Crafting an Education: The Handmade Gift as Talisman for our Times

 An exchange of gifts strikes up a conversation about showing care through the handmade object

The above images show two small hand carved and painted objects – a toadstool and a lighthouse. Each model stands roughly two inches high and is painted red and white. The toadstool is polka dotted, like the ones gnomes sit under in fairy tales. The lighthouse stands on a craggy wooden base with one yellow-painted window at the top evoking a beam of light. These objects were crafted by the co-authors of this essay, Elsa Thompson and Lilly Carr, during the early weeks after their university in southern Switzerland closed its campus to in-person classes in response to the spread of COVID-19. They were left behind for their teachers, Alison Vogelaar and Alexandra Peat, the other co-authors of this essay, when Elsa and Lilly abruptly returned home to the US and into quarantine. Rich with metaphorical meaning, the toadstool and the lighthouse are not only gifts, but also products of pedagogical exchange; they are talismans as well as souvenirs of an education.

The allure of the handmade has become simultaneously more vital and more complicated in the time of COVID-19. Crafting can offer comfort in difficult times: as Amy Elkins puts it, ‘craft’s slow processes create space for reflection and assessment.’ The act of creation is also productive and life affirming, pushing back against a moment characterised by destruction. The handmade gift is a way to express care and gratitude when we are not able to meet face-to-face. In an age of contagion, where touch has become unsafe, such a gift is both a reminder of and in some small way an avatar for the individual who made it, carrying the echo of its maker’s hand and heart. In her 2020 book Handiwork, writer and visual artist Sara Baume writes of crafting her small hand-painted model birds that ‘the most profound’ of her concerns is ‘that it will not show through, in the finished artwork, how much and how acutely I care’ (p. 153). The handmade gift is a material embodiment of care created through the slow labour of crafting. 

An Apple for the Teacher: The Handmade Gift as Educational Exchange 

Gift giving has a fraught significance in a pedagogical context where both the exchange and the relationship between student and teacher hover between institutional and affective. Rebecca Colesworthy variously defines the gift as ‘an act of pure expenditure, a form of social contract, a cover for economic interest, a gesture of mutual recognition, or an expression of artistic creativity’ (p. 1). A handcrafted gift is not primarily valuable because of its economic worth, but is rather an expression of care and creativity. Elsa and Lilly learned about craft theory and practice in their university classes, so in addition to expressing the gratitude they felt for an education, the handmade objects reciprocated that education in form and affect. 

The choice of the toadstool and the lighthouse was not accidental. The toadstool was given to Alison who teaches folk culture and researches the environmental humanities; the lighthouse to Alexandra who works on modernism and taught Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse on an Academic Travel class attended by Elsa and Lilly. The objects gain fresh resonance, moreover, in the particular times that they were crafted: the rhizomatic mushroom suggesting unseen interconnections and pathways; the lighthouse with its promise of safety, illuminating a way forward over dark and troubled waters. These objects also symbolise the acquisition of new or alternative forms of knowledge. The bright red mushroom with white spots is a fly agaric fungus, known to be poisonous but also long used for its mind altering properties. For Virginia Woolf, the lighthouse symbolises the understanding that ‘the great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’ (p. 133). 

These gifts embody pedagogical collaboration. As Elsa and Lilly created them, they reengaged with ideas that had been central to their education, literally hand carving those ideas into different forms. To make these gifts was thus an intellectual as well as affective endeavour. The handcrafted toadstool and lighthouse provoke questions about the place of the non-textual material object in the context of academia. Can there be something intellectual about crafting? What thinking happens in the process of carving ideas into small wooden objects? Crafting opens up alternative approaches to intellectual engagement that privilege creativity and materiality. In Handiwork, Sara Baume says of her birds that they are more solid and less easily destroyed than writing. But the solidity of the material also affords limitations. Eve Sedgewick argues that ‘unlike making things, speech and writing and conceptual thought impose no material obstacles to a fantasy of instant, limitless efficacy’ (p. 79); she recalls the ‘second-by-second negotiations with the material properties’ of what she is working on when ‘the questions “What will it let me do?” and “What does it want to do?” are in constant, three-way conversation with “What is it that I want to do?”’ (p. 83). 

In a Small Block of Basswood: The Handmade Gift as Talisman 

Handmade gifts such as our toadstool and lighthouse are talismans for our times. Built from what Elsa and Lilly had to hand, they were crafted in the unexpected empty time created by quarantine and in response to a moment of political, social, and economic uncertainty wherein university education took on strange new forms. As our classes went online, these students were drawn to the material labour of the handmade. These careful, touching, and resourceful gifts re-assert the magic and power of craft for our moment.

The toadstool and the lighthouse are also products of circumstance and circumscribed by the limits of Elsa and Lilly’s resources, time, and skills. All non-essential shops were closed and local officials encouraged us to stay home. Such circumstances necessitated an improvisational approach. For Charles Jencks, adhocism is ‘a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand’ (p. 9). In a period of stasis and restriction, adhocism also suggests a ‘new mode of direct action’ in the way that it shapes the ‘local environment towards desired ends’ (p. 15). 

Elsa and Lilly made what they could out of what they had: in a small block of basswood brought back from the US earlier that year (and with two carving knives and limited paint supplies) they found a toadstool and a lighthouse. Elsa had brought the basswood back with her from the US in January 2020. She had been saving it for something, though she hadn’t known quite what. It was only one block of wood, perhaps 10x3x3, that she sawed in half in the university art studio. Wood, Peter Korn reminds us, has ‘distinctive physical properties, which govern the way it can be worked.’ Different types of wood have ‘character and quirks’ to which the craftsperson must adapt (p.55-56). Though basswood is one of the easiest types of wood to manipulate, carving it takes patience especially for an amateur woodcarver. To achieve the desired shape, it is best to chip away slowly because once a piece is removed, it cannot be put back. Elsa learned this the hard way, and had to make the entire lighthouse smaller to accommodate a careless cut that removed an inch long chunk of wood (see image 3). David Pye observes in handcrafted objects the ‘workmanship of risk,’ wherein ‘the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgement, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works’ (p. 4). A knife slipping between the grain caused Elsa to have to sand down the top of the mushroom, making it flatter than intended. A misplaced drop of paint caused the doorways and windows of the lighthouse to be outlined in red. In the end, neither gift looked exactly as they had hoped but still, they had created, ‘entirely unique, inimitable thing[s] that didn’t exist just a couple of hours ago’ (Baume, p. 183).The distinctive gifts aptly reflected the personal relationships that they had handcrafted with the teachers who influenced their academic development over their four years at university.  

Image 3: The Lighthouse in progress

Virtual Campuses with Real Toadstools in Them: Souvenirs of an Education 

Left behind in the middle of a disrupted semester, the toadstool and the lighthouse are in a way compensatory objects. They are souvenirs of what was lost or changed when the pandemic disrupted the usual rhythm of the academic year. Souvenirs speak to us, Susan Stewart contends, through a ‘language of longing’ (p. 135), prompting us to look back nostalgically. While Stewart sees the souvenir as reaching only ‘behind’ (p. 135) and, ironically, ‘destined to be forgotten’ (p. 151), the handmade toadstool and lighthouse are more generative than nostalgic. They represent not only loss but also affective and intellectual resilience and even adaptiveness.

The toadstool and the lighthouse are both metonymic of and material evidence for an education. An undergraduate degree usually culminates in a graduation ceremony and the formal handing out of a paper diploma. In the absence of those things, the toadstool and the lighthouse are souvenirs of what Elsa and Lilly consider to be the most valuable things they gained from their liberal arts education (a wider worldview, the ability to empathise and think critically and creatively, and rich personal relationships). For Alexandra and Alison they are reminders of these particular students, their kindness, creativity, and talent, and also that what they teach can have a rich afterlife beyond the classroom. 

As COVID-19 transformed educational relationships and exchanges, we, as students and teachers, struggled to make our new, unpredictable world fit into existing roles and norms, and found that the need for care had become both essential and more difficult to perform in traditional ways. These gifts initiate an exploration of how we might find closure and express gratitude in emotionally uncertain and physically distanced times such as ours. The toadstool and the lighthouse embody pedagogical care but also craft that care into evocative new forms of hope, resistance and regeneration. 

Words by: Lilly Carr, Alexandra Peat, Elsa Thompson, and Alison Vogelaar

Works Cited

Baume, Sara. Handiwork. Tramp Press, 2020.

Colesworthy, Rebecca. Returning the Gift. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Elkins, Amy. ‘A Stitch in Time: H.D.’s Craft Modernism as Transhistoric Repair.’ The Space Between, 12 (2016).

Korn, Peter. Why We Make Things & Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman. Vintage, 2013. 

Jencks, Charles and Nathan Silver. Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation. MIT Press, 2013 [1972].

Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Adam Frank. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy,

Performativity. Duke University Press, 2003. 

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Making things, Practicing Emptiness. Duke University Press. 2012.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, 1993.

Woolf, Virginia. To The Lighthouse. Oxford University Press, 2006.