Why I Ask People What They Make

I was recently sent Debbie Chacra’s article, “Why I Am Not A Maker.”  Then I was sent it again, and again, and again. As the author of Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something, which was used to kick-off the #whatimake project, many of my friends were interested in my take on the article.  I must admit that at first I was rather up in arms, particularly after her conclusion:

“A quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem says: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” Maker culture, with its goal to get everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making, has focused on the first. But its success means that it further devalues the traditionally female domain of caregiving, by continuing to enforce the idea that only making things is valuable. Rather, I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.”

I found myself nodding and shaking my head with equal amounts of fervency as I read through the article, and it wasn’t until I came back and read it again that I realized why.  As a trained painter, potter, and educator, I come from a very different makers lineage than the one Chacra is describing.  My life is full of women who make things and who often come from a long line of women who make things.  Cooks, seamstresses, painters, candle-makers, knitters, potters, these professions have been around for hundreds of years and have often been intrinsically linked in the domestic realm to the role of caregivers.  The recent Makers Movement that Chacra decries when she “call[s]bullshit on the stigma and the culture and values behind it that rewards making above everything else,” and which sprouts out of the tech culture and the increased accessibility of manufacturing tools, is a recent and fairly small (though vocal) segment of a much broader history of making things.

It’s true, as Chacra says, that “almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women.”  In addition to their caregiving, indeed as an element of their caregiving, women have made the necessary artifacts that we don’t value as a society.  The useful, the functional, the crafts, the handmade objects of everyday life that take as much skill as the cool tech stuff.

The rise of the Maker Movement shouldn’t be simplified down to a glorification of consumerism or, worse, yet another affront to undervalued caregivers.  I agree that Chacra is not a maker, that her role as an educator is just as important as that of makers, but I don’t see need to construct a dichotomy between making and teaching.  The Maker’s Movement is just one part of a larger conversation that we desperately need to have about the people behind the objects we use, be they teachers, manufacturers, designers, or caregivers.

What do you make?In an age of unprecedented industrialization, globalization, and consumerism, the divide between creators and consumers has never been greater.  This divide has made us stop asking important questions about the objects we use on a daily basis.  Who made it?  How was it made?  Where was it made?  Where did the materials come from?   What were the conditions of the person who made it?  Taking the time to discover the stories behind handmade objects decreases the amount of mass produced disposables, makes us more active participants in the world, and helps us value the objects that we use, the people who make them, and the people who support the people who make them.  (See the #knowwhomadeit project run by Krochet Kids, Inc.)

When I ask people what they make, it is not in an attempt to convince everyone that they are a Maker.  In fact, I always preface the question by saying that not everyone is an artist and not everyone should be, just like not everyone is a teacher, lawyer, builder, or athlete.  Instead, it is for the purpose of rediscovering the story and the history of the handmade. The Makers Movement has grown rapidly over the past ten years, showing that our community is reacting to the overabundance of mass-produced, disconnected items and is ready to hear the local, the DIY, and the handmade stories.  Rather than getting irritated at the narrow definition of makers in the Makers Movement, we can work with that momentum to highlight the often overlooked forms of making and the education that goes into them. By acknowledging that everyone has made something and encouraging people to share stories about what they’ve made, we can help draw attention to the often faceless people who spend their lives making the things that we use.

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