When I was a youngster, I was just like all kids seem to be. I was energetic and impatient. When I was supposed to do a “project” I’d rush through it as fast as possible. I’d then gather up my “creation” and toddle off in search of praise despite the dripping glue and paint.
Even in college I was still working fast because in this American culture of ours; fast is rewarded. In my work in film & theatre, there were time crunches and budgets to maintain. The mentality was for high quantity, and the quality just needed to be “good enough” for the job at hand. My creative work was always pressed by either a budget, a deadline or both. It’s no wonder students of the creative arts are always asking the “old pros”, “So, where do you get your ideas?” The pressure to produce continuously is enormous. But alas, I digress.
Years later when I was in theatre leadership, I was the Production Designer for the company and its primary builder as well. I took my time on the designs because I had to enhance the context of the story. A good set does that, but our low-skill novices needed to be able to assemble it quickly. So there’s the dichotomy; meaningful beauty in a matter of a few hours of intense construction.
In these current years of not working for others, not working in a production context, I’ve slowed down a great deal. I’ve gradually moved from impatiently wanting to see the thing done, to actually savoring each and every stroke of brush, pen, or pencil. It’s been a wonderfully long journey that takes further steps every day.
The majority of this shift has been a movement away from a paradigm of quantity over quality, to the reverse; quality over quantity. I savor quality (or qualities) over quantity any day. I’m no longer a tin can being kicked along the road by the driving forces of production. For me quantity is so meaningless that I simply won’t tolerate it in myself.
As recently as this year, I’ve even stopped making quantities of Coptic-bound journals; why? because in the end it’s nothing more than a pile of product about which I have little care. What enjoyment did I get from that experience? Well, I enjoyed the collection and processing of upcycled papers and paste-board. I enjoyed ironing the paper and cutting it into sheets, and then folding them into signatures. I enjoyed the design elements I’d use on the covers; covering the boards and folding each corner with a binder’s fold. In short, I loved the process. But in the end, I was left with a pile of journals that I liked, but very few people wanted (or would buy). It was pleasant, repetitious, and productive. And while I’ve ceased making them for sale I still make all of my own journals and sketchbooks for personal use mostly. I don’t buy journals or sketchbooks anymore.
Instead, I make art books – that is books as objects of art. These are one of a kind, filled with meaning, and certainly not repetitious. With these “books”, anything goes, and I’m no longer making them for others. There’s no pressure to “produce” quantities of “product”. Each is filled with meaning and story.
The beautiful collage quilt blocks I used to make were also product. I began making single blocks, having researched thousands of quilt block patterns, and while each was unique, it soon became a production line effort.
It wasn’t until I began reincorporating story into my work that a far deeper satisfaction emerged. It’s what I was creatively hungry for but had so quickly forgotten. As a faith-driven artist, I just couldn’t see much of my relationship with God in the quiltblocks. I’m not knocking quilts or quilters, I love both. I’m simply saying that quilts just aren’t my medium, whether made in paper on masonite or in fabric. What I am knocking is my own impatience, and lack of savoring each moment of making. I was rushing to get the thing done and missing the point along the way.
How is it that I allowed myself to be pushed and shoved into a production mindset? What is it that I temporarily let go of? What did I forget about myself, who I am, why I make art, and for Whom?
I’ve had to relearn why I got into this “art-thing” in the first place. I’ve had to return to the foundations of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. That’s why I remembered that I’m into story – I’m a storyteller and that is the kind of art I need to be making. I needed to quit listening to the “good advice” of well meaning others, and remember who and what I am before my Lord God.
I’m drawn to art that contains story. At minimum the work must contain some evidence of human beings. I don’t care if it’s a paring knife on a plate with a half-eaten apple, there’s a story in it. Someone’s been there. This development of story in my work has caused a dramatic slowing in my making. I “listen” more to the materials, to the piece being made, and to God’s insights in the making. I’ve come to the point of savoring every brush and pencil stroke; every knife cut and trim; every architectural element to be included in the work. I’m even savoring the mental planning process of thinking through how it’s going to be assembled; something of an old friend from my scenic design and stage directing days.
For me process, the acts of making, of thinking about making, of considering the meaning of what’s being made all merge into a kind of meditation or at least a contemplation. That’s the major reason I’ve slowed so much, and savor each moment of process so much more. I don’t want to miss anything, not a “flavor”, or a “smell”, or the whisper of insight God’s Spirit might share with me.
To my mind art, like faith in God, is not an intellectual/mental “thing”. Making, the process of making, is intimate, dynamic, deeply personal, uncertain, “messy”, but oh so precious. God and I commune in process. I worship Him in process. Sometimes I even feel a bit like John the Revelator who, being taken away in the Spirit, was shown things, deep things, and told to share what he’d experience with the world. It’s a privilege, a celebration, a joy.
It’s all in the process.