Last week I was happy to create and share my visual artist statement, a personal manifesto in five parts. The gist of it was: I am here to live as fully as I can, to translate that lived experience into a completely original creative expression, and to help/inspire others to do the same with their lives and their work.
Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.
It sounds good, but it’s not easy. What do we think, anyway? Sometimes we accept what we’ve been told, whether it’s by society (“thin is better”), our parents (“get a prestigious, well-paying job”), our teachers (“troublemakers deserve punishment”), or our friends (“this sushi restaurant is better than that one”). Sometimes we believe what we tell ourselves (“I’m not capable of doing handstands”). But what do we really believe, away from all that noise? How is it possible for us, as social creatures, to be truly individual?
I think, for most of us, individuality and originality are qualities that need to be cultivated — not learned so much as uncovered. Take away everyone else’s noise, and what’s left? Lately I have been thinking that a good way to do this is to keep a regular record of what catches my attention in the world around me. If I were to re-create the world, what would I use to build it? What would be in my newspaper (or would I have one)? What would my village look like (or would it be a commune, or a megalopolis)? As an artist, this is my work: create worlds filtered through my perspective.
To this end, I’ve started a regular practice of collecting and recording little pieces of the world that strike my fancy. I do this visually and in text (and at some point I may well start capturing in audio, video, gesture, or some other medium). I was inspired partly by reading Stacie’s blog, especially her slices of life; I’m always left with a sense of having engaged with a strong point of view and a unique voice. It’s like Twyla Tharp wrote in the “observe two people” exercise: what’s revealed by your observations is you. These are my two practices:
1. Visual. Collect the most striking pieces of my day: a color, a texture, a shape, a form, a space, a creature, a juxtaposition, an experience. Tools: sketchbook, memory, camera, blog, collage, Pinterest, flickr.
Examples: in the past 24 hours I’ve pinned, among other things, two umbrellas, three narrow paths, eight bookcases, and four vintage garments in a particular shade of green. And by the way, do you see throughlines in the three pins I’ve included in this post?
2. Text. Collect the most memorable encounters of my day: a turn of phrase, an overheard dialogue, an intriguing personality, an awkward situation, a powerful feeling, a discomfiting emotion, a good joke. Tools: journal, memory, blog, fiction, a folder on my computer labeled “observations.”
8/27/09 Berkeley. Slim white guy with his daughter at Amanda’s restaurant. Smiled at me twice and his smile was so much like a friendly invitation, I wanted to go sit with him and talk. If we’d been at a party or a conference or on the train, that smile would instantly have brought me to conversation.
2/13/10 my aunt’s house. My cousin: “Ma! The ice is rusty again!” (Problems with the built-in icemaker in the freezer?)
7/12/10 my parents’ house. We found our old Polly Pockets. In playing with them I notice that my fingers remember things my eyes and brain don’t; e.g., I adjust this particular little Polly before I consciously remember that she never would stand up straight. I’d gaze blankly at a meaningless mass of plastic but my hands would undo the mechanism and suddenly the whole thing would be clear to me.
These practices have three purposes. First, they awaken my perception, deepening my understanding of the relationship between my observations and my self (the relationship between my personal vocabulary and my lived experience). Second, they furnish me with building blocks for my work. I’ve never been a big fan of inspiration boards, because I have a tendency to make something and then ignore it forever. But regular practices and Pinterest are more dynamic and, somehow, more tactile, because I can move digital images around so easily. Third, making these notes gives me practice in craft: drawing, painting, color mixing, capturing feelings, writing dialogue, and so forth. And I guess as a fourth and bonus: they’re fun and satisfying to do!