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.