It is an honor to share with you a post written by a friend and maker movement champion, Kate Murray. Kate is on a multi-continent trek with husband Alex, which began in Austin, Texas in August, 2o16. Her journey has allowed her to take in and learn about makers all over the world, and from that perspective, she shares her thoughts here on diversity, cultural history, equity, and how, ultimately, we are all connected as one people who make things.
I am absolutely in love with her ability to tell rich and inspiring stories about the people she meets and hope this post is but one of many that we get to share with you here.
On a tiny island off the eastern coast of Panama, an old woman named Oti sits fused into a couch. She is small and frail by all accounts, and disappears among the folds of fabric that are so accustomed to her presence. In front of her stands a TV whose display crackles with grey, behind her an array of colorful goods, and between her hands a creation she has been working on for eight months. In the detailed movements of her fingers, amidst needle and thread, all thoughts of feebleness dissipate – they are expert, skillful movements.
My Spanish was poor as I asked her questions about her life and craft – the two of which are intimately intertwined. Despite my simple words, Oti communicated clearly about her process and her motivations for creating. Layers of fabric and intricate stitching take on various forms – headbands, patches, wall hangings, hot mittens, molas (blouses) – all depicting her various interpretations of the life that surrounds her. A bird represents the spirit of the human heart, an octopus the plenty of the sea and ability to provide. The intricate and colorful designs are all based on the patterns which the indigenous Guna Yala women used to paint on their bodies, before textiles arrived with the Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s.
That’s right – these beautiful, geometric designs sewn together in reverse application have been a part of the Guna traditions for over 500 years. Oti learned her craft and style from her grandmother – and her grandmother did the same. At 77, Oti is now teaching the very same techniques to her own grandchildren. The creations of all the Guna women and “algunos hombres” – some men – carry the stories, perspectives, and traditions of a people that have persevered through numerous attempts at subjugation… but who have prevailed independent time and time again.
Oti is a maker, though she’s never heard the term. And she’s not the first or last to say so. Oftentimes the mindset around “making” as a culture seems unfamiliar to many true makers that I meet. “Maker” is a word strongly associated with high-tech gadgets and surrounded by proprietary information and limited access. The “maker culture” itself is, in fact, commonly considered a technology-focused branch of the DIY movement. But making isn’t simply tech. It isn’t a term owned by the people familiar with the recent movement, the crowds in hackerspaces, or even by a publication. It’s a mindset for asking why, and for solving problems with the tools available to us. Making is a distinct result of human nature, a process which we have been actively engaged in since utilizing the first tool.
My method of travel to this tiny island in & of itself is a great quest into why people build and what keeps them maintaining old ways. I reached the small, coconut strewn island Oti calls home by sailboat. Built in Holland circa 1903, the 120 foot, 235 ton Stahlratte spent 80 years fishing for herring before evolving through various habitable stages into its form today. Its sails still catch wind, and when they don’t, an old engine pushes it slowly forward. The hot oily engine room in its stern reveals the up and down motion of large pistons while a steady beat provides soundtrack to the appearance and disappearance of waves rocking in and out of view through small portholes. Old trunks, reading nooks, globe lanterns, and bunk beds give the whole boat a charm between the various smells of shared meals and moments spent snorkeling turquoise waters. From the welds between two pieces of steel, to intricate woodworking inside the captain’s quarters, to a pattern of electrical additions from various eras weaving through the cabins, to the small creations of passengers decorating the walls… the ship holds the stories of all those who traveled in it, and all those who sought to solve a problem faced by life at sea.
Two months prior to stepping on board the ship, I admired the works of the makers at Hacedores in Mexico City, embracing tech – even injecting it under their skin – whilst prioritizing the introduction of hands-on, socially-focused education to local schools. Three months prior, I spoke with a man who makes bread and butter from scratch in Jackson, WY, maintaining his father’s traditions and recipes in memory of the man lost. Four months prior, I found myself in the lobby of the historic Waterville Hotel; much like the Stahlratte, it is a space that was carefully constructed in 1903 and continues to transport people through decades, yet reveals, on its walls and in its narrow hallways, the many stories of its stewards. Five months prior, I stood in front of a forge in Ester, AK, making my first nail alongside ten year olds, visited schools with full fabrication spaces and others with cardboard as their main material, and I sat outside a barber shop in San Diego watching a kid transform himself into a robot with found materials. Six months prior, I spent my final days serving as an educator in a makerspace designed for 8-12 year olds, where each day I had the fortune to discover inspiration alongside the participants through inquiry, exploration, and creativity.
From the colorful creations of an old woman, to the stern of a ship, to the space I shared with so many bright young minds… in all these moments, what have I learned about making?
To make is to give meaning. It communicates our inner value. It broadens our horizons for what is possible. Whether it’s hand forged nails in Alaska, 3D printed history projects in California, or hot sauce in Seattle, making gives us the tools to solve our own problems, tell our own stories, and redefine how we view ourselves and the world around us. It encourages us to ask questions, and to seek meaning in all that we do.
Making isn’t mass production. Endless objects are created and discarded every day, with tremendous costs: the loss of human rights, the depletion of or damage to the world’s natural resources, and a disconnect between these realities and the awareness of the user. In the face of these items sold without a story, to make, to fix, to tinker, is to actively resist and preserve. To embrace and support traditional crafts and skills-based industries works to reform the connections between humans and their tools.
Making connects us despite perceived or real difference: across ages, identities, labels, borders, languages, and time. Making carries with it all the stories of those before us, and the potential of all those surrounding us. It connects us to history, creates new communities in the present, and sends ripples into the future.
The many makers I met revealed to me the importance of not only embracing but embodying the values of accessibility, diversity, and collaboration as a creator, crafter, and educator championing this movement. They imparted me with a deep appreciation for the breadth of what it means to make, and reassured me that it is not just about the latest tech… rather, it is about the mindset. Whether in a classroom, on the base plate of a 3D printer, in a machine shop, or on a sidewalk with street vendor, making is about the layers of colorful human connections we are making and the stitches we are actively sewing into history.
Want to know more about Kate and Alex’s epic journey around the world? Check out their website and social media here. As always, happy making!