Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Interview: Polly Conway, Freelance Writer & Crafter

Polly Conway, the cheerful freelance writer and crafter herself

This interview series has given me the opportunity to meet a lot of talented people in the East Bay and Polly Conway is no exception to the rule. An Oakland local, Polly is known for her personable writing style and fearless approach to crafting. She writes for a variety of crafting publications and blogs, teaches several classes in Alameda, and is not afraid to dive into particularly intimidating projects.

I met up with her at her favorite fabric store, Stonemountain & Daughter on Shattuck in Berkeley, which can be easily missed if you're not on the lookout. It was apparent that she was in her element, surrounded by hundreds of vibrant patterns and interesting textures, which would provide any DIY queen with glee. Here's a peek into Polly's background and her crafting empire.

Brittany: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Polly: Sure! I'm a writer and artist living in North Oakland with my boyfriend and super-fluffy cat.

Brittany: Have you always been interested in writing and crafts?

Polly: Yes! I've been crafting since I was little, but really started to get back into it in the early 2000's. Like drawing, I think it's a thing that a lot of people stop doing once they become "grown-up," but once I started making things again, I couldn't stop. I've also always been a writer-type and a compulsive reader; I used to try to read books on my lap under the dinner table. I really thought I could get away with it.

Brittany: That's adorable! What were some of your favorite books growing up?

Polly: The Phantom Tollbooth, Harriet the Spy and its very weird sequel, The Long Secret. All Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary. I'm also a huge re-reader, so every book I love, I read it again and again.

Polly grabs one of the many patterns that catches her eye at Stonemountain & Daughter

Brittany: How would you describe your writing style?

Polly: I think it's a lot like my natural speaking voice; excited, not too serious, with a little Valley girl thrown in. I'm not great at academic writing. Or maybe I would just be the most fun academic writer ever!

Brittany: You’ve written for quite a few impressive publications. Which were you most excited about?

Polly: Aww, thanks! I was most excited to start writing for ReadyMade, because I felt so connected to what they did and how it hugely affected the DIY boom. When their first issue came out, I remember just being blown away by all the projects (and I immediately made an ill-fitting, see-through pillowcase skirt). So it was a huge honor to be able to align myself with them!

Brittany: When you're writing for a craft publication, do you write reviews or do you actually work on a project and write about it?

Polly: Well, I'm about to start writing craft product reviews for a great site called Craft Test Dummies, which is exciting because I've haven't written that many reviews (but I certainly do have a lot of opinions!) I love to do projects, especially things that are new or scary to me, and then write about the results. It's kind of my mission to show people that "they can do it too!" because so many people are afraid of not being creative enough. I've learned through teaching workshops how excited people get when they discover that they are creative, and find themselves proud of something that they've made. It's awesome! I also really like writing about crafty things that other people are doing, because there's so much cool stuff out there. I like searching the deep dark corners of the internet for genius craft projects that might not get the attention they deserve, and then sharing them with my own audience.

Brittany: What are some of your most memorable crafting projects?

Polly: The first quilt I ever made was a good one. It was made up of nine huge squares! Nine! So many crafts are super-intimidating, and it felt great to know that I made a really cute quilt without having to cut up ten thousand tiny triangles and perfectly align them together. I'm a huge perfectionist, so I really have to squish down those instincts when I'm making stuff or I would never, ever complete a project. You have to accept imperfection and mistakes all the time. It's hard! Since then I've made a handful of full-size quilts and given them to people I love, but I never would have gotten there if I hadn't started with something easy. I'm also really proud of some random projects, like a teeny tiny felted apple, the afghan I made for my mom while watching a thousand episodes of Law & Order, or my Cal Worthington embroidery. It's the best feeling when you get an idea and are actually able to execute it.

Polly’s vintage Colorwheel Studs, on sale on Etsy

Polly’s Rainbow Redux Bracelet made with an antique brass chain and Red and White Yarn Knot Dangle Earrings made with vintage beads

Brittany: You sell your own line of accessories on Etsy. Who’s your ideal customer?

Polly: Teenagers love my stuff, which is great! But I make things that I would wear, and just cross my fingers that someone else will think they're fun as well. I think people who don't feel necessarily extremely fashionable or daring can wear or carry something of mine and have it stand out; just a splash of color or pattern here and there! You don't have to be Betsey Johnson. I'm all about a little bit of color. All right, a lot of color.

Brittany: Where do you find inspiration?

Polly: I watch a lot of classic movies and I think what I see there works its way into my head. Right now I'm really enjoying watching all the terrible beach party movies of the 60's I can get my hands on. They're awful, but the color palettes and fashions are amazing! I love the art of Mary Blair and the look of old Disneyland; I lost my mind at the Walt Disney Family Museum earlier this year getting to see all the design stuff there. I weirdly was inspired by nature a few weeks ago when I visited Lassen Volcanic Park; there are some geothermal springs and mudpots that were the most amazing colors, grays, blues, and neon yellow! I thought; "I have to make something with those colors!" So I get surprised sometimes. Oh, and Pinterest, of course. Sometimes I'm feeling blah, and forget what inspires me and I'll have to look at my Pinterest boards to get a little reminder. All that stuff up together in nice little boxes makes me realize that I do have an aesthetic. It's a nice resource!

Brittany: I do enjoy pinning myself, except I mostly pin recipes from food blogs that I would like to try someday. In addition to writing and your store, you also teach crafting workshops every month at Modern Mouse in Alameda. How did you get involved with this?

Polly: I started working at Modern Mouse last year, which coincided with the time that they wanted to start holding monthly workshops. I taught one and enjoyed it so much that they now let me teach 'em all! It's been a really great way for me to learn a little about a lot of different mediums, and getting to share my meager skills with people who may have never crafted before is so, so rewarding.

The Pollyannacowgirl booth at Portland's Crafty Wonderland

Brittany: How has living in Oakland influenced your work?

Polly: I feel really strongly about Oakland as a city that is always working to be better. There's nothing smug or self-satisfied about this town; everyone wants Oakland to succeed as a great place for all kinds of people to live and thrive. That feeling permeates everything I do here; since moving to Oakland five years ago I've become a total cheerleader for the city. I'm excited to be a part of Patchwork Indie Art and Craft Festival, which we wanted to bring to Oakland for the first time this winter because darn it, this city deserves its very own awesome, large-scale craft show. I feel like people are always trying to create positive change here. It doesn't always work, but it's good to be in an environment that's in motion, that's trying new things to see what happens.

Brittany: I have definitely encountered many Oakland locals who share the same enthusiasm. When you’re not working, how do you spend your time?

Polly: I'm always making something, whether it's to sell or just to keep my hands busy during TV time. I'm crazy about cross-stitch right now for a laid-back TV craft. I read a lot of non-fiction books these days. Right now, I'm reading The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, and I just read this other book about a dad who discovers his four-year-old daughter has paranoid schizophrenia. Intense! I love finding out about how the brain works and the weird things people do as a result. I'm also learning how to run, which is so out of my comfort zone I cannot even describe it. Right now I can run for three whole minutes! But it's exciting. I have a pretty quiet little life, but I like it that way. I also have a gossip blog addiction that I am trying to get control of.

Polly recently made a tutorial for DIY Iridescent Watercolor Paper Pretties on Limn & Lovely.
Brittany: Which are your favorite gossip blogs? I love Oh No They Didn't for celebrity "news."

Polly: Oh god, yes. My daily reads include Dlisted, Celebitchy, and Jezebel. I grew up reading my mom's People magazines, so it seems I cannot function without knowing intimate details of celebrity life.

Brittany: Who are your favorite celebrities at the moment? I used to follow Rihanna for a while and now I'm into Miley Cyrus. Her life seems so chill: all she does is go to Pilates, travel, and hang with her fiancé all day. I also follow Lindsay Lohan a lot because she's so entertaining.

Polly: Miley Cyrus seems surprisingly awesome! I love her new haircut. The Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes debacle was a real treat; another thing I love to read about is mind control and cults, so it's crazy to watch this one play out. Leann Rimes is a mess and I kind of feel bad even reading about her stuff, but there's always a twinge of guilt in celebrity gossip anyway. Oh, and the greatest train wreck of them all, Lindsey Lohan. Oh my.

Brittany: I definitely should feel more guilt than I do. (Oops.) What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Polly: I'm working on getting more of my stuff in local shops, so by the end of this year, you should be seeing lots of Pollyannacowgirl all over the Bay Area! I'm also going to be creating some DIY wedding projects for the prettiest wedding blog ever, Limn & Lovely, as well as getting to go to the Craft and Hobby Association trade show in January! I'll be doing all kinds of holiday craft shows in the Bay Area, so hopefully I'll be busy and happy!

Polly dressed in her full cowgirl get-up at the Bazaar Bizarre in 2010.

Keep up with Polly’s work:

The first two photos were taken by myself at Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics in Berkeley, while the rest of the photos were used with Polly’s permission.

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