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Fighting over scraps

What a scrapbooking scandal says about human nature

Fighting over scraps

(Carolyn Cole/© 2008 Los Angeles Times/Reprinted with permission)

Lying, cheating, cover-ups. What did they know and when? It was such a scandal, it made headlines in the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, plus a feature story in Newsweek. But most of the coverage barely concealed a smirk, for the scandal had occurred in the soft-focus, buttons-and-borders, female-dominated world of scrapbooking.

First, a little history: In 1980, the Christensen family of Utah caused quite a stir at the World Conference of Records by presenting their family history in loose-leaf binders with cutout embellishments. Reaction was so positive the family soon produced a how-to book and started a retail outlet for stamps and acid-free paper. At first this style of artistic archiving confined itself mostly to the Mormon community, owing to their doctrinal interest in genealogy But in 1987, it crossed over with Creative Memories, a company founded in St. Cloud, Minn. Growing rapidly on the "consultant" model, Creative Memories was soon selling supplies and offering classes through shops and conventions all over the United States. In the 20 years since, scrapbooking has grown to a $2.6 billion industry.

Visualize a scrapbooker and the image will probably be a mom or grandma, showcasing a few special photos in a 12-inch-by-12-inch composition of cutouts, corners, and captions. She might be working alone, or happily trading punches (paper punches, that is) with other moms and grandmas. But there's a new breed of "scrapper," often single and/or childless, who may be framing a photo of her collection of nose rings in painted bubble wrap, against random thoughts hand-lettered on torn-paper margins. She's one of the new generation, who prefer sensation to sentiment and would rather frame their passion than their progeny. That's where the scandal began.

Not that there is a right and wrong form of scrapbooking: What the mavericks are doing is a form of collage, and as valid a means of self-expression as any. In fact, when Kristina Contes, a star of the new-wavers, entered a portfolio in a contest sponsored by traditionally minded Creative Keepsakes magazine, she won top honors and was named to the "Scrapbook Hall of Fame." In October her prize-winning pages, featuring her own feet and her hairless terrier, appeared in a book with the other 2007 Hall of Famers.

That's when the scrap hit the fan. The photos were clearly credited to someone other than herself, and according to the rules, all work had to be original with the artist.

In the storm of protest that followed, Contes was ejected from the Hall of Fame, but not quietly. She insisted her entry had been submitted in good faith; hadn't she asked for a photo credit, instead of passing the snapshots off as her own? The snippy, sarcastic comments on her blog provoked even snippier comments on countless message boards ("I just want to . . . slap her!"). Which led to interviews where Contes compared conventional scrapbookers to Stepford Wives ("You're doing something different, you must be evil") and further hurt feelings on both sides.

In the months since, opinions have differed over what the scandal was actually about. Honor and integrity, some insist. Blazing your own path, others say. It's about speaking truth to power-namely, the powers at Creative Keepsakes, who must have seen the photo credit, made the award anyway, and blamed a junior editor when it came to light. Or it's about working hard and playing by the rules and seeing a cheater walk off with the prize.

It was a dustup in a plastic sleeve, according to those outside the community. But however petty, the controversy illuminates two basic facts about human nature. First, we know there are rules that must be kept. Second, we are always trying to find ways around them. It's a dichotomy that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and it plays out the same way: anger, recrimination, conflict. How about a scrapbook page on Romans 1?

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