Saturday, November 22, 2008

Backwards Thinking

30. Backwards Thinking

People in the arts often get accused of thinking “differently.” Somehow, what we notice, what we care about, and what we choose to do are all unlike the reactions of the general public. I can’t say whether “weird” minds are drawn to art careers or perhaps it’s that art careers make people “weird,” but the distinction is there and it can cause problems.
One by-product of this popular stereotype is the idea that although artists are all unlike ‘regular’ people they are all like one another. Those of us in the field know that the truth is much more complex. We may be unlike the common fish of the general population but we also have as much individual variation as an aquarium full of tropical exotics. Gallery managers, in particular, have to exercise great flexibility in interacting with their artists. We may run to types, but we are never the same.
Among the wide variety of abnormal (or at least unusual) thought patterns that an artist may find useful is one I think of as, “backwards thinking.” For instance, I’m planning my studio time for a given Tuesday morning in July. I’m a self-employed studio artist with the freedom to create anything I want within the limitations of my skills and equipment. What should I do?
If I choose to build teapots I can predict how the coming days will be spent; throwing, trimming, assembling, drying, bisquing, glazing, and glaze-firing. But what if I take the reverse approach? Say I have a Fair planned. The last useful day for a glaze firing will be the Thursday preceding the Saturday of the Fair. Wednesday then becomes the last available bisque firing day. There are a few forms that I could throw, trim, and speed dry overnight, but teapots are not among them. Do I need more inventory for the Fair? Perhaps I’m making the teapots anyway and letting them dry over the weekend. Perhaps I need to be making one last load of chalices, tumblers, shot glasses, and breakfast bowls. Perhaps Saturday governs Tuesday.
What you want to make is only one factor among many and sometimes viewing your workweek from its conclusion can be more informative than the view from its beginning.
In a similar vein, some pots are better made if thrown upside down. I recently experimented with a particular style of vase done this way. It made for a refreshing change.
When assembling my clay armchairs I build a certain double-walled section that will be partially removed later in the process. I am spending time and clay on part of the chair that I need as part of the chair’s structural evolution but not as part of the chair’s final form.
You can imagine the construction of a piece as you would the creation of a chimney by simply stacking bricks from start to finish, or you can work backwards. Imagine the final piece and picture each stage of its development back to the first clay you touch. What does it look like just before it’s done? And just before that? And so on. How do the forces of the physical world conspire to help or hinder your design? What do you need to do to get from one stage to the next?
How you display a piece need not be how it was built. And clever solutions to “weird” problems are likely to seem a little “weird” themselves. As artists, our daily challenges are inherently ‘odd’ to the people around us. The thinking required to meet those challenges may seem a little odd, too. Try not to assume that you only need to think about your work. Give a thought to your audience, as well.
You say you don’t give a damn about your audience? Well, that’s the other kind of “backwards thinking.” That approach creates more problems that it solves, and not just for you, for all of us.

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