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Creating (and demanding) space for creativity

Many women find joy, peace and fulfillment through hands-on creative endeavors. Classics like painting or pottery and crafts like knitting, beading, embroidery and adult coloring books keep our creative juices flowing and can help us deal with stress, but only when we can access our craft quickly and without adding work to our day. Having a designated space for projects is critical, and there are ways to find it, claim it and maximize it in your home, regardless of square footage.

The designation of the space is more important than the size of it; a sewing room can even be a sewing closet. Photo by Sarah Holman

This model of allocated creative space is one I grew up with. As a child, I had a lot of creative freedom, but there was a hard stop at the sewing closet door. The things inside belonged to my mother. The ultimate crime was grabbing her sewing scissors to cut paper or, worse, cardboard. My mother, Nancy Werner, is a talented seamstress who always has a sewing area in her home. “It’s a non-negotiable item when buying a house,” she says. “If there isn’t an obvious space, I’m figuring out how to create one.” (They’ve owned six houses since I left for college with my treasured craft trunk in tow.)

There was an oddball dead space at the end of the kitchen in her first home. “One day I just saw my sewing space there.” She and my dad built a closet with shelves, a countertop and most important, bifold doors. “It was amazing,” she says. “I could sew while the kids played and still see what they were doing. When it was time to make lunch or go outside, I could just close the doors.”

Amy Jaffe, a mom of two young children, came to a similar conclusion in her Portland home. As with many houses built in the early 1900s, Jaffe’s dining room features a built-in china cabinet with glass doors. She filled it with wedding china, an inherited tea set and special pieces like a glass seder plate and a 70s fondue set that belonged to her parents. The Jaffes enjoyed displaying these precious items and entertained regularly in the dining room. But when her oldest daughter began eating in a highchair, “I began to let go of my expectations that a dining room should be a formal adult space.” The dining room, she realized, was actually the center of their daily family life. Around that same time, Jaffe’s daughter began to show interest in arts and crafts, and supplies accumulated. It was time to give up the china cabinet.

The “art cabinet” at Amy Jaffe’s house in Portland. Once upon a time, it was where she kept the wedding china and heirlooms. Now it’s filled art and craft supplies for her family. Photo by Sarah Holman

Jaffe moved all the glassware, china and entertaining items into storage. She relocated items like liquor, matches and candles to the very top shelf of the cabinet. The bottom shelf became an area for blank paper, coloring books and crayons—items she was happy to have kids grab by themselves at any time. The next shelf up was designated for “special art items” like Cray Pas, paints, kits, stamps and every caregiver’s worst enemy, Perler beads. The third shelf was a place for supervision-required items (scissors, tape, glue) and things Jaffe and her husband would need for their own artsy projects (wrapping paper, stapler, paper cutter). Now at ages 6 and 9, Jaffe’s kids pull a chair over to grab some of those once off-limits items. “I don’t have a problem with that,” Jaffe says. “They are being resourceful and creative, independent of me.”

The designation of the space is more important than the size of the space itself. A smaller space can force organization. “In one house we owned I had a whole room upstairs for my sewing,” my mom says. “It was always a disaster.” Once or twice a year, Jaffe declares an art cabinet re-org. It’s a full-day, full-family affair, starting with removing everything from the 3-foot-deep shelves. Easy tasks are tackled first—grouping pens and markers, testing and tossing spent supplies—followed by assessing all the random odds with the question: Do we really need this? Eventually there is a new order to the cabinet, but also, Jaffe says, new inspiration, especially when the re-org unearths a forgotten item. “Now suddenly we’re onto a crocheting project, throwing clay on a wheel, or hanging a piece of forgotten art.”

At a young age I understood not just how incredibly talented my mother was, but also how much joy her sewing space brought her. “I know lots of people believe creativity and chaos go together,” she says. “But I can’t focus on being creative when I’m surrounded by chaos. I know when I open the doors to my sewing closet, everything will be as I left it and as I need it to be in order to create.” Her reverence for the creative process taught me that it is OK to demand space for art, even if it’s simply designating a special box or a drawer as your own. It also taught me to keep my hands off my mother’s sewing scissors.

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.

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