We are to understand that being distracted is bad, and being focused is good.
Being focused will get the job done while being in the moment is not productive — productivity being the cornerstone of our prevailing Protestant work ethic.
I'm aware that it is absurd to continue measuring our national wellness by Gross Domestic Product stats and I deeply respect those ER and childcare workers who must rely on their mental agility to withstand chaotic conditions but if I'm not at least working toward producing something I start wondering why I'm even here.
I've been forced to think about the virtues of making over the last several weeks as life trumped my fastidious little production schedule. The best I could do was grab a few moments to watch from the sidelines, or catch a glimpse of work by other producers, like Eastern-Canadian metal sculptor Cal Lane whose Gutter Snipes show at Grunt Gallery
wound up last week. Lane, known for wielding an oxy-acetylene
torch and scrambling around 2,000-gallon oil tanks, is my kinda hands-on gal.
Photo from grunt.ca
She shows serious devotion to her work of imposing filigree patterns into found, often rusted industrial materials. It's the kind of demanding work ethic that recharges my productivity urge, but under the circumstances I had to park that and be content surfing over reviews of her work, her other shows and other collaborators, and soon, other expressions of lace as a pattern.
I'm sure that much has been written about the importance of going on a mental/physical/emotional hiatus, but I usually file that reading for later and get back to the job at hand. That's probably a sign that I may be overdosing on a devotional practice.
Since I couldn't get down to any real work I did a lot of image-surfing between things. This image of the artist's Burnt Lawn installation (right) reminds me that my serious focus can narrow the visual field.
Focusing on not focusing so much is a bit of a trial for me but I'm trying to resist the production compulsion and ride the Googleverse free-form a little more, enjoying the discussion
on a related show, Lace in Translation
, at Philadelphia University or viewing an interview with Lane at Grunt Gallery (at right).
Lane's 'Burnt Lawn' at The Design Center at Philadelphia University, 2010
And then I did what was only possible due to the distractedness of the last few weeks: I sat back and did nothing but watch a 12-minute video
made for a 2009 exhibition of re-imagined manufactured lace that plays in the space between art and production. Time well wasted.
Kerry Polite photo, from The Design Center
Lace Fence, galvanized PVC-coated wire, by Demakersvan, 2009. 16 panels: 152'W x 6.5'H
My biggest obstacle is over-thinking — not to be confused with big thinking. Over-thinking is my umbrella term for all the second-guessing, the predicting, the analyzing and the re-thinking that can turn my mind into a maelstrom. It's unproductive and it's exhausting and it's why I and many of my maker friends are involved in repetitive, obsessive (I prefer the term "devotional") artwork methods. The focus required is just the ticket to get out of the rabbit's hole of circular thinking. Less mental chatter, more mindfulness.
Making is the key to learning for me. As the work takes shape I try to make out what it's saying, where it's situated in the whole art discourse thingy. It's clear that I have to be clear about my intentions, where I'm going with all this, and why. Some thought is necessary.
But over-thinking is a form of self-sabotage and it has threatened the existence of my latest project, Monumental Doily. As I hook into those strands I find myself grasping at threads from my art history and cultural theory classes, trying to work in ideas of power struggles and psychoanalysis. Next thing you know I'm assuming the posture of German artist-shaman/renegade educator/former Nazi militiaman Joseph Beuys, in some sort of feminist response to his famous 1974 performance art piece, I Like America and America Likes Me (below, left) until my Inner Victorian Grandlady cries, "Enough nonsense!" (She would never say, "I call bullshit!")
This is usually the point where I have to fight the urge to scrap the whole project and herein lies the conflict.
I have to be able to speak about my work but I have a pretty low tolerance for too much artspeak. I like artwork that has me at Hello, that hooks me in to investigate further and is not just some in-joke designed for the rarified few who have had the benefit of art-historical education.
It should evoke a wide range of responses from a wide range of viewers — 'multiple points of entry', as they say. It should resonate in different ways and over time, and not rely on an instruction manual disguised as an artist statement full of exclusionary academic language (unless the point of the artwork is to create a feeling of alienation). Yet if it's too definitive, it's over quickly, like a trick, and I'm done. Next!
Elitism is ugly and I really do agree with Beuys' belief that everyone is an artist, or at least can be if she would just shut out the rational jibber-jabber already
and hook into the emotional/spiritual, the unquantifiable, even the unreasonable. (Beuys' beautiful mind is behind his urban intervention project, 7000 Oaks
Sometimes a giant doily is just a giant doily, material evidence of one person's attempt to connect in an increasingly chaotic, hectic, overly-quantified and unrationally rationalized world.
My mother might remember this: as a kid, I once declared that I could handle a stint in jail, because I would spend the time dressing up the place by making decorations out of any old bits and pieces.
Not a huge leap, as making something out of nothing was already my preferred activity within my own four walls, for hours at a time.
I scored stuff around the house and started fabricating, often without too much of a game plan. I recall a lot of painted papier-mache figurines made of plastic dishwashing liquid bottles, sock puppets from what may or may not have been orphan socks. This is around the first time I heard 'crepe' refer to fabric, and not just to 'paper', as in, "That was my good black crepe!"
Arntzen's models are a work of art themselves. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
I was — and still am — an opportunistic maker. I am inspired by whatever materials I come across, fabricating a lot of experiments, literally playing with ideas. In my world, that's not unusual. The other day a friend reflexively picked plastic bits from the alley while we walked. Another friend I met for coffee smiled in triumph as she held up a small battered bit of found metal, an inevitable component of a future encaustic painting.
Makers might dream of spacious studios or top-quality materials and tools to develop their concepts through doing, but a lack of all that won't keep the making from happening. In fact, restricted space and resources can lead to innovation, necessity being the mother of invention and all that.
I was reminded of this during the Eastside Culture Crawl
back in November, while visiting Arnt Arntzen
's steampunky workshop in Strathcona, a must-see stop for any passionate maker. Just a few weeks earlier, Arnt and artist-spouse Valerie Arntzen
had just returned from six months in a small pied-a-terre in Amsterdam's city centre, so surely he wouldn't have a lot of new examples of his signature reclaimed-wood and metal furniture to show.
Yet there it was: a collection of what this famously humble industrial designer calls models for future furniture, created out of whatever he found around the city and a Leatherman pocket-sized multi-tool. They may have been modest macquettes to him, but to me they are exquisite, concrete proof that you can't keep a good maker down. Six months away from his workshop may have been hard for this hard-worker but the restriction also pushed him in another new direction, and the writing was on the walls: paintings that combine his passion for industrial design with pattern and abstraction.Random sample of innovation with scant art materials and no tools but a lot of heart:
A friend of mine was a little obsessed with cleaning her carpeting in the condo she brought brand new several years ago. She seemed to be at constant war with her wall-to-wall. I always assumed it was her strong design aesthetic that drove her to splurge on a top-of-the-line vacuum-cleaner but I couldn't figure out the vacuuming fetish. This month she finally broke the bank and had it all ripped out and replaced with wood floors. The installer sucked up 12 shopvac cannisters of dust from her two-bedroom unit. Clearly the carpet was installed before the unit was cleared of debris. Not really surprising if you live in a building that flew up in a condo boom, which is sort of how it happens in Vancouver.
A family member in the construction business says that when you're part of a crew that is told you have to finish up and be out of one condo project by a Friday and show up at another on Monday or lose your pay, you do more than just sweep it all under the rug; you chuck all the bits of building stuff into the walls and drywall over the problem. If it were not for the whistle-blower involved in the Athletes Village mega development the uninsulated pipes hidden behind drywall would be leaking through several buildings by now.
Which brings me to "juxtaposition," a key term in post-modernism that speaks to issues of globalism and consumerism in relation to art.
Bloom tables: Salvaged Western Red Cedar tree stumps filled with creamy organic resin
Against this backdrop of some seriously shoddy workmanship — even within those hastily-completed interiors — is a considerable number of talented, skillful designers who spend their days creating furniture pieces of supreme workmanship and beauty, as evident in last weekend's Eastside Culture Crawl. The Bloom tables (right) by Mth Woodworks
and Peter Pierobon
's Plumb Pendant cedar lamps (below) lie in juxtaposition to the slap-dash boom-town antics.
Against the clutter of cranes marking the current boom, these visual poems are more than lovely use items; they provoke us to consider the role and value of art in society.
They are fully realized form and function against a speculative-market-driven built environment.
A real trip: Toronto's textile-retail district is a visual feast for any kind of maker. (Carlyn Yandle photos)
Stephen Cruise's 1997 public artwork at Richmond and Spadina. (Carlyn Yandle photo)
Like other Vancouver makers
, I mourn the latest closures of stores dedicated to those who work with their hands, hearts and heads, for love or livelihood. Last month it was the needlework shop in my neighbourhood. Dressew is fast becoming the city's last great fabric store standing.
So the first chance I got while in Toronto last week I headed to the mecca for fibre-arts-makers: the Queen/Richmond/Spadina area. This bit of heaven boasts 100-year-old storefronts jam-packed with notions both humble and grand: a button shop — just buttons — next to one devoted to beads or ribbon or wool or shiny embellishments. Across from a luxury textiles boutique is a warehouse crammed with tables heaped with remnants. All in the space of a couple of blocks, and right in the thick of the city.
Yet even Canada's biggest textile retail district appears threatened by encroaching condo towers. (Note the billboard in this photo hawking pre-sale units in the "Fabrik" development on the site of the old King Textiles building.)
Just when you think you're the last fabric-hound standing there's the World of Threads festival
to restore the soul. This multi-venue Oakville-Toronto event showcases staggeringly skillful works embedded with rich ideas and spaces to consider, and to transcend. Despite the diversity of media and methods, a thread runs though this fest: in an all-too-consumptive art world these artists are grateful for the chance to show. The value of the work is not foremost in commericial saleability but is in the maker's connection to the material itself, the often transcendent physical experience of the making, and the connectedness to the pattern of art forms that pass down through families and through every culture.
During my first day of art school
, one of the instructors told the auditorium packed with other nervous Foundation-year students that this education would be not just about making the art, but making the artist; the art makes the artist. I wrote that one down because I didn't quite get it.
Two years out of art school, I'm starting to see the strong role that the formative years — that critical time that shapes adult sensibilities — plays in artwork. I've always viewed my formative years as being the year-plus I lived in Japan in my early 20s. There was this big sensibility shift, a re-arranged outlook. Living and working in Kyoto helped shape my aesthetic, an appreciation for the spare and the pure, and I've since been hanging onto that, like that one ad slogan that was plastered all over the subway stations in typical Japanglish: "Enjoy your simple life."
But I can't ignore the fact that my work is emerging as anything but simple, pure or meditative. It's more likely chaotic, restless and a little disturbing. At least that's what they tell me; I find that jarring colour and pattern interruption kind of soothing. So where does that come from?
Sometimes you can be too close to the tree to see the forest, or in my case, the amusement park. I had wrapped up a week as on-site coordinator for the PNE'
s Container Art
show last week before I realized my brain was revving up as the tarmac filled with trucked-in rides. I felt the joy-joy-joy at being surrounded by all these circular patterns of chaotic colour, a sort of comforting exhilaration.
Psychedoilia: Nine Patch, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 72" X 72"
My childhood neighbourhood was at the doorstep of Playland. This was where I learned to make tight spins at Rollerland under the dizzying mirrorball patterns, and drink in the screams and neon lights on summer nights, ticketless and behind the chainlink fence. I watched greaseballs brawl on the midway as we churned on the Octopus, and heard the trample of horses racing for their lives. Here is where I had my first kiss, worshiped a red-leathered Freddie Mercury bathed in pyrotechnics at the Coliseum. These were also formative years: a mash-up of danger, risk, overstimulation, desire and a strange sort of nostalgia.
Now I'm seeing it.
Artist friend and Maker Faire participant Rachael Ashe
In his speech to graduates
of Toronto’s York University this month, one of my favourite journalists, CBC Radio’s Michael Enright, advised the next working generation to “learn how to fix something. Or make something using your hands.” Three years earlier, in his inaugural address, U.S. President Obama noted that it’s “the doers, the makers of things” who have contributed to a functional society, not “those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.”
It’s a refreshing, recurring theme, after decades of popular thought that “making” lives in the shadow of that all-important exception of making money, or is relegated to the realm of hobby.
We life-long makers often find we have to defend the attention we spend on learning our craft, acquiring our skills. These things take time, and in the absence of any formal training we will carve out space wherever we can. For me, it was about escaping the classroom to papier-mache a bottle (or cut out giant tissue-paper flowers or silkscreen T-shirts or turn clay bowls) then escaping the office to stitch bed quilts (or build chests or reupholster furniture or braid rugs) until I finally allowed myself to make space for full-time making.
This is why I was in my element as part of Vancouver’s second annual Mini Maker Faire
last weekend, a convergence of maker-geeks at the Forum building in Hastings Park in East Van. From weaving to robotics, this is my kind of place. Part market, part installation, part classroom, the real value is in what you know or can learn, not what you have or can buy.
This was the perfect spot to install our Network, a chaotic, collaborative, ongoing public artwork that is simple enough for anyone to add to it. For two days, people tied/braided/knotted/wove/wound strips of synthetic fabrics to the web/maze/forest/snarl, and in the process got the opportunity to connect with others who are naturally drawn to working with their hands. Little boys escaped into imaginary worlds under the sculpture. Bigger girls braided and chatted in groups of twos and threes. We thought we would be spending the two days coaxing visitors to participate by explaining the purpose and function of this random, ongoing fibre sculpture, but it clearly wasn’t necessary. Making is quite enough for anyone drawn to an event like this.