So here I am facing a usual problem. It’s morning. I’ve been up since 6 am but I had dogs to care for, e-mail and social media messages to respond to, a lesson to plan and of course, I had to get ready. Now I have maybe two hours ahead before I have to head off to work at noon to run an art technique practice session for a group of ten participants, for which I continue planning as I write. My studio is downstairs, waiting for me to start working on a new series of clay sculptures. Trouble is, when I start making even the most simple, I’ll need more than two hours.
I suppose there are artists who can deal with four or five different responsibilities without losing the rhythm and energy needed for their art-making work. They can return to their studios after teaching or doing office or lab work and just pick up where they last left off, no re-entry, no decompressing or debriefing necessary. I just don’t know any. I have to re-connect with myself as an artist after I’ve been a teacher, a curator, or anything else requiring my non-artist attention. Just about all the artists I know have to as well.
The re-entry methods are varied among artists, but they are usually ritualistic. Head full of images and energy fired up to deal with the demands of life outside the studio, artists need a way back into their ideas. In my case, I have to find ways to calm my over-other-stuff-stimulated brain, to re-direct my nervous energy, to quiet the movie-worthy special effects of immediate memory and to refocus on being an image-maker. Quiet is essential for this.
When I’m finally in my studio, a Zen-style meditative period involves not stillness but movement: I have to re-connect with my studio. For me, it is a place, but it is also a kind of entity, a presence much like water is when one is swims in the ocean or a mountain is when one climbs up to sit atop it, or like music is when one dances. I enter my studio and my first act is a kind of Walkabout, simply appreciating the fact of the space. My next turn is to make sure it is clean, aired out, well lit and that materials and equipment are where they need to be.
Invariably, my next contact is with my tools. Taking them up is like returning to old friends. I touch them one by one - how I especially love the feel of wood on my fingers! - even as I call to mind the gestures they allow me to make by extending my reach or by enhancing the sensitivity, dexterity or strength of my fingers. It’s reassuring to know they are ready to get to work.
Maybe next I’ll go through my sketches and plans. In between series of images there is always a choice to be made. Despite being engaged in other activities. I will often be moved by an idea I have to record or lose. Over time, a collection of these amasses, each waiting for its turn at life. If I’ve not come into the studio with a specific one in mind, a review of my sketches allows me to remember what inspired them and what I intended for them. Choosing one idea to follow is both difficult and exciting because even the best planned has a way of mutating as it evolves.
Next I touch the clay. Having moved into this new studio not so long ago, I’m not equipped anymore to mix my own recipe, so I purchase it in boxes containing two twenty-five pound blocks of it kept moist in plastic. It needs care. The kneading process, called wedging, is both physical warm-up for me and a way to strengthen the clay. There is sensual pleasure in the feel of it, an excitement at the possibilities its malleability suggests. This is true despite the fact that it is extremely difficult to wedge since I broke my wrist and it didn’t get reset properly (the dangers of stepping out of the studio onto the ice coating my world). Oh well. Pain is now just another intimate part of the creation process.
As I prepare the clay, my focus is on visualizing how I will transform this amorphous mass into a variation of the image I’ve imagined or sketched. There is a plot to that story, a setting, a variety of characters in minor roles, transformation, conflict and climax of the action and finally either a heroic or tragic ending. I will successfully support the clay through its many stages from dough to rock-hard sculpture, from a shapeless mass to a work of art, or it will collapse halfway or blow up when i put it in the kiln for its first firing. Call me a romantic, but luckily, I’m not very good at creating tragedies.
The trick to all this is to have the time to go from re-connecting with the idea, the material the gestures and the tools to finishing the work. That takes a lot longer than two hours.