It’s a Long Story. Why I wrote Crafty Llama.

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Since I began writing Crafty Llama I’ve had a bit of time to consider my motivations in writing a picture book about crafts. We started working on the book in 2014 so I’ve had quite a bit of time actually. The book is dedicated to all the local craftspeople who awe and inspire us with their creativity and passion for their craft.

I’ve since come to think that it goes deeper. That my interest in crafts is in part a search for self identity. Not so much mine, more so my Dads. As long as I can remember he spent his every spare moment sawing, sewing, hammering, carving, creating, and/or making. Up until now I’ve thought of it as prototypical Dad behaviour. A hobby, a past time. A way to get away from the stresses of work and family, to hole up in his basement man cave and while a way time as he listened to eight tracks of Dolly Parton, Hoyt Axton, Charlie Pride or the Rolling Stones.

His “Emotional Rescue” really. However if I had looked at the evidence more carefully, specifically at what he was making, and asked myself why he was making that stuff I could’ve had a greater understanding of him, and myself too.

The first clue I had was a little wooden box hid away on a bottom shelf in our laundry room. To me it was like a lost treasure chest filled with a secret trove of riches – It was filled with my Dad’s high school drawings and paintings! Doodles of hot rod cars and colour studies of paintings by Charles M Russell. His interest in hot rod’s faded (me falling out of the family car, a Dodge Charger, as a kid could be part of why he moved on from cars) but the painted copies squirrelled away in that little wooden box were the real precursor to my Dad’s life in crafts. Russell is known as a “Cowboy” artist, but it was other subjects he painted that were the focus for my Dad.

To go back even further in understanding this search for self identity, and for dramatic effect, I would say this all started with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull and other Lakota went to Canada to a place called Wood Mountain in Saskatchewan. My great-great grandmother would only have been a toddler then but she eventually married a rancher named William Hall Ogle (we called him Lord Ogle when I was a kid) and they settled in Wood Mountain. 

While there is a lot of history in Wood Mountain, there are no mountains and not a lot of trees. And as with the paintings from the little wooden box, it wasn’t the cowboys and ranchers that interested my Dad. I am embarrassed I can’t pronounce my great-great grandmother’s Lakota name, Tasunke Hin Hotewin which I understand means Roan Horse. She went by Mary Ogle for short which is easier to pronounce but I would be curious what it meant at the time. Anyway, one of her sons, Joe Ogle, had a great influence on his grandson, my Dad. 

Old Joe was a cowboy, he loved horses and was a regular at the Wood Mountain Rodeo. The few times I met him this was clearly presented with his crisp white cowboy hat, scuffed boots, embroidered button clipped shirt, and a love for a hand of poker. But his indigenous heritage was clear too with his measured accent and striking features. Of all his grandchildren, my Dad seemed the most effected by Joe’s Lakota half. Perhaps because he lived with Old Joe for a time when he was young. I can imagine the horses and the open prairie would have spoken to my Dad.

I also wonder if my Dad’s nickname from that time was an influence in his crafty ways. Sometimes my uncle uses this nickname in a mocking fashion to emphasis some boneheaded move his older brother has committed. “Bozo” was the nickname so you can see how it would be an effective tool for mockery. But this usage served more to soften his criticism than emphasis it. There was always a sense of respect in it’s usage because of the person who had given it to my Dad.

I’m not sure I ever met Aunt Lizzie, but I’ve heard tell of her often enough to imagine a vivid image of this Wood Mountain Lakota elder who was well known for her indigenous crafts. The name Aunt Lizzie sounds to the ear very informal – almost inconsequential. But when she was mentioned in conversation it was with an air of respect. What was said of her was always consequential. What Aunt Lizzie said or Aunt Lizzie did were not sources of gossip but instead were stories of deeper consideration. 

An example of this contradiction was the nickname she gave to my dad when he was a child, and out of context it sounds negative. In reminiscing my own aunts will often say something like “did you know ‘Bozo’ was Aunt Lizzie’s nickname for your dad?” They might add a little laugh, perhaps imagining a youngster who liked to goof off, but from their reverent tone it was obvious that it was mentioned as badge of honour. A sibling lucky enough to get a nickname from this important personage.

I can see now that my Dad has listened to these voices from the past consciously or unconsciously for his entire life in trying to define who he is. They can be heard in the carefully cut leather frills on a pair of buckskin leggings, or the studious research on the beadwork sewn onto a tobacco pouch, or the patient cutting and stripping of the lodgepole pine for the teepee we slept in on long weekends when I was a kid – and boy did we smell of wood smoke after that! I think finding who we are has challenges for everyone. For my Dad, the challenge is trying to find an authentic voice. Although Old Joe was the only one of his siblings to avoid the residential schools I think he was focused on his cowboy ways. And while Aunt Lizzie shared her traditions through her craftwork, I suspect at that period in time there were limits to how much she could have shared. 

My father had a few stories, but at first his understanding was mostly based on fiction and stereotypes. Built on Hollywood romanticizing in movies such as Dustin Hoffman’s Little Big Man. As his interest and passion for crafts grew he did careful research and read every book he could get his hands on related to traditional crafts. But it was often still a hodgepodge of sources. For instance our teepee was based on a Blackfoot design because Sioux designs were unavailable. I recently heard a talk from a first nation’s artist and was surprised to hear that he had a similar experience in childhood of learning about his self identity through TV – and only two TV channels at that. 

In some ways, after a lifetime of crafting and creating, my Dad is still as completely removed from his traditional past as he was when he began this creative quest of self discovery. One of the primary concerns and roadblocks is appropriation. It’s interesting to fear appropriating ones own heritage but it is a reasonable concern. One of my favourite gifts from my Dad was a traditional styled ceramic bone and bead necklace choker he made for me and my brother. I was quite proud of that piece of jewelry and wore it to school – but only once. In part I didn’t wear it again because of the feeling of wrongness. As I wore it I felt fraudulent, disrespectful even. The one authentic feeling I did get from that incident was prejudice. Some other kids were inspired to give me my own nickname, which only had negative connotations (I’m writing a picture book about it of course).

Not finding resolution may seem negative, but in arts and crafts its fundamental part of the creative process. If you found resolution and did your art perfectly what would the point of doing it any further? Same too with self discovery, it’s a life’s work.

In creating Crafty Llama I obviously initially imagined Crafty Llama would be modelled after Renata, and her good friend Beaver after myself. But now I’m discovering that on a deeper level Crafty Llama could be me, and Beaver could be my Dad. Through his hard work and practicality he has provided and inspired in me the means to go on my own search for self identity. And with Renata’s tremendous assistance this book can be considered something special, something lovely for him.

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