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Why We Still Craft in this Digital (Pandemic) Age

See how musician Money Mark from Beastie Boys fame is crafting some amazing objects and making music with them on "Southland Sessions" E5:Musical Expansions in Quarantine. Watch now.

The Zoom layout is familiar — rows of little boxes with a person in each one — but on this call, almost nobody is looking at their camera. They’re too busy knitting, weaving, gluing, folding paper, and working on various other craft projects.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced the Craft Contemporary to close their doors, it didn’t stop them from crafting. The museum launched a series of virtual events called “Bring Your Own Craft” in which 20 to 40 crafters gather on a Zoom call to work on a craft project of their choice. Holly Jerger, the Craft Contemporary’s exhibitions curator, explains, “Anyone who would like to share can raise their hand and be called upon, and everybody has three to five minutes or so to share what they've been doing.” The crafters hold their work in front of the camera to show off what they’re working on, and others can unmute themselves to ask questions or make comments.

Crafting is usually an offline activity, but crafters spend plenty of time online, too. They share crafting advice and tutorial videos, shop for materials that aren’t available locally and post photos of their work on Instagram, Pinterest and other sites. Jerger says, “Now, when ways to connect in person are so much more limited, these platforms become even more critical to staying connected.”

In the past 10 years, Jerger has seen a renewed emphasis on crafts, both in the general public and the art world. She believes that making is a human need, and that in the digital age, people crave tactile experiences. She says, “I think that's a part of why these things are circling back around again. You want to touch things. You want to see what something feels like.”

Crafters pausing to take a photo together on Zoom with their work during Craft Contemporary's Bring Your Own Craft events | Courtesy of Craft Contemporary
Crafters pausing to take a photo together on Zoom with their work during Craft Contemporary's Bring Your Own Craft events | Courtesy of Craft Contemporary

Jerger has a fine art background, and she says when she was in school in the ‘90s, “craft” was almost a dirty word. “Craft meant it was all about process and functionality, stripped of content.”  When Jerger took her first job at the Craft Contemporary, formerly called the Craft and Folk Art Museum, she realized that craft also involves a deep understanding of process and material that adds “even more richness to an artist’s concept and their understanding of how concept develops in their process and making.”

Today, she says, “I'm kind of a craft convert.”  She sees craft as more connected to daily life than fine art, and better at speaking to people’s sociopolitical circumstances. She says, “Within craft, because it's not just sort of art for art's sake, when you're talking about how and where and why something was made, you automatically start to talk about those larger circumstances as well.”

The most popular DIY projectduring the pandemic has been a functional one — face masks. Jerger says, “That's been a really huge effort in a whole variety of ways, from individual folks who've been making and donating to local organizations or businesses, to other craft artists who have galvanized some larger efforts.”

As an example, Jerger mentioned Kristina Wong, a performance artist, writer, and comedian who sews her own sets. Reached by phone, Wong said she first started sewing as a way to relieve stress. During a residency at Montalvo Arts Center, she was writing a show during the day and sewing at night. At one point, she was trying to explain the culture of people fighting on Twitter, and she asked her director, “How do you explain a hashtag war for an audience in a way that’s compelling?” Then she thought, “Well, we could actually throw hashtags. What if we sew ninja stars that look like hashtags and throw them at the audience, and they throw them back at each other?”  She ultimately decided to sew the whole set of her 2015 show “The Wong Street Journal.”

Background graphs, tickers and visuals for Kristina Wong's "Wong Street Journal" is sewed | Courtesy of Kristina Wong
Background graphs, tickers and visuals for Kristina Wong's "Wong Street Journal" is sewed | Courtesy of Kristina Wong

For her latest comedy show, “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” she not only ran for office and won — she’s now an elected representative on the Koreatown Neighborhood Council — she sewed an entire campaign rally set, including an American flag and presidential seal. The pandemic forced her to put tour plans on hold. She says, “When the show was sidelined, I was like, ‘I can't just feel sorry for myself and get depressed, because it's gonna hit people way worse. I could sit here and panic about how I spent two years working on this show that can't tour, or I can sew some masks.’” 

"Kristina Wong for Public Office" showcases an entire campaign rally set, including an American flag and presidential seal, are sewn | Courtesy of Kristina Wong
"Kristina Wong for Public Office" showcases an entire campaign rally set, including an American flag and presidential seal, are sewn | Courtesy of Kristina Wong

She started sewing masks on March 20. She says, “Four days later, I created a Facebook group with no intention that we would still be around three months later doing relief work.”  That group became the Auntie Sewing Squad, and now has hundreds of members. Together, they’ve sewn tens of thousands of masks.  Initially, they were donated to doctors and nurses, but today, the Squad sews masks for communities that have been left behind by the federal government.

Despite her passion for the mask-making project, Wong isn’t interested in swapping her entertainment career for the nonprofit life. During the pandemic, she has been performing iterations of Kristina Wong for Public Office from her living room, and she’s making new work, too. A recent diary-style Zoom piece about running a sewing army is called “Kristina Wong: Sweatshop Overlord.”

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Of course, not every craft project is destined to appear in a museum or inspire social change.  Sometimes crafting is just a way to take a break from whatever is weighing you down. Brandy Lewis is the founder of Makers Mess, a Los Angeles creative studio that offers arts and crafts workshops. For Lewis, crafting is about getting out of your head and making something. In addition to running her own business, she has four kids. She says her mind is always going, but when she works on a craft project, “Suddenly, you’re doing something so simple, whether it’s punch needle and driving a needle in and out with yarn, or calligraphy.” She notes, “I’m, by the way, horrible at all of these things. It's not about being good. It's just meditative.”

Makers Mess has been in business since 2015, but when the pandemic hit, Lewis wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep it open. Pre-COVID, all the workshops were held in-person, but they’ve been able to transition to video workshops on things like embroidery, calligraphy and candle making, along with private Zoom classes. Makers Mess also sells boxed craft kits, which Lewis says never got much attention before the pandemic. (People thought they were new, and told her, “You’ve pivoted so well!”) Now, the kits make it easy for people to try new crafts at home.

Workshop sessions at Makers Mess with Kahbia show crafters learning how to embroider | Courtesy of Makers Mess
Workshop sessions at Makers Mess with Kahbia show crafters learning how to embroider | Courtesy of Makers Mess

Lewis recently made the decision to close the original Makers Mess studio in Silver Lake, which was too small to allow for social distancing. Makers Mess also has a location in ROW DTLA, and she looks forward to being able to hold workshops there again in the future. 

Whether it’s a hand-sewn face mask or a first attempt at a macramé wall hanging, the tactile world of crafting feels especially valuable in a time when in-person interactions are limited. When every day feels just like the one before, a craft project offers a welcome feeling of accomplishment.

Find project ideas and information about upcoming events on the Craft Contemporary and Makers Mess websites.

Top Image: Women around a desk filled with craft objects | Courtesy of Makers Mess

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