Monday, May 7, 2012

Featured Artist: Julianna McDuffie

Around this time last year, Julianna McDuffie sat crocheting a purse on Carlsbad Beach sand. A domestic beach day with husband, children, and brothers triggered a fantastic performance/public/found art project. Julianna set up her blog “The Curious Pebble Project: Random Acts of Art—One Girl’s Quest” at Her first post outlined, each step paired with a lovely photo, finding that first pebble, crocheting a little sweater for it, and hiding it for someone to stumble upon.  She credits her husband for the idea, quoting him as saying, “Hey! You know what? You should make some of those crocheted rocks while we are at the beach… and then just leave them there for someone to find.” At this early stage, her intention was mainly performative, focused on the act of finding pebbles, sitting in their environment crocheting, hiding them, and hanging around to watch the reactions of those who found them.
Julianna’s photos posted on “The Trial Run
The people watching delighted Julianna and surprised her too. Oftener than not, she’d see someone pick up one of her crochet sweater wearing pebbles and set it back down again in the sand. The funniest thing, she tells me, is watching those people pose with a pebble and photograph it before leaving it behind. “Do they think it belongs to someone else?” she wonders, “Do they think someone’s coming back for it?” Hard to say, but one theme that kept coming up in our conversation, over Love Boat Sushi tuna and playboy rolls, was the importance of environment. I asked her about pebbles she’s hidden in other public spaces, the Westfield Mall and Safari Park in Escondido. Sadly, there’d been no evidence of those pebbles being noticed. I regretted that, wanting to imagine this art project as a means for reclaiming commercial space, but her explanation for the success of beach placement makes sense. “You never know what you’re going to find at the beach,” she says, creating a picture in my mind of walking on the sand close to the shore, eyes and nose to the ground in search of treasure.
A few months ago, I’d been searching for local artists on the web, and discovered I could do a “local” search for artists on, an online network of crafters selling their wears to online customers. The site allows do-it-yourself artists to avoid the overhead of a physical shop and reach a broader customer base than they would in their own neighborhoods. So it’s a little ironic, at least, for me to use this site to find the local. To pry out the local talent from the cracks of my suburb. I have to admit though, when I saw Julianna’s rocks for sale adorned with crochet, the first association my mind made was “Regretsy.” is a site mocking the crafts on Etsy that scream, “of course nobody’s going to buy me, you idiot,” out of the computer screen. But I was curious and noticed her Etsy shop announcement, “This shop is the financing partner to my on-going Found Art project, detailed at”
Posted on “Pebbles for Jane…
(a different Jane) and “Those Crazy Strings.”
I hopped onto her site and couldn’t decide if I thought this lady was awesome or something else. One tab on her site read, “She Makes Music?” and featured video clips of her recorded music. A red flag waved at my cynical, skeptical eyes. But her music is solid, the interactive concept and analog/digital nature of her art project is absolutely aligned with my interests, plus she shamelessly questions herself on her “About the Pebbler” page saying, “Why did she feel the need to write this entire page in the third-person?” Ok, this woman has endeared herself to me.
If Julianna was a spool of thread she’d be red or magenta fading out sometimes into muds and tans. She’s tall, broad shouldered and outgoing with goddess wavy, long hair. We talk about trees and the history of her hometown Zanesville, Ohio. She tells me how her son sometimes pulls her blog up on his own to read. We talk about the grays between censorship, artistic expression, and not wanting to offend people. Of her Italian guilt and ever-consciousness of her Italian Mama. Her sensibilities are incredibly generous, recognizing that some folks don’t have the tools to handle controversy and debate. She reiterates that the world needs more kindness. And beauty; she has a penchant for design and doesn’t appreciate our suburb’s stucco, flat architecture. Her husband teaches philosophy at the University that I study and work at, and that comes as no surprise because I could talk theory with Julianna for hours. I note the distinction that she goes home and practices art.
I ask her a logistical question, “Do you write your web address onto the pebble itself or insert a piece of paper or…?” She sets down her chops sticks and pulls out a stone from her purse. I fight the urge to take it out of her hands before she has a chance to give it to me. It is for me, I get to keep it, and in my hand it is wonderfully solid and heavy. A complete contrast to an image that seems silly and meaningless on a computer screen. The web address is written in permanent ink on the bottom of the stone. It’s adorned in white thread that she tells me takes about an hour to crochet into the stone’s sweater. A long time admirer of rocks, it’s the mass of them she really loves. These days, she doesn’t sit on the beach crocheting each stone’s sweater and watching passers-by discover her treasure. Did I mention she’s a mommy of a pre-school aged daughter and a nine-year-old son? She takes the stones away from the beach in a sagging heavy bag and loads it into her Prius. She has buckets of rocks in her living room and piles of thread. In her home, these tactile material objects are handled and crafted, and that is where the physical meets the digital.
The finding of the pebbles by strangers is still an integral part to Julianna’s project. Her blog features a “Did You Find One?” page, where I read; “We found a red one in Carlsbad on Sunday February 13. My two daughters loved it! We are visiting from out of town and it was their first visit to a beach. Fun project!” And also, “Found a red peace pebble on Carlsbad beach on Saturday June 11th. I am from Ireland and will leave it on a beach in Ireland when I get back home next week. Let’s see how far this one can travel.” Fellow bloggers who follow Julianna’s blog, whom she follows in return, hail from as far as Sweden, Australia, and even Turkey. She’s formed close friendships with a few of them, is amazed at how much she has in common with her long-distance friends, and values the freedom digital communities allow for choosing who you want to form close relationships with.
Julianna’s photos posted on “And So It Begins….”
It’s impossible to not feel giddy about the future when chatting with Julianna. The most unrelenting outcome of this digital age, the bombarding excess of information and images, is also responsible, Julianna believes, for ushering in a sort of Renaissance of do-it-yourself crafters and artists. She describes common, everyday people seeing images, thinking, “I can do that too,” taking the idea, and running with it. Around the same time she started selling her art on and dabbling in that sort of thing, she discovered many of her friends back home on the east coast were doing that too. She’s noticing more and more people creating, blogging, and wearing homemade designs and fibers. This renegade crafting, as she describes it, does not earn all artists a living wage, but it’s “making a difference in the way the world looks and it’s making a difference in the way the world works.” One thing she’s really excited about right now is, a self-described “online pin board” where members can “collect” images, ideas, quotes, recipes, etcetera from other members. She acknowledges that it’s very difficult to be seen on the internet. Based on her experiences, it sounds like a curiosity for other people’s interests and projects is crucial to gaining an audience online, or rather, building a mutually supportive community.
I’m very guilty of seeking out the novel. What’s new? What’s next? What’s possible now? That’s what I crave and that’s what first hooked me to Julianna’s pebble art project. It’s conceptual, interactive, and effectively combines analog and digital mediums. But since my conversation with Julianna, I’ve glanced at my rock sitting by my office computer now several times, noticed its crocheted design, and reflected on some things Julianna said to me at the tail end of our conversation. To be a part of the crochet community is to join a long-standing community of little old church ladies, which is also to say that you’re connected to the past. Julianna reminded me, and now the pebble she gave me reminds me, of the importance of being connected to the past. Her grandma taught her how to crochet. Now when Julianna’s sitting there with her yarn and hook, working it out for an hour or so, she can think of her. The hook she uses belonged to her other grandma, so she remembers her too. Yes, crochet is countrified, and that’s great because it’s anti-high art, it’s anti-don’t-touch. She’s always loved art that can be touched, and she loves crochet above other fiber-arts for it’s three-dimensional potential to be sculpted. It’s a little tactile totem of the past she’s given me. I look at that stone and think of the age-old doily designs that have inspired Julianna’s craft.
And I Google “crochet doily pattern history.”

Article Contributed by Jane Sim