50 | Fabricating Machines

64 Arts

This post is part of our ongoing exploration of The 64 Arts.


50: Fabricating Machines

Either hand-operated or automatic, for raising water, measuring time, etc.

When we think about machines we’re probably thinking things like robots, cars, and other intricate bits courtesy of the industrial revolution and beyond. But modern machines have deep roots in what are known as the 6 Simple Machines:

  • Lever
  • Wedge
  • Inclined Plane
  • Wheel & Axle
  • Pulley
  • Screw

You probably never thought of a screw as a machine unto itself, right? I know I never did. But each of these 6 simple machines form the (pardon the pun) building blocks for a lot of the more complex machines we rely on.

A lever is a rod or beam that pivots around a fulcrum or point. Think a see-saw or crowbar or the act of laying a log over a rock, with one end of the log tucked under the item you want to move. This simple machine allows you to lift or dislodge an item you might not be able to move without it. Baseball bats are also levers, the fulcrum in that case being your body, with your arms being an extension of the lever (if I’ve got my physics right, which I admit I might not… it was never my best subject).

When an inclined plane spans the gap between items on two levels, we can call it a bridge, a ramp, or a ladder. The angle of the plane makes it easier to cross that distance compared to non-angled methods (like walking up a ramp instead of climbing straight up the side of a building).

Examples of wedges at work are easily seen in axes–they have a sharp edge and at least one sloped side so they can fit into (or make) a small fissure that they can then expand when more force is applied. Needles are wedges, but instead of pulling things apart permanently like an axe, they move things out of the way just enough to allow thread to pass through. Even our teeth are examples of wedges, breaking up food to make it easier to digest.

I consider those three the simplest of the simple machines. The other three are a tad bit more complex, but in light of the things they become, still operate on simple properties.

The wheel is mankind’s best first invention, or so I’ve always been taught. But a wheel on it’s own only does so much. When you combine a wheel with an axle (or, you know, a lever…), you build a machine that allows you to do more than just roll it around. Wheel and axle combos are probably the easiest simple machine to spot, but aside from the obvious ones, household items like doorknobs, rolling pins, and old school record players are based on the wheel and axle concept.

A pulley is also a wheel derivative, this time employing a rope or chain along the grooved edges of that wheel to lift, lower, or move an object. Pulleys seem like they are what they are, they do their particular function just that good, and don’t need a lot of finessing to stand the test of time. If you think about it, though, a pulley is very similar to the lever but instead of a pole or beam, you’re using a rope, and the wheel becomes the fulcrum or pivot point.

Finally, the screw. How is this a machine? It’s an inclined plane that, instead of being flat, wraps around a pole or shaft. Aside from the screw, itself, other screws as machines can be found if you look into the inner workings of a meat grinder, or even less closely at the lid of the nearest mason jar. And who can forget the all-important corkscrew???

With the bathroom renovation going on, we recently had a conversation about nails (which are wedges?) vs screws, and Todd allowed that screws were more secure in many instances–the rotating of that inclined plane bites into the wood, etc. and provides a secure grip to hold the two or more pieces in place–and easier to install (more people are likely to have drills than nail guns, after all), but are often passed over because screws are more expensive.

All of these machines exist to make work easier on us lowly humans. And work isn’t just what we do, it’s–on a scientific level–causing movement over distance by applying force. These six simple machines amplify the force we can exert on our own, travel a greater distance than we could on our own, and/or so it in a shorter amount of time.

You know, it’s pretty cool that even back in the 4th century A.D., the powers that be recognized that girls* needed education in the STEM fields, such as they were back then!

*There’s still some iffyness in who the list of the 64 Arts was intended for. Was it intended for all women in preparation for eventual marriage and home life (my vote, per the commentary I’ve read) or was it more for the women who would become concubines, etc. (a la the educational freedoms allowed to Italian courtesans in their heydey? qv The Honest Courtesan, based on the life of Veronica Franco, upon which the film Dangerous Beauty was based.).

49 | Creative Prompts: Omens

64 Arts

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring the everyday applications of The 64 Arts.

As we wrap up this relatively brief foray into omens and related topics–let’s face it, you know whether you buy into superstitions, omens, etc. or not and it’s not my goal to convince you–we’ve come to my favorite part of each Art, the creative prompts.

See, what I said above is true: I’m not here to convince you one way or another. But my goal with this series is to encourage us all to live more creative lives. And that means approaching topics in creative ways. So here we go!

1. Have your chart done.

Chart? You mean astrology? Yeppers!

Now, you might be wondering why I believe (as friends have opined) that clouds of gas hundreds of thousands of light years away have any bearing whatsoever on my day to day life. Let me quote Guggenheim Grotto:

It’s not that I do or don’t believe
It’s that I just don’t not believe
In god and aliens and love at first sight…

And astrology. Some folks have said that since the Moon can affect the tides, and we’re made up largely of water, it’s not impossible that celestial events affect our pedestrian existence. And then there’s the point I read about how we’re not who we are because of where the stars were when we were born, but that we were born when and where we were in relation to the stars because of who we are. I tend to really like that last bit, because it puts astrology in the same light as reading Tarot and other forms of “divination:” a tool for reflection, meditation, and insight.

For instance, Mercury is about to go retrograde on September 18, which signifies an increase in technical issues, computer problems, and communication upsets. Now, most people see this as a prediction of doom, gloom, and general miserableness for 3 weeks. I prefer to see it as a reminder to be more careful with what I say, not to jump to conclusions, give people the benefit of the doubt, take my time, and backup my computer data. See, it’s all about perspective.

But I digress.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to have your chart done. Not just your sun sign, but the whole shebang. While you can pay people to do these for you, I’ve found a really fabulous resource in astro.com and if you know the time and place of your birth you can generate your entire chart and look up all the bits and pieces to explain it. And if you’d like some very down-to-earth astrological advice, I suggest heading over to MysticMedusa.com. I’ve especially enjoyed her “Style Your Ascendant” series (your ascendant being your “rising sign” and the sign other people initially perceive you as; for instance, I’m sun/moon Taurus with Virgo rising, so most people’s first impressions of me fit the Virgo mold more so than Taurus).

2. Grab your crayons and destress with this coloring page I made you.

See, one of the many “side effects” of paying attention to superstitions, omens, astrology and more could be a propensity towards worrying. Worrying leads to stress and stress leads to all kinds of other bad things. Not to mention, stress can bring about a lot of those things we’re already worrying about, or seem to, self-fulfilling prophecy style. Apparently the simple act of coloring can be very therapeutic (who knew? Oh, right, I did–it’s been a sure-fire way to bust through a creative block for ages).


Just click the pdf link here jvanderbeek_omens_coloringbookpage to download a full-size version.

And if you have watercolor pencils (or my Portable Plein Air kit, now available on etsy) you can absolutely print this out on watercolor paper and have even more fun with it!

3. Writing prompt: Hindsight is 20/20.

Sure, omens are all about portents of the future, but what about the past? Once a chapter of our lives has come to a close, it’s far easier to see the signposts along the way that we may have missed or brushed off as nothing in the moment. What can we learn about trusting our gut and our intuition by examining the past?

Along the lines of ‘those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it,’ take an experience from your past (or a friend’s or family member’s past, if that’s what comes to mind more easily–we can learn from other’s mistakes just as much as our own!) and write about lessons learned and ways it can be applied in the future. Or draw something, collage something, create something from it. Anything goes, medium is up to you.

In my comic book, Rings on Her Fingers, I talked about the different signs and omens I ignored leading up to my first marriage (which, by virtue of calling it the first one, I’m sure you can guess that it didn’t last–not really a spoiler there). Case in point:



If you choose to do one, two, or all of these prompts, I’d love to see what comes out of it. Leave a comment here with a link or tag me (@scrapsoflife) on twitter or instagram!

49 | Clovers, Comets, and Crows

64 Arts

This post is part of our ongoing creative exploration of the 64 Arts.

As I’ve done more research and reading about omens I’ve noticed two common elements of most omens:

  1. The appearance and incidence is natural in origin (as opposed to man-made).
  2. The appearance or incidence is naturally scarce or rare.

This kinda goes back to my hooting owl example: not so powerful if its a regular thing.

I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover

Clover is plentiful in fields all over the place, but most only have 3 heart-shaped leaves per stem. Since the 4-leaved variety is rare, obviously it’s a sign of good luck, right?

Well, maybe to an naturally optimistic soul. But if there’s one constant among the undeveloped cultures (where belief is superstitions and omens is more common), it’s that the different and unusual will be feared as often, if not more so, than praised.

But what’s lucky for one could mean ill for another.

The Case of Halley’s Comet

Before science was anywhere near explaining the various lights in our sky, people made stories up about them–what they were, what they symbolized–and still do. Astrology is still practiced (seriously by some, casually by others) all over the world and while some do invest the stars with the ability to predict the future, their divinations aren’t exactly omens (or at least not all of them, we’ll go that far in safety, I think).

But when I star streaks across the sky, a meteor shower rains light from the heavens, or a comet burns its way over the horizon… that’s apt to get some folks’ attention!

As early as men and women could conceive of some higher power, the sky was often where those celestial beings lived. Any changes in the sky were considered their judgement on the actions of the mortals below. So when Halley’s comet streaked across the sky back in 1066, with war looming in England, a war that saw  the death of their king? Well,  obviously, a comet is bad news. But what about the other guy (William the Conqueror) who rose to power thanks to that same battle.

Two sides to ever coin. Even the fiery ones.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy

And speaking of balance, some omens do take that into consideration from the get-go.

Magpies (please excuse my alliterative choice in the title of this post) were, apparently, pretty scarce once upon a time, and to see them was considering auspicious, indeed. Of course, how many you saw–whether it was at one time or over the course of a day I’m a little unclear of–definitely mattered.

There are many versions of the old nursery rhyme/folk song but they all start with

One for sorrow
Two for joy(or mirth)

Then they continue along, diverging between the overall good or neutral and the more negative.

Three for a wedding
Four for a death (or birth)–see, now we’re getting into weird territory

Some even had three for a girl and four for a boy.  Some versions stop at four, but for those that continue on, five and six stay pretty constant at silver and gold, respectively, so I suppose we can take that for people being as concerned with wealth then as we are now.

Seven for a secret is pretty common, though, again, a secret can be good or bad, and some versions I’ve read or heard referenced say seven for a witch. The version recorded in an 1846 book finishes

Seven for a secret
not to be told
Eight for heaven
Nine for hell
And ten for the devils own self.

I guess you really didn’t want to see more than 8 magpies for sure, right?!

While it was a non-reference book that reminded me of the magpies, I first heard of this rhyme many years ago while listening to a Guggenheim Grotto album and one of the tracks was “One For Sorrow” and I wondered what the symbolism behind the magpie was in the lyrics.

Incidentally, magpies are no longer scarce in England, so your chances of seeing a tidings of magpies (not a typo, that is their correct collective noun) are a lot higher than they used to be. So maybe take that, and all of this, really, with a grain of salt and a flutter of feathers.

These ominous examples are all from ages past, what sort of things would constitute omens in this day and age, were one to believe in such things. In the natural versus man-made distinction all that crucial as we continue to innovate and automate and rely on technology? Does a clap of thunder out of a clear blue sky make you think twice about something you just said or thought or are planning to do?

Definitely worth pondering, I think…

49 | Ominous Music Starts to Play

64 Arts

This post is part of our ongoing series exploring daily creativity via The 64 Arts.

After a fabulous, if jam-packed, weekend I proceeded to lock my keys in the car Monday morning. (At the lab where I stopped for blood-word, as if that isn’t adding insult to injury.) It’s not a leap to imagine it was a sign of things to come for the day.

I suppose, though, the Universe was just providing me a handy segue into the next Art:

49 Observing the Omens
Observing the favorable or unfavorable signs before any enterprise.

So, what is an omen? It’s a portent or sign of something to come. Not always bad (favorable omens are a thing, a good thing!) but a lot of the times we pay more attention to the negative ones than the positive. What an omen is not, however, is a superstition.

(Direct link for the feed readers: Superstitious music video by Europe–this song keeps popping into my head every time I think about this subject; there are worse earworms to have.)

Superstitions are more like if-then statements or cause and effect occurrences. Like breaking a mirror leads to seven years of of bad luck, if a black cat crosses your path you’ll have bad luck. Even the childhood “step on a crack, break your momma’s back” rhyme is a superstition.

(Direct link for the feed readers: Superstition by Stevie Wonder)

And like Stevie says, “when you believe in things that you don’t understand you suffer.”


I don’t consider myself a very superstitious person. A black cat can walk where they want in relation to me and I feel no fear. I avoid walking under ladders more for the protection against things falling on me from heights above than any long-term potential. And avoiding cracks in the sidewalk just takes too much effort!

But haven’t you ever gone somewhere and found a parking spot right next to the door (bonus points if it’s also in the shade and it’s summertime) and thought ‘yes, this is a good sign’? Well, that right there is a sign of our subconscious mind seeing fate/diety/or lady luck bestowing some sort of blessing on our venture. We may not think of not getting that close-up spot as a sign of bad luck and it dooming our trip to the depths of darkness (no, other shoppers usually take care of that for us), but other things, like my keys held hostage, can certainly turn our thoughts of the coming day to less than positive avenues.

Some very common omens involve sensations of our body “telling” us things we need to know. It’s said that an itching right palm signifies money or wealth coming to you, but an itching left palm means you’re going to lose or spend money soon. (The whole right-good/left-bad thing dates back to at least Roman times, all you have to look at the words for right and left–dexter and sinister, respectively–to see the bias.) Have you ever heard “your earns must have been burning” from someone when you entered the room? Tingling ears mean someone is talking about you. Now, it could be anything from spreading gossip to extolling your virtues, that’s why it helps to add outside insight to simple observations!

One of my favorite movies, Practical Magic, has a scene where a broom falls and the aunts say “Broom fell… company’s coming.” Of course, if you look up what a falling broom can mean you’ll see all sorts of portents, both positive and negative. In the case of the broom, it’s always struck me that most people clean up before guests come over, so a broom has a higher chance of falling over when it’s casually leaned up against a wall rather than in the closet, cupboard, or hook where it might usually live. Ergo, the broom fell before company arrived, and that became tied to the action. But, in the movie, they were in the midst of a tense scene, so in that sort of setting, maybe company isn’t quite a welcome. It’s all about context.


Owls are a good source of omens and there is tons of lore about what seeing or hearing an owl might mean. Even though owls are considered wise, their large eyes and nocturnal habits often get them associated with death. So, hearing the hoot of a screech owl portends death soon to come. Okay, but what if live next to an owl-happy forest? You’ll be hearing hoots all the time and be scared half out of your wits that your demise was imminent 24/7. Context.

The other thing about omens, as opposed to superstitions, is that they are warnings of possibilities, not carved in stone. Take the broken mirror/bad luck superstition: you’re pretty much sunk on that one (if you believe it) as you cannot unbreak the mirror. Carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot (which wasn’t so lucky for the rabbit, was it?) could be an attempt to nullify one superstition with another, but they still stand along. An omen of trouble ahead, though, when contemplated could be avoided. Just like horoscopes and tarot, being aware of a situation via an omen has the power to change or guarantee an outcome though our actions, as much as we ever control a situation, that is.

Where on the omen spectrum do you sit: don’t believe at all? casual observer? or always on the lookout for signs and portents?

What local omens have you heard about or are common to your family?

48 Art Cars | Drive No Evil

64 Arts

This post is part of an on-going series, exploring daily creativity via the 64 Arts.

So, when we left off we were discussing the 48th art: decorating chariots with flowers. Modernizing a bit, we chatted about car care and accessorizing. That’s about as far as most folks are tempted to go with personalizing their chariots du jour. Some might go as far as pricey aftermarket upgrades, souping up the motor (do people still say souping up?) and adding all sorts of neon and led accents.

On another level entirely, though, are art cars. Art cars can be almost anything, the common factor that the car becomes the canvas for the owner or driver’s creative expression. Some might argue that any car sporting a bumper sticker or a “clever” decal of a cartoon character peeing on a rival team or unfortunate corporation creative expression, and it is, but I’m going to come out and say it doesn’t quite meet the feeling behind art cars. Take, for example, this fan van spotted in traffic in Tallahassee (home of the FSU Seminoles):


Now, this could be the property of the university, but it doesn’t show any specific insignia or department info from this angle, so I’m voting personal. It’s obviously a professional job, involving the same car wrapping technology that advertising vehicles use. So does this count as an art car? Maybe.

Along a similar vein, here’s the car of a friend of mine, a graphic designer:

(pardon the spots, apparently my windshield was in need of a bath that day!)

(pardon the spots, apparently my windshield was in need of a bath that day!)

This is also a professionally-done application, but it was designed by the owner. Does the owner being a professional artist make a difference? Maybe, maybe not, but for someone without the skills or time (or both) to take up the challenge, it’s a good middle option.

Then you have the extremes, what most people thing of when they hear the term “art car” (if they’ve every heard the term before, that is):


This is the Black Cat, a van that has been heavily modified by its owner, not just with paint but with sculpted additions to the body. I pass this charmer every day on my way home from work, where it sits smiling on the top of a small hill along Hwy 319 in Grady county.

Condition of the motor notwithstanding (I have no idea how long it’s been there or why it was constructed), the Black Cat appears to still be drivable–the lights, windshield, and mirrors seem to be unencumbered–but it’s obviously not as aerodynamic as it used to be with the ears and tail additions. These sorts of modification (my research shows) are often accomplished with common hardware store items like spray foam (that is then sanded into shape) and flexible air ducts (which is what I suspect the tail to be). After all, not many people have access to fiberglass modelling set-ups and welding on steel adds to the weight of the car–something you don’t want to do willy-nilly.

Other art cars are made such by the sticking on of tchotchkes or other 3-dimensional items, but most common are the painted ones. A friend of mine who hails from down in the Keys (where art cars are very common) says that a lot of artists use regular old house paint on the cars. Sounds funny at first, but it makes sense: house paint is meant to stand up to all forms of weather and is available in fairly large quantities for less than the same amount of craft or specialty paints!

But when I decided to turn my 2007 Saturn into an art car, I wasn’t planning to cover the whole thing in paint, so I opted to use some things I had on hand, and others picked up from Hobby Town, intended for painting models.

I wore the half-face respirator for anything sprayed or sanded--safety first!

I wore the half-face respirator for anything sprayed or sanded–safety first!

It’s important to understand that my car is completely paid off and I have no intention of trading it in to buy a new car. Art cars are like altered books in this way: only alter them if you’re 100% sure it’s not worth a mint 😉 A few years ago I had a run-in (or, rather, a slide-by) with a concrete pillar in a hospital parking garage, leaving a series of scratches on my rear driver’s side door. I thought I’d buy the touch-up paint, fix it, and go on with life. Three guesses as to when I got around to that.

Instead, by the time I’d come up to Art #48, I was thinking it would be fun to do something to incorporate the scratches into a bit of art. And if there’s one motif I’m fairly committed to, it’s monkeys, so putting a cheeky monkey co-pilot on my door seemed like the best idea ever!


Surface preparation is really key, here. Even an 8-year old car is still going to have a fair amount of protective coating left (clear coat, years of waxes, etc.) and your paint isn’t going to stick too well to it. No sense spending all this time painting something awesome only to have it flake off immediately!

Stay hydrated, stay shaded, and have something around to keep you company--be it tunes or an audio book.

Stay hydrated, stay shaded, and have something around to keep you company–be it tunes or an audio book.

First I cleaned the car door to remove any surface dirt, etc. After deciding what, where, and how big my design was going to be (sketching it out on a large sheet of paper and cutting it out as a guide), I taped off the area around the design (just like you would a wall, only with a few more angles involved), then used some 800 grit sandpaper to rough up only the area to be painted.


Dust from the sanding will get in the way of the paint, so another wipe-down is called for, then applying a primer coat. I used a hobby paint primer by Tamiya.

Now, priming is totally optional, but since I’m painting light colors on a dark surface, the white primer layer saved me from having to paint a second layer of everything. Furthermore, the primer adds more tooth to the surface, meaning my design has a better chance of really sticking around. Which means there’s less of a chance of my holiday day-off being a total and complete waste!

Once the primer had set, I went back with a pencil to sketch in the interior lines. I know plenty of people would just go to town with the paint at this point, but regardless of if I’m working in a sketch book, on canvas, or on a car, a sketch layer is my safety net: it’s where I work out details and create my map to the finished work.

I was a little worried that the main paint I was using (Tamiya acrylic, from Hobby Town) might be rather thin and runny. It certainly didn’t have the body that bottled or tub acrylic paints have, and I was worried about drips.

Until I put the first stroke on.

Not sure if looks were merely deceiving or if it was the heat outside/on the surface of the car, but the paint dried almost immediately. Not only that, it went on stronger than expected from its liquid state and covered like a dream. Again, I give the primer some credit, but this paint rocks for detailed car painting.



Since it took next to no time for the paint to dry, the painting went quick. In fact, I think it took just as much time to do the decorative bits as it did to do the physical prep–2 hours each, with a 1 hour lunch break while the primer cured. The painters tape came up like a dream and I was left with a lot to show for my day’s efforts so far!


I wasn’t quite done, yet, I still needed to outline the whole thing and add details. Rather than fiddle with a brush for this step, I stayed firmly in my illustrative comfort zone and used an enamel paint pen to do the detail work. Not only did this add definition to the interior spaces, it also served to clean up any edges that needed it (tape only does so much, especially on curves). I used black, but you can also buy touch up paint pens in your car’s native color if more camouflage is needed.


I’ve gotten some questions about the message on monkey’s scarf. There’s really no “story” to it, other than a take-off of the three wise monkeys see/hear/speak no evil. It just seemed appropriate.

Final steps before packing it in for the day were another wipe-down to remove any dust or over-spray that might have occurred, and then a good coat of a clear varnish. I opted for Helmar Crystal Kote Gloss spray varnish*, intended to put another coat on after 4 hours, per the instructions on the can. Too bad it started raining after 3 hours, but it didn’t seem to affect the varnish at all: no clouding or anything you might expect. Again, I think the heat of the day helped!

*It should be noted, Helmar Crystal Kote isn’t intended/tested for prolonged outdoor use, so no telling how it’ll hold up over the long run. I’m aware of that, and thought you should be, too 🙂

So far my bit of creative expression is holding up nicely. It’s rained several days since painting it, and when it’s not raining, it’s been hanging around the 90s, so heat and rain haven’t presented any issues. I can always touch it up when and if it becomes necessary, or maybe I’ll decide to do something else entirely down the line. My boss asked what I was going to put on the other side, and I’m still not sure I will put anything there. But who knows?

Would you ever want to drive an art car around?