Class shock

This is not about class warfare, or even the one percent or the 99 percent. This is about taking scrapbooking classes. To be honest, my experience at the class I took yesterday.

I have to say right up front, that I am not a cropper or scrapbooker. I loved the original idea of scrapbooking as a gateway to creativity, but left the arena when I began to notice an alarming number of items, supplies, equipment and tools that were one-thing specific. A tool to punch a hole. Another tool to punch a larger hole. A tool to cut a 12-inch sheet. A tool to cut a 10-inch sheet. I began to see the scrapbooking arena as being consumed by retailers who want to sell you more and more equipment because you believe that your next purchase will make you an artist. This is a hard idea to overcome.

The products and tools being turned out for scrapbookers are lovely and tempting, but so many of them don’t encourage creativity, they chase it out of the room and replace it with accuracy and project completion.

In that way, scrapbooking mimicks office life. You had to be fast and accurate, and if you followed directions, you got a project that looked just like the one on the cover of the kit. Good job!

It had nothing to do with creativity, it had nothing to do with meaning-making. It had a lot to do with peer pressure. Scrapbookers became brand loyal. If you had the blue one, you needed next year’s pink model. You bought the pink model although the blue one still works just fine? Good job! We love you! And like getting a nod from the boss, it is deeply satisfying. And has nothing to do with creativity. Or with meaning making.

Why do I say all this? Because I took a scrapbooking class.  I was the  only one who did not arrive wheeling a suitcase of equipment. The instructor came in, put five plastic boxes, one in front of each small group, and returned to the front of the room. I’m not pretending she represents all scrapbooking instructors. She did mention the brands she represents. And then, to my amazement, she recited the assembly instructions for all five kits, one after another. She moved smoothly from box to box, picking up the completed piece and describing how we were to peel this sticker and apply it to that transfer sheet and then transfer it again, noting sheet colors and decorations by brand name. I began to take notes and she told me not to. “Just follow what I say. As soon as you know what to do, start.”

Women (there were no men in class) jumped, snatched kits out of the plastic boxes and applied themselves with a fervor and concentration. Tools flashed. A woman next to me asked me where my tools were. I held up my journaling bundle. She shook her head. “You’ll never keep up with just that.” It seemed the goal was keeping up and completing. It was not a technique class by my definition, it was a multi-project class.

One of the coloring steps was interesting. I applied a color I like. The instructor was suddenly over me, tapping my transferred sticker and saying, “Pink. This is not supposed to be indigo, it’s supposed to be petal. Start over.”  I nodded, and waited for her to leave. I’m not a fan of pink. I continued on the indigo. The woman on my right looked at my work and shook her head. “That’s not right,” she said kindly, “You are doing it wrong. You’ll be here till midnight.”

I am not criticizing the women or the instructor. Many women left with completed project that looked just like the completed kits at the front of the class. I felt I’d spent two hours in a factory, failing at lining up the chocolates.

For me, this is not creative work, it is assembly work. It fosters perfectionism and obedience. It doesn’t allow for variation, play, or exploring.  For me, there was no meaning making.

Maybe a few people who are scrapbookers want more play, more exploring, less dependence on tools, more on intuition. Maybe they want a way to discover who they are, and what skills they have and how those skills can be important to them. If so, I’m interested in you. I’d like to know what your next step to creativity is. I’d like to know what you love about scrapbooking and what you don’t. I’m interested in meaning making and how we experience it.

–Quinn McDonald is the author of Raw Art Journaling, a book for people who want to make meaning but don’t know how to draw.


55 thoughts on “Class shock

  1. I like to “dance” to the music I hear in my mind. So, I’m with you when it comes to finding fun in the classroom. My tool kit would have basic scissors, an army of coloured pencils, washi tapes, some interesting paper to use as the base sheet (rice paper, Japanese patterned papers, me-tinte) and a few other basic items like magazines to rip pages from, glue sticks, ribbons (in my choice of colours). Working from a kit doesn’t interest me. A few prompts for ideas to fill the page and I’m ready to go. 🙂

  2. My favorite scrapbooks are my grandmothers 60 year old albums on black paper with black photo corners with little snippets of collaged text from newspapers making up the captions…simple elegant and funny and creative. No brands were used at all. I aspire to bring that simplicity and creativity to each memory/scrapbook page I ever make (aprox. 5 to date)…with only scissors and tape and cool paper and paint to light my way! Go Indigo indeed!

  3. It’s interesting how adults in this situation begun to behave just like kids in school. Or more precisely, just like the good students. They try to do just like the teacher tells you to do, and when the more independent kid does as she pleases and the teacher expresses her dissatisfaction, they join in. It is more safe to be part of the gang 🙂 It seems to me that though our Western culture does praise individuality and the independence of thought, we are guided by the same society to not to make any waves. You shouldn’t stand out in the crowd, but you should be innovative. You should be flexible (both physically and mentally and socially) and creative but you shouldn’t stretch the accepted boundaries.

    No wonder people go bonkers…

    Maybe kits are popular because they can accommodate all the rules mentioned above?

    There’s another kind of kits that drives me bonkers: woolen yarns that are dyed so that when you knit the stripes form kind of automatically. I love those yarns that gradually shift from colour to colour, but if I want stripes I’ll create them myself, thank you very much. But the trouble is, those ready-striped-yarns have the best colours…

    • Very insightful–the whole situation does feel very much like our culture–don’t stand out, but feel like an individual. Or, “we’ll tell you just how individual you can be.” I know people who hack kits, in other words do completely different things with them. That would be fun, too. The yarn problem is fascinating. I’ve seen them and my first thought was, “What if I used a different size needle?” Of course, then the sweater, socks, etc. would be a different size.

  4. Quinn, NOW you know why I am leading workshops in A.R.T. instead of teaching at my local stamp store. The store used to have three to five instructors who taught technique, creativity and self-empowerment with stamps and other craft supplies. Then a new teacher showed up. She was just like the one you just had. The sales at the store soared and the rest of us were encouraged to follow her lead. I’m sorry, but I won’t sell out and package pre-made ‘art.’ I quit and I don’t regret it. My friend took one class from this teacher and said it felt like one of those movies about POWs trying to escape.

    • I wonder what’s exciting or comforting about assembly work. Does it make people feel creative, fulfilled, talented? It must have some cachet, or so many people wouldn’t do it.

      • people want guaranteed results…like getting an “a “on a test…they can safely “create” something that “looks” good and don’t have to explain it to anyone because it was from an kit and someone else took the risk….so if aotre doesnt like it, their own ego/creativity is not on the line…

          • you can tell the weavers and weaver-wanna-be’s by the way they examine the clothing,,,,and or they share their stories of how they are afraid to cut the cloth or experiment…my biggest peeve wit the magazine Handwovne is that the projects don’t lok any different frmo 30 years ago…no style to the clothes…and the instructions are just like your kits…sigh….

          • my fingers are not working today…i again apologize for the misspelled words….am in the “get out the door to the studio” mode and not checking before i post.

  5. This reminds when I took a class about using a film editing/drawing program and I was drawing space ships and giant space octopi, washing everything in a gold with spectacularly bright transitions. The instructors told me I had to delete everything and follow their red, blue, and yellow blob progression. (I was also using “Freefalling” by Tom Petty as my soundtrack–they didn’t like that, either!) The sad thing to me was that I was the only one in the class who didn’t immediately follow the directions–I didn’t realize I was supposed to until they told me to change everything. After I was “reprimanded,” my fellow class participants acted as if I’d done something along the lines of being insubordinant like swearing at the teachers. So, I say, “Go INDIGO!”

    • If the instructor has something definite in mind, or there is a purpose, I’ll go along. But like, you, I don’t see a need to use specific colors just because everyone else is doing it. I’m a big believer in self-discipline and following directions on say, heart surgery, car building and creating something for a specific effect. But in a creative class? Gotta question.

  6. Ohhh, I would have loved to have been in that class with you Quinn…we could have been renegades together! I am not a fan of kits and have only taken a couple classes that entailed kits. I never finished the projects in class or at home. I’ve always liked coloring outside the lines so being forced to do otherwise, well, that just ain’t workin’ for me.

  7. Please get your beverage of choice as this could be quite lengthy. Or not, because I think a lot and then write less than half (talking about my comments and my blog posts here).
    Let me beging by saying I´m a scrapbooker. Been for over ten years as my first layout was completed on April 13th 2001. I remember because all kinds of random data stick to my brain. Ooops, I´m getting sidetracked.
    Why a scrapbooker? Because from a very young age I´ve been a memory collector and a pretty paper lover. I had my first camera at 6 and have chewing gum wrappers and Sarah Kay paper pads from around that same time.
    I´m a scrapbooking Cinderella. There are no scrapbooking stores in Argentina and I mostly get my stash from fairy friends around the world who got the newer version of things and send me the old ones. I´ve learnt to “make do” and creatively use what I have. That is to say creative scrapbooking is possible.
    Product based classes are kit based for a marketing reason but you can find technique classes and open minded teachers both IRL and on line.
    Ok, I´ll stop here before you need a re-fill. 🙂 Please feel free to ask anything you´d like to know about scrapbooking or anything else for that matter. 😀

    • With you as a guide, I’d feel a bit more secure asking. I’ve seen your work, and it looks original and asks a lot of questions about life. I’ll fill up my iced tea and ask a LOT of questions–but in an email.

  8. I scrapbooked for several years. Did my own pages that were original and mine. I did a couple of books for each of my kids, touched on highlights and also pages like playing in mud. It was fun. And meaningful because I was making them to hold memories that I would give to my kids. But then my kids got older and there was no need for scrapbooking. I’ll admit – scrapbooking is NOT a cheap hobby and there is always pressure to try the newest item. And sure, I bought some of the bling because it was fun to add. It did feel rather addicting, even though I did all my scrapbooking alone. Luckily I had journaled about my kids from before they were even born, so I could add lots of words to the pages. I don;t think scrapbooking ever made me feel like an artist, even though I considered myself an artist in other media. It felt more like a hobby, a leisure thing. Never a passion. And I won;t compare scrapbooking to my photography — because there is no comparing.

    • I think it pushes other satisfaction buttons–perfectionism, project completion. Bug you did original work. In this class, original work was not a good thing. It really is a different world.

  9. I attended a scrapbook class as part of a seminar I was attending. We all were given a “kit” with all the supplies needed for the project. Like your experience, the instructor went over each piece of the kit, we all had to check and be sure we had exactly the same items. The sample was displayed at the front of the room and we were expected to duplicate it. It was a Haloween-themed page with diecuts. I was chalking my pumpkins to given them more dimension – they were so FLAT looking and everyone around me was shocked that I would do something different. It was like I had disrespected the instructor and The Page.Heaven help me if they had seen what I did to my leaves and cat ! :LOL.
    Meredith in NC

  10. sonds like you were in a kindergarden class….don’t make the cow purple or the clouds polka dotted….so many are so afraid of being “wrong” and yet, thsoe wrong turns can lead into some great new ideas….i amazed you were able to stay through the whole class….

    • my fingers are dyslexic today..i apologize for the misspelled words….sounds….those…oh well,,,,i guess they were “wrong” and where did it lead me….

    • I was having flashbacks to Mrs. May in kindergarten. And they weren’t pretty. I was sort of fascinated and had to stay. And I was with a friend who was behaving in a masterful way and I was learning from her good-example behavior.

  11. I was a scrapbooker, then a DIGITAL scrapbooker (talk about rubbing people the wrong way! yikes!) and then fell hard into visual journaling/mixed media/whatever you call it. I have to admit, the pages I made before I ‘learned’ how to scrapbook are truly my favorites … both because they are ME and they do look good. Very unique.
    I always hated the ‘only use archival products’ motto and put in page protectors to protect the pages from someone touching them mantras! I was always the one complaining about that, saying how I loved going through my grandmother’s journals and touching things. They held up well.
    So I am an art journaler now and my kids, if they want to, can read very sloppy handwriting and words that make no sense at all, will have to thumb through pages of nothing but techniques I tried out. But they will understand me, for good or bad. Scatterbrained and all; oh and messy!

  12. There’s nothing I don’t like about scrapbooking – my kind of scrapbooking at least – because I only do what makes me happy. I know exactly what you mean [and recently wrote about something similar for a magazine feature]. I’ve also seen a lot of anti ‘arty’ scrapbooking posts on forums … it’s a bizarrely touchy subject for some people!

  13. Quinn I call myself a recovering scrapbooker! The behavior you described was actually beneficial for me as it drove me into bookmaking and mixed-media art. I knew I couldn’t keep doing cute flowers and perfectly aligned layouts. Luckily, I found my way to the mixed-media community and couldn’t be happier.

    • Ahhh, yes. Scrapbooking as gateway to art. My favorite result! Nothing wrong with learning discipline and direction following–I still can’t cut straight, but I’ve found a work-around.

  14. This goes on in many fields of art. It has been a topic among the group of artists I know.

    I think the term “art” is used very loosely today. There also seems to be the “robot effect” where we all need to do the same thing without creativity involved. If we would all just buy that product or go to that class, then we would be doing it right. Marketing is imitating art. The emphasis is on copying and not technique.

    Then there is something that is very basic and someone suddenly trademarks or copyrights it, sells kits, holds classes and says you have to be certified to teach their thing, that is as basic as breathing. Creativity is squashed by marketing.

    • You put your finger on what bothered me–the robot effect. The strong disapproval as I used the “wrong” color. It mimics the office so closely, that I did ask a question. I did ask if anyone ever did one step then passed it along to another person in the “team.” One woman said she and her friends did this to complete cards faster. There is always that need for speed. None of them sold the cards. They kept them dated and in plastic sleeves along with a copy of the sample, to prove it was exactly right. It was really chilling for me.

  15. I haven’t taken any ‘scrapbook’ classes, although I did hang out with my sister and her friends once when they were doing some scrapbooking. It seems some people like the structure and the precision of doing what they are told to do. I did take a couple of card-making classes at the local scrapbook store and they were very much what you describe. Everyone gets a kit of exactly what you need and there are samples to follow to make yours exactly the same. Yes, it is nice to have completed items at the end of class. But everyone’s were exactly the same. The idea of making some personal hand-crafted cards is lost when they are all alike. Nonetheless it is good as a teacher to see what is out there and what students and teachers are doing. I wonder if students just look for the kits and perfection because they don’t believe they can make something on their own?

    • I took the class for a lot of reasons–one of them is that I used to teach card making, long before scrapbooking came along. I brought in a pile of ephemera, taught basic design and color use through demos, and each student made cards based on principles, but with no pre-cut materials. OK, not all of the cards looked perfect (including mine!) but everyone explored and experimented, and some results were great.

    • I kept waiting for a sure sign of enjoyment. It was more of “I’m half way done,” a lot of time checking, sort of like a race. But then again, marathon runners are having fun, even though they don’t always look like it. There must have been some enjoyment, though, they paid for the class and many of the participants had done other classes with the instructor.

  16. Quinn, it feels as if things are very different “over there”. We are still very much into amateurism generally, here in Ireland. I’ve never even heard of a “scrapbooking class”. However, the art classes I know are about teaching technique, not opening creativity.

    I’ve finished my first round of “creativity club” that I began in February. You can see some of what we did at

    I was amazed, delighted and exhilerated by my experiences with these kids ( age 7 to 13). And the feedback from the parents has been that they’ve been excited every week waiting for the club on wednesday afternoon.

    I hope to build on this experience, and perhaps look at running something for grown ups in the future, as well as another creativity club for kids in the Autumn.

    One of the very few “rules” in the club is ” there is no way you can get this wrong”

    • I love this–and I love the variety of the items made–drawings, clay, sketching. So wonderful–and I love that little boys still do fighting drawings. What an excellent idea you have with the creativity classes. When you do them for adults, I’m coming for a visit!

  17. I would not have been a pink person either; creativity needs nourishing, not steam-rollering out of existence, and I find this need to turn out exactly the same thing as is on the box, in the book, or as the tutor instructs, frightening. Why do we need to be told what to do instead of thinking for ourselves?
    There appears to be a whole industry involved with peddling the creativity dream and carefully making sure that customers do not have a single independent thought; were we really as dependent as that on our teachers when we were at school? At what point have we so lost self-belief in what we do that we are easy prey to this confidence trick? When were we taught to stop using our imaginations?
    Seems to me that without imagination we cannot become artists; we are simply factory workers helping perpetuate a very bad joke, and we are all the poorer for it.

    • I worry about the “follow my instructions exactly” scary also, because at this point, it’s not about discipline. I know there are a lot of model kit assembly people, (model airplanes, etc) but most of them also scavenge kits and re-do them. There is something about “easy prey” that happened in that class.

  18. There are so many interesting strands in this – the desire to make things that are pretty, to complete, to do do what others have done, to be able to ‘make’ something, our hunger to consume and find the key that will unlock it all – or piece it all together. And the ability of retailers to exploit all of those desires.

    “you believe that your next purchase will make you an artist”

    Of materials, tools, books and classes… that is indeed a hard idea to overcome.

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