The trouble with art supplies

Charms for her friends, by request.

Charms for friends, by request.

(It turns out this post has been a difficult one to write, and it finally dawned on me that it’s because I’ve been trying to keep the girls’ lives private even though this is a very public project. But in the interest of fair reporting, I feel like I need to come clean about one area we have NOT been zero waste at all: Art supplies. It seems disingenuous to write about the bulk bins and gloss over this little tidbit. So here we are.)

Johanna is an artist. Yes, she’s only 11, and no, I’m not talking hobbies — it’s what she does. She needs to create the way I need words. It’s not something you like to do, it’s something you must do.

Abby is also an artist, but for her it is a hobby — it’s something she does when she feels like it. Her compulsion is reading. It’s just that books are more environmentally friendly — paper can, after all, be reused, recycled and composted — so no one worries about it very much.

I suppose it’s good that I understand the distinction between want and must because otherwise Johanna would be one frustrated chick. It’s not uncommon for her to get an idea and have to immediately explore it, whether that’s with paint or clay or cloth. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but she’s always up to the task. She regularly creates pieces for family and friends on what I would describe as a commission, except there’s no payment involved (“I’m not going to take your money. Unless you pay me in food”) — she gets a lot of requests, sometimes from her “stock,” and sometimes made to order. She’s got art schools on her college radar. She’s already written three graphic novels. There’s no medium that’s off limits.

A recent card she drew for a 50th anniversary party. She's into manga.

A recent card she drew for a 50th anniversary party. This style, she assures me, is called “manga.”

Johanna is not a minimalist. And I think that’s because she sees the world as an art box. She’s totally going to keep those scrap ribbons, discarded magazines and broken crayons just in case. She’s got a pretty decent collection of paints and pastels and pencils … most of which are strewn across her floor for quick access.

But a few times this year, she’s needed new art supplies.

And these things are not zero waste.

We don’t have an art store in town, so I’m not sure what even entails, as far as zero waste or low waste options go. The closest thing we have is a stationary store, and she can get unwrapped notebooks and pencils, but the rest of the meager offerings are all in packages of some sort, usually plastic.

Um, and she goes through a lot of canvases, also wrapped in plastic. And she just requested a glue gun for Christmas.

Here’s the thing: I know I could just say no. I could make her figure out an alternatives. Or make her do without. But I don’t want to. I love the way she looks at the world. And it’s just mean to keep someone from doing something that they love. (Says the compulsive writer.)

I really don’t have a moral to this story, except to say that for us, art supplies are a problem area. And while I feel guilty, I don’t feel guilty enough to want to change, not really. So it may not even get addressed during the project. I can’t see any alternatives, and I don’t know if it’s because I lack artistic ingenuity (I can’t even draw a stick figure and I don’t get the point of crafts) or if I just haven’t thought it through enough.


Not to say that Johanna lacks resourcefulness. One recent project was actually quite zero waste — she repurposed broken crayons into new shapes:


She arranged them just so for the photo.

It was pretty simple — she unwrapped the crayons and broke them into pieces. She used a bunch of different colors to create custom hues, which she melted in the oven using paper muffin cup liners (purchased pre-project) and then poured into egg molds (purchased last year as a stocking stuffer. Can’t say they work very well for eggs, but wow, they do make a cute crayon). The nice thing about these particular molds is that the crayons just popped out after they cooled.

They’re way too cute for her to actually use so they’re just more clutter in her bedroom, and the melting wax made the house stink, but hey — new skill, etc.

Next up: I really need to figure out my next three-month plan. I feel like I’m drifting again.

11 Responses to The trouble with art supplies

  1. I was just like that when I was growing up – I ended up majoring in art in college, too. One problem I have had with quasi-hoarding is that I see everything as potential fodder for a creative project. No zero waste discussion of the topic has ever really tackled that issue, in my opinion: do you want a house that is minimal and contains ‘only what you need’, or do you keep everything because someday you may find a use that redeems it from the landfill? I love browsing at Goodwill because all the ‘junk’ just inspires me.

    Now that I’m an adult, I’m so glad that my parents indulged my artistic efforts, and never complained about the mess or refused me the supplies I needed. My recent zero waste projects are, I think, helped by the creativity I developed through art, and the world needs those skills. Who knows what use your daughter will make of her skills, but art can be a great good in the world, and creativity is useful every day.

    • I like this very much. I have no idea where Johanna’s art will take her — it could end up just being a really cool hobby when she’s older — but I cannot see taking away something that makes her so happy just because it doesn’t fit into MY definition of minimalism and zero waste. And Johanna notices things that no one else does … that’s a skill that goes beyond art (and one I totally lack).

      As far as clutter goes — aside from her bedroom floor 😉 she has a couple of drawers/cupboards in the dining room to stash stuff, and that makes us both happy. So that’s my solution to her hoarding. But it makes sense, really. Abby and I have libraries of books, so why not a “library” of Jo’s supplies?

  2. I’ve struggled with the concepts of minimalism and simple living, and, because I find it so frustrating, have given up time and time again. My new attempt is to purchase and consume consciously. That’s it. No more and no less. I love art and crafting and I will no longer deny myself these pleasures because I need paint that comes in a tube that isn’t recyclable.

    • Love this! Coming up with your own definition of minimalism and simple living isn’t talked about much, but maybe it should be — there’s no right or wrong way to do it, although as humans I think we like to put ourselves in boxes. Life isn’t black and white … so why do we insist it is? It sounds like you’re on to something with your conscious consumerism that will be more sustainable and less frustrating.

      (It’s interesting to me because I’m trying to figure out what I can do and what is actually sustainable for the long haul. “Conscious consumerism” is much less intimidating than “zero waste” or “minimalism.” You need to patent that right now!)

  3. I’m impressed that you are supporting your daughter in her passion. It’s hard to be different in a family, be it a collector in minimalist family of something else.

    I know your town is tiny, but could she swap/adopt craft supplies others no longer want or need? Is there a Craigslist/Freecycle/library resource where she could use other people’s unwanted craft supplies? I know I have difficulty getting rid of craft supplies because I want them to be used, not just thrown out. I’d love to give them to someone who can use them!

    • I actually hadn’t thought of swapping supplies and haven’t looked into Craigslist or Freecycle. We have an art club here … I could also see if they have something like that already going on between members. Good idea!

      Oh, and I can’t imagine NOT supporting Johanna in this … or anything else she does, really. (Or Abby. I’m a big fan of just letting people be who they are.) She’s just so thoroughly herself. I love that she’s different!

  4. Art and sewing supplies are hard for me too! I’ve found that limiting myself by both space (i.e. everything has to fit in a certain storage container) and budget that I can really reign in the chaos that comes from art supplies. And I also let go of a few creative hobbies I no longer enjoyed and that helped too.

    As long as aren’t consuming the entire house, I say let her go for it! Minimalism and zero waste are definitely a journey. Johanna may one day get to a point where she does want to let go of some arts supplies but until then, they obviously spark a lot of joy for her!

  5. I like all the ideas suggested here. Another might be to plan a mother-daughter weekend trip or a family vacation where you know there is an awesome art supply store and make a point to explore together all the sustainable art supplies available and stock up there. It may not meet all her needs for an entire year or anything, but it could help her realize what’s available and maybe on her own she’ll decide to make sustainable choices. It’s a win for you because it involves no mom nagging.

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