Sunday, April 16, 2006

Juggling and Judging

I've been immersed in two projects: a memorial urn for a good friend's father; and a jewelry chest for a cancer fundraiser connected with other friends. I deemed the first a success, and the second a near disaster. But self-declared disaster, or not, I delivered the second one, anyway -- to rave reviews. "Guess I don't know my own strength." (Bullwinkle J. Moose)

I remember wandering around the benches at North Bennet Street School, and commenting on all of the beautiful work that I saw in progress. Uniformly, without exception, each craftsperson gravely thanked me and then pointed out the swarm of little flaws that had escaped my notice.

Why do artists and others so frequently dump on their own work? Bob Franke, ( -- a national treasure and greatest songwriter on the planet), references "the existential guilt of the artist" (a phrase I think he attributes to Madeline L'Engel) when talking of this tendency among songwriters. With apologies to Bob, Madeline, and Heidegger, my gloss on the concept is that there is an essential structural limitation to one's authority -- a notion of right or skillful comportment or "being", such that one can never get a clear idea about what right or skillful comportment is. Therefore, one is eternally "wrong". For our artist, this implies that somewhere "out there" exists a grand defining notion of "Art", and the artist is unclear about how well he meets the definition; therefore, he must fall short.

We have an ideal in our heads. We struggle to achieve the ideal, and miss the mark. Therefore, our efforts are a miserable failure.

Heidigger suggests that a sort of salvation can be had if only we take responsibility for our understanding of being -- that which we embody but cannot know. For example, an artist could come to terms with what he believes Art to be, and then act in concert with that belief. In that way, the artist is at least authentic to his own ideals, and recovers some amount of autonomy.

I'll let you in on a little secret. I want to be like this guy, in every thing I do:

So, Heidigger, darling, salvation cannot be achieved in my universe, because I'm all too often trying to measure my efforts against a paradigm that can not be realized.

OK, but on my more productive days, I use a gentler standard. When I declare the first of my projects a success, what I really mean is that the piece I created exactly met my expectations and hopes. The finished piece was delivered on time, met my quality standards, and said exactly what needed saying. I held nothing back. I discovered a few things along the way. The process was healing for my client. The experience enriched my life.

The second project was haunted by expectations. It had no chance of meeting my hopes, because I wanted it to cure cancer. Truly. In my heart of hearts, I felt if I put all the right things into that project, it would somehow heal someone who is probably past healing by any mortal means. Too much for a mere box to achieve. But in the midst of the project, my fingers black with ebony dust, fighting time, and fear, and grief, and artistic angst -- I couldn't see it. When I finally recognized what I was doing, I abandoned the unrealistic hopes instead of the box, and delivered the project anyway. And no one saw that I failed to cure cancer that day. Except me. And now, you.

In "Photographing the World Around You", (a book one should read, if only to appreciate the beautiful writing), Freeman Patterson tells a story about a student who spent all day shooting images in a dead forest, returning "deeply excited, carrying three rolls of exposed film." Patterson describes checking the films in the drying closet, and carefully reviewing the images on a light box -- "ghostly images that powerfully evoked skeletons and a world of the dead -- achieved by means of overexposing the subject matter by two or more shutter speeds". Later, he runs into the student, who claimed that she'd "ruined all the rolls" she shot because she forgot to change the film speed on her camera. When he asked where the films were, she said she'd thrown them in the trash. A horrified Patterson rescued as many slides as he could, then showed them (without comment or attribution) to the rest of the class -- to rave reviews. He finishes by admonishing the reader, thusly:

Don't evaluate the pictures you thought you made; evaluate the ones you actually made.
Evaluation has at least three parts. First, we need to acknowledge the discrepencies, if any, between our intial vision and the finished work. Ok, grieve, grump or celebrate, then move on.

Time to abandon that vision, and look with fresh eyes at what we actually made. To do this, you may need to distance yourself from the work for a while so that you can see it clearly. Put it someplace safe. At this stage, it is best to give a wide berth to fireplaces, trash cans, and sledge hammers. Okay, take a breath and look at it. Can you own it? Does it fit inside what you believe quality work to be? Does it say something [else] to you? Where does it irritate you? Must you tinker with it? (Try not to. ) Where does it surprise you? If someone else made this, what would you think? Aren't you a little bit curious about what someone else might discover when they experience it?

If you can own it, release it. Something happens when we foist our work on the real world -- whether we are satisfied with that work or not. Others view it, interact with it, bring their stories and their symbols in to play with it. Time, light, color, sound will weave themselves into it. And unless you anticipated these variables in the original work (as juggler Chris Bliss must have done for his juggling to be so effective), your intended meaning will be altered, muted or amplified. Some of these alterations will surprise, peeve, vex, or amuse you. Some will resonate, and you'll find yourself thinking, "yes, that was floating around underneath my conscious intent, but it was there". And sometimes you will be right -- the thing is dreadful or, worse, inconsequential. But until you release it, you won't know.

If there is a fourth step, it has to do with time and synchronicity. You may not be there when it happens, but often a finished work of art can evolve.

On one of my installations, a goldleaf flock of fat little birds spirals up a stairwell. On winter mornings, sunlight filters through the chandelier crystals, and splatters rainbows on the walls. It looks as if the birds are hopping over rainbows, or leaving rainbow skid marks everywhere. I'd like to say I knew that that would happen. The truth, though, is that prior to the completion of the installation, I had never seen the sun hit that chandelier, and I was sad that it rarely captured any light. I noticed sunlight dappling the walls directly, and I had thought about playing with these lights and shadows, but it became one of those ideas on the cutting room floor.

Anyway, I first saw the rainbows on a day when I was frazzled and down. And I laughed out loud, ran for my camera, called my husband, and just enjoyed the moment in every way I could.

Ok, so it didn't cure cancer, but it cured what ailed me. Is it art? It meets my definition of art: it moves me from position i to position x everytime I see it. That is all I ask of Art. I want it to take us from where we are, and move us -- even a little bit -- to a new view point.

Struggle to say what you mean to say. Then step back, and learn whether or not you said it. That can't happen if you keep chattering on about how awful the work is. Shut up. Listen. Let the art begin.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Here I am, doing just that.

Perhaps to you it appears that I am on task. After all, I'm writing, which is a hard thing for writers to sit down and do. However, I'm supposed to be working on a box due to be delivered on Tuesday. I blew a big hole in an important piece yesterday, and I'm, frankly, terrified to screw up my last piece of that precious wood by making the same mistake. So... I find it easier to do positively anything than take that risk at this moment. In fact, just this morning I've shopped for groceries, cleaned the studio bathroom, tossed out some old files, reorganized my kitchen cabinet and slurped two cups of coffee. Slowly.

I slogged my way to a point where I could face a small part of my true task, and Googled to find a local supplier for a new dovetail bit to replace the one I annihilated yesterday. A procrastinator's dream, Google handed me off to the David Savage's website where I got lost fantasizing about studying with him for a year, and I was gently reminded to get working.

Sharpen three pencils, make one cup of coffee then start, anything but make a start. Once you've started keep it rolling. Now you remember my little girl, you're engaged in that fundamental creative process which is called play. Enjoy it. Have some fun. Get a smile on your face. You can't make joyous furniture if you're feeling miserable. Nobody wants to see your miserable furniture. If you have a particular problem just doodle your way round it. Let the brain run sideways. Make lots and lots and lots and lots of little drawings. It really doesn't matter if what you do is a load of rhubarb. In fact the more rhubarb that you can include at this stage the better, for within that rhubarb there might be something quite exciting. Don't be too critical, don't stop yourself, don't let the fear and the anxiety stop you. David Savage
So, I decided to capture this morsel, and then I'll get back to work. Really. And I'll tell you how, so maybe you can get back to work, too.

Procrastination is not a character flaw. It is a technique -- an avoidance technique employed underhandedly by the our dear brains to dance us gently past the graveyard of our denied emotions. Stop and feel. Ask yourself: "Am I angry? afraid? hurt? confused? sad?" Because, truly, procrastination is there to help you avoid exactly that question and you won't get back to work until you find your answer.

I'm actually most of those, today.

I'm angry. I defied common sense and used a chipped router bit, when I know better. I used a machine-cut joint when I wanted to use a hand-cut joint, because I thought the machine would increase the probability that I would stay on schedule. Wrong. I'm now angry that I am likely to blow the schedule AND sacrifice my original vision with no gain.

I'm afraid. I put myself at some potential physical risk. (The bit slipped, and destroyed my work. It could have destroyed me.) I think I know why that happened, but I'm not certain, and I'm a little afraid to try again. I'm not hurt, but I might have been, and my adrenaline flows freely.

I'm confused. I worked through the physics of the problem yesterday, and I'm 88% sure that I know what happened and why. But, now with the schedule likely blown, do I drive two hours to buy another bit? do I cut the joint by hand? do I wait until my (previously ordered) new bits arrive on Wednesday? How do I handle the problem?

I'm sad. I loved that piece of wood. I'm emotionally invested in my now endangered deadline. I wanted to play with the lid & the marquetry today. I wanted to be relaxed about working through the final stages. I don't want to call and say I'll be late. I don't want to make more mistakes by rushing.

See -- a lot is actually going on underneath what appears to be procrastination. And, until I can let go of the anger, responsibly address my fear, and "get a smile on my face" I won't be able to continue. The rest is problemsolving.

Therein, for me, lies the key to recovering my joy. I need to find some small part of the problem that I can solve. Small. Really, really, small. So small that it moves me in the direction of the task without touching directly on the pain. Clean up the saw dust I left on the floor. Find a new bit. Work out a time schedule. Practice a few handcut dovetails in some scraps of that wood. Sample finishes for the final piece. Typically, I will soon find myself sneaking up on the task I was avoiding, and tackling it.

When even these small measures fail, I give my brain some time to "run sideways". The small brain is working on something in the background, and an answer will pop out if I'm gentle. I feed it with information, then I do something off task, joyful, or mindless. I sharpen tools, go ice skating, practice writing with my left hand (try it!), photograph something, write, or take out my sketch book. Perhaps I'll doodle out a way to artistically salvage the work I've done & save my schedule. (Oh, is that what I'm working out?!)

And here I am, doing just that.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Strange Attractors and Artistic Process

ApXos is easier to type than Applied Chaos -- which is both my company's name, and my state of being. I chose that name for my company ten years ago -- before I had a company. Reading an article about chaos theory applied to the study of electrical impulses across the heart, I put those words together and thought they perfectly described my approach to creating stuff.

In math & physics, chaos theory attempts to model the behavior of systems that appear to be random. Successful models of these systems actually prove to be deterministic (well defined, with no random parameters), and the "chaotic" behavior actually derives from sensitivity to initial conditions, that is, a small change in conditions at the start of the model may prove to have dramatic variations in the direction or outcome of the model. So, even systems we perceive to be chaotic prove to be orderly after a fashion, once we truly understand the model.

While theorists focus on modelling the weather or financial systems or population movements, I've been applying the concept to the artistic process. Truly, from the outside this appears to be a chaotic system. We know that presented with the same opportunity, no two people will draw, sculpt, paint, design, or problem-solve in exactly the same way. Is this symptomatic of a sensitivity to initial conditions? I've been exploring this possibility as an artist, and not as a mathemetician, however, and so you probably won't find many interesting mathematical models popping out of my work here.

What may emerge though, is insight into chaotic processes that surround almost any creative or entreprenurial endeavor. Some we have labelled with angry words like: procrastination, resistance, blocks, laziness, attention deficit. We observe erratic behavior among "creatives" -- engineers who leave their desks to play ping pong during a crisis, woodworkers who waste time sweeping the floor just prior to making mountains of sawdust, writers who suddenly take up ice skating two weeks before deadline, and make the deadline by pulling all-nighters.

I've found that these are actually symptoms of the creative process in action. I've observed these and other symptoms at work in the many different kinds of creative teams I've led or been a member of. The most effective teams and individuals are those who have learned to treat these symptoms as friends. The most troubled are those who internalize the negative words, and denigrate themselves, their work, or their vision and give up before they reach their goals.

It is my hope that sharing my insights (and the insights of others that have helped me) will guide us to the "strange attractors" of the art world -- the beautiful and mysterious patterns of creativity.