Elon Musk doesn’t have enough money to buy a few possessions I own because they are hand-made works of art created especially for me. One collection of such art hangs in our dining room; three hand-woven towels hanging on the rungs of an old wooden ladder. These were hand-woven on a loom by my lovely third cousin, Jan Steele Roberts of Colorado.
I had heard my dad talk affectionately about the “Steele” side of the family tree and knew a couple of them, but a few years back Jan and her husband, Don, gathered the rest of the family together to meet my wife, Christine, and me at their place in Ault. At the time, she showed me her beautiful loom in her basement and a short time later, these beautiful works of art arrived. In the accompanying note, she said they were ready for everyday use as hand towels. What!? There is no way I’d soil such beautiful pieces of art.
Recently, a rug arrived from Jan with the same instructions. Knowing that I love our chickens, she had found a piece of cloth with a chicken pattern, then created a rug that, as she said, “It’s meant to be used. Throw it on the floor and wash it when it gets dirty.”
Nope. Not going to happen. It’s laying in front of our fireplace, and even the grandkids know it’s for display, not for use; they are careful to step around it.
I sometimes sit and gaze upon these pieces much like I would a painting hanging in an art gallery. I learned that technique in college – to gaze upon a piece of art and describe how it makes you feel because all art is made to create an emotion. No artist wants you to look at their work and go, “Oh, that’s nice.” Instead, they want to wow you.
As I contemplate Jan’s creations, my imagination travels to her basement where her loom is set up. Although I look at that machine and have no idea how it works, she has mastered it.
“I did basket weaving and was invited to a weaving guild in Northern Colorado,” Jan says. “They were starting a new loom weaving class and I fell in love with it. I could rent a table loom for five dollars a month then, the following spring, the guild decided to sell some of their looms, so I bought my first one, a work-horse Gilmore loom made in California.”
“Getting the loom set up is very difficult,” Jan says. “But once I get started, the weaving process is very rhythmic. I get into the flow of the machine working and it’s almost like meditation. I can get lost in it for hours.”
That flow – the feeling of creative joy during which you lose track of time in deep satisfaction – was described by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the intersection between a person’s skills and challenges. If your skills exceed your challenges, you get bored. On the other hand, if your challenges exceed your skills, you get frustrated. The flow happens when your challenges and skills meet and you find such deep satisfaction that you can get lost in the flow and lose track of time.
“I do this for fun and relaxation,” Jan says. “I give away all the stuff I make because it gives me a chance to share my love of weaving with people. When I am making something, I know how much pleasure it is going to give them. When you know someone will love something like that, you find a way to make it for them.”
As I gaze upon the pieces and marvel at their pattern, wonder at their process, and brag on them to friends and family, the most intriguing part is the sense of worth I feel. I wonder at what point Jan decide that we were worth her time, energy, and creativity. What good thing in us made this elegant, classy, and intelligent lady respond with such generosity to decide to create such a thing for us? Why was she willing to give up her time to bring joy to our lives?
I understand that the true value of Jan’s art is that she gave us the creative gift of her time. Most of us guard our time like it’s Fort Knox and are careful to keep it to ourselves, yet she decided that creating a work of art for us was worthy of her time. How many hours did it take her? How long did she contemplate and prepare before she began?
Her gift is also a statement of affection. It speaks to us and says, “I like you, Cuz! I wish we would have known each other longer but let’s make up for lost time.”
I have several hand-made gifts around the house, and I display them prominently because they are reminders that someone found me worthwhile to spend their time to show me, they like me.
I have made numerous hand-made gifts in my woodworking shop to give to people for the same reason, so I understand why Jan’s gift is so valuable.
Jan’s gift says so us, “I like you; you are worthy of my time and affection.” Something as seemingly simple as a hand-written note serves the same purpose.
Those kinds of gift has no price tag.
P.S. I find in striking that today, July 9, 2022, a photo popped up on my Facebook timeline of my our family connection. My grandfather, Bert McNary and Jan’s grandmother, Olive McNary Steele were brother and sister. I’m sure if those two were still alive, it would bring them great pleasure to know that their grandchildren know, and enjoy, each other’s company.