A Legacy of Creative Mothering

grandma knell
grandma knell child.crop

Vera Jewell Cloward Knell June 29, 1932 - May 7, 2014 This mother's day is a really significant one for me, as my family is mourning the loss and celebrating the life of our dear mother and grandmother who graduated to her heavenly home on Wednesday. I've mentioned her before occasionally on my blog, as we lived with her for 18 months She leaves behind an increible legacy. One I've always been so proud of, and such a part of. But now, with her gone and find myself overwhelmed with all that she gave to me, I can't help but honor her publicly this special Mother's Day. She left us rather suddenly, with just a few weeks of illness that took her back to heaven. I'm still processing, still feeling so much. She was the matriarch of one incredible family. 10 children, 51 grandchildren, 44 great-grandchildren and counting. I'm the oldest granddaughter. And while I didn't grow up near her, my summers were so happy because I was aroun d a family that was just so creative. And because my grandfather was an artist/architect, and my grandmother a crafty, creative maker, their home was filled with so much creativity. But today, in this space, and as we celebrate our mothers, I want to pay tribute to the creative lessons I gleaned from her. I've learned so much from this woman, I could go on for pages and pages. But like many of you, I'm sure your creativity came from a previous generation somewhere. And so it did for me. And though I didn't live near her as a child, it was evident, from a very early age, that my tie to her was bound because of the interests we shared. She didn't leave boxes of handmade treasures. She was never a professional in her craft. Instead, she used her wisdom and creativity to build a home, and teach children how squeeze the most out of life.  I will always love her for that.

Lessons of Creativity from my Grandma

1. Use your hands

My grandmother was a creative wonder. When she talked she used her hands. She would make with her hands whatever she couldn't buy. She loved crafting with paper and glue. She loved to do paper cuts, and would spend hours and hours cutting intricate designs into 3D paper dolls, paper art or stationery. She was amazing with an exacto knife, and her attention to detail was second to none. My father has a paper angel on the Christmas tree at our tree topper that is nothing more than a plain white piece of paper.....cut into a lacey, curly haired angel blowing a paper trumpet and held delicately together with glue. These little people are, belived it or not, hand sculpted fruit people that she made from dehydrating apples and apple cores. It might seem a little odd, and a tad crazy. But this was my grandmother. If she had it in her mind to create something, she did. And she would use what she had. She gave these to my children as christmas presents last Christmas, and they are just so telling of her personality. And it's where I got my "make something out of nothing" tendancies. I love her for that.

2. Make your own play


When there was nothing around to play with, my grandmother would sing a song and make her hands into the people that she was singing about. Or she'd take some paper and glue and make a quick puppet out of a paper cup. There was never a reason to stop playing. When I was 8 years old, my grandmother made me a fabric tote, filled with scraps from her mother's quilts and other pieces. She made me 3 rag dolls and clothed them so stylishly, and encouraged me to make my own fashionable wardrobes. For years, I would grab my tote of scraps, and attempt to create whatever inspired me in that moment, with just a needle and thread. It was this same value of teaching children to "make their own play" that inspired me to teach my children to sew before they could even read. I can't say that I actually "taught" Addie anything here, but it was my grandmother's influence that inspired me to let me children figure out for themselves to to keep entertained. Addie made this adress all by herself at age 3. I still have it:) Gosh. She loved anything self made. When we lived with her just a few years ago, I made her her very own personalized paper doll. See that little "J" for Jewell on the undies? The adorable thing is, that she played with it even then. She was an eternal child at heart, and loved her paper and hand made play things. She cherished creative play! Here's Addie playing in the dollhouse that she would tinker at. It was one of her prized possessions. Made to look like an unfinished, framed house, she "drywalled" the walls, rooffed it and was always rearranging the furniture. Do you just love that painted pinecone roof?

3. Tell Stories

My Grandmother loved children. It might be obvious because she had 10. But she loved kids! She had a degree in Elementary Education, and was a Kindergarten teacher before she chose to stay home and have a family. Her mother was a Kindergarten teacher as well, and so she had a childhood filled with stories and poetry and nursery rhymes that would stay with her until the time she died. My grandmother LOVED children's picture books, and I would venture to say is her favorite genre to read. She loved the classic vintage stories, and many she had memorized. "Little Orphan Annie" she could recite and would excited the children evey time! She instilled in me a love of children's literature, but mostly from how she would TELL stories. She could capture the minds of the most roudy of children just from her sing-songy voice as she'd act out a poem. Gosh, I'm going to miss her voice. Just hearing her tell "There was an old Lady who Swallowed a Fly" was magic...even after the 20th time.  It's also her love of children's books that fostered my own love, especially of old school classic picture books that I'd find in her home. It's this classic illustration style that has inspired my own style so much.

4. Find Joy in the Choas

10 kids
5 kids

As a creative and a mother of 10, there was always something going on. Always a project, always noise, always music, always chaos. My mother, who met my dad in highschool, describes their home as a joyful mess. There was learning, and love. As an artist and a mom myself, sometimes I wish that  my home were Domino Magazine ready, and that my kitchen was photo worthy all the time...or any of the time for that matter. But my grandmother taught me that it doesn't matter. What matters is the love and the joy that's found in the making. Whether you are making a family, or a painting, love the process, and be OK with the level of chaos....it's all for a greater purpose. My dad is the one that's laughing like a little rascal. I love that picture. As a child, I loved playing at my grandmother's house, because it was always seemed to be in a state of "not quite finished." There was always something to explore, a mud hill to make into a battle scene, or dressups to find in a dark hidden corner of the basement. Things weren't tidy and orderly (as you can imagine with 10 small children) but what there was a lot of, was imaginary play. Art supplies were as available as the silver ware drawer. Ink Pens could be found all over the house. Books were everywhere. The Grand Piano that took up most of the small family room was always begging to be played. Grandma would make paper dolls, and paper puppets. She was always encouraging us grandchildren to act out plays that we made up, and perform talent shows. The home itself was small and modest, but the richness of play and imagination was so full. And now, as a mother, with my own home "not quite finished" and the panic that I sometimes feel that our kitchen still needs to be backsplashed, our landscaping isn't complete, our garage is full of "projects" just reminds me that because of that, my own children are constantly exposed to making their own little worlds....too much perfection takes all that away. I'm so glad I had a grandmother who made the most of what she had, and allowed her children and grandchildren to imagine the rest.

5. Do it Yourself

  Here's a Christmas Card from 1975 with my Grandfather's lovely handwriting and the coordinated efforts of screen printed team uniforms. My grandmother, like many of our grandparents, was a product of Depression and World War II. She learned at a young age how to be frugal, and to create your way of life with your own two hands. And because of that gift, she was able to provide a very rich and full home with her meager income, raising 10 children. She embodied the motto that I've since made into an Embroidery Pattern, one that epitomized her times, and I hope to keep up: But she did so with a smile. She raised 10 children in a 2 bedroom house (which was added onto, but in maverick class and style) and she taught me how to use my hands, creatively, to make things work. Scotch tape and scissors could solve most problems. Darning socks and a stuffed animal would keep things longer, and save you from having to buy a new one. She died in a dress that the darned and sewed to make it just as she liked it, and she'd had that dress for gosh, maybe 30 years. I respect that so much. In this world of NEW NEW NEW she embodied the virtue of "Make it Do." A wedding shower gift to me was a hand sewn grocery bag holder, that was made "just right" so that you could stuff those tedious bags in and grab them right when you needed. She delighted me with her frugality.

6. Surround yourself with beauty

I remember traveling through Europe, and noticing in many homes, that while their dwellings might have been modest, they would invite us in, and show off their painting that they saved up so much money for, and valued above all else. Sometimes I feel like in this Americanized world we live in, that original art takes a back seat to many, many things. But my Grandmother (as well as her husband) loved art and furniture, and well made things. Her eames chairs, classic mid century modern architecture, and collected art pieces brought her so much joy. Just a few months ago, I caught her staring at a Frank Magleby painting that she paid $50 a month for, valiantly, until she had it all paid off. She sat in her chair, and said, "Sarah, I love that painting. It took me so long to pay it off, but it makes me feel like I'm looking right through a window into anther place." She loved rearranging her spaces, and I'd often come over and the family room would be in a different arrangement. In her later years, as she became more and more sedintary, her potted flowers and gallery walls became so important to her.

7. Sing it out 

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Sometimes I envy the children who were products of radio shows and the era of memorizing songs and stories as a part of childhood learning. Because of that, it seemed like Grandma had a song or poem for everything. If you were sick and didn't want to go to school, there was a poem for that. If you were lonely and needed cheering there was a song for that. Her creative mothering hinged on her ability to pull things from a hat that just kept getting more and more full. A significant song, that I'll finish with today, is a classic from the 30's was one example of the kinds of songs she would sing to bring meaning and comfort both to herself, and the children at her feet who learned to do the same:

And if things don't look so cheerful, just show a little fight.

Fore every bit of darkness, there's a little bit of light.

For every bit of hatred, there's a little bit of love.

Fore every cloudy morning, there's a midnight moon above.

So don't you forget, you must search 'til you find the bluebird.

You will find peace and contentment forever,if you will be like I.

Hold your head up high, 'til you see a ray of light appear.

And so remember this, life is no abyss

Somewhere there's a bluebird of happiness.

~Bluebird of Happiness, Sandor Harmati

This mothers day, I'm so honored to celebrate the mother of all mothers. 105 direct decendants have a part of her with them, and I know her legacy of creative mothering lives on. I find myself anaylzing my own creative tendancies, and measuring their purposes. The value of teaching children through art, craft, music, literature and handmade resourcefulness has lessons that stay with us for life. And make for a beautiful life. Because of her example, I've known that if something is needed, you can make it yourself. If something isn't the way that you wish it to be, you can create a better way...even if it's just in your attitude.

Creative mothering is everything to me. And I'm so blessed to have had a mentor along my path.

Have you had a creative mentor in your mothers and grandmothers? I'd love to hear.

You can also visit Sycamore Street Press, One More Mushroom, Mer Mag and House that Lars built today, and read about their creative legacies as well.

Happy Mother's Day to you!!