I recently traveled back home to visit my mom for a few days on the family farm in Wythe County, Virginia. I love that farm, which has been in my family for so many generations. The living monument that has stood guard over the farm all these years is a huge black walnut tree. In its younger days, it served as a property marker. In recent years, the graceful old tree has offered a place to hold countless family picnics.
And to every generation, the tree has offered its treasures for each to do with as they pleased.
My grandfather, Homer Umberger, gathered the tree’s walnuts and created unique carvings, like the one you see below. He created a menagerie of carved animals and figures from the walnuts, which will be the subject of a future post, so stay tuned!
My dad gathered the walnuts and cracked them to give away to friends and family who loved to bake with them.
Today I’m gathering my own black walnuts to make dye for my pine needle creations and homespun yarn (more on that in an upcoming post!). It makes me smile to think of all the family history that has played out on this grand green. I hope the old tree will be standing guard, and offering its treasures for many years to come.
Not everyone has an old walnut tree, but we all have something. What do you make with what you have? Share it with us in the comment box below. We’d love to read about it and, with your permission, share it with the Inspiring Handmade family.
Recently I was given a very precious gift. My dear friend, Mrs. Emmaline Davis, gifted me with a handmade pine needle basket given to her many, many years ago. Knowing that I make pine needle baskets, she knew I would appreciate the workmanship and love that went into making that little treasure. It is so delicately constructed with just single needles and thread! I was so touched. I love Mrs. Emmaline and cherish her friendship, and I know this is a special basket that she has given to me. My “thank you” seems so insufficient.
Maybe creativity and the arts are put to the noblest use when they serve to encourage others and deepen the relationships that bless our lives. In our world of plastic and prefabricated assembly line creations, a gift of creativity, time, and vision is increasingly rare and that much more to be appreciated.
For our readers in a sharing mood this week, drop us a note about a gift that has meant something special to you. It can be something you made and gave, or something someone else gave to you. Just use the box below. And let us know if we can share it with the rest of the Inspiring Handmade family!
Do you fight the tendency to overdo it? Many of us do! We over-eat, over-work, over-drink, over-stare-at-our-phones. Whatever it is, if one is good, two must be better! And we live in a consumer culture that has grown to glorify getting more and more stuff. So much so that now one of the most popular shows on television is all about getting rid of your things.
Sometimes, as the cliché goes, less really is more.
That has proven to be true for me as I’ve been exploring wire sculpture these past several months.
The “Wire People,” as I call these pieces, have become a major creative focus. I love how movement and emotion can be conveyed using only a few simple materials — scrap paper, wire, glue, and wood. The real power of the medium lies in the ability to “sketch” in 3D, so to speak. The wire is the line and the sculptures are essentially quick gesture drawings that capture a singular moment in time with an energy and joy that draws you in.
This first series has taken me back to my 1960s childhood on a farm in Southwest Virginia. Growing in the rich soil along with the corn and beans were faith, patriotism, sportsmanship, appreciation of nature and animals, and love. Those themes sprout and grow throughout these works just as they have grown in me.
So the Wire People in this series are autobiographical in many ways. The little girl on the tree swing is me. My grandfather built that swing for me in my back yard. It hung from a big old black cherry tree that faced the garden. I spent hours there every summer swinging and watching my grandfather work in the garden. Looking back, I’ll bet he chose that tree so he’d have a little company while he worked.
A tree, some rope, and a wooden seat. Simple, simple. Even most kids today could probably find thrills and contentment with those simple materials. We haven’t changed all that much, I suspect; it just takes more work now to keep it simple. It takes effort to stay focused on the important things in life and not allow ourselves to become distracted by one more thing. My Wire People remind me to keep it simple and focus on what’s true. What helps you keep your eyes on the things of real value?
Do you consider yourself creative? Do you find pleasure in making things? Maybe you spend free hours practicing a certain craft. Perhaps you paint, or draw, or design things. Or maybe you’re someone who says, “I’m not very creative,” because you don’t do any of those things.
Creativity, however, is not only about making fine art or amazing crafts. It’s a built-in quality of our humanity and can be found wherever the spark of human touch has been added to even the simplest things or places. To begin to see this we’ll look at someone widely considered a true artist, a man who would meet nearly everyone’s definition of “creative.”
British artist John Constable (1776 – 1837) is among my favorite painters. Through his paintings, he elevated the mundane to prominence, a place of admiration and praise.
The Hay Wain (1821), probably Constable’s most famous painting, is based on the landscape in Suffolk, near Flatford on the River Stour. A hay wain, which is a type of horse-drawn cart, is pictured in the water in the painting’s foreground. A simpler, more ordinary scene would be hard to find. Yet by rendering it with his oils and brushes, Constable causes us to contemplate it nearly 200 years later.
The Hay Wain is part of the artist’s early series of six-foot-wide Stour River paintings.
Similarly, the painter’s Wivenhoe Park showcases one of his famous cloudscapes rolling over a tranquil pasture. There’s nothing exciting happening here, and yet I always see a new detail every time I look at these works. It’s as if Constable is reaching across the centuries, guiding my eyes across his work, saying, “Take a look at these ripples on the water’s surface,” or “See what I did there with that bit of sunlight? Look! It appears so ordinary, but it’s really extraordinary!”
John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816) oil on canvas.
According to commentary from the National Gallery of Art, “Constable believed the Stour valley had set him on the path to his life’s work, and he chose it as his primary subject for much of his career. The area became so associated with his painting that even during his lifetime it was called “Constable Country.” That’s the power of creativity. An entire region of Great Britain elevated in the consciousness of the world because Constable turned the ordinary into the extraordinary through his creative touch.
Acknowledged or not, people everywhere share one thing in common: we are all creations of an awesomely creative God. In turn, each of us is creative in unique ways. Some, like Constable, express that through visual arts. Others through music, or writing. One may arrange flowers, while another shares notes of encouragement. Still others leverage the creative power of mathematics and engineering to solve problems on earth and transport us to the stars. Each is a creative act at its core.
We can’t help but be creative because we are made in the image of the ultimate creative being, originally fashioned from ordinary dirt. The extraordinary from the ordinary. Like a potter forming a clay vessel, God designed us and formed us into existence. The Scriptures show us His magnificent, limitless acts of creation — from His speaking the universe into existence in Genesis to glimpses of His heavenly realm in Revelation.
But I’ve realized that God is not only the Creator. He is the Re-creator. The Reclaimer.
As we approach Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, allow the Passion week to focus your thoughts on the great sacrifice Jesus Christ made to take our sins — and the righteous wrath of The Father — upon Himself. Consider how much it cost God to be able to judge our sin but also to show us mercy and offer us forgiveness.
And this year, I’ve been reflecting on how amazingly creative God is in all of this. Not only was God creative in bringing us into existence, He was just as creative in reclaiming us from the power of sin. Consider just a few highlights from the account of the Passion week and see for yourself how God re-creates and transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Like the painterly touch of Constable draws us to contemplate a cow pasture or a hay wagon 200 years on, God’s loving, creative power draws us to meditate on a simple garden. Why? Because He transformed it into a reminder of the decision each of us faces about whether to obediently follow God. How will we respond to the call to faithfulness? Read more in Matthew 26:30-75.
A meager meal of bread and juice, touched by The Lord, becomes a lasting reminder of our Savior’s deep love and sacrifice. Read more in Matthew 26:17-30.
His loving, creative power even 2,000 years on, focuses our vision on a simple wooden Cross — a thing of agony and humiliation — transformed into a symbol of sacrifice, mercy, and unimaginable forgiveness. Read more in Matthew 27:32-61.
The designer of the human body, that Good Friday, reclaimed corpses from their graves, transforming them into living testimonies of the power of God. Read more in Matthew 27:50-53.
And He turned a simple newly cut grave, really just a hole in a rocky hill, into an eternal symbol of His power and absolute victory over death. Read more in Matthew 28.
Creativity. Creation. Re-creation. Reclaimed from destruction. That’s the story of this season.
My grandfather, Homer Blanton Umberger, was born and raised on the family farm in Wytheville, Virginia in 1897. The land had been given to his family as part of a land grant from the King of England many years before. My grandfather lived on that farm, the Reed Creek Poultry Farm, all his life. He married Margaret Dean and had one child, my mom, Marjorie Dean. She married my dad, Maitland Wassum. More than 120 years later, my mom and my brother’s family still live on that same farm today.
Growing up on the Reed Creek Poultry Farm, I guess I inherited my grandfather’s creative spirit and his love for animals. My family moved in when my grandmother got sick so that my mom could help take care of her. On the farm, we collected sap and made molasses. We made apple cider from the apples in the orchard. There were always baby animals of one kind or another. I got into a lot of trouble one day when I decided to let a whole bunch of baby ducks take a swim in my bathtub. Needless to say, mom was not happy.
My grandfather always gave me a space for my very own flower garden. Family and tradition ran deep and my love for all things creative grew along with everything else on the farm. There was a story to be told in every corner of that farm and my grandfather, well known in the area as a poet and artist, passed down many family stories through his poetry. He also developed a series of carvings from walnuts. These wonderful sculptures bring a smile to my face every time I see them and they remind me of the most important thing I learned from my grandfather: He loved to bring joy to people through his poetry and art and that’s my passion for my own work today.
My cousin Eric on his family’s farm. The 1905-era barn is behind him, along with the pile of wood to be salvaged. In the distance are the gorgeous green rolling hills of Giles County, Virginia.
Deep in the mountains
The ride started off well enough, but a small omen of trouble ahead came when the passenger-side windshield wiper came loose during a heavy cloudburst as we made our way west in I-64 out of Richmond. Hannah remained calm and collected as I pulled over under a bridge and she got out on the safer side and quickly retrieved the wiper unit before it fell off the hood. Thankfully, the driver’s-side wiper remained attached.
We drove on. I especially enjoyed seeing Hannah’s reaction to the sights as we made our way deeper into the Southwest Virginia mountains, crossing the Blue Ridge mountains and entering the Appalachian ridge and valley region. Her every “Wow, Look at that!” took me back to my own wonder at what the local population lovingly refers to as “God’s Country,” as well they should. The Creator’s loving fingerprints are on grand display wherever you look.
We arrived Friday around twilight and enjoyed the chance to visit with my aunt Ann, uncle Harold, Eric, and Kyle, who is often there working on the farm on the weekends.
Saturday morning we loaded the old barn boards onto the truck. Whatever I didn’t take from the pile would become kindling for my aunt and uncle this winter. I was sorry to not have room for every single board but the truck was full and I didn’t want to overload the older tires with such a long trip back home.
The house my mother was raised in. This was “Grandma Ruby’s house” of my childhood. My PawPaw built the house himself. The old toilet just off the bedroom in the lower right of the house was loud and used to scare the daylights out of me.
Hannah and I said our goodbyes and left around 2:00 p.m. Saturday. On the way back I showed her the house where my mother grew up, one of three simple homes my grandfather, or PawPaw, as we called him, built on a steep hill. Hannah took some pictures through the truck window as we drove along.
In downtown Pearisburg we walked around. It’s always smart to carry cash in small towns. I didn’t have any and could only scrounge $1.65 from the cupholder in the truck. But the snow cone stand attendant gave me a price break on a cone for Hannah. “Oh, that’ll do,” she said of the coins I offered. She piled up the shaved ice and poured on the strawberry syrup. Small towns.
The truck handled well as we made our way northeast with the load of salvaged wood securely strapped in the bed. At Blacksburg, we spent 30 minutes or so driving around the campus of Virginia Tech. We have more than a few Hokies in our family and I wanted Hannah to see the school that was often the topic of discussion, especially when football season was in full gear.
We headed north on I-81. The sky was blue, hills were green, and traffic wasn’t too bad. A couple of miles before the Glasgow/Natural Bridge exit, however, something went wrong. Suddenly the truck began to shake violently. I thought we had a flat. Those tires were too old to trust after all. But pulling off to the side, I didn’t see any sign of a flat tire. I tried to go on, but the same bumping and shaking started again.