What do you want to be when you grow up? No doubt the world would be a happier place if people pursued their childhood dreams. This may be a fairy tale for most, but not for Shari Elf—artist, musician, seamstress, and curator of Art Queen gallery and the Crochet Museum. What’s her secret? Shari and her crochet sidekick, Bunny, chat with a certain special terry-cloth monkey.
monkey: shari, what a delight it is to meet you. i don’t know what to ask you first. so, lets go back to your childhood. lay back on the comfy sofa and take a deep breath. now, tell me, when you were a wee golden-haired lass taking your afternoon nap in kindergarten, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
shari: i am on my comfy sofa, thank you. hmm, what did i dream of as a wee golden haired lass? i got my first taste of fame in the 4th grade: one day one of the cooler-than-me girls noticed i could draw woodstock from the peanuts cartoon books. my grandpa loved peanuts and would give me all his old comic books. kids gathered round as i continued to impress them by drawing snoopy and charlie brown. “elf is an artist!” they proclaimed.
so, we can dispel with the rumor that elf is a stage name?
it’s my family name. i jokingly like to say i chose my parents for the name. there are different family reasonings for how we got the name. some in our family say great great grandpa elf jumped ship from the swedish military in the port of tacoma, washington, and had to change his name to hide out, so chose elf. my mom said he was called elf because he graduated 11th in the military academy (elf is 11 in swedish and german). actually she said he was knighted “sir elf.” i like her stories.
I imagine that from the moment you wake up in the morning, your life is a whimsical cavalcade of creativity, chock full of inspiration. are you as fancy free as i would like to believe or is there some structure to how you approach your art?
let’s see… when i go to the studio, i really just want to play. i’d like to just look around and see what item, what old bowling pin, chunk of wood, or old paint brush catches my eye, and sometimes a vision will come to me and i’ll get started. usually the piece changes and evolves from the original place i thought i was going. what often happens lately is more of a “i want to clean up the studio and de-clutter, why don’t i use up this thing i’m tired of looking at.” the main structure i have is i try to get 10 hours of art making in per week. through the years that has been my goal and leaves me time for balance of other things in my life. i think i made this goal after i read a quote by ben franklin that if everyone worked just 3 hours a day, everything would get done. i think he, however, loved his work, and worked all the time.
you know, shari, i read that ben franklin was seriously into napping and i love a good nap. i also cherish the mornings when i can just wake up when my body has decided it’s had enough sleep. do you ever suffer from the artistic equivalent of writer’s block?
i think i do sometimes, but it helps only working 10 hours a week. i usually am really excited to get to the studio and play. also, i don’t force myself to not work more than 10 hours, it is my goal to try and get 10 hours of art at least done, sometimes i work 15, but i don’t like to work less hours per week than 10. when i do have artist block, i usually like to do something relaxing and repetitive like gluing little pieces of glass for a mermaid’s tail, or making a beaded curtain piece. collaging mindlessly helps walk thru the block. i think that by consistently working 10–20 hours a week for the past 15 years, i have naturally learned ways to just get going in the studio. there are other mundane things to do, like painting boards for canvases or organizing my stuff. i like things to be organized, even though i have a lot of things. when i get it back in order it is fun to see what i have and grab something and start a piece. remember when your teacher went around the room and made a squiggle on your paper and you were supposed to make something out of it? it is fun to grab one thing that catches my eye and challenge myself to make piece with that in it.
with all the stuff in the world, is there any particular thing that you would love to see discarded so that you could get your hands on it and turn it into art?
if i could, i’d like to get my hands on and upcycle president bush’s plans for ruining the world. yes, I’d like to gather all of his great plans and those of his corporate friends and turn them into a lovely flower garden that will hurt no one ever again and will only bring happiness.
i love the word upcycle! it’s so much more descriptive of your process. thanks for the new word, sorry for interrupting you.
isn’t that a great word? i borrow william mcdonough’s language, he wrote the book cradle to cradle, he’s a hero of mine! there’s all kinds of fun ways to look at words. like going beyond sustainability in green design. i like it when he said, “if you told me your relationship with your partner was ‘sustainable’ I’d say sorry to hear that.” let’s make things better than sustainable. waste equals food!
you play a mean sewing machine on “she’s your seamstress”. did you start sewing as a child?
my mom forced me to go to boring old singer sewing classes on maui in the summer. she even made me take private sewing lessons at the home of my girl scout troup leader. it was not my idea to learn to sew. i really hated those classes. i even got my one and only D in my home economics sewing class in the 11th grade! and i remember having a fit, tearing up a corduroy long skirt i had made because i had forgotten to cut it all on the same grain and one of the panels was upside down and looked darker. i love that i later went on to have shari’s sewing service, a successful sewing business in santa monica.
are sewing machines hard to tune?
some do sound much better than others. mine is in the shop right now. it’s skipping stitches, probably from all that abuse it’s taking from my performances.
skipping is fun. i think more people need to occassionally burst out in skipping. but , i think, skipping all the time is a sign that someone needs a tune-up.
i completely agree with you. more people need to skip and hop and dance! and it is nice to look at my sewing machine’s skipping stitches in a positive light. i like to say that the more i play, the more life works.
i get a little rock lobster vibe from your tune “fashion risk.” so, naturally, i wonder who your musical influences are?
i do love the b52s. i really love leonard cohen. I also think i have been influenced by roger miller (my dad listened to him) and ray stevens, I loved that song the streak. i used to listen to dr. demento but don’t so much anymore. i listen to the handsome family a lot right now also. but i have been influenced by old church records and folks like daniel johnson. i dream of making a record one day with some church ladies with their high falsetto and slightly off singing voices. there was a choir with some of those ladies in kansas city and i was very close to asking them to be on my cd.
i bet church ladies would love to sing with you! they probably have some amazing jello mold recipes to swap too. some jello molds are real works of art in themselves.
i do enjoy the old jello molds, too! I’ve used them for this yard lady i was making, her voluptuous bosoms. monkey, do you really think there are some church ladies that would like to sing with me? i’d like them to be at least in their 70’s but ideally older. is that age discrimination? and i would like them to be wearing lovely and colorful crocheted sweaters and ponchos.
sounds like you have a vision. i’d pay to see that! shari, can you ever have too much glitter on a piece of art?
i don’t think so, monkey. my friend sandy crouse, an outsider art dealer, once told me all artists seem to go through a glitter phase. I don’t think mine has ended. but sometimes it’s messy so i’d rather not deal with the mess. i wonder if your likeness has ever been captured in glitter, monkey, that would be nice.
i don’t know, although, i’ve been covered in glitter myself from time to time when i get a bit carried away with an art project. i’d love to see my likeness captured in glitter. i’ve had my portrait done in a pancake one.
wow, that’s cool!
shari, it has been a delight chatting with you.
thanks! yes, it has been a delight spending time chatting with you, monkey. and, well, i love to talk about me!
now, let’s break out the snacks and the dice and play yatzee!
woohoo! i’ll go get bunny and buddy! i’ll be right back.
(cue show music)
Today we’re here with Bunny, curator of the World Famous Crochet Museum in Joshua Tree, California.
monkey: so, bunny, do you have a last name or are you like cher, prince and moby—a one name celebrity?
bunny: yes, i am a one name celebrity. i really love cher! sometimes i have to ask myself, if i am making a serious decision: what would cher do?
that’s very wise. i’m sure my inner cher would say put on sequins.
yes, sometimes sequins are the answer to life’s burning questions. one time i was playing scrabble in kansas city and i played the word sequinine. i am sure it is a word.
it should be a word if it isn’t. if locavore got put in the dictionary, i think sequinine has a good chance!
wow! what is locavore?
a locavore is someone who eats food that is grown within 100 miles from where they live.
i like that word. i am a locavore. i eat local crochet cookies.
i can use sequinine in a sentence: cher took to the stage in all of her sequinine splendor.
Me too: the moon shone hazily thru the sequinine sky and i ate my crochet oreos as cher sang half breed on the tape deck.
can you tell me how the crochet museum started?
the crochet museum started as a collection of crochet poodle bottle covers shari displayed in her bathroom years ago.
so, it was a private collection?
yes, it was shari’s collection, started from a thrift store or yard sale and then she just kept finding more slowly, it may have taken years to build that humble first collection of 12 or 15 poodles.
so, shari was kind of a rescue agency for those poodles that were cranked out of illegal crochet poodle mills where little old ladies are forced to watch soap operas and crochet until their fingers ache?
oh my god, i had heard rumors of those illegal crochet poodle mills but i was hoping it wasn’t true.
i believe that public awareness has helped eliminate such abuses.
well, thank goodness for that, huh monkey? yes, she was a rescue agency for sure, thank goodness or she may have almost passed me up the Ryone’s Coral in Joshua Tree. I was $3.50 and she almost passed me. she actually went to the car but then came back in to buy me.
is this your first position as a curator?
yes, this is my first real job. i don’t like to talk about what i was doing before i met shari, it would freak her out, you wouldn’t believe what people without a conscience will do to crochet alligators.
when was it necessary to move the museum from the bathroom shelf to its current home?
shari and i moved to kansas city where there seemed to be crochet poodles at every estate sale and flea market. of course, being curator, i got final word if they stayed once they got home. it really grew when we got a website (sharielf.com). once we were on the internet we started getting crochet animals in the mail. it was great. once in a while we’d search ebay for items. that’s how we met our dear friend suzanne jenkins, who started buying shari’s art when we told her the crochet items she was selling us were going in the crochet museum. turns out suzanne worked at the smithsonian, so she was a fellow museum person like me.
so you and suzanne saw eye to eye on the significance of the museum.
oh, indeed! she still sends me things for the museum for time to time and she sends shari the best crap to make art with! refrigerator letters, i like to play with those!
so, the crochet museum was in boxes for awhile when we moved to the joshua tree area from kansas city. there was no room in shari’s small cabin for the museum, which had now grown pretty big from spending 5 years in kansas city, that must be the crochettin’est town in the country!
maybe they could adopt that as their state motto!
i think it would be a good idea. now kansas city is the city of fountains or something, i love the fountains, but how about kansas city, crochettin’est city in the world!
i understand that the building the museum is housed in has a bit of a history too.
yes, it does have a history. shari and i were eyeing this old foto-quick building in yucca valley by the side of the highway. there it sat for a year or two when we moved out here. it is a cousin to the foto-mat buildings. it sat on an empty parking lot in front of an empty building. one day shari saw a guy with a weedeater in the parking lot. she pulled over and asked if he knew the owner of the photo building. she lived at the beach somewhere. so shari called the lady. she was not anxious to sell it, it was her last one! she had at one time with her daughter owned all of the foto-mats in california! she made lots of clams from those! she didn’t want to sell the last one for sentimental reasons. but shari told the lady her vision, and she liked it. shari also told her someone threw a rock and broke one of the windows. the lady said she did not want to see it be destroyed. so shari’s boyfriend randy gave the lady the money. shari wasn’t making up the story of the rock. our friend didier fixed the window later so it’s good as new now!
has the former fotomat queen come to visit the museum since it’s transformation? i’m sure she’s happy that her little bit of history is being used and preserved.
yes, i bet she is sleeping better knowing it’s no longer just a nice place for rocks to land. so far i have kept away those rock throwers, that’s one of my jobs as a curator.
it sounds like it’s a busy, but rewarding job, bun bun. do you have any favorite pieces in the museum?
yes, i do, if i gave you a tour, i’d point them out. one of my favorite pieces is not even completely crochet. it is a hand sewn mother cat with 4 snap-on nursing kittens. the mother is wearing a red crochet beret. hey, i think prince once wrote a song for her!
you do know your prince tunes!
i like prince, of course!!! someday i want to change my name to *!
so, *, i know that you are immortalized in a song.
shari sent a note to all her art and music friends and fans that she was inviting them to be on the shari elf tribute album. she told them they could cover a song from her debut (and only) cd or make up a song. so mcenzie took shari’s cd to her choir teacher and the class decided to record bunny for the album! we were so delighted when they sent the tape, it was like an old tape from the 1800s or something back when tape players were first invented. we had to get a special machine just to listen to it. when i heard their version of bunny it knocked my socks off!
i know that shari is a musician and i was wondering if you play any instruments too?
i play a little guitar. ha ha. get it, a little guitar? and sometimes i play the small plastic organ we got at the thriftstore in Talent, OR, because it takes talent to play that! mostly for shari’s gigs, I sit on a swing and look pretty.
sitting and looking pretty is a talent in itself!
yes, it is a rare and special talent of mine, i notice you have it, too. by the way i hope i haven’t talked your little cloth ears off!
even if you did talk my ears off, i know someone who’s handy with a needle and thread!
me too! ¤