Sunday, March 11, 2012

Inspiration in 80 days

During the school year I don't feel like I have enough time to make my own work. I am not "allowed" to make my work at school.
When I get home I am usually exhausted and I don't want to set up and prepare clay and turn on the heat (in the clay studio, since the clay studio is heated separately from the rest of the house) and wrangle the kid and then clean up afterwards. So I don't make much during the year but I begin to miss making work. Around about March I start to ache to be in the studio.

Unrelated bits of information:
I enjoy maintaining the blog because it encourages me to write about (and therefore think about) what I do as I am doing it. This applies to teaching as much as to making my work. I feel like I teach better when I am actively thinking about how I am teaching, rather than just moving along.
More recently I have felt like I am starting to understand how to teach but I am losing touch with how students feel when they are first encouraged to make work, think creatively or tackle a subject, problem or assignment they haven't seen before. On the one hand I have been working so long that I can't remember how it felt to not know how to work with my material (I find this especially true with clay). On the other hand, I can't remember a time when I didn't have 300 ideas bouncing around my head (or my sketchbook) for things I wanted to make. During the year I get such a backlog of projects I want to do (sketched in my sketchbook or noted in various notebooks or doodled on the edges of important meeting agendas), that when I get to my summer studio time I just rush to make piece after piece. For this reason, more so that because of techniques, I can't understand that feeling a student has when looking at a new assignment and thinking, "where do I start?"

I have been thinking of ways that I can make it easier for myself to work during the year. One way is to work during school or at school, but that is frowned upon here (even though the students would benefit by seeing me working). The two biggest obstacles are timing and distractions. So I need to find or develop a working process that takes less time and perhaps involves less setup or clean up. If I could complete this process despite distractions, that would be good too. One of the distractions is four and could potentially be encouraged to participate in similar activities or in her own activities parallel to my project.

Possible Approaches:
I seem to keep running across these daily challenges where people have set themselves a daily or weekly task. The book Julie and Julia (recently a movie, too) started as a blog where the woman cooked all the recipes in Julia Child's cookbook (some cookbook, I don't really care--but she did this stuff regularly). One book that I have heard about and just ordered is "365" by Noah Scalin. The book is basically just a daily hint or challenge. Scalin wants the reader/user to make a something each day based on the challenge or hint. Scalin discusses his personal challenge which was to make a skull a day. Other people followed Scalin's suggestions or their own plans and made a robot a day or a painting a day or whatever. The idea is you document your project online and the community of 365 or of blog readers in general help keep you motivated.

To be honest, I bought the book in part to look for more suggestions for projects for my Design class. I am getting a little bored with a few of their projects and was curious whether the book would give me any new ideas. A couple of the days might serve as starter for new projects.

Anyway, I thought about doing a daily or a weekly challenge. I could make a clay piece at a regular interval or I could make a drawing, a design or even a small book. My daughter is having fun making books after she did a project at Michael's. Some of her books, made of folded paper sacks glued together, have stories, others are basically just sticker support. We've made several of these in the last months. In the past I have liked making books but had trouble filling them with stories.

A design project would also serve as practice or planning for assignments for my Design class. That might be good. Or it might be like work.

A year or so ago I told myself I would do a drawing a day. Though I like drawing, the "project" didn't last long. I draw frequently in my sketchbook but didn't have the motivation or memory to make just one "finished" drawing each day. Instead I more sketch a bunch of semi-finished things one day and none the next.

Since clay is my medium of choice, a clay project is probably the best way to keep me moving. I suspect I might be able to keep my daughter involved too. A big clay project will take to much time. I need something that is quick. Can be done over and over again and can be completed in one sitting. The problem with bigger clay projects, distractions and lack of time is that if I leave a project incomplete, the clay dries beyond the stage where I can use it.

To make the project useful, I think it should answer some kind of question. I need a hypothesis to keep me intellectually interested. The blog keeps me interested because it can help me think through concepts in my teaching or my studio work. I have other keep-at-it challenges in my life, like going to yoga regularly, so this needs to do more than show me if I can do it.

I think a worthwhile question to ask, in doing a daily project has to do with inspiration. Most of the daily or weekly challenges have to do with pushing boundaries and doing something someone wouldn't already be doing if left to his or her own devices.
Scalin's challenges, in particular, have to do with expanding or improving one's creativity. "365" gives readers a different task or a challenge each day. The book specifically says that doing the work as directed is not essential, but I do think the concept of doing an assigned task is different from doing any old task.

I regularly assign students a particular, dictated task. The tasks I assign are usually meant to be flexible in some respects, but I often restrict their freedom in one direction in order to get them to think creatively within boundaries and challenge themselves to address the question of the assignment in an interesting, challenging way. It is this restriction which I no longer experience because my own work is entirely up to me. Though artificial, doing Scalin's challenges, or those listed in The Artist's Way or similar books would give me an experience more similar to that experienced by my students.

For this challenge, I will make small sculptures on a regular basis, alternating assigned inspiration and open-ended projects.

To limit the setup and cleanup required for each project, I will prepare individual bags of clay with the appropriate amount of clay to create a small hollow form and some surface decoration. I will keep a separate container of basic tools and perhaps a small container of slip handy for working.

The materials and tools will be portable so I can work inside, outside, in my studio, or in the rest of the house.

After the initial day of preparations, set up will be simply picking up a bag of clay and, possibly, a box of tools.
In order to potentially involve the small distraction herself, I will explain the project to her when I begin to prepare the materials. If she is interested, she will have her own corresponding materials. On days when she chooses, she can do the project with me. I can also do the project near her while she does other activities or on my own if she is napping, not around or otherwise occupied. 

I have also prepared a jar of inspiration papers. I wrote down the first 39 days of inspiration tasks from Scalin's "365." To these I added 
a few of my own based on partial ideas from Scalin or other projects I wanted to include. I also included the names of several artists so that I will be making my projects inspired by these artists. 

On alternate days I will select an inspiration paper or simply start to work without an "assignment."

I will attempt to complete one project per day, but will not feel bad if I do not always make it.

I will not carry-over projects into the next day. Each will be completed (or as complete as I can get them) in one sitting.

I will set the work in my studio to dry and take photographs immediately, but I will not make major attempts to assess my progress until a suffiicient portion of the project has been completed. 

I am writing this on March 10. Winter quarter ends next week. We have spring break for a week and then Spring quarter. Spring quarter lasts 10 weeks plus a week of finals. So, there are 13 weeks left before I can get into the studio for the summer. I think 13 weeks is an appropriate amount of time in which to conduct this test. 13 weeks x 7 days a week = 91 days. I suspect I will miss a few, so lets say 80 days, since one could conceivably go around the world in this time, and having a cool name for my challenge is better than not having a cool name for my challenge. Also, if you recall, I wrote down 39 days of Scalin's inspirations, so that works out nicely too (if you ignore the fact that I added a bunch of inspirations as I wrote down Scalin's).

Questions to (perhaps) answer at the end of 13 weeks: 
Is the quality of work improved when inspiration comes from within?
Is work more varied or more interesting when inspiration comes from an outside dictate?
Does alternating dictated assignments with open projects increase the variety of subjects, forms or content in open projects?
How do I, as an artist (or a "student') feel differently about dictated projects compared to open projects?

I began this project Saturday. My daughter and I bagged up 12lbs of clay into smaller pieces (I didn't count how many). Then I took one and she took another and we worked together next to each other.

She wanted a lot of help but I made her help herself. She wasn't fond of this. She wanted me to make her clay flat for her and she wanted me to make it round for her later. I refused, offering her options for making it flat (use a "rolling pin"--actually a dowel, paddle it, hammer it with a plastic hammer) and then distracting her with a slip making project which involved breaking up dry clay and putting it in a jar of water. This was her speed and kept her entertained until I finished my piece and Daddy removed the stove (not a related activity, but a measure of time; I know I started after 5pm and ended before 8:30 but I have no more precise information).

First Inspiration:
We had these bulbs leftover in the studio (in a bag of stuff that didn't get planted in the fall). I based my sculpture on this, not on an "assignment" from the box.

First Piece:


  1. I came here via Noah's site-- I LOVE your project! The little sculptures are so beautiful & organic. I can imagine how pleasing they must be to hold. Keep up the great work! My sister's a teacher so I know how demanding the job is. It's wonderful that you can use these pieces to keep your own creativity going during the year.

  2. Thanks for visiting and I'm glad you like the work.


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