An idea for a work has the sole purpose of getting me into the studio—it has very little to do with what the final thing will look like. The intriguing idea will be swallowed quickly into the hard realities and limitations of materials and skills, and the fluidity of mood, vision, and chance.
When I let go of the original motivation something I couldn’t have imagined will come out of the process. The unimaginable whispers, pulls me like gravity. In fear, I resist it as well. But I’ve learned that if the process scares me enough it just might offer value. The work shapes me as much as I shape the work.
How To Begin
How do I begin, then, with no image of what I’m making? I get excited about the parts and pieces I’ve gathered or made. I wonder what they’ll look like in relationship. I begin in order to find out what I can only know by making it. The truth is in there.
I proceed with curiosity and intuition, trying relationships until something says “yes” (or “what the hell.”) That has to be enough. I take a stand, trust, weld the first two bits together.
There is no top, bottom, front or back, still no larger vision. Two unique pieces, union: the first push back against entropy—temporary but bold. Then I ask where the next one goes, and make another choice. Now there are three. Relationships start talking to me. Riffs on those add harmony and dissonance. I still know only a little about where this is taking me, but I’m underway in the unknown.
My first conscious dip into partnership with the work in this way was with a wooden piece, ten years ago. It wasn’t my first sculpture, but it was the first time I began without an image or drawings to work toward. I had some tapering scraps of mahogany from a furniture project, and, an idea about what might happen if I glued them together at slight angles to one another. A thing happened. (I wish I had a photo of the clamping arrangement. It was nuts trying to hold it all together while the glue set up.)
I smoothed and carved it, though I still had no idea about what it was—or even if it was finished. How would I know? I wondered if it was part of something larger, body sculpture that needed a harness, maybe something to be cut up and reassembled further.
The piece was so successful as an unrecognizable new thing that I didn’t know how to relate to it, didn’t know what I had achieved. It was perfectly useless and didn’t bring anything but itself to mind. It stood on the back bench all winter. When I had a gallery show the next spring I needed one more piece. I oiled it, titled it “Becoming Visible” and put it on a pedestal. Watching the public response I began to realize what the process had made visible to me.
I installed a recent steel sculpture last week on the docks here, for the city’s Percival Plinth Project. Like many communities, Olympia asks artists to submit sculpture ideas. They rent the ones they like for a year to grace the boardwalks of the Percival Landing waterfront. Each year the city buys the one that gets the most votes in an August public poll.
My offering for the plinths this year is called CULTURE/ Ring Dance #10—obviously, the tenth in a series. OPENING (#9) was there last year. #11 is underway but doesn’t have a name yet. In honor of the double “ones” I’m returning to what I liked best about the first one: simplicity. I love the complexity that has evolved through the series, but there can be something scintillating about a simple gesture. Full circle—maybe that’s the name.
I feel the vertical lineage in the process all the way back to “Becoming Visible,” and beyond that the thirty years of woodwork and life that landed me at a crucial sidestep.