Manifesto #2 (on getting smarter…)

**This quilt pile also includes quilts by Kim Niedzwiecki, Dan Rouse, and Martha Heidt.

**Total stream of consciousness here; pretty sure it needs a good editing, but that’ll have to happen later. Welcome to my brain…

Every day I go into the studio and my goal is to get smarter, to make something that is more intelligent that what I have done before. Not better, not more attractive, not something that will sell better. My goal is always smarter…

I make a lot of stuff. I’ve made more things in the past two years than in the previous twelve; prolific was never one of my goals. I’ve been known to spend well over a year working on a single piece, and I’m not talking about multitasking or anything, just working on one thing, day in and day out for over a year. I’ve always been that kind of maker. But these days I just keep making, but that is because I’m not all that smart yet, at least when it comes to quilting and fabric and stuff. I may have a vast background of experience to draw upon, but here I am still a novice, at least in my own mind. I’ve got thousands of hours more to put in before I actually get anywhere near the place I want to be.

That is the nature of learning curves. You need to make like mad, do everything, try it all. Many consider that the apprenticeship of learning the technical skills, refining the physical practice, but that is all essentially an aside in my book. All the doing leads to getting smarter, to understanding the conceptual, aesthetic, and physical nuances of a practice. We are built to learn things quickly; our brains are really freakin’ good at acquiring new data, but to truly know something, to process and integrate it, to expand upon it and make it into one’s one, to transform it into something new and unique, that takes time and exceptional work.

This is what I try to do every day. More often that not I am kinda ambivalent to what I am actually making at any given moment. Wait, that may be an overstatement. I care about what I am making, but the vast majority of the time I am making it as an intentional part of a process of getting smarter; I have something specific that I need to figure out and each piece is first and foremost a means to that end.

This is how I always taught. Good is a word that confuses me; it is always tied to a very specific context. A set of techniques and aesthetics that might be truly exceptional in one context may well just end up being ill-suited (and ultimately crappy) in another. The what ought to be a reflection of the why; form and intent are never severable. Smart, on the other hand, is the set of conceptual skills that allow for finding the intimate and essential pairings of thought and expression, and that is what I am working toward.

Yes, smart work requires a vocabulary of technical skills and the development of a certain aesthetic intuition, but both of those are fundamentally pointless if not used for some larger purpose. The exhibition of skill for the sake of displaying that proficiency becomes an exercise in ego rather than a manifestation of expression. And yes, I have a really big ego. Heck, trying to make a living as an artist requires it; it is a massive leap of audacity to stand up and put your voice out there day after day in the face of the rejection you know is always going to come. That said, that ego out to be tempered by self-awareness, that voice that perpetually reminds you that the work is not there yet; it is that self-awareness that propels new and inventive work, checks the gratuitous displays of simple accomplishment on one aspect of the creative process, that reminds you that you are still, in fact, dumb, or at least not omniscient.

Every day I try to get one step closer to omniscience even though I know I’ll never get there. I add a new skill, a new perspective, a handful of subtle experiments. These things are the stepping stones toward smarter work, but that smarter work is always the goal; it is vital to never confuse the means with the ends. But herein lies the schizophrenia of the maker, or at least of the long-view: one must somehow perpetually maintain a dual perspective, derive pleasure from the steps, the daily acts of making and learning, even as you understand them as incomplete components of a larger learning curve. Somehow one has to be perpetually okay with not being there yet, with the knowledge that you still kinda suck at what you do, even as you know you are doing better than you were.

So, after all the harsh (welcome to my mind), it’s time for the inspirational, or something like that. The thing is that we are all at different places on that learning curve, and the fact is that we all have different curves, unique starting points and hoped for ultimate destinations. Yours is not and cannot be mine, nor should it be. A bit of cocktail napkin math puts me at around 50,000 hours into my learning curve, but that’s kinda the awesome thing: every single one of us is further along than we used to be and not as far along as we could be; we each know stuff, but not enough. That is the real point of making, of doing, to learn. We put too much emphasis on the finished product, and then inevitably compare ours to other and find reasons to feel like failures. Trust me, there are enough internal reasons to come up short without looking to the external world.

Here in the quilt world we have developed a tendency to valorize show quilts, many of which are primarily displays of technical perfection, but these quilts are very different objects than the quilts that are made for babies to pee upon, children to snuggle under, and friends and relations to be ill under. The criteria for scrutiny and hanging on a wall are distinct from those of the birthday gift. I think we get something fundamentally backwards when we mix the genres, a tendency all too common around here. And this brings me back to my questions regarding the idea of better. Which quilts are better, the ones that get stepped on, peed on, and used as pirate ships, forts, and flying carpets, or the technical marvels on display in quilt shows around the country and world? I have no idea of how to address that, but what I do know how to do is try to get smarter with each thing I do, to better wed concept, form, and technique, and to learn to recognize the contextual differences between projects—where they are going and what they are for—that will allow me to make those smarter decisions.

I’ve given up on the idea of better; the word just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. I will perpetually work to acquire new techniques and improve the ones I have, but on their own those skills just don’t add up to a hill of bobbins. I can make endless quantities of pretty stuff, though it is likely a heck of a lot easier and cheaper to just buy it. I’m just going to keep returning to that studio of mine (cramped as it is) and try to get smarter, to learn to make smarter things, things that matter, that speak, that resonate in the world. To me that is the mark of a maker in a time when the act of making is actually impractical: bringing things into the world that both engage the senses and the mind, that offer insight (no matter how small) as well as aesthetic pleasure and material being now that sensory stimulation is an infinitely available commodity.

So, hopefully I’ll get just that little bit smarter today. Figure out a wee something. Form a few more neural connections in the web that will some day be smarter…


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