Friday, June 28, 2013

recovering perfectionist

When I decided to take a break from making pottery earlier this year, I said to one of my friends, "I feel like my art is broken."  I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with the way I was approaching my art making, that it had gotten twisted and broken, and making pots was no longer bringing me the joy that it used to. I had let it turn into a grind.

I have been doing a lot of reading, trying to understand how I can shift myself back into the joy of making pottery.  I believe my problem resides in my head, in the way I think. A book I just finished is called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. She is a neuroanatomist, a brain scientist who studies the anatomy of the brain, and she suffered a severe stroke when in her mid-30's. If you haven't already watched her viral TED talk, just go and watch it now so you can get the idea of the amazing message she is bringing to the world. (For reasons that I don't understand, none of my links are working in this paragraph, so copy and paste this to see the TED talk:

I have always thought that my streak of perfectionism comes from my creative side, the side that seeks beauty in all things. I suddenly realized while reading Jill's book that perfectionism is a left brain activity-- the logical, analytical, critical thinking side--and has nothing to do with right-brained creativity at all. It's the critical storyteller in the left brain, running its mouth again, ruining the right brained process of creativity. (Sorry, left brain, but you are a bit of a buzz kill in the studio.)

Through the process of recovery from her stroke, Jill was able to re-wire her brain to think differently, and to be more in tune with her right brain. She explains it beautifully in her TED talk and in her book, and I'm not going to attempt to lay it out here. One of her big messages is that the brain has incredible plasticity, and ability to recover from trauma. She's given me a lot of hope that with enough self-awareness and conscious practice, I can tune back into my right brain and make it stronger. And maybe learn to experience joy and lightness again in my pottery studio.

About a week before I read Jill's book, I had a funny thing happen. My beloved Grandma Stiltner died almost two years ago, and I finally sat down and made an urn to store her ashes. The design was based on the trillium flower, a flower that grew in abundance where my grandma grew up in the Pacific Northwest. When I finished the design on the still-green pot, it was perfect. Too perfect. It was bugging me. My hand, seemingly under its own power, grabbed a tool and started slashing at the design, roughing up the surface and breaking up the tight, perfect lines. Part of me was like, "Stop! Stop! If you ruin this you have nothing to replace it with!" (I was a couple of days away from going up to Washington to see my family and had promised to bring the urn.) But I was compelled by a force greater than my fearful left brain to do something to the surface of the pot to make it more interesting, even at the risk of ruining it. I think it was my right brain, showing some early signs that it is still kicking! By the way, I was happy with the way it turned out.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

art demons

I have been easing myself very slowly back into some creative projects the past few weeks. Gardening has so taken over my life that doing any kind of "making" has not been an activity I've been engaged with at all. Since making, doing, and creating is so much of my identity, not doing any of those things has created a strange absence in my life, but I don't feel empty.

I have not been working in my own studio, but in Rae's studio across town. Rae is gone for 6 weeks doing the France residency again, and she is generously allowing me to use her studio as my own while she is gone. I asked her for this favor because  every time I walked into my studio, my only impulse was to turn around and walk back out again.  Right now, my studio is a space that represents all of this struggle, and I don't want to be there. It's oppressive.

Rae's studio, on the other hand, is a wide open and beautiful space. As a practice, I've been going there every day, even if it's just for a couple of hours. Mostly, I've been doing paper cut art, which I have always loved and am currently totally obsessed with. I like to look at as many images as I can before bed so I can have paper cut dreams:

elsa mora
This image pretty well captures how I feel as a creative being right now: I'm sitting on all of this beautiful work I've made in the past, and I have all of this beautiful work ready to pop out of my imagination, but my arms are bound up, too connected to my head, and not my heart.  By the way, I wish I made this piece but I did not.  It's Elsa Mora, one of my paper cut heroes.

Paper cutting has made me come face to face with all of the demons I have created through my artwork.  Put a check next to the ones you have brought into your life:
  • That's not good enough, it needs to be better.
  • Don't waste your time on something that is going to suck when it's finished.
  • That's not matching the vision in your head-- start over.
  • You've spent six hours creating something that you will never be able to sell.
  • That's not as good as Elsa Mora, Peter Callesen, or Rob Ryan, so why are you even trying?
It's interesting having these thoughts while I'm paper cutting, which is basically a leisure activity for me and does not need to be perfect, go to market, or wind up anywhere other than the trash can or on my mother's refrigerator door.  The fact that I like to use artists who are at the top of their game in paper cutting as my own personal bar is not only ridiculous, but bordering on something else quite unhealthy.

I've sacrificed a lot of the joy I find in creating in search of perfection. I've known this for a while, and it has taken quite a toll on my ability to create work that I love. But recognizing this, naming it, and sharing it with you all feels like one little step toward healing.

 This one is mine, with thanks to Pema Chodron. I had to resist the urge to make this piece again, making it better, before I shared it with you. I may, however, take a better photograph of it.