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My fascination with creativity started at our kitchen table, where I’d sit across from my grandfather, both of us drawing. One day, while I worked with my pencil and crayons, he painted a landscape on the back of an old shirt box. I don’t know what happened to it, but I still have this one that he painted on canvas.

Painting by Jacob Scheinfein

Back then all I cared about was my inability to make “realistic” drawings. Too bad he didn’t tell me (or maybe he did and I don’t remember) that making art is much more about perseverance and hard work than it is about innate talent and inspiration.

As artist Chuck Close says, “ Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Practice may not always make perfect, but it does put you on the road to creation. It helps you figure out what you like to do and helps you develop skills and goals. If my grandfather were alive today, I’d ask him, Why that house, those mountains, that tree? Does the scene on canvas match the one in your head? Was there a message behind it? What were you thinking about when you took out your paints and got to work? What was your intention?

A few weeks ago, this video of designer Karin Eriksson at work in her pottery studio, captured my attention. In it, Eriksson seems both deliberate and intentional as she measures out her lump of clay, places it on her wheel, and goes to work. She knows what form she wants that lump of clay to take and how to get it there.

In this case, I’m guessing, the form is already designed — we don’t see if any “rejects” or “seconds” come out of her kiln — and so this video is about process and control, not about what went on in her head when she made the prototype for these pieces. Perhaps this work was executed exactly as planned, but it also may be the result of trial and error or happy accident.

For photographer Sally Mann, accidents are part of the plan. She captures her images using old cameras, faulty lenses, and prints them using the wet-plate collodion process. The resulting photographs have streaks, dust spots, and other “imperfections.” She likes the element of the unexpected that her process engenders. As she says in this clip, “I feel I’m at the whim of the angel of chance because all these wonderful things happen on the plates.”

Last year, when I interviewed artist Sophia Ainslie, she said that in some of her work, “… accident was an important part of the process.” But even when your goal is specificity and deliberation, you have to work with mistakes, “If the mark happens to be in the wrong place—whatever that may mean—,” Ainslie told me, “then you’ve got to run with it and make it right.”

When putting my own ideas down on paper — as opposed to writing up an interview, for example — I may have a broad sense of what I want to say, a tiny kernel of an idea, or even just a feeling to build on, and the bulk of the piece comes while I’m writing  and rewriting it. As Chuck Close suggests, I often don’t discover where I’m going until I get to work.

Sometimes I’m hit by that hyperbolic “bolt of lightening” that puts me in “the zone,” and the words seem to flow of their own accord. But that rarely happens.

The other morning my friend Kathleen told me that she has so many ideas that she is having a hard time settling on a direction for an upcoming show. Then the next day she reported that she’d just spent a whole day working on a new piece only to be disappointed with the outcome.

I tried to remind her that this always happens when she’s starting a project. And then I joked that as a writer, when I’m not satisfied, I can just hit the “delete” button. She didn’t laugh. For artists, the cost of rebooting is much more than frustration and dejection — the materials they use are expensive.

Here is some of her work-in- progress.

Photo and artwork by Kathleen Volp

In their tiny gem of a book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking David Bayles & Ted Orland caution that, “The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.”

Frustrating but true for all of us, whether we express ourselves through music, words, or images. As Kathleen says, “It’s all about bringing your own voice to your work. You have to be clear and be true to that voice.”

Doing so is hard work. It is painful, messy, and frustrating. But it is also satisfying, affirming, and just plain wonderful.

So, artists, photographers, writers, musicians and bloggers, 

  • Where do your ideas come from?
  • How much of your creation is about controlling your medium and how much is about overcoming obstacles and setting yourself free?

Discuss!

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