame for that picture seemed like a good and easy project that would be a lot of fun. I was not interested in teaching new skills per se, but rather providing a hands on, creative outlet for an hour of pure joy.
I grew up in a creative household. Whenever my mom, sister and I would go shopping and see something we liked, my mother would say, "We won't buy that, we'll go home and make it." And we did. Over the years I learned how to do all sorts of creative things and as an adult it has held me in good stead. I put myself through school selling my decoupage boxes to some pretty fancy shops in New York City and have created a slew of books on how-to crafts for some major publishers.
Teaching in a classroom is not one of my credentials, but I have demonstrated various crafts in front of a large group from time to time. I thought the women at the jail would enjoy the outlet. For me, crafting has always provided a feeling of accomplishment, a way to lose myself and suspend time, and a way to express myself in a visual rather than verbal way. Crafting gobbles up lots of time in a rewarding way. At the end of an hour or so you have something to show for your efforts and a feeling of pride for having created something with your own hands. I do know the feeling of being on the giving side but was unprepared for being on the receiving end of this particular event.
I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't prepared for what occurred. First, the women, perhaps 15 of them, eagerly helped to bring a table into the middle of the small "classroom" we had commandeered for the hour. Each of the participants sat around the room in chairs with s small desk attached to each arm. I spread the materials on the table and showed them some samples I had prepared. To my surprise the "students" did not waste a second. They did not need my encouragement or any directions. They were eager to get on with it and did so with overflowing positive energy and unexpected creative results. I could barely keep up with them.
First there was a young woman who had a beautiful floral greeting card sent to her from a new friend. She glued this to the front of a small colorful poster board I had brought for each of them. Others had a family picture or a pretty card that they surrounded with ribbon or rickrack or stickers, stars, hearts and sparkle glue. Some natural artistic talent revealed itself, like the girl I dubbed "Picasso." She chose a postcard picture I had brought of artist Richard Kemble's work and glued pieces of ribbon on each corner in colors that perfectly matched the colors in the painting. Some used the sparkle paint to write their names or created squiggly lines around the "frame." I had attached paper easel stands to the back of each board so they could display them.
The hour flew by and each of the women had created a totally individual frame, uniquely their own. There was one done on a blue background with silver stars and sparkle, another all rainbow colors chosen to reflect the colors in her greeting card. One card was made with shades of gold around a picture of a bird and a friend's name painted in one corner. Some attached sparkle stickers of a favorite number or significant date.
What impressed me most was the camaraderie among the residents. If someone needed a glue stick it was quickly offered by another; one pair of scissors was graciously passed around when someone needed to cut something. They were polite, articulate, and their enthusiasm for the project was infectious. I was rewarded tenfold. Here was a group of women from all different backgrounds, incarcerated for different offenses, coming from diversified experiences, united in a creative activity that equalized everyone. And this is the rewarding part of crafting. Anyone can do it. Everyone benefits in some way from the experience. Crafting is empowering. It comes from within and you control it. What you create is your very own expression.
Crafting adds to the quality of your life in much the same way that reading or writing in a journal (another of the activities enjoyed within this group) does for the soul. In this case - mine.
Leslie Linsley has written more than 50 books on crafts, decorating and home style. She resides on Nantucket with her husband, photographer Jon Aron, and has a store on the island that specializes in her one-of-a-kind creations. Her latest book is "Key West, a Tropical Lifestyle" (Monacelli Press), with photos by Terry Pommett.