Why buy when you can DIY?
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My favorite thing about a good gift is that it means something: it's an expression of how I feel about you (or vice versa), what I appreciate about you, and the fact that I not only know you well enough to know what you like but also love you enough to want you to be happy.
A store-bought gift is capable of achieving all of these lofty goals, of course. For example, my sister recently gave me a copy of Beatallica (Oglio, 2007) she found while on tour with her band. And though seemingly small, this simple choice communicated these things: (1) My sis was thinking of me while in Denver. (2) She knows me well enough to remember I love (and I mean love) novelty rock. And (3) she cares about me enough to want me to feel joy.
But just like your mom told you when you were a kid (though she might've been lying about the ceramic ashtray), some of the best gifts are homemade. And they're also the kind that are as much fun to make as they are to give. Case in point? The family-centric version of People magazine (complete with crossword, horoscope, and They're Just Like Us! sections) my sis and I made for our pop culture junkie mom a few years ago. Not only did it mean more to Mom than yet another funky wineglass, but Sis and I also had a blast putting it together.
Problem is, how do you come up with a project that's personal, doable, and original? (After all, how many decorated bowls from Terra Mia can you give someone?) Sure, you could invent something brand-new that'll take you months to perfect and even longer to complete (hello, custom book I decided to make as a gift one Christmas and didn't finish until the following Christmas). Or you can take the advice of crafty vixen (and personal chef) Larisa Chapman, who's already figured out how to make this foolproof, flawless gift:
Altoid (or other) tins or boxes (smaller boxes are easier to work with)
Modge Podge (which now comes in sparkly and iridescent versions) or any polymer glue
Images from magazines, postcards, graphic novels, books, etc.
Small paint brush (for glue)
Jewels, beads, trinkets, ribbons, shells, other small decorative items
Small birthday candles
Step One: Planning
The idea is simple: a small, cheap, fun, completely customizable art piece that can be either displayed open or kept as a small treasure trove that's up to you and the altar's recipient. Most important, though, it's something made specifically for someone. So your first step is to decide whom you're making your altar for and what you want to communicate to them. This can be as simple as a rock 'n' roll theme for your musician sister (ahem) or as complex as references to the symbolism of the phoenix for a friend who's trying to rise above a challenge. Chapman likes allegories, stories, and contradictory images think Tarot card collages or an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe with a halo of porn but you should figure out what appeals to you and the person who'll receive the gift.
Step Two: Assemblage
What happens next is mostly up to you. Paste images to the top, bottom, and inside of the box (Modge Podge is fantastic as both an adhesive and a sealant, so don't be afraid to use it for everything). Add fabric lining, beaded details, glitter, 3-D objects ... whatever suits your fancy. And don't be afraid of overadornment think Mexican saint altars.
Step Three: Drying
More complicated altars may require several layers of assemblage, and therefore might need drying time between layers. Set the box in a well-ventilated area until the glue is dry to the touch. Or, to speed up the process, take a blow-dryer to the glue. When it turns clear, it's done.
Step Four: Meaning
The last step is adding a candle. The easiest way to do this is to choose a bead or other object that can comfortably fit a birthday candle inside. Attach the bead to the box and the candle to the bead. Now you have an object that looks as sacred as it actually is. (Don't forget to remind your giftee not to light the candle, as that will make your whole altar will go up in flames. Unless, of course, they're into that.)
See? Simple. Cool. Fast. Now rinse and repeat. The more you do it, the easier it'll get and the more elaborate. Experiment with bigger boxes or containers of different shapes. Get creative with puffy paint or stencils. Use fun fur or punk rock patches to turn your friend's whole automobile into an altar. (OK, maybe you should ask before you do that one.) No matter what you come up with, it'll sure beat a gift certificate for Best Buy.