One of the great joys of spending time with other artists, and especially visiting their studios and work spaces, is seeing the underpinnings of the artistic process. Studio spaces are a kind of aesthetic experience — whether obsessively tidy or utterly chaotic, each bears an unmistakable residue of the creative process taking place within its walls. One of the most valuable things that I have learned from visiting studios is that there is no one right way to make art — artists employ radically different approaches to their work.

One of my former students follows a process that is nearly the exact opposite of my own. He could plan out a finished project in his head. Eschewing both sketches and models, he would leap straight into the full-scale sculpture or mosaic, knowing exactly what he wanted it to be when finished. As a teacher, this process drove me crazy; it’s nearly impossible to give feedback based only on a verbal description of a project, but he couldn’t change anything once he had started on the full-scale work. And although there were times when he wound up re-making a piece completely, I’m not sure that cost him any more time than he would have spent creating a whole string of sketches, macquettes, and small-scale models leading up to each piece. As much as it baffled me, I had to admit that this process seemed to work for him.

By contrast, my own work absolutely thrives in a constant state of flux. My learning process begins with the first spark of intuition, and continues well past the close of the exhibit; it’s not uncommon for me to make significant changes to a work before showing it again in a different venue. When I start on a new project, I have no idea where the ideas and materials will take me. Sometimes I have started with a physical form in mind — wouldn’t it be beautiful if I hung a bunch of bowls from the ceiling with really shiny white thread? — and have been able to develop that into a conceptual statement. Other times I have started out with an idea — I want to make an object that explores Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of human interdependency — and have worked to create a form that embodies that concept.

Authors sometimes talk about developing a strong character, and then allowing that character to decide where the story will go. I follow a similar path when working in my studio, entering into a kind of dialogue with the form and medium of my work to discover what it wants to become. Indeed, I am almost obsessive in my quest to relinquish control — to actively invite chaos and chance and serendipity into the creative process, so that the end result will not be caged by the limits of my own imagination. One thing that first attracted me to ceramics, and particularly to pit- and saggar- fired ceramics, is the absolute unpredictability of the process. Digging a newly-fired pot out of the cold ashes is like opening a gift from the Divine; the result is always beyond what I could have imagined or designed on my own. Although I most often work in solitude, I am collaborating with the whole of the universe.

It has taken me a number of years to identify what is particular to my own process –and observing other artists in their studios has given me some of the most valuable insights into my own approach to art-making. I would love to hear what is unique or important to your creative process, as well, and what experiences have helped you to identify and define that process.


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About Sarah Jane

Working artist, university professor, community educator. Currently living in community at the Grunewald Guild, Leavenworth, WA.

3 responses to “Process”

  1. Charlie Thomason says :

    I love your new blog! It’s so funny that you mention the story about your former student, since this was precisely the habit Ross had to break me from. I came to college feeling extremely comfortable with simple drawing tools—charcoal, pencil, etc.—and was very sure of the themes and styles that worked best for me. One day, Ross came to me and said, “Here’s a bottle of ink. I’d like you to only use this and a brush for the rest of today.” By the end of the semester, I had moved from very safe pencil drawings, to a sopping mess of splattering ink. The same thing happened 2 years later with my photography—all my work involved these hyper-melodramatic sets with lots of artificial lighting and strictly human subject matter. So for my final project, I did a whole collection of very raw landscapes. So, what did I learn? Never be too confident or stubborn with your creative process. It’s also helpful to have that one friend who will tell you when your latest work is just no good.

    Looking forward to future posts!

  2. Sarah Jane says :

    Thanks, Charlie! It made me happy to see that you’re the very first commenter. 😉

    What a great story about Ross and the ink bottle! He always had such a knack for knowing what each student needed — I had no idea how difficult that was until I spent some time in the classroom myself! Within one class, there are students who need almost pure encouragement, and others who need almost pure challenge. And of course it’s never static; what worked 6 months ago may be completely different from what’s going to work today. It’s definitely one of the more challenging (but fun!) aspects of teaching.

    With regards to the one friend who will tell you when your work sucks… well, you might just have inspired an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

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