It’s a Tuesday, late afternoon. The bike traffic on Williams is starting to pick up, the hours ripe for commuter traffic to begin. The building I walk into stands as a collective of creative spaces -- Ristretto Roasters, Spielwerk Toys, Ink + Peat, Ray, and Tasty n’ Sons, narrowing the gap between food establishment and retail storefront, showing the art inherent in anything we create, in anything we build for others, and for ourselves.
The theme seems appropriate as I make my way into Klum House, preparing for a discussion on creativity with the owner, Ellie Lum. Plants fill the studio, and the walls are lined with spools of thread, all anchored with reminders of the possibility of creation, of what can be built when we let go of expectation and assumption of achievement, reveling in the act of making instead.
We talk about creativity, yes, but we talk about the elements tied to this, of letting go of perfectionism, of focusing on what we can learn from process, and of the particular environment that our city and community have fostered in support of our art.
“We were curious about Portland. Both I and my husband run our businesses and we needed a place where they could thrive. We wanted to be somewhere where people made things, and where people supported that.”
I see that and feel it in my understanding of the city. Portland is a place where creativity prospers. It’s a safe haven for experimentation, for trial and error. It’s somewhere where we can explore the gratification of learning, without fear of failure.
With that, we talk about communities and we talk about home. By living in so many cities, varying in culture and creative fabric, Ellie has experience and years that breed knowledge and perspective.
Having only come to Portland a few months ago, I comment that I’m often referred to as a transplant, and that native Portlanders lament that the city has lost its particular feel, its certain values, its singular ideals, because of people like myself. People who are young and looking for something different; people who change that very thing they seek because they are different themselves.
I’m self-conscious of this, worried that my eagerness and desire for change, for something new, makes me a product of trend, losing any prior credibility I had of uniqueness, of a certain oneness and singularity with the world.
But Ellie responds, “You’re right, sure, there are plenty of people who think that. The reality though, is that that’s what cities are. People go to cities to find their tribes.”
We dive then into our topic, and Ellie describes her particular relationship with creativity, how it’s always been a part of her life. Some people think of creative acts as a chore, as a burden, as something that challenges your patience and trust. And sure, it’s work, it’s effort, it’s focus and concentration, but it’s also light, it’s play. Creativity is understanding that your hands are capable of making something useful, something beautiful and entirely your own.
“I think of creativity as intertwined with a belief system. About self, and your place and relationship with the world and with people. Because you have to prioritize it, you have to make a commitment to it because otherwise no one is going to do that for you.
“Society is not going to tell you that art and creativity are important. You have to stake a claim and adopt an identity. And then make a home for it with yourself in your life.”
Do you believe that people are inherently creativity, or is it more so a muscle that needs to be built and worked?
“I think of creativity as being pretty broad and as a fundamental human impulse. You engage with your creativity when you cook dinner, when you get dressed in the morning. You’re always doing it in how you choose to do anything. You make design choices every single second of your life. You can just frame it in that way or not.
“With that, there’s a certain amount of identifying as a creative or an artist or a maker that leads to more of a distinction. I don’t really see a difference in creativity for any particular person, but there is a difference in someone identifying as a creative versus not.
“But I’m also a teacher, and so I see that there are people who aren’t confident in their creativity. Everyone has it, it’s just a matter of how much they focus on it and practice it. And how much confidence or familiarity they have with their creative process.”
Ellie and I dive more into the topic of her master craft, exploring the dexterity and finesse that sewing requires. Sewing is creative, of course, but Ellie reflects upon the analytical skills necessary to conceive of and produce something of your own creation. It’s this varied nature of sewing that allows different people to engage with it in different ways.
“Everything has to be sewn in a certain process, step by step, one things before another and you can’t skip around. The sequence of construction is pretty rigid. There’s a lot of measuring. There’s a lot of numbers, a lot of math, and a lot of particular ways that things need to be done. You rely upon rules to make a functional bag. You need the strap to be a certain way or else you can’t put it on your arm.”
Ellie’s words speak to the unexpected analytics of creativity. “There’s so much math in art. There’s perspective, there’s geometry, there’s shape.” There’s a certain familiarity with the systems of art, with what you learn from space, from material and from your particular medium. Structure begets consistency, allowing you to explore, gaining flow in your practice, and developing a style.
How do you support a relaxed environment, where people aren’t afraid to mess up and aren’t focused on perfection?
“There’s so much struggle in making something. If you’ve never done something before, you start thinking it’s not going to work out. But here, we want people to be able to let go of past experiences and inhibitions.
You’ve done research on the emotional and physical impact of working with your hands. Can you talk about this work and what you found?
“I was studying college students around the ages of 18-21, looking at people’s belief in themselves to change the world or to affect change with the things that they believe in. When you’re making, there’s so much mental chatter while you’re still trying to focus and to have this relationship with what your body is doing. When you’re learning to sew, what you’re essentially doing is learning how to control the fabric with your hands, and taking something that was manufactured as flat and making a three-dimensional object. There’s an activation in the relationship between what you see and the outcome you want to achieve, and what you make your hands do.”
What Ellie realized as well, was that when people worked with their hands in a social setting, the act of making worked as a social lubrication, where they were less inhibited, feeling less guarded and anxious. There’s an element of distraction, but Ellie believes that it is more.
“There’s a certain meditation in the act of making itself that I think renews people and it gives you a chance to have a very unique experience of being creative, especially in a class setting, and being able to let go because someone else is in charge.”
So much of this relates to perfection. This consciousness is tied to expectation, anticipation of perfection and the belief that something attempted must be learned entirely upon this first try.
“People are so used to being really good at what they do because they’ve spent their lifetime getting there. But if you’re brave enough to attend a class, to learn something new as an adult, then you need to let go of the idea of making something that’s perfect.”
To combat this natural tendency, Ellie asks students about priorities and what their goals are for the class. These questions necessitate reflection: What do you want to learn? Why do you want to learn? Are you thinking of final product, or are you considering the gratification of process?
“When we’re making things, we’re having conversations with what we’re making. We’re never in control of what we’re creating. There’s so many factors and our conscious thought is one factor, but it isn’t by any means in the front seat. There’s so many intangible things happening when you’re making. Why would you even want to track them all and why would you ever want to know them all? Just let them happen. Just do the thing, just make it.”
I love Ellie’s words, and I leave feeling a sense of release, a knowledge and an assurance that what I’m doing, what I’m taking on as a writer and as an artist, is right, and it’s on its way to something. But I’m not focused on that end, and I’m no longer even hoping for it. I’m indulging in the process, I’m engaging in the course and falling in love with movement. I’m working with the abilities I have and those I have yet to develop.
I’m writing, I’m writing, I’m writing. It’s never perfect, it’s enough.