On the experience of making • About 7 minutes reading time
Hope summer treated you well, and that you’ve enjoyed some lovely lazy days. I started writing this at the beginning of August, and lo and behold here we are in September, which is already giving us hints of the fall that’s right around the corner.
I took July and August to work on self-initiated projects, as well as spending time with friends and family. I’ve also started with the group at Roundtable Residency, and have something in the works for October, which I’m excited to share with you down the road. But having the time to focus on my own work, with just me as my boss, got me thinking again about the experience of making artwork. I’m both frustrated and intrigued by how different the experience of making a piece of artwork can be from experiencing that artwork as a viewer. I think there’s probably lots of artists (myself included) who get into it because their experience of some piece of art is so exciting and engaging that they’re inspired to share that experience with someone through making their own artwork. But the conundrum is that the experience of making is not the same as experiencing the finished thing.
In 2021 I wanted to make a small project every two weeks. Suffice to say, this didn’t happen. I recalibrated this year and said I wanted to make one project every month… But while I was making and doing, the kind of quantitative output I had set my sights on just wasn’t happening. I’d get to the last week of the month and realize I had something that was starting to reveal a form woven from different ideas and experiments, but still had a long way to go. I could tell it needed more time and attention. And then there would be other ideas that came to me and excited me, regardless of my schedule.
I changed my thinking around artistic output into something more like a stream, or a thread: continuous matter rather than discrete chunking. This was in part because I read Oliver Burkman’s article on treating your to-read pile as a river rather than a bucket, ie. “(a stream that flows past you, and from which you pluck a few choice items, here and there) instead of a bucket (which demands that you empty it)”. I also just finished his book, Four Thousand Weeks, which I enjoyed.
There’s a number of appealing qualities in this metaphor: a stream is a natural feature that is external to you; the fountain of ideas isn’t springing from within, rather it’s something external that you engage with. Which is actually a relief. A stream may ebb and flow differently depending upon the season or the weather, it may change course over the years, but it’s not something that you can use up and be done with. It takes massive effort to reroute a river; it’s better to work with it and perhaps guide it in a direction collaboratively. There’s an element of surrender, letting the water flow through your hands, and I think the same could be said for engaging with creative pursuits.
I also thought back to Ann Hamilton, whom I fell in love with through this interview and her work The Event of a Thread. In the conversation she talks about the fragility and vulnerability in making something without knowing where it’s going:
When you’re making something, you don’t know what it is for a really long time. So, you have to kind of cultivate the space around you, where you can trust the thing that you can’t name. And if you feel a little bit insecure, or somebody questions you, or you need to know what it is, then what happens is you give that thing that you’re trying to listen to away. And so, how do you kind of cultivate a space that allows you to dwell in that not knowing, really? That is actually really smart, and can become really articulate? … the thread has to come out, and it comes out at its own pace.
This thread she mentions, “threads of ideas” is a kind of ongoing line of inquiry, a theme or question that may run through multiple projects or pieces. You may find yourself spending time on something that feels completely new, only to later see how it weaves into fringe ideas of previous works.
I’ve been working on a bunch of things, but mainly two projects. The first came from the same line of thinking I wrote about in my last letter from the solstice: how the sun moves across the sky and visualizing time– a sundial.
I was quite set on the circular design early on– one half can be bent to the angle that matches your latitude, and the triangular cut-out creates a sliver of light that points to the correct numeral (missing on this prototype). Finding manufacturers and designing to their specifications has been surprisingly time-consuming, and it’s been a slow-going process. But I’d like to make a small run of these multiples. You can see my collection of research and documentation for the ongoing project here.
In the case of this project, I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted the end product to be (which was perhaps helped by the fact that it is a product, with a function and intention behind it)– but the actual experience of ‘making’ it quickly moved from creatively iterating in design and paper prototypes to more time spent researching material constraints, formatting, and emailing. It’s been harder to keep motivation up and continue on it, despite this clear vision.
By contrast, I’ve been working in parallel on a number of semi-related experiments using augmented reality, photogrammetry, 3D modelling, and analog materials. One of these I’ve been referring to as A rolling stone gathering moss, is an ongoing series of transformations of a rock. I was thinking of the original proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss”, but in this case I liked that each movement of the rock changed it through glitches or artifacts, the process of translation leaving its marks.
It started during a daily walk in the woods, as I was walking by all of these great, gnarly, mossy rocks. I had wanted to try photogrammetry– a process that uses multiple photos from different angles of an object to piece together the 3D shape of it– and attempted this with the rock. Initially the results were glitchy and almost completely different from the original rock, but eventually I was able to recreate it quite faithfully. I had started experimenting with augmented reality, so then I took the 3D rock into SparkAR and brought my phone with me back to the original rock’s site, and photographed the two together in the AR app. I kept going: using a screenshot as reference for a gouache painting, taking it into Blender and ‘growing’ moss on it, lighting it in an artificial sunset. I was following the thread.
I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t have clear intentions for it… but it’s been so much more creatively engaging and rewarding. I was wondering why, between the two projects, one seemed to be working for me better. There’s multiple sides to it, but I think movement is a key part of it.
For a while now, I’ve been trying to heal my relationship with drawing, which also ties into illustration. I want to go deeper into this in the future, because I know I’m not the only one this happened to, but since art school I’ve found it so much harder to both enjoy drawing as a process as well as the end product. I’m envious of artists that seem to draw entirely unselfconsciously, and I’m curious as to how they do it. So I again started to set aside some time to draw, or paint, and just tried to let it be.
Semi-coincidentally, I picked up Lynda Barry’s Picture This, which I ended up really enjoying, and struggled not to quote/scan the entire book to share with you. In it, she’s also wondering why it is adults are so scared of drawing, and yet how transformative and good it can be if we just let the brush lead.
I knew how to follow the brush when I was writing. I knew how to partner with the brush while writing words, I knew how to wait. But I had never really followed the brush while making a drawing. I had never paid attention to what it was doing exactly. The ink travels down the brush hairs as the brush travels across the paper. Once I noticed this I found I enjoyed watching the ink meet the paper. I liked the way it looked so much I would forget I had a part in it.
This has also been true in my recent experience. The actual act of drawing becomes why you’re doing it, rather than drawing in order to create an image. It’s a shift in emphasis. She becomes collaborator with the pen, which takes on its own being as an actor. The paper becomes “a place rather than a thing. A place where something alive can happen through motion. The motion of our bare hands”.
Completely coincidentally, while I was pulling quotes from Barry and Hamilton, I read a previous newsletter from The Toronto Ink Company, which brings these two metaphors together beautifully. He talks about a childhood memory of flying a kite on the beach with his father:
The kite kept pulling up and up and out over the ocean and it unspooled so fast and it flew so wildly that when we got to the end of the roll of string, we bought another roll of string and tied them together and still the kite kept flying higher. Around the middle of that second roll of string, the yellow diamond with the red unicorn became a yellow smudge with a red dot, and then just a kind of speck in the sky way above the sea and then the kite disappeared. And still the string unravelled. I looked at Papa like are we even allowed to do this? and he was smiling and the string was unrolling with the pulling power of something that was no longer there, and he gave me the roll to hold with both hands and it was hot from its unravelling, and I felt a thing, almost a being, tugging, but it was a thing that could not be seen that was flying on its own adventures with the clouds and the sea-birds. It was attached to me. I could, if I pulled and wound hard enough, bring it back to us but it was also absolutely its own thing, in its own dance with the whole big roundness of the sky.
… still every time I dip a brush into naturally-made ink and the ink touches the paper and begins its inking, I feel the same feeling that I am attached to one end of something that is unimaginably larger than me. That I have a hold of one end of a fine line that is completely in my control but on the other end is something wild.
When I read the story of the kite and his experience moving ink across a page, emotion wells up in me in a way that feels like truth to me. Cupping water from a river in your hands, tugging loose an unspooling thread, holding a kite alive with wind– these experiences are closer to what making artwork (pulling ideas into reality) feels like to me. And despite what ‘art-making’ may look like on the outside– painting, assembling, playing, sitting, crying, clicking, staring– that sensation is not unlike the sublime feeling which a piece of artwork can evoke: a great, swelling pull of something beyond you.
🕸️: Bell, online wind chimes
🎥: O Peixe (The Fish) by Jonathas de Andrade, a short film that lives in me ever since I saw it at the Powerplant.