The Art of Gift-Making: a Process Rife with Abundance

Gifting can be hard… really hard!

In 5 Ways to Reclaim the Holidays, I explore ideas for using holiday gift-giving to build community while also producing kick-ass, original presents that will bring joy to your friends & family.

Here, I’d like to expand a bit on some of those ideas, namely those regarding making, or getting things made, for your loved ones.

From the time I could pick up a crayon, drawing has come naturally. And ever since I discovered that I can draw (or paint, or photograph) things that people like, it’s always been natural for me to choose making holiday things for people about 60% of the time over buying.

So for me since time immemorial, holidays are not so much a time for frantic gift-buying as gift-making, as I strive to create a work of art that my friends or family will find meaningful, beautiful and will communicate to them how much they mean to me.

And that is fun, and it works. I get to enjoy making something, and folks like what I give. But I’ve discovered something else as well. Each act of gift-making has not only been a production process, but also a kind of ritual for entering more deeply into my relationship with the recipients. In turn, this deepening has enriched my life in myriad ways. I’ve found this to be one of my best sources of immunity to holiday fatigue as well as a secret sauce for breathing love, life and health into my relationships.

Therefore, I HIGHLY recommend either taking on the adventure of making gifts as well, or considering hiring (or bartering with) a talented friend or local “maker” to create something for those special people on your list this year.

The process, which I’ve developed sort of intuitively over the years, goes as follows–and can be done alone or in partnership with a hired/enlisted “maker” of your preferred talent (visual artist, musical artist, woodworker, crafter, etc.):

*  *  *

First, there’s what I’ll call the “Conception” stage, where the plan for the design comes into shape. To accomplish this, I think/feel into something I know will touch their life. I go through a wheel of questions:

  • “What have they been through this year?”
  • “What phrase or teaching have I heard them share recently, or do I remember from way back is one of their favorites?”
  • “What golden memory did we share, or did they tell me about from this year (or back father)?”  

And, my favorite:

  • “What is their essence–who they are, uniquely–that makes me love them? What symbol, animal, scene, or set of words express that essence?”

This little ritual (which I often do in my head/heart over about two weeks, but sometimes in the short space of a day if time has grown tight) gives me a rare opportunity to make satiated-king-ratspace in my life to deeply, gently, sincerely think about this person in my life and our relationship. One year, I made my father a watercolor and pen portrait of a very satiated rat, flanked on top and bottom with my Dad’s absolute favorite (original) line, “Within this mouth live the tastebuds of a king.”  Another year, I celebrated my Mom’s newfound passion (obsession?) with gardening with a portrait of her (from my head) digging into the dirt with her fingers, with the gentle expression of a cultivator of Life.

On a subterranean level, I have found that this little process tends to heal whatever gunk has built up–small resentments, unspoken protests, or just plain old distance–in between my life and theirs over the last year, and replaces it with a warm flow of affection and knowing.

The “Making” stage deepens this process still, as each stroke of pen or brush, each squinting step-back from the piece to check its progress and quality, each adjustment or experiment becomes a highly physical expression of my bond to them. It’s almost like I’m weaving our lives together with each little action. I can only describe this process as magical.

Finally, after the final artwork has reached its finished stage and I can feel and see that “essence” I dug to find now perfect expression, there’s the wrapping and then the most glorious stage of all: actually “Giving” the gift. Hooray!

I always experience an unparalleled excitement knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their hearts are about to explode as they pick up the brightly wrapped package and seek out the seams of the paper with their fingers. And inevitably, this is the case. It is a timeless moment, in which all of those moments of thinking, planning and doing come to full fruition, expanding from my inner world into their lives as well, and fully inhabiting the space between us.

The, for time unlimited, there’s the “Enjoyment” stage, in which my loved one mounts the creation somewhere to be seen and enjoyed, and this becomes a regular, probably daily reminder to them of the deep care, thought and time that you put into this gift (and by extension, your relationship). In my home, it’s become a kind of gallery my Mom has erected in the hallway, where my years of Christmas gifts hang as a kind of compendium narrative of her and our intertwined lives.

This yearly magic is one reason why I think I’ve remained fairly immune to the rampant disillusionment with the holidays that many of my friends and family report…   too much buying, too much pressure to give — or the sentiment, “Why can’t we be generous to each other year round?”

Well, yes. Good points. But we don’t have to let the pressure of finding gifts become something that drains us. It can be, like it has been for me, something that re-energizes our love for one another and helps grow the roots of our relationships deeper. For me, the rituals of taking the time to deeply reflect on each recipient, what makes them special, and what they would truly love, accomplishes that. Rather than the “only” time of year we do this, this time of year can be a moment like some of us use meditation, prayer or any other kind of ritual — to refresh, re-orient, re-root ourselves in this value of treasuring others.

And, of course I am available to make something custom (email me ASAP so we have time!), or you can pick from any one of my designs or art-printed “swag” online (one friend bought this for his Mom one year).


BUT, I’m honestly just as happy if you seek out any other local visual, musical, or crafty-type artist and let them partner with you to make something original for your loved one. You can start by doing a quick mental inventory – “Who do I know that can… (draw / paint / craft / etc.)



And, for added inspiration, here are a few pictures other I’ve made over the years:


made for my father – a portrait of the two of us. (watercolor + pencil)


a portrait of a friend’s mother, based on a photo of her when she was young. (oil on canvas)


Drawing from a photo I took in Indianapolis. I made this for my Mom, as this young woman’s obvious love for her daughter and her daughter’s curiosity remind me of our relationship. (pen + ink)


A gift for my friend Catherine, after thinking on her “essence” and knowing that her favorite animal is a unicorn. This kind of evolved as I drew it. She absolutely loved it! (pen + ink)


My family tree – made for my grand-mother, with copies for each of my family — our family tree. I cherished this chance to celebrate my abundant family. (pen + ink)


I was commissioned to make this piece as a present for the client's fiance. We worked together to create a composite of four seasons' worth of photos of their "special spot" in the woods up in Illinois. (acrylic on canvas)

My brother-in-law commissioned me to make this as a present for my sister when they were still engaged. He and I worked together to create a composite of four seasons’ worth of photos of their “special spot” in the woods up in Illinois. (acrylic on canvas)


Relationships are woven with the time, care and thought we put into them–and the world is made of relationships. Creating custom gifts, either ourselves or in partnership with a gifted “maker” who can help us bring our ideas to life, is a great way to infuse new vital energy into your relationships. In so doing, we are also building a great wealth of originality, authenticity and the spirit of creating on a micro-local level that can not only transform our immediate personal bonds but also help shift our common culture from dependency to self-reliance and interdependence, from a consumer culture to a producer culture, and from separation to connection.

What greater gift is there to give?



Some Ideas for Original Visual Gifts:

  • A portrait of a special person or animal your loved one cares about (child, family photo, pet)
  • A painting of a special moment/memory, place, or thing they love (landscapes, trains, horses, etc. etc.)
  • Their favorite quote – original or borrowed – decorated with related illustration
  • A figurative portrait of them (like the unicorn above)
  • A family or “friend” tree  (Yes, I just made that up. Why not?)

If you have an image in mind and would like something of mine, hit me up — I might have something not pictured in my website that would fit perfectly.

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