When it comes to gift-giving, artists have never been like other people. It’s a hit to your pride to shop at Macy’s for a sweater when you could (should) be at home, crafting up that perfect one-of-a-kind gesture.

Christmas socks…a good gift, but…you could do better.

If you have an artist friend, it is likely you will be given something unique. This can have something to do with several factors: (1) occasional bouts of “poorness;” (2) an overactive sense of “do-it-yourself-ness;” and (3) the simple fact that artists have a lot of crap they’ve made that is currently taking up space in their house/studio/shed/rented storage space/parent’s house.

The following is a handy guide to artist gift-buying, and yes, receiving.

The Giving Artist

Here are a few things you might find cleverly gift-wrapped, “just for you:”

A Piece of Old Art. An obvious choice. For those who aren’t artists, it might (literally) shock you to find out how many things an artist has made in her lifetime: sets of prints; small drawings: little crafted wooden boxes (this also applies to architects): glass or metal lamps from that time she went through that phase where she made lamps; or a framed (failed) photograph of a generic thing that will look good above your kitchen sink. If you have an artist friend and haven’t yet received something like this, just wait.

Some gifts you might receive from artist Jen Urso

Handcrafted Utilitarian Object. I have, in the past, crocheted cup cozies and screen printed placemats. You may receive a lopsided ceramic bowl or a t-shirt imprinted with their “symbol.” This category could also include self-made objects like bookends, napkin rings, ashtrays, wind chimes, tote bags, clocks and anything made of felt. TIP: Remember to always have these objects out and put to good use next time your artist friend comes over.

Some honorary mentions include:

  • Homemade food (When there are no more old artworks to give and your artist friend has run out of craft-making ideas, it’s always fun for her to pretend she’s a chef.)
  • A plant
  • A gift card to FilmBar
  • A Phoenix Art Museum membership
  • A Heard Museum membership
  • A Desert Botanical Gardens membership
  • A donation made in your name to Oxfam
  • Booze (Case in point: I almost bought a bottle of Japanese whiskey because the packaging was so nice)

For the Artist who has…Not a Lot

Similarly, a little creative thinking can go a long way when buying for an artist friend. Here are a few gift ideas that will bring a bit of joy:

Booze. Not crappy booze but good booze: the kind that might cost more than $10 a bottle. I have never met an artist who doesn’t like to have a drink every now and then. Given the attention most artists give to subtlety and detail, they can be wowed with a gin that’s bubbled, not boiled; whiskey made in 1 gallon batches at a time; or just a well-designed bottle with a wax stamp and an interesting font. This tasteful booze will assist during the next period your artist friend is doubting her self worth and wondering why she labors over this stuff to begin with.

Health Insurance. An idea for those with extra cash. Most artists are self-employed or work part-time which means having to foot the bill for their own insurance. More often, it means going without while hoping the table saw doesn’t ricochet a piece of wood back into your head. While an artist may be morally conflicted by the generous gift of a cashmere sweater, she would greatly appreciate subsidized healthcare and affordable birth control.

Some runner-up options could include:

  • A gift certificate for a massage
  • A book on some obscure subject they once mentioned
  • A gift card to a grocery store (Handy during those “poorness” bouts.)
  • Scrap wood
  • Decorative paper
  • A gift card to their favorite (local) coffee shop
  • A blank notebook
  • A moss garden

Artist to artist

Artists giving gifts to each other is almost a perfect storm. Maybe one artist doesn’t believe in the rampant commercialism of the holidays so refuses to take part in giving something of monetary value. She will choose, instead, to enact an action on your behalf, carefully documenting it via video, an online slideshow or a series of drawings.

While the other artist may be covertly (not creepily) drafting impromptu sketches of her friend for the past week, which will be given in a well-decorated, sealed envelope.

Remember that shopping for or receiving gifts from an artist will always be slightly more interesting than the Chili’s gift card you might get from your boss or the Christmas socks you might get from your mother. Artists are maybe (likely?) working out some end-of-year issues with those projects that never quite got off the ground but which could be perfect if wrapped with a festive bow. I have resisted sewing, constructing or drawing anything for anyone this year but I have been eyeing up some mason jars and the possibility of canning my own food.

Bottom line: whether you’re an artist of a friend of one, it’s best to be prepared for anything.