Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moving forward with a lot of zig-zagging

Dear Helen,

I missed you at the ranch. This would have been your view if you'd been sitting next to me, as you were last October.

But it sounds like you are having a lovely retreat in Bath.  You mentioned that you are not being as productive as you'd hoped, but I remind you that sometimes a rest is necessary for productive creativity to take place.  You've had an intensely creative several months (what with our Birmingham adventure and the work you've produced and designing your studio and drawing and all) and I think your inner self is telling you that you need a break.  I always hit what I think of as fallow periods where all I really want to do is read and leaf mindlessly through magazines and watch movies on TV ... and I have come to think of them as necessary, and in fact, vital resting places for the creative side of my brain.  It's not wasted time.  It's part of that introspective phase of creativity, where your subconscious can work while you put your conscious brain on auto-pilot.

And if you're doing auto-pilot while floating in thermal pools at a spa and lingering over tea and scones, so much the better.

But back to the retreat.  It was a lovely time, as I'm sure you can imagine.  I have learned not to work on anything in that setting that requires significant creative decision making, as I'm too engaged and distracted by chatting with friends and soaking up the general air of creative excitement.

Here is one of the things I worked on -- what will be a large piece in my topographical map series.  It's a reverse applique process and although you can't see them here in this shot, there are lots of sewn lines and I'm in the process of cutting away layers of fabric to reveal different layers beneath.  It's a phase of somewhat tedious work but it's enjoyable and there's a sense of mystery and discovery, as I can't predict what things will look like exactly as the patterns and color splotches on the hand-dyed and batik fabrics reveal themselves in different ways.

Here is another thing I worked on at the retreat -- I pieced all of these small blocks (4.5 inches each) on the first day in a bout of improvisational piecing.  I sure enjoyed making these blocks and found that I got lots of ideas for bigger designs from the serendipity of the small pieces going together.  I've gotten all of the blocks assembled and have ideas for borders and stitching .  I consider this another adventure in just diving in with no sense of plan or imagined image.  I don't usually work this spontaneously but I sure had fun doing it.

You mentioned those Danny Gregory books.  I like those a lot.  And it sound like using those and trying out his style of illustrated journal keeping has confirmed for you what your own journal style is.  That's a very good discovery!

I mentioned that I'd signed up for an online class (through the Joggles.com site) with Jane Lafazio on sketching and watercolor painting for mixed media journaling. What prompted me to do this had more to do with wanting to get into the habit of incorporating color (via pencil or watercolor) in my journals more.  Like you, I'm drawn to beautiful illustrated journals but my goal isn't so much to start keeping one as it is to incorporate the practices into the type of journal keeping I already do.

So far, our week's task has been to draw everyday objects, and using loose watercolor to add color.  I've been doing a small sketch/painting each day, and while I see that my skills need some work, I really like the meditative aspect of LOOKING at something and remembering to draw or paint what I SEE instead of what I THINK I see.  This is harder to do than one would think.

For example, I worked with this bottle of wine yesterday (hey, we live in Wine Country.  Wine is an every day object.)

And here's my first attempt at painting it:

I made the bottle green and the wine red, because that's what my brain told me the colors were.  But look back at that bottle -- the wine isn't red, it's a blacky-red, tinted greenish by the green of the bottle.
So I went in some more and tried to darken everything without totally mucking things up and losing what few white highlights I had left.  (Keeping white in watercolor is quite a challenge, I find.)

It should all really be darker, I know.  But it felt like time to move on and maybe I'll tackle a wine bottle later to see if I can do it better.  Anyway, this is proving to be a very good exercise in seeing.

And here's the first one I did -- a sketch/painting of a carved wooden mermaid that lives in my office with me.  I just love her.  But studying the lines and colors and shapes made me see aspects of the shape and texture and wood that I'd never noticed before.  I have been thinking that making art is a particular state of mindfulness about the world, whether the art is representational or abstract.

I'm glad that seeing Alicia Merritt's exhibit sparked some ideas for you.  I quite like her work (as you know, drawn as I am to map-inspired images) and I like how she infuses such glowing color into her work too.  They are very graphic and striking compositions, but also immediately identifiable as maps.  I love that.  And I know what you mean about seeing a cohesive body of work -- it makes you realize the strength and possibility in focusing on a limited set of themes and motifs.  As we've experienced in our 12x12 challenges, boundaries can really open creative doors.

But here is what I really want to address.  You mentioned making decisions about what NOT to do, as much as what you want to be doing.  I think setting a course, identifying what it is what excites you, and defining some goals are all very useful steps and important parts of sorting out what you are doing, what you want to be doing, and why you want to be doing it.

But.  I will add some caveats that express my own philosophy about these matters, which are mine and don't necessarily apply to anyone else. I'm not preaching.  Or suggesting they should apply to you.  They are just my reactions.  Okay?

Why I am doing what I am doing is probably the most important question to me when I try to sort out the issues I ponder around my creativity.  And I know that I am not doing what I do to be a famous artist, or to sell work, or to make a name so people will hire me to lecture or teach.  I know that I pursue what I pursue because it makes me happy, and because engaging in creative expression is as necessary to me as oxygen.  Also, I've recognized that for me, the process is as important as the finished work -- that is, I'm nourished creatively by the process, even when it doesn't result in work I consider successful.  I like trying new things, experimenting with new materials, and exploring different avenues.  It's taken me some time to appreciate that for me, experimentation is one of my goals.  I really don't need anyone to buy my art quilts or hire me to teach or give me ribbons in order to feel good about what I do.  Sure, it feels nice when those things happen.  But it doesn't define success for me in my own mind about my own work.

Of course, you've heard me worry that I don't have any identifiable style or that I haven't settled on one technique or process to define as Mine and use for all of my art.  I wonder whether making myself march forward in a more linear way might result in greater growth. 

But when I'm not wibbling with those pesky little insecurities, I realize that I truly do know down deep inside that for me, it's most useful to go with where my creative flow takes me.  It's not a linear thing for me.  I may pursue things that others might see as a distraction, and I may at times end up taking side-trips away from where I thought I wanted to go.  And because I know that I do my art TO MAKE MYSELF HAPPY, first and foremost, I know that following where my impulses take me is better for me than fighting against those impulses.  (I see this as vaguely related to a lesson learned long ago when a really great hairdresser I used to go to in Massachusetts talked to me about working WITH what my stick-straight hair does, as opposed to fighting against it with perms and curlers and such.)   So when I approach the process as something I flow with rather than fight against, it not only makes me happier, I think it works out better in terms of the result.    For me, the creative journey is the destination, if you know what I mean.

I think my attitude was shaped dramatically by experiences I had years ago, when I was very involved in the artist book world.  I was obsessed with making artist books, and decided that I not only wanted to make and sell them, but I wanted to become known in that world.  I showed my books in galleries and had stuff published in magazines and books.  I set out to teach in the book world (when hardly anyone even knew what artist books were) and I accomplished that, getting invited to teach at a rather prestigious event.  And you know what?  It took the joy out of it for me, it truly did.  I worked so hard at figuring out what people would want to see and what would be publishable or teachable, and then I had to make samples and all ... and it just stopped being fun.  After that teaching job which felt like the pinnacle of achievement for me, I found I didn't want to make any more books.  It wasn't the fact that I'd reached the goal that changed things; it was realizing that I'd veered away from focusing on what was fun for me to worrying about how to please others and making things to suit others' needs.

That's why I keep in mind the fact that my creative work is for my own pleasure.  That's why I'm doing what I'm doing.  I'm very clear about that.  I'm not averse to hard work, or encountering frustration as I problem-solve, or taking on creative challenges to overcome.  But at the root of it all is the knowledge that I am doing this to increase the joy in my life.  If it's not doing that (in a big picture sort of way), then I know I'm not on the right track.  

I'm fortunate to have a professional career that earns me a good income and a family situation that means I don't have to work full-time.  So art and creativity are, for me, about pleasing myself and keeping myself interested and challenged.  If it takes me on a zig-zag exploration instead of a straight line to fame and fortune, I'm okay with that. 

As an aside, I sometimes think there are others who really do see creativity as a Serious Business Indeed.  For them, I guess, that's fine.  And for those who want or need to make a living from their art, the pressures of having to produce and market and sell probably feel like serious matters.  But some people manage to make the process of creativity and art seem like such a grim, intense, struggle -- or at least a subject of gravity and significance that doesn't seem to leave any room for humor or lightness.  I wonder if it truly is that for them, or if they have some investment in making people THINK it's a grim, intense struggle so their work will seem more valuable?  Or maybe they are just grim, tortured personalities who'd bring that to whatever they pursued?  Who knows.  But it makes me rather sad for them, to be honest, because I think that the core of creativity should have a rather large dollop of joy in it.

Which is not to say that I don't think it's useful to establish some goals and work toward them.  Being responsible and exercising discipline can be important.  Deadlines and externally or internally imposed restrictions can really spur creative thinking and accomplishment.  But if along the way, you are fascinated by a new discovery, I don't think it's necessarily bad or wrong or undisciplined to explore it.  It all comes back to the reason one is doing what one is doing.  If you're making quilts because you're working toward a one-woman show of cohesive art, then maybe you need to buckle down and decide what the parameters of your show will be and then focus on doing the best work you can do.  No problem.  But me, right now?  I'm in this for the journey.  If I decide I want to think about tea and work on tea as inspiration, and somewhere along the way I see something that reminds me of a map thing I want to pursue, FOR ME it's okay to deviate from the tea and go play with maps for a bit.  I know I'll get back to each subject.  AND I believe strongly that everything you learn and do informs what you do thereafter.  (Hah.  Maybe there'll be a tea map somewhere that comes out of this.)

I read the "Why Keeping Your Options Open is a Really, Really Bad Idea" article that Brenda noted in her comment to your post. I agree generally that it's better to make a decision and act on it than it is to waffle along forever, never actually deciding.  It's curious to me that the article is framed in terms of "the science of success" when really what it addresses is the psychological adaptation we do instinctively when we don't have any other choice.  But again, does that enhance creativity?  Or the joy in the creative process?  I'm not sure.  Just as indecision, the failure to commit, and inaction can be inhibiting, to my mind when it comes to creativity and art-making,  rigidity and being closed to new discoveries seem counter-productive as well.

So I guess the trick is to know why you're doing what you're doing, to stay focused and disciplined enough to keep moving on the path (or paths) that allow you keep moving, but to simultaneously stay open and flexible so as not to lose the adventurous joy that can lead to discoveries that enhance your progress?  Pah.  Easy-peasy. :-) 

I remind you that I'm expressing my own philosophy for my own work.  And maybe it explains why I don't have a cohesive body of work on one theme or another.  But I do what I love, and in my view that's the way to be successful.  Twelve by Twelve seems like the ultimate example of how doing something for our own joy and amusement and satisfaction has led to results we'd never have imagined.

Goodness, I did go on, didn't I?  I think I need some spa time now!

Oh, and I can't wait to see the fabric sketches you do based on your very exciting drawings!


1 comment:

Vicki said...

you asked for comments, so since your experience is very similar to mine, I shall. My partner and I have recently had an epiphany regarding creatitivity. We both realised that, for us, making things other people want - commisions etc, actually stifles our process. It makes the journey of creating (which is the part we both love)into a chore. I feel that this was what made me move out of quiltmaking - I was only making things for other people, instead of exploring and creating new things which were pleasing to me.
Now, we make art - and if someone likes it, they buy it. But we don't do commissions any more and the result is we make more and are much more creative.