I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but came to the states with my mother, sister, and brother in 1985. I was three, my brother was two, and my sister was seven. My sister caught the chicken pox from a girl she was sitting next to on the plane. My brother and I caught them soon after. I distinctly remember my grandfather picking us up from JFK airport. He was meeting my brother and I for the first time (my sister was born here in the US before my mother decided to move to Nigeria with my father), and I can also remember him lifting me up, hugging me, and saying “Hi-ya Sugah!” It was a very warm welcome. My grandpa was relieved to have his daughter back home-- especially since a military coup on our block derailed our first attempt to come back to the states— and to see all of his grandkids.
My grandpa drove us to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn at 968 Williams Avenue. We were going to live with her until my mom could find a place for us. It was the time I spent at my grandmother’s house that shaped my being. My grandmother was an artist. She specialized in making greeting cards out of pressed flowers. We would take long walks with her to pick out wild flowers and listen to her as she identified them. She had obvious favorites like Black-Eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace. My grandmother would make cards using pressed flowers and images and text from magazines. Every other weekend, we would go to the African Art street fair on Fulton Street, so my grandmother could showcase and sell her work. Her work was a carefully crafted exercise in collage; she would recycle and repurpose images; and, in doing so, she created new stories, messages, and meanings. It was fascinating to watch her in action, and I loved especially when she let me help her by placing dots of glue on the backs of her images.
The other really cool thing about my grandmother was that she was a kid at heart. We had LOTS of toys in the house, many of which she had made for us herself. She made me dolls and sewed clothing for them; she made me really crazy costumes; and she made me little booklets in which I could draw and write. We always played games like Po-ke-no, Uno, and Go-Fish. However, the coolest toys in her house were the TINKER TOYS. Tinker Toys was a construction kit made up of wooden spools and sticks. The spools were a natural wood color, while the sticks were different colors depending on their length. Tinker Toys came in this fat, cylindrical cardboard tube with a flexible plastic cap. Whenever I was bored, I would go to the hall closet to get the Tinker Toys. I liked Tinker Toys for several reasons. First of all, every play session with Tinker Toys began in a dramatic fashion. I had to take of the cap off and literally spill the contents of the container onto the floor. I loved the noise, the mess, and the fact that I had to turn this pile of sticks into something. The “something” did not even have to be “cool”—and oftentimes was not “cool.” However, it was my job to make something out of the mess. I also loved that I did not have to have a plan for what I was going to build. I could just go with the flow until I decided on what I wanted to make. If the idea was not working, it was very easy to scrap it and start again. Additionally, I never remember playing with my Tinker Toys with an adult. This was the toy I could use all by myself. Occasionally my brother and I would play together, but we define got to interaction. We could build something together or work on two different projects. Finally, I liked the Tinker Toys because they were easy to put away. I just jammed them in the container.
Looking back, it was the experiences that I had at my grandmother’s house that really shaped how I think about things. First, my grandmother was an incredibly creative person. She did not have a lot of money, but she created meaning out of her world in a way that I strive to do today. Her work was deeply personal. It facilitated social interaction and invited people into it (regardless of age; I thought it was really cool to see flowers that I had picked end up in her work). My grandmother never created the same card twice. There was nothing routine about her process. Instead, she embraced experimentation and found ways to breathe life into silly magazine advertisements. Although not an object, this left an indelible mark on me. This coupled with opportunities to build help to explain my interest in (re)design and building. As I grew older, I looked for ways to repurpose, re-envision, and re-examine old ideas and assumptions. This has been most notable in my work as a history teacher.
My grandmother continues to inspire me. She can no longer press flowers because of her arthritis. However, she still manages to collage and to create the most beautiful of cards. It is difficult to talk about the objects I had access to as a child without talking about the context within which I experienced those “things.” At the end of the day, I took to Tinker Toys because I had an expert model. My grandmother was unafraid to experiment, to discard the things that did not work, and to endow old “things” with meaning. These tenets seem to be central to notions of tinkering and design.