No More Art/Craft Kits

Many artists may have started with art or craft kits, but the more I see them, the more I get grumpy about the expectations they raise and don’t complete. And I think the same kind of thinking that went into the real estate bubble (consumerism, greed, and the idea that if you don’t have the latest gadget, you are nobody) is hitting the art market.

Survival kit in a sardine can, courtesy

Survival kit in a sardine can, courtesy

For a long time I believed that kits and assembly-projects were art portals. People would understand art, get the fun and creativity, and strike out on their own. But I don’t see that happening. Instead, I see people demanding perfect, gift-ready products at the end of a two-hour class.

The very field that encourages thinking, creative problem solving, experimentation, delightful mistakes that lead to interesting discoveries is now fraught with kits that assemble in under an hour and guarantee “perfect” results.

No creativity here. No problem solving, either. No

A can of worms. (

A can of worms. (

experimentation. You might as well be assembling a bookcase from Ikea. The last time I did that, I didn’t claim to be a carpenter or a woodworker. I did learn how to use an Allen Wrench, though.

The problem with kits is that they don’t encourage artistic exploration, they encourage consumerism. You often have to purchase that special tool, which comes in three sizes, so you’ll need the container to put it in, and the book with other projects that require six more specialized tools.

There may have been a reason for kit creation. I could also be lining my hat with aluminum foil and designing conspiracy theories. Here’s the logical thread: artists who spent time and effort developing a useful technique would teach it. The class participants took the class and promptly began to teach the same thing with less experience. The original designer began to create shortcuts to blur the process but produce uniform results, which pleased art retreat promoters who could teach more classes in a day. It pleased the participants, too, who began to walk out with “can’t fail” projects.

Craft tool manufacturers loved it because instructors could demand more specialized tools.

The whole thing has gotten out of hand. In a recent class, I passed out samples of some of the explorations of the technique I was teaching and one woman immediately began to make sketches of the pieces I was passing around and write down notes I’d put on some of the pages.

There was no doubt that she was copying, word for word, my copyrighted material. What’s interesting is that by the time class was over, she had learned the technique but had not recognized it because she was busy copying information, not experimenting with a technique.

As a culture, we’ve over-scheduled our kids and ourselves to the point where free time has to be productive, result in a gift or something “creative.” We don’t feel joy or pride when we complete a kit, we feel relief at duplicating the picture on the cover in the time allotted.

We haven’t learned a thing, and certainly not made meaning or art. No wonder people don’t “get” art, they’ve never experienced the joy of creation.

There is a legitimate place for kits, and it’s the equivalent of the Ikea bookcase. If you want to assemble something in a short time with little hassle, a kit is just perfect.

But I’m submitting a new analogy for the SATs. Kits are to art like reality shows are to real life. You can participate in a passive way and be glad it’s not all your idea.

It took me a while to figure out why I am so enthusiasitc about raw art journals. I finally figured it out–it’s all technique. I can’t tell you if you are doing it right. You’ll know. You’ll sit down and time will fly and you will like the result or know how to change it to love it next time. It’s meaning making. And for me, that’s life being art.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and raw-art journaler. She gives workshops in writing and raw art for businesses and  people who can’t draw.   © Quinn McDonald, 2009. All rights reserved.