Remember this image from my limited edition of artist books titled, “In Search of Lost Time”? I don’t think my time was so much lost as it just got away from my control.
Several years ago I wrote a small essay on my journey into art. I found that bit of writing in hopes of getting back into the passion I used to have for the making, the expressing of ideas in a visual form. So because I have so little else to say right now, I am going to put that bit of writing here in the blog. It might be long but there will be pictures along the way. And maybe, just maybe, once I see it here, I will inspire myself to get busy and get back to things started and waiting.
Journeys in Art
“Is this ART?” I ask while holding out a just-finished piece to our instructor.
She had spent the last several days sharing her views on art while teaching a class in crochet techniques to a room full of weavers. After finishing all the assigned samples in class, I would continue to work on my project of a reed-woven rectangular basket topped by a lid covered with the crochet techniques I was learning now; forming an entire plate of salad. I was calling it a “lunch box” because somewhere in the manipulation of materials and hook, I became totally involved with really pushing the idea….carrot slices over spinach and romaine lettuce leaves, purple onion rings tucked in here and there, tomato wedges, wheat crackers and a lone scallion complete with roots gently lying across one side of the basket lid “plate”. This lid would flip back on its hinges to reveal space for sandwiches, beverage and a container of salad resembling what was on the lid.
I thought it was clever…..I thought it might also be edging ever so slightly toward “art”. So I asked the question to the only one in the room who I thought would know….the one who had been answering all our questions. Her response was slow, deliberate and negative. What I had was not art….would not be exhibited in a gallery setting, displayed on a pedestal with an artist statement on the nearby wall. Not this time and not without the necessary time, thought and passion required.
For me that was the beginning.
Whenever I thought I had something that seemed good enough, it was entered in a juried exhibition. I wanted a response, a clue in the juror’s comments that would help me get closer to making art.
”If this piece is supposed to be ceremonial, it failed to take me there” and “an interesting use of materials” come to mind. “It simply did not fit the show” was a common response from jurors. And after the initial disappointment this last comment was quite helpful when viewing the exhibition to learn why my work was not included. More often than not I was grateful for the juror’s insight.
But the positive responses were very gratifying. “You have managed to fit a bit of our unfolding history onto a form I can hold in my hands.”, and “A perfection of technical skill is of no consequence here as the artist has by-passed all to convey the immediacy of her political response to an atrocity of war.” It soon became apparent that passion on the part of the maker was a key ingredient to making art. And yet passion in the company of mediocre skills and little formal education was not enough….sooner or later I would have to become more articulate and accountable for the work that spoke clearly of the things I cared about. I was not simply a maker of things giving workshops but an artist fixing ideas that mattered into forms and statements that very likely required more learning.
There was so much I did not know. My questions began with “why” and not “how” at this point in my career. My interest in whether or not to pursue basketry became clear when a friend said without hesitation, “Sandy, you never did make a good basket.” And she was right……but I did know the steps in showing someone else how they could, and took advantage of the growing need for instructors in the field.
(The one above was among the first baskets I ever made. I was even enrolled in classes and expected to follow the instructions….and I made THIS. I still have it. It is still a sorry basket.)
Still pursuing my own ideas I questioned whether the materials of basketry could be used to express something more than their intended purpose. Could those reeds and vines talk more about containment of space and less about function? Had it been done before and by whom? Where and how could I find my own voice? The critical responses I was seeking could not come from those in my classes. They were there for other reasons and on their own journeys. Nor could it come from fellow workshop instructors who were concerned with marketing their work and building a reputation in the field of fiber arts. I needed to look elsewhere…away from the expectations that are so immersed in craft.
I deliberately pulled away from technique classes and spent more time in “personal expression” workshops. These classes required more thinking, more writing, more discovery, more making of marks and less making of objects…all designed to help locate our own voice and question where we wanted our work to go.
Several of my questions would be answered by the most generous instructor/mentor I ever knew. After getting to know us through various workshops, she selected ten of us to come to her home every month. Here we would show our work, talk about it and open ourselves to critique. On the following month some of us would find a folded note with our name pinned to the notice board. These were private communications between mentor and student containing additional thoughts she had since our last meeting. We would read comments about how she’d noticed a change in the direction of our work, recommendations on exhibits we should see or titles of books she wanted to share from her extensive library that related to where we were in our pursuits.
My main concern was how disparate my own work looked when shown together. Using the fiber materials of basketry and loom weaving made it all seem so unfocused and unfinished. Yet she claimed she could see my voice in all of it. After several months it was over. She said she had done all she could…the rest was up to us. Her final advice for me was that I should return to college if at all possible, continue to teach and find the time to put my work out there for critique.
Twenty five years had passed since I received my Associate in Arts degree from a two-year community college. The few art classes available at that level were for students entering into teaching or design programs…..loads of gluing things together and creating clever logos. No reading required.
I did continue giving workshops….mostly non-functional basket forms….and entered exhibitions….some successful. In 1988 I had a piece accepted in the first National Basket Exhibition held at the prestigious Dairy Barn in Athens, Ohio. It was made of hand-woven fabric, paper, driftwood and well-placed beads. I forget the title now but it was something fitting the prevailing esthetic of indigenous people. Those of us working with fibers and calling ourselves “fiber artists” were already into this look. It meant we did not have to take our weaving or basketry too seriously into the expectations of those two crafts. We had a freedom to reinterpret the materials and techniques of loom weaving and basketry and the possibilities seemed endless. These innovations led to being asked to write an article titled “Basketry on the Loom” for a popular weaving publication. I could share on a much larger scale the workshops I was beginning to teach that showed how weavers could warp looms using bundles of threads as one and weave in anything that would stay put. This “fabric” could then be shaped in any number of ways for the wall or into vessels. And for the basket maker I could demonstrate ways to use loom weaving drafts for adapting new patterns by simply assigning the spokes of their baskets a harness number and weaving around the basket following a specific weaving sequence for sinking shed looms.
In addition to these workshops I developed one for weaving figure forms out of basket materials which became wonderful expressive narratives of people and memories. My workshops were something different and they appealed to those seeking new ways for self-expression. Working this way allowed us to learn the limitations of the materials, techniques and ourselves. It also raised the question of whether the work was worth pursuing if it was just about the joy of making. And that alone was simply not enough for me. It was time to go back to school.
The two years spent working toward an undergraduate degree was an amazing time of learning because I was in constant contact with those who were there to answer and ask the right questions. Art History, Philosophy of Art, Contemporary Art, Studio Art Classes on Drawing, Metalsmithing, Printmaking, Sculpture and Book Arts opened new ways of thinking and working. The critiques at times could be brutal. I was warned more than once that I was getting “dangerously close to craft”. And I soon realized that there was a point where the materials and techniques could easily override content and the message was lost or at the very least became secondary. I was encouraged to work in series and installation which expanded my technical skills while working in repetition and scale. I found ways to adapt my knowledge of fiber manipulations with found objects into sculpture and then into printmaking and book arts.
Being an older student had its advantages as I had a lifetime of ideas and experiences to bring to the class. Working in collaboration with students less than half my age was an invigorating experience. Through our work we shared our lives and our passions and we always wanted feedback.
“Does it say what I wanted it to?”
“Does it make you want to look deeper?”
“Does it raise questions?”
And if not then,
“Where is it missing the mark and where does it fail?”
It was the accountability I was looking for in my work. It was the place for the answers I dreaded yet longed to have. It was a genuine time of growth for an artist. And like my time with the generous mentor from before, it ended. I had graduated with honors and a Bachelor of Fine Arts and even more unanswered questions. Now it was time to seriously consider a graduate school that I could fit into my life.
During my undergraduate studies I kept up with teaching and was invited to give workshops in Australia. It was 1997 and this was to be the first of thirteen times over to present workshops in the twenty years to follow. In Australia I found the most amazing students who were already expressing themselves openly, freely and with great passion. Nothing seemed beyond them as they worked without restrictions or rules. And nothing was wasted as they worked intuitively in the most innovative ways. Their generous sharing of knowledge and materials has been more than I could ever give back. My own studio and teaching practices have been greatly influenced by being in their company.
In working toward my BFA it was the classes in book arts that fascinated me most. With this medium I could be the writer, illustrator and builder of the form. I took workshops in book binding and with the addition of box building; I could take my ideas even further and return to my early attraction to” the containment of space”. And, I could return to the personal narrative….revealed and concealed….private and public.
(Spun paper book about our personal privacy and need to be “covered”.)
Now my workshops would give students an opportunity to place their personal stories within objects of predetermined accessibility….found objects hidden in false floors, secret drawers and specially sized cubicles, words and drawings on pages of books, small baskets holding precious collections. With possibilities wide open to individual interpretation; it was a perfect workshop to teach….always something new for us to learn together. And while placing this new direction into the context of art history, I became reacquainted with the works of Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, Lenore Tawney and the early pioneers of artist books.
On my return from Australia in ’97 my husband met me with bourbon over ice and my letter of acceptance to graduate school. It was the beginning of new directions… and demands that consumed every bit of time I could give and then some.
The last works I did in undergraduate school were some of what I cared most about and were part of my application to graduate school. It was a series of ten mixed media sculptures that depicted old men teaching the next generation of old men the basics they needed to carry on in their absence….language, music, stamina, cooperation, other cultures, etc. It ended with the graduate…a student standing over a nest waiting for the unlikely beginning of the next generation. The found objects included with the figures were broken tool parts donated from the old men I knew in my area. These men of a rural community knew how things worked and how to fix them when they didn’t. They went back generations. They were the patriarchs younger men came to. I saw them as not only part of my own past but part of something fading, slowly disappearing, and more importantly, something not celebrated in art.
Each of us has a unique sense of place based on our knowledge of that which is familiar. It is this recognition that draws us toward or distances us from a place, an object, a feeling or another person. The more time we have or are willing to invest in becoming aware and therefore familiar with our surroundings, the more at ease and connected we will become. Likewise the reverse is true – limit our interest and knowledge and we limit our access.
My familiarity with men in community has always been a place of connection which represents ritual, routine, order and dependability. In their company I continue to be inspired by the discovery of their value. What is revealed to me becomes recognized, remembered and recorded in my own routine of writing and making art which in turn is presented for others to recognize and remember.
After being warned not to travel down the road of nostalgia, I completed the series and had opportunities to show the work where it was well received. But there was more about these men I wanted to say through my art. It was the perfect subject for my two years of graduate school and in the post-feminist era, took strong defenses on my part during critiques and semester evaluations. I was required to read many selected readings on the subject of patriarchal systems throughout history to better understand their past influences on the social order of cultures.
(An installation piece of the burdens and expectations of masculinity).
Graduate school forces hard looks into yourself as an artist and questions at every turn on how important is the work, what is its relevance and why are you doing it. And there is a whole different language to art that is beyond confusing at times. It took time and, for me, no small amount of effort to overcome my lack of self-confidence when questioned why I was there. I did not need the degree to further my teaching or to ensure I could keep a tenured position. I was too old and the studies too demanding for me to be a perpetual student just looking to stay in classes. I only knew that I needed the degree for me. I could then say I looked in all the right places for the answers I sought. Eighteen years after receiving my MFA in Visual Arts, I can look back and still say it was worth every bit of the angst involved. I did it because it mattered and I had the support of family and friends to go on. The experience forever changed how I look at art and how I see myself as an artist. And I have accepted that there will always be questions.
I still wanted accountability. I wanted to talk about art and the struggle of expressing our views through the things we made. So I started the Art Group for a selected number of artists to have a time and place for talking about the “what” and “why” of our work. Starting a group like this was not easy in an area filled with craft artisans. By contrast their issues center on the “how” of making and usually include the marketability of their work. I would encourage them to look to guilds and other organizations to find their answers, because a group that had our concerns was of no help to them. I would suggest they may want to start a group of their own by using the following questions to find others of similar needs.
- What do you want from these meetings?
- How often should we meet?
- Where do we meet?
- Will everyone bring work each time?
- Will there be a progression in the work?
- Can there be a clear statement (written) by each participant on where they want theirwork to go and how they plan to see it through?
I also passed on some guidelines for defining four categories of work done in the art and craft worlds.
An attempt to define the noticeable differences between:
CRAFT, SCULPTURE, DECORATIVE ARTS AND ART.
From Sandy Webster
Please remember this is not a hierarchy. It is the intention of the maker, which will help to further define its category as well as the viewer’s response.
When viewing an object of “craft”, technique and materials are the primary noticeable characteristics. What was used and how was it made. Quite often the intention of a craft piece is to perform a function which is also apparent.
Here it is the form or shape, which we see first. Usually it is aesthetically pleasing and therefore will elicit a response from the viewer. Sculpture is meant to be viewed in the round and shows the characteristics of craft by having a well-informed use of materials and technique.
- DECORATIVE ARTS:
The sole purpose of these works is decoration. That is their function. Fine jewelry, well-made household accessories, art-to-wear clothing, all show the qualities of good craftsmanship and technical expertise but their function is to decorate a person or a particular space.
When we see a work of “art” we are seeing an idea fixed in form. That is what we notice first and it is what will stay with us after viewing the piece. It usually represents something important to the artist, a personal response of theirs that they wish to share to some degree with the viewer. It is the artist’s interpretation of a feeling or issue that has meaning for them. And this representation may at times not be clear or easily understood by the viewer. Technique and materials can have little to do with the overall impact of the artwork.
It is this last category that helps define what an artist does and who is suited for the Art Group. We meet in my home, usually once a month on a Sunday afternoon with refreshments and critique followed by dinner and open discussions on whatever we please. Over the years we have come to not only trust one another with our most personal expressions through our art but to expect an honest response. I do not think there is anything more valuable than that to those of us who have little outlet for our ideas and our art.
I find students in my workshops who want to go further. And like my mentor of twenty-eight years ago, I give them time and questions and encouragement to keep going. Several return for private one-on-one time to work through a project and get feedback along the way. They do not come to learn techniques (the “how” of things made) but to push themselves in a direction toward a place they want and need to go…..their own journey into Art. It is exciting for me to be involved and watch their growth. I don’t hesitate to make room in my studio and my schedule to work with the student who has something more to say with what they have learned and is committed to finding a way.
And now I am here….wondering what to do next. What to finish. What to just quit working with. What to just throw out. Where to go next.
I will figure it out. Things just take a bit longer now.
Til next time.