Creating the Boat Gnome Mercantile

Hello, new Patrons and visiting eyeballs!

I'm assuming most of you are currently joining up or browsing to learn about the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program. The Boat Gnome’s desired items for the 2019-2020 Trading Season are as follows:

  • An interesting shell (level of interest is in the eye of the beholder)
  • A piece of seaglass (bonus points for unusual colors)
  • A transcription of your favorite nautical poem (typed or hand-written, as preferred)
  • A knot (tied in a piece of string, twine, rope, etc and labelled by name)

In-person trades are open to all at any event I’m attending. The next Boat Gnome Representative Sighting will take place at XOXO here in Portland in just a few weeks. I’ll be wandering around as an attendee, so bring your trade items and catch me if you can! 

If you just can’t wait to exchange goods with the Boat Gnome, the Trade-by-Mail Program is already open to Patrons. You can find all the instructions for sending trades through the mail by pledging at any level and visiting this post

If you’re just curious about the project for now, you can browse this free post for background information and behind-the-scenes sketches from the production process. 

So: GNOMES. 

If you don't already follow Shing Yin Khor, you're in for a treat. They're an unstoppable, mischievous force for good in the world. Aside from creating immersive installation art and fabulous comics and unconventional fundraising initiatives and co-facilitating life-changing retreats, they also run something called the Space Gnome Mercantile Trading Program

The story goes like this: there is a gnome—a Space Gnome—who runs a trading outpost in outer space. She releases a list of desirable items prior to sending one of her representatives to conventions around the country. The desirable items are often simple. A nice rock. A cutting from a succulent. A poem. A story. 

Traders may present the representative with one of these objects and receive, in exchange, a limited edition enamel pin.

Once a participant has made a trade and received a pin they become a Trusted Trader, and can return to the representative at future events (wearing their pin) and receive additional, special items. Shing also runs a trade-by-mail program exclusively for their Patreon supporters (DID I MENTION YOU CAN SUPPORT SHING ON PATREON?) in case folks can't make it out to conventions.

I love this project. It's subversive and human and playful and kind. So when Shing and I were on a ferry coming back from the Wayward Retreat this summer, I screwed up my courage and said:

"Do you think there might be other gnomes? I mean, hypothetically, what if there was also, say...a Boat Gnome?"

I felt self-conscious even asking. Why can't I come up with my own ideas? Isn't this plagiarism? But the beauty of this project lies in the fact that it's not commercial in the slightest. Nobody's making a profit. It's a sandbox—a container for play, and as if to prove it Shing immediately shot up off the bench and shouted "YES!!!"

One month later they showed up in the front yard of childhood home in California (long story) and officially inducted me into the Association of Gnomes—a process I can't recount here, so you'll just have to flip through this Instagram Story really quick to experience it.

Armed with my gnome hat, I started drafting ideas. Since Shing had already come up with a format for the pins and cards, I decided to keep things simple and just riff on the existing material.

So here's our Boat Gnome. Perhaps suspiciously like a smaller version of me, but WHO'S KEEPING SCORE.

For the postcard I swapped out Shing's space elements for nautical ones. I took delivery of 250 postcards yesterday and spent a pleasant evening numbering them on the couch.

And then the PINS, which I wanted to match to Shing's design so that enterprising traders could line them up in a handsome row on a lapel.

For those of you who haven't made pins before, here's what I sent to Pin Game Strong, the company Shing recommended for a first-time pin-maker. You've gotta pick out Pantone colors for all the different enamel tones to make sure they can match ’em. (The company has a TON of information about the process on their website—super interesting if you're curious.)

About three weeks after sending in the design, I got this photo from the factory!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

The great thing about doing a project that won't make me any money is that a lot of the perfectionism that usually dogs my steps during production is just...gone. Who cares if this isn't utterly perfect? It's a game. People are going to play.

Here’s the finished product!

I've spent a little over $500 assembling the materials for this project, which would've felt impossible three years ago. But I'm finally at a place in my career where not every expense has to turn a profit. There's so much heart-felt fun to be had exchanging gifts with strangers and friends. And because of the support I receive on Patreon, I can do these kinds of projects. It's such a wonderful privilege. 

So thanks. I can't wait to trade with you all.

Your friend,

Lucy Bellwood

(Representative of the Boat Gnome)

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