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.
“People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek
Joey O’Connor of The Grove Center for the Arts & Media, posted a TEDx talk by Simon Sinek about “Why.” While Simek’s brief 18-minute talk focuses on inspirational leadership and what I call, invitational marketing, the power of “Why” resonates with the faith I love by, the art I make, and their convergence wherein I dwell.
Before reading on, please watch the Sinek talk because nothing I say from this point will make much sense without it. Thank you.
Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, I want to share with you what I saw in this idea of “Why.” As I said, for me it had absolutely nothing to do with inspirational leadership or invitational marketing, but everything to do with faith, with art, and with Faith&Art.
Here in America, we seem to treat our church-life as if it were a job, and our churches as if they’re businesses. We seem to need to develop programs which, like modern corporate marketing, will “bring ’em in!” If however our churches taught and lived by discipleship; if they taught us how to find and develop our own “why-story,” I really believe that the Christian faith in America would be growing by leaps and bounds.
To my mind, it’s virtually impossible to invite someone to the foot of the Cross by explaining a boatload of facts, figures, rules & laws, and scripture. The walk to the foot of the Cross is not a head trip, but a heart trip. As I see it, we each need to know our own “why-story” really well. We need to be able to share it when it’s asked for; “Always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you.”~1Peter 3:15. And maybe we need to learn how to gently help others find their own “Why” when they’re seeking Him.
Recently, arts advocate, Christy Tennant Krispin mounted a showing of the Krispin’s private collection of art. Entitled Close to Home, Christy gave a brief talk about why they had chosen each piece of art. It was about relationship; their relationship with the artist, with the artwork, and the artist’s relationship with the work. Christy didn’t wonder if a certain piece would go well with her draperies. She was buying someone’s story; their “why”.
I have heard a very few sage counselors say that we artists need to know, deeply, our own story and be able to articulate it. When people buy our art they’re buying a chapter of our lives, or at least a page. If we’re ready to share what’s behind our creative journey, we can connect with those who wish to make some of our work a part of their own lives.
Faith & Art
In these earliest of years of my journey into the convergence of faith and art, I find that my “Why” drives it all. In the realm of “Why,” I return to John 3:16 ~ For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. The “Why” is about a) relationship and b) about bringing Him glory; about pointing to the foot of the Cross, and about becoming fully human (About You/Dick Staub). My own journey toward becoming fully human happens in the worship, the praise, and the wrestling of making art in service to the King, the Lord, my God.
The late Madeleine L’Engle got it so very right when she wrote; “To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing, and it means attempting to share the meaning of my life, what gives it, for me, its tragedy and its glory.” Walking on Water, pg 16 / L’Engle.
I hope you know your “Why.” Mine’s at the heart of the creative journey.
I know I’ve said it before, but I’m going to say it again, I really love our bi-weekly artist’s gatherings with Seattle Art & Coffee. Friend and Arts Advocate Christy Tennant Krispin recently opened an art show of works from the Krispin Collection, the works that Christy and her husband Karl have in their private collection. At the opening event at Dubsea Coffee near West Seattle, she gave a talk about some of the how’s and why’s of their choices. It was wonderful.
We were so interested in this insightful relationship between collector and artist that we asked her to facilitate a discussion at one of our gatherings on the same subject. So off we all went early on a rainy, cold Friday morning to sit together and talk about their collection and the promptings which drew them to the works they’ve chosen.
Our Creative Stories
All throughout both occasions the idea of relationship and story kept showing up. Christy talked about her relationship with an artist and the story behind her finding that artist or that piece of work. She talked about their relationship with a given piece of art, how it speaks to them and why it’s now a part of their lives. A singular message rang out loud and clear; develop relationships with buyers and collectors by telling our story.
Each one of us, as artists, has a story. In fact we have many stories, as many as the works of art we create because as Gregory Wolfe says, “Faith and imagination reach out to explore the mysteries of heaven and earth and then return to the community with the symbols and stories that help us know who we are.” pg 60 / Beauty Will Save the World/ Gregory Wolfe. New stories are created with each journey into the making of a work of art.
To my mind, these are stories on three levels, 1 – the story of the artist’s own journey; 2 – the story which lead the buyer/collector to the work; 3 – the story found in the work itself. What I got from these discussions is a powerful reminder that my art, my life, and my relationships with others (buyers or not) centers around how well and often I tell my story.
Christy’s collection of artworks centers entirely around story, those of the artist, those of her journey to discovery and collecting the artworks, and the story the piece of art holds for she and her husband in their home.
Telling Our Story Well & Often
My “take-away”; tell my story often. Tell it clearly, and tell it to anyone who’s interested. Telling my story, my personal story, or how I came to make a work, or what I see in a finished piece of my work, all add up to building a relationship with anyone willing to encounter my work.
I’ve written about this before, that the one constant in my work is story. How often and how easily I forget that my relationship with people interested in my work is forged in a willingness to tell my story. By telling my story I attract those who are engaged, open, and interested in the work. It’s an invitation, not a seduction (selling/pushing).
COMMENTS: I’d love to hear from you!
What has been your experience, as either buyer/collector or artist, with this relationship?
Do you know your own creative story and can you share it well?
What experiences do you have in making a work; what’s the story there?