Monday, March 15, 2010

Finding your voice – part 2

I said in a recent post that an artist’s career goes through three stages. First, you learn the basics – how to use your medium and your tools. Next, you find your voice. Finally, you make good work. My observation is that too many fiber artists never get past the first stage. They get seduced into taking workshops or buying books or buying new products that give them lots of new toys to play with, but they never settle down to do their best with one or two of the toys.

Sometimes people are proud of this. “I would get bored if I made the same quilt over and over again,” they’ll say. Or “if I didn’t try new things my work would be dull and sterile.” Or “I could never make a series; I’m just too creative to be tied down.”

So I ask, how come 99% of the famous artists in world history managed to develop recognizable voices and still be creative? Would you turn down a gift of the 31st Rouen Cathedral picture because Monet had done it so many times before? My prejudice is clear – series yes, stifling no.

That’s why I caution artists to, for instance, go to workshops with the specific objective of bringing home something that relates to their existing body of work. It keeps you focused on further developing your pre-existing voice rather than going off on something completely new. But that advice presumes that you already have a voice under development, and you’re happy with it, and you feel satisfied and engaged in moving it along.

Sometimes that isn’t the case. Perhaps you are a relative beginner, having learned the tools and techniques but not yet focused on a voice. Perhaps you are an accomplished quilter who has just recently decided to work in series, to assemble a body of work rather than a lot of individual pieces (in other words, to start thinking less like a crafter and more like an artist). Perhaps you have a body of work that you don’t think you’re done with, but you’ve hit a dry spell. Or perhaps you’re “between jobs,” artistically speaking. In these situations, you may be searching for something new that will ring your chimes, and that can be a difficult task.

Four years ago I had a solo show of quilts depicting letters of the alphabet. When it came down, I didn’t have any urge to make any more in that series, so I was looking for a new thing. It took me almost two years before I figured out what that was going to be. During that period, I wasn’t blocked – I made something like 18 large pieces – but I couldn’t get anything to stick. I wasn’t being flighty – I would make three or four pieces in what I thought was going to become a good series – but in the end they weren’t good series and I abandoned them.

I once gave a talk about this search and likened it to dating. Sometimes it only takes one date to decide it’s not going to work. Sometimes you go out with a guy several times, feeling a fair amount of initial attraction, but you realize after a while that you don’t seem to have anything important to talk about. Sometimes there’s a spectacular one-night stand that you know from the start is never going to happen again. All of those things happened to me in the quilt department before I found my (current) soul mate.

You never know what’s going to start you on your Rouen Cathedral. Sometimes you fall in love with a technique, other times with a process (they’re different), other times with a design element, other times with a subject. You may have to go out with a lot of guys before you find the right one, or you may find bliss with the first one you meet. Who knows!!

So here’s my great idea – I’m going to try to be a matchmaker. If you need a new guy, listen up! I’m going to trot somebody out every month and set you up on a first date. It’s up to you whether you want to have a second date. But even if you don’t, maybe you’ll have fun. And maybe the guy at the next table will turn out to be your honey.

PS – even if you have a perfectly wonderful honey already, you might get a frisson out of a few hours with somebody new. Heck, it’s only lunch….Enough with the metaphors already. Tune in on the Ides of March. (Hey, that's today! See you later....)


  1. Can't wait - a bit of matchmaking is just what I need at the moment!

  2. Sounds intriguing -- I'm interested!

  3. Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match! I'm already matched up. But doesn't mean I can't look.
    Love the analogy!

  4. I think I will take your invitation to matchmake. Am between "guys" or in my case flowers. I will give it a go. Love your blog and have been following along.
    Better put on some lipstick so I will be ready when he calls.