Posted by Jennifer Roberts
Perspective, both before you start a piece and after it is finished, is critical for an artist. Being in the right frame of mind can be the difference between a masterwork and the scrap pile. Similarly, having the ability to analyze your work to see where you have grown, what you did well, and what needs to be refined is key to growth. But, whether it is due to lack of resources or your own preconceived notions, real perspective can be elusive.
In Part One, below, we’ll talk about how you can change your approach to find new creative territory. Next month, in Part Two, we’ll talk about ways to really “see” your finished piece and learn from it.
Getting Started Is the Hardest Part
I often hear artists, from beginning students to accomplished artists, bemoan the fact their pieces didn’t turn out like the visions in their heads. Or they stare at the blank canvas or brand new lump of clay, paralyzed by the fact that they don’t have a fully realized vision of the final piece in mind before they so much as touch a tool. In short, artists forget how to play.
Teachers talk about playing a lot, but I don’t think students always know what teachers mean by it. Worse yet, for a student who doesn’t yet have the technical skills to feel comfortable in a medium, being told to “play” can be downright intimidating. For me, the notion of playing means two things: the willingness to mess around with your method and the courage to go wherever it takes you.
The first part, the messing with your method, can almost seem academic or contrived. Your goal is to knock yourself out of your usual patterns, so you think about the steps in your process or the elements of your work and make calculated decisions to change them. For example, you may give yourself a challenge that pushes you out of your comfort zone. Try making something with the ugliest stone you can find, make something that incorporates something bizarre like a pencil eraser, or commit to creating on a schedule. The Ring A Week group is an excellent example of this sort of challenge.
Ask yourself “what if” questions. What if I stretch this waaaaaay out, throw it in the air, wind it around my finger, slice it, dice it, roll it, or flatten it? What if I save all my little scrap cuttings for a week and make pieces with only those parts? What if I make everything very tiny today? A wonderful example of this method is a version of Justin Bieber's song "U Smile” that earned over 1 million hits on YouTube this past August – a version of the song slowed down by more than 800 times its original speed. What began as a relatively dry idea – what happens when we slow popular songs waaaaay down – had stunning results. While it is possible the person who created that version of the song had that result in mind from the outset, I doubt that the full impact of the manipulation - a cosmic, ethereal piece of sound – was expected.
Look outside your medium to see how other artists change things around. Look to dance. Merce Cunningham made some of the greatest dances of the 20th century using chance. He created movement that trained dancers would not normally explore by following the combination and order of movements that essentially came out of a hat. He was also revolutionary in that he and his partner, John Cage, created dances and the scores for those dances independently. Unlike most dancers who practice with a score for months, Cunningham's dancers often heard the score for the first time on stage in performance. Or look to the literary. For whatever reason that I’m not sure people fully understand, e e cummings shunned capital letters and punctuation in his poetry. Think about methods used in other visual art forms. Many portrait artists start from photos hung upside down because that makes it easier to draw what their eyes actually see instead of what their minds expect to see.
Metal clay artists can take these ideas and translate them to their own work. Write down all of the metals, kinds of jewelry, embellishments, patinas, and themes you have at your disposal and then let chance determine the combination. Follow the lead of Cunningham and Cage and create elements of pieces independently and find new ways to combine them. Decide to leave out what seems to be an essential element of a design and see where it takes you. The great thing about metal clay is that the upshot is new creative territory, while your worst case is reconstituting or recycling.
But what about the second part of it – the courage to go with the flow? That one can be tough, especially when you are in a classroom setting or when you have a deadline looming. For me, keeping my eye on the big picture helps. If I “fail” with a particular piece, that doesn’t negate what I learned from the process. In fact, sometimes “failure” can be more instructive than success. When successful business owners are polled, most report at least one failed business attempt. Likewise, I suspect that there is not a single expert metal clay artisan around who hasn’t experienced a colossal failure of both form and function. It can be easy to say, but tough to do: you’ve just got to cut yourself some slack and allow yourself to take some risks to take it to the next level.