The ancient Greek myth of Prometheus attempts to explain how animals and living creatures of all sorts came to populate the earth, how they were formed from the mud, breathed full of life, and made to go on their various ways. Whether interpreted literally or as allegory, creation stories seek not only to identify the origin of living things around us (including ourselves), but also provide a contextual source for our own human ability to create. Art in any form, to those who do not practice it, seems like magic. We marvel at each other's ability to paint, sculpt, make music, dance. How is that people can do these things? My own skills in sketching objects with any modicum of realism is quite limited. I enjoy experimenting in that medium, but seriously, without the proper guidance, simple stick figures are often the best I can hope to achieve. Creativity comes in many forms, each a specific gift or charism. Some draw and paint, some make music, some write stories as realistic as vivid memory, while others inspire works of art.
Throughout my life I've been lucky to have been surrounded by some amazingly creative, colorful people. From the personal end of things, my family is one of musicians, my maternal grandfather and great grandfather played wind instruments, my grandmother was a cellist. My mother is a pianist. I'm an organist. Fiber art gets woven into that musical texture through my grandmother who was a master Belgian lace maker. Her husband, also a mathematician, designed some of the most wickedly complicated lace cards conceivable -- all of which Oma transformed into stunning lace. She's the one who taught me to crochet, to figure out patterns from sight, commit patterns to memory, re-create lace from mental notes, and deconstruct fiber work in order to make invisible repairs. Coming into contact with creative people fosters more creativity. This is one of the awesome benefits of my shop: every day I am privileged to meet and work with so many talented people. Some folks may be in Lafayette on vacation and visit only once, some come with regularity, some are here daily. Regardless how frequently they're here, their influence lingers in various ways: a shared pattern, a demonstrated stitch, a brief design suggestion, even a kind word, or a thank you for being able to sit and crochet.
As diverse as there are creative artists in general, so diverse are the various projects undertaken specifically by fiber artists. Some make only socks. Some knit a zillion fashion scarves, some make baby hats for hospitals. Some focus solely on Couture garments, some make comfy pullovers, some make afghans, some are lace makers. Then there are the ones who make things with really no purpose other than to provide a vehicle for love. Of course the knitter's personality and love are transferred, for example, into a sweater made for a spouse, but the sweater itself has both this intangible ability and the practical purpose of keeping the wearer looking good and feeling good. Some projects can't be used like this. You don't wear them, you can't use them as a pot holder or set a flower vase on top of them. These are the creations of the animal makers. Alligators, frogs, bunnies, turtles, lions, hedgehogs, giraffes, and so on for a unlimited zoo of fiber beasts, common objects, and anthropomorphs -- inanimate items like cupcakes created in fiber and equipped with human faces.
Among the regular fiber artists who visit the shop, there are two in particular who are well known for creating these little animals. They've made scores of them, and children have loved them just as much as the creators love making them. So serious are these two about their art that each of their animals carries its own adoption paperwork. The two are sisters. One a crocheter, the other a knitter. Although Karen had visited VBYC only a few times, her influence and love for her art will forever be a part of the shop and an inspiration to all who visit here. I had heard from her sister that Karen's stash of yarns destined in time to be transformed into more crocheted loveables was staggering -- all sorted by kind and color, a collection of materials assembled over many many years.
Karen had been ill for some time, and it was after a particularly frightening bout with illness that she came into the shop with her sister. Despite her health issues, she was a jovial, beautiful person, eager to talk about her projects, share stories about her creations, or relate the delighted joy in a child's face when his mama handed him a colorful turtle he saw in the sisters' craft show booth.
It was a shock to us all who remember Karen when we learned that she was diagnosed with fourth stage pancreatic cancer and that the outlook was grim.
Some weeks prior to this news, before her health had declined suddenly, both Karen and her sister decided upon a first birthday gift for Karen's granddaughter: a very special crocheted dragon by Argentinian designer Paola Navarro. Navarro is famous for her detailed, clever, and humorous animals. Karen went into her limitless stash and pulled seven hanks of Classic Elite Province cotton: 3 in red, one each in yellow, orange, black, and white. The first task of the 17-page crochet description of the dragon was his body, an irregular 24" tube that flared and tapered in such a way to define a snout, a head, a torso and a tail. "The stitches have to be tight, Sissy," Karen's sister reminded her, "so that his stuffing won't show." To ensure the look they both wanted for this special first year birthday gift, Karen used a size B hook on the worsted weight cotton. The result: a stiff, tough, but soft fabric perfect for dragon skin.
As her health declined, Karen would fall asleep while crocheting, be wide awake in the middle of the night, work tirelessly for a while, then fall back asleep. She was growing weak and unable to work on the special project for any length of time. The dragon sat with his yarn, the pattern, and the magic spell it took to bring him to life. "Take him to Jason. He will finish it." A few weeks later, Karen left.
A number of months passed, and Karen's sister visited and told me the plans of the special dragon, a gift for their granddaughter and niece's first birthday. Along came the yarn supply, the pattern, the counter and everything required for the project. Even a bag of stuffing. "You'll probably need more stuffing, and this is the yarn Sissy selected." Looking at the supply of yarn and reading over the pattern -- which oddly enough didn't indicate any yarn quantity -- I was quite sure I would run out of yarn, either yellow or orange, but I forged ahead anyway. Karen's counter was set at round 60, just past the head. In fact she had just completed the sixtieth round the last time she had set down her work, an indication that this would be a different project experience for me. I knew the circumstances of how the dragon came to me, but what I had in my lap was not so much a project packed away and brought out later, but rather an active, living project whose beginner simply set it down and left the room, and who had kindly left me in charge of carrying on her work. The dragon was detailed: underbelly, eyeballs, eyebrows, dorsal ridge, tale spade, 12 tiny toes joined together to become 4 little feet, legs, wings. "Be sure to embroider a little spark of life into the eyes. Karen always did that." That was the spell. This dragon would be canaille. And he had a special power to turn sadness into joy with the look in his eyes and a broad orange smile. I told Ethel as I worked that I was worried about the yellow and the orange. There just wouldn't be enough. When I started the wings -- two large swatches of yellow rounded off with orange, I began to think about ways I could use a different color or another cotton yarn to finish. These were the final elements before assembly would start. One wing done, then the other. Each piece was completed according to the pattern and came out to the proper dimensions. I had used two whole hanks of the three reds, and had approximately 1/3 of each color left after sewing all the parts together. And the bag of stuffing? Not even half was used, although both Karen's sister and I had believed I would well need another supply. This project was given to me with the supplies required, despite what my seasoned eye made me believe. It was to some extent a "blind project". I knew what I was making, but I wasn't always quite sure what each piece should really look like. I kept moving on, making piece after piece. It was a very unlikely project for me, but I felt guided by the crocheter who knew how this thing would work and showed me what to do with the bits I didn't quite understand. Now, you can take that any way you'd like. Some might say that I was clever enough myself to examine what it was I had and learned from the portion that was already worked in order to figure out the techniques for the unworked sections. Others might think this indicates inspiration. What I do know for certain is that what was in the supply bag shouldn't have been enough to finish. But it was, and so much that I had about 50 yards overage in every color.
For the couple weeks it took to finish him, he had endeared himself to the VBYC community, this little dragon. Everyone saw him in pieces. "Jason, what is that?" "It's a dragon." "Oh." As soon as I showed the pattern photograph, he warmed our hearts. Although the pattern indicated I should sew the pieces together as I completed them, I didn't. I just piled up the elements and took two days to assemble him at the very end. I wanted him to spring to life suddenly, just like Prometheus had done it in the ancient stories.
And spring to life he did! "Oh, he's finished! You finished him!" were the reactions as our wide-eyed fiber friend took his perch atop the center island in the shop. Although the pattern stated his name was "JJ", this was a different dragon from the one pictured. He would need a special name. A secret panel of dragon namers was convened to bring out a list of four possibilities. Folks from the community voted for their favorite, and Oscar was what we chose. Oscar the dragon: the special idea for an extra special gift selected and begun by an expert crochet artisan with a legacy of amazing, love-filled creations. Despite her having to leave, she ensured that her final creation would be completed and made sure there'd be enough to do the work, and that she had worked just enough to show how she expected the rest to look. But what a gift for us all is Oscar. Karen had brought such happiness to so many through each of her creations. But, I tell you, she saved the best for last. Not only will Karen's spirit live on through Oscar each time her granddaughter holds him, and as he watches out for her, but also Karen's magical ability to bring joy to others through her work lives on in the memories of an entire community who, in the process of Oscar's creation, have learned more about her and have been inspired by her work. What an honor it has been to be involved in the Oscar project! Thank you, Karen, for sharing your special gift with us, for bringing us joy, and surrounding us with your creativity!