On Technique And Toilets

Sometimes it takes a bit of controversy, or reasonable facsimile thereof, to make domestic chores attractive by comparison. So I cleaned the toilet this morning. That gave me time to think about some things I read online this week.

Interesting questions were raised. Thoughtful discussion resulted. I’m not going to rehash it here. I’ll just say this.

As I see it, fluency with techniques and materials may not be a guaranteed route to the artistic expression of ideas. But the struggle to achieve a desired effect when you’re not fluent can be like trying to write poetry in a foreign language. For a lot of fiber artists, technique is the vocabulary with which we achieve expression of the ideas that drive our work. Having a rich and diverse vocabulary allows an artist to choose how best to express themselves.

What bothers me about some of the commentary is this: It gives the impression that, to be taken seriously as an artist, you don’t talk about technique. Let me be clear: I think that’s the impression. The intention of the commenters, I suspect, was closer to expressing a desire for deeper, more critical discussions about concept and design. And I’m all for that.

I’m less engaged by the subtext, intentional or not, that implies a them-or-us divide over the question. It does sort of sound like those who’ve worked hard and paid their dues now want the club to become more exclusive and not just more thoughtful. Perhaps I’ve read it wrong, but I can see how people (of any age) who are still developing their craft and their voice might feel disrespected.

So I want to encourage anyone who’s feeling that way to go clean the toilet. Then get back to making whatever it is you make and reflecting on whatever it is you want it to say. This is not a new conversation, and it’s not the last time you’ll hear it. And that’s a good thing, because you’re going to need to clean that toilet again soon.

As for me, I’m studying some millinery techniques now because I’m interested in how they can be applied to vessel construction. All this serious discussion compels me to leave you with a photograph of Canadian silent film star Marie Dressler.

Marie Dressler in lampshade hat, 1909
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The Big Picture

Today was my weekly critique session on the work I’m doing for an upcoming show. There’s one piece I didn’t have to critique. I loved the concept, and had it all basted together. But something just wasn’t working. I thought if I cropped it a bit at the top… Or a bit at the bottom… Or gave it a more organic edge…Or turned it on its side… Or pinned it into a 3-dimensional form… Or took off a little more at the top…

All that’s left is a few scraps that will go into my Black Hole (I’ll tell you about that some other time). I knew when I started hacking away that I might end up here, and it would be OK. Actually, it’s a relief. Once I got this idea out of my system, I sat down and thought about I was really trying to say with this piece. Now I have a different concept in mind that tells the same story but from a different approach. And I slept like a baby last night.

I think the problem I was having is pretty common: Take something you think is really important and want everyone else to think is important, and try to tell it in one grand sweeping gesture. Hmm. I know better, but once again I managed to miss the forest for the trees. Thank goodness I have scissors and attitude aplenty.

I am clear as a bell on what the big picture is for this body of work. No, it didn’t come to me in a vision one sleepless night. I’ve been working it out as I go, paying attention and looking for connections.

Turns out, I’ve been taking advantage of one of the benefits of middle age, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.

Picture me as Kathy Bates in that parking lot in Fried Green Tomatoes. Those Fiskars? That’s my insurance.

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Editing Reality

Daniel Pink just pointed to an article from Wired magazine called Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer. 

(T)he real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake .. is rooted in the way the human brain works… we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

When you read it, replace “science” with “fiber art.” Sometimes we approach our work with assumptions that have us editing out possibilities before they’re even considered. Now that’s a tragedy. Just something to think about during your next critique.

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7 Steps To Doable

A while back I agreed to do something that’s been making me a little crazy. Yesterday I worked through a 5-step plan to help me curb some of the irrational fears taking up space in my head. Then before I headed to the studio, I spent a few minutes thinking about a doable plan for meeting this goal. For a listmaker like me, you’d think that would take more than a few minutes, right? But it’s really just seven simple steps.

  1. State The Goal. Putting it in writing makes you more likely to frame it in terms that are realistic and attainable.
  2. Define Success. You get to choose how you define success. The only rule is, your definition must be based on terms that are reasonably within your control. Set A Budget. This may be stated in terms of time or materials rather than money. You have limited resources. What are they?
  3. Channel Perfectionist Tendencies. Even if perfectionism isn’t your curse most of the time, certain situations can raise this specter in any artist. If you can’t fix it, feature it. Pick one small thing you can make perfect, and allow yourself a reasonable amount of time to make it so.
  4. Schedule Critiques. Allow a healthy amount of evaluation as you work, but defer criticism to scheduled times. Don’t let it pull your focus away from the your work the rest of the time.
  5. Make A Simple Master Plan. Make an outline that can be revised quickly as needed. Perfectionists tend to make detailed lists to allay the fear that something important might fall through the cracks. But when we make the plan too complicated, it’s actually easier to overlook those important elements. KISS.
  6. Negotiate Changes. You can’t have everything, and changes are going to cost you. If it’s worth it, fine. But decide what you’ll give up in return.

Tomorrow, I’ll share my own personal productivity plan for this project. I might have to cheat a little bit, but hey, they’re my rules so I can break them.

In the meantime, what works for you? Hit the comment button to share.

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