Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat (sheet craft foam, hot glue, acrylic paint)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Hat

A friend recently asked, “So, what did you do at work this week?”

And I replied, “Uh, this is going to sound weird. I made a hat shaped like a hummingbird.”

I’ve made a bunch of these hats for our kids at Halloween. Over the years, many emails have rolled in from people who saw them online and were curious about them. Many have asked about buying an existing hat, renting one or commissioning one. The problem is that they aren’t just hats. They are mid-sized, detailed sculptures that take a ton of time to make. The most recent one took almost an entire week from start to finish. Plus, shipping the larger hats is expensive. Given the cost, it didn’t surprise me that no one wanted to take the plunge and invest in one… until this year. Someone recently decided to go for it and commissioned a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hat for a hummingbird society meeting in Arizona. I’m happy to report that it arrived without a hitch, and she loved it.

Over the years I’ve actually made a lot of hats. For the kid’s Halloween costumes alone, I can think of 14. In art school a design teacher gave us several hat assignments. At that time he was without a doubt the most feared professor at the art school. He had a history of merciless comments that were like jagged lacerations… memorable and painful, cutting deep and leaving permanent scars. I learned an incredible amount about design in the first semester of his class, and I still have some of the projects I made for him.

His first assignment was to build a “Hat for Two.” This was an unusual design problem: a hat that two people wore at the same time. To add to the degree of difficulty, it had to allow the wearers to discreetly share their opinions (positive or negative) about art pieces at a gallery or art opening. The next hat assignment was perhaps even more interesting and challenging: this time everyone had to build a hat had capable of catching a ping-pong ball and then delivering it to the hat of the person next to you in class. On the day the project was due, the teacher would randomly assemble us in a circle, and the critique would begin. This was somewhat problematic because you had no idea what everyone else would bring. Some people were tall; some short. Some hats had tiny places to receive a ball; others large. Function was crucial, but it’d better look good too if you expected a halfway decent grade!

The day of the critique was always stressful. Some people brought in beautiful pieces that simply didn’t work. Others brought in contraptions that functioned well, but were ugly. Some had ideas that didn’t look good OR work. There were always one or two students who didn’t finish. The hat I remember best was shaped like a fish, constructed with balsa wood and paper. It had a mouth that opened and closed to catch the ball, which then rolled out the“back end” to deliver it to the next student. The only problem was that the wearer couldn’t see where the ball would drop. Designs that relied on gravity often allowed the ball to roll out before the next hat was ready. The most successful designs allowed the wearers to control precisely when they would deliver the ball and to see exactly where it would be placed.

Here are some other interesting assignments:

  • Musical Shoes: We had to design, fabricate and wear shoes that made music while you walked.
  • The Whacky Stack: Like many of his assignments, the actual assignment was cryptic, and you had to read the instructor’s mind to figure out what he wanted. This one was a limerick, which for some reason I still remember 20 years later: “There was an amazing stack/ that came in its very own pack./ Such a balancing feat/ proved incomplete/ until the pack was part of the stack.” This makes the class sound fun, but in reality I think everyone in there would agree that there was a ton of stress involved. When asked what he wanted to see from the assignment, the instructor would refuse to answer and just point to the limerick.
  • Locker-folding Critique Seat: This assignment required building a chair that collapsed to fit into one of the art school lockers. You were required to bring the seat to all the class critiques. If yours broke during the semester, you’d have to fix it or replace it with another invention. If you made something painful, well then you’d have a semester full of critiques to rethink things!
  • SHMOE and more: The second semester went off the rails with some truly bizarre assignments. Half the semester was spent making a play where all the actors’ words were acrostic poems starting with the letters S,H,M,O and E. Now SHMOE may sound random, but those happen to be the first letters of the Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Erie. Ok… I guess it is sort of a random choice, but his idea was to provide an order and structure, arbitrary as it may have been, to the whole play. Yeah, that was a long semester.

I’ve made a lot of hats over the years, and I’d have to say the bird hats have been the most fun.

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