Interview: Discovery Tote Maker Shannon Duffy

Thursday, May 12, 2011 8:46
Posted by Tina Plottel in category Mother's Day, Reviews & Interviews

Shannon Duffy has studied psychology in North Carolina, woodworking in Kentucky, and jewelry making in Arizona. But a bigger influence on what she does as a crafter might be the time she spent playing with dolls in Germany. “We were stationed there with the Army. We lived near Erlangen when I was 10 to 13 years old,” she recalls. “We lived off base for a year, in an apartment with German neighborhood children that we spent time playing with. I remember the toys were always wooden and natural, just more simple [than most American toys]. Mostly I remember the dolls, made of fabric with stitched faces – and I had the plastic Fisher-Price doll brought from the U.S.”

For the past four years Duffy has been creating her own simple, stitched toys: monster-y, very un-Fisher-Price-esque fabric dolls, as well as felt-and-cotton Discovery Totes, play sets that contain all the materials a child needs for some serious battery-free fun. In the Garden, for example, features a three-dimensional fabric scene that includes a house, a flower field, and a stepping-stone pathway. It comes with felt flowers and a felt-and-lace little-girl figure that can be placed into and moved around the landscape – and then put way inside it. A ribbon cinches everything together and allows it to be hung out of the way. Another set, Ants, includes a felt stick, felt clumps of grass, and five little felt insects. Campfire has flames, logs, sicks, and – best of all – marshmallows for imaginary toasting.

Duffy sells her creations at indie craft fairs and in her Etsy shop, Helicopter Studios, named in honor of her military-pilot father. “We spent a lot of time visiting the hanger and playing in and out of helicopters,” she says of her childhood, adding that the name has other connotations, too: ‘the helicopters that fall from the trees – they are like a toy from nature. I think they are beautiful and simple, much like my designs.” That Duffy finds inspiration in nature makes sense: She lives near Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in a Kentucky state park, where her husband is in charge of the golf course. She calls it “the perfect place,” with “bike trails, hiking, and water to take our kayaks” – as well as plenty of raw material for woodsy totes such as Owl and Nest. “The natural world has always taken a front seat to my work, whether it is woodworking, metals, or fibers,” she says. “I am an outdoorsy girl living with my perfect companion plus two.”

The two would be her 8-year-old son and her 6-year-old daughter, whom she calls her “always-available toy testers.” When Duffy started with Etsy, in 2008, she admits, “I read all the quitting-your-day-job articles and dreamed of at least making enough money to pay my student loans and cover the expenses.” But the bottom line of her business has always been being able to be a mom. “I worry about not giving enough face time to my kiddos and would never be able to focus on my store 18 hours a day,” she says. “I make my work because I am passionate about making things. I don’t really look to make a fortune. Money has never been a motivating factor for me – ask my husband!”

By e-mail from Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, Duffy talks about crafting for and with children, as well as her own “childlike nature.”

In addition to making your totes and raising your children, you teach at Murray State University and the Paducah School of Art. What’s your artistic background?

My [BFA] degree was officially in wood but could have been sculpture or metals. After graduating, my boyfriend (soon to be husband) and I moved to Arizona, where I got a job at an architecture firm where I made scale models. After about two years I decided to go back to school to get my master’s. I decided to apply to the metals program because I wanted to be able to fit my thesis show in a shoe box. I didn’t quite make it fit in a shoe box, but I got it all in one large plastic bin. Seriously, I loved metals and had been creating all the tiny details for the scale models, so naturally I looked to continue the small works.

I can see how making models of buildings could be similar to creating the miniature landscapes in your totes.

These models were huge, most of them measuring at least 10 by 10 feet. They were for companies like Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, to be placed in sales centers for time-shares. It was a fabulous job.

How is teaching art different from making crafts?

Not so much teaching, but making art in the real world and making art in art school are very different. When I was in school we never talked about selling your work in the real world (like Etsy). We focused on showing in galleries and juried shows. The work in school is much more “concept”-based, combined with technique. Plus there are internal influences that you don’t have when you are just making in your home studio – although I still make “crafty” stuff that has meaning. But I see a lot of work on Etsy and in the craft world that is made to be cute and pretty – words I don’t let my students use!

Your totes are pretty cute! What gave you the idea of making them?

During my thesis studies I was focused on the concept of art that interacts with the viewer. I made metal objects that could be “played with” and manipulated by the viewer. These objects were very toylike and playful. So I had already been making toys, in a sense. Now I just thought about making them for my children. Making them safe and tactile, I used wool felt and cotton instead of metal and enamel. I was motivated by the lack of toys that involved the imagination of the child and tired of all the ugly plastic toys that were on the market. I am very anti-batteries and feel children should have open-ended toys to feed their imaginations.

So your first totes were made for your own kids?

I had my son while I was finishing graduate school, and it became pretty apparent that working in metals and having a small child really didn’t mingle well. After graduating from Arizona State University with my MFA in jewelry/metals, in 2004, I became the resident artist at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, where I taught all the metals classes. Soon we decided to move back East to be closer to family. I was then pregnant with my second child. After we got settled my daughter was born and, naturally, I became a stay-at-home mom. I embraced this idea of committing myself to these two beautiful little people. Also, I realized that making things is such an important part of living a happy life, and I had to keep creating, but in a new and different way.

So while I took all those art classes in undergrad and grad school, I never took a single fibers course. I started by teaching myself to sew, making dresses and curtains and table runners at first. I began to get requests for the little-girl dresses and began to sell them locally. But it just wasn’t enough for me and my creative outlet. I needed to make something with more meaning. I made the first tote for my son, the racetrack. Then I just started getting more ideas and excited about making more totes. At the same time I had been teaching Montessori in the home and reading books about Waldorf education along with Montessori education practices. The sewing was something I could start and stop and do while my children were on my lap or running around playing.

Do you homeschool, then?

No. I homeschooled through the preschool years, but they both really wanted to go to school! … I was a bit sad at first but realized it is good for them to have some time away from me. That gives us a chance to fill in all the stuff we think is important, like hands-on learning. We have chickens, bunnies, dogs, and an organic garden that we tend together. I love the concept of unschooling, much the opposite of public school. Maybe one day!

Do you think your totes are particularly suitable to Montessori teaching?

In the sense that they are open-ended and made of natural materials. I have made some special-order totes for Montessori classrooms in the past. They were the fishing tote (not in my store right now) that was based on counting and sorting. Play and imagination are important parts of Montessori teaching.

You sometimes post your children’s craft projects on your blog, and you’re featured in a book called My Kids With My Crafts. How much time do you spend crafting with your kids?

I would say most weekends we are crafting together. I teach Art Processes in the Elementary-School Classroom, so occasionally we work on projects for my teaching.

You recently started selling dolls that look like they might have been inspired by children’s drawings. Were they?

No, those came out of my head. That’s my childlike nature!

Finally, for us urbanites: What’s it like living in a state park?

Living in a state park has some pros and cons, like anywhere, although it is the most beautiful spot in the area! It kind of reminds me of my childhood living on military bases. I miss the connection with a real city – that’s the biggest con. … It took a while to get used to living 20 minutes from anything, but now that we are going into our third summer here, I am in a new state of mind. We live on the outskirts of Land Between the Lakes, which is a national park. … Although the area lacks in culture and diversity, we just take road trips to round out our children’s experiences. My husband is the golf course superintendent here in the park, so we play golf as a family. Kentucky is a beautiful state to discover.

Photo: Tina Plottel

About Tina Plottel

Tina Plottel is a knitter, librarian, and punk-rock archivist from Washington, D.C., by way of Philadelphia. She plays violin in the Southern Gothic ensemble the Torches and is working on the Kansas House Project, an oral history documenting a punk house in Arlington, Virginia.

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  • Yebo1996

    i was lucky enough to take classes with shannon while she was resident artist at the phoenix center!!!