At my guild meeting yesterday, the well-known rug weaver Martha Stanley spoke about her passion, rug weaving. She had some utterly beautiful rugs there, and talked about how she made them, but what really struck me was her comment that she weaves because she can’t NOT weave, and that this principle – doing whatever you can’t NOT do – is one of her guiding principles.
So I went home and thought a bit about the things I can’t NOT do – and reached the surprising conclusion that, at the deepest core, I’m not a fiber artist: I’m a writer, and more specifically, a story-teller. I have never not written, at least in my adult life: when I was twelve, I started writing letters – long, detailed letters – to my best friend, who lived 200 miles away in New York. I continued to write long, detailed letters until I discovered mailing lists, and then I discovered blogging, which is what I’ve been doing for the last ten years. Meanwhile, I’ve been in and out of various other interests, mostly fiber arts but also cycling, chocolates, and gardening. There have been periods when I haven’t done much fiber arts. There has never been a period where I didn’t do much writing.
I’m not suggesting that making – creating things with my hands, craftwork – isn’t important to me. In virtually all my incarnations – including six months backpacking around Southeast Asia – I’ve done some sort of craftwork. Usually fiber arts, but with plenty of diversions into other areas. Making is also something that I can’t NOT do. Even in the mental hospital, in the depths of a deep depression, I folded origami animals. But it’s not as fundamental as writing.
Why does this matter? Well, the famous poet Rainier Maria Rilke, wrote, in Letters to a Young Poet (Stephen Mitchell translation),
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
I agree with Rilke, and think I’ve undervalued my writing relative to my craft work. The truth is, I’m both a writer and a maker, not just a maker as I was thinking previously.
It also answers another question, why I’m not that interested in joining writers’ forums, entering writing contests, or even getting a conventional publisher:
And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside.
It’s not that I’m uninterested in improving my writing skills. I would love to improve them. It’s more that my writing doesn’t arise out of a desire for outside approval: it’s a necessary part of my being, something I would do even if nobody read or liked my writing. So I’m not especially interested in what an outside judge (of a writing contest, say) thinks of my writing. I don’t need anyone to certify me as a “real” writer; I’m a writer because I can’t NOT write.
Similarly, I’m becoming less and less interested in the results of various fiber arts competitions and shows. Partly that’s because I’ve won a number of prizes already, so feel that I already have proven myself, but partly it’s because I’m more secure about my work and its meaning to me, personally. I’m not a maker because I win awards for my work; I’m a maker because I can’t NOT make. Whether I win a prize has nothing whatsoever to do with whether I’ll continue making, and so winning prizes is less important than it might otherwise be. As Rilke says, “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.” Mine has.
Which brings me to the question of selling to high-end galleries and (eventually) to museums. Why does this interest me? Is it ego, wanting certification as a Real Artist, or something else? I don’t need the money, and I’m not sure the exposure matters that much to me. And I’d have to change the way I present myself in order to sell as a high-end artist. In particular, I’m not sure I could continue writing a craft blog and present myself as a professional artist; the art and craft audiences are different, and speak different languages. Straddling the border, I gather, is very hard.
So the realization that fundamentally I’m a writer does have an impact on my fiber arts work . At the moment I am thinking that I want to focus on writing about craft – which is mostly what I’ve been doing anyway – and less on trying to do Real Art. My work may be artistic (I certainly hope it will be!), but I think I’m not especially interested in “proving myself” by moving on to gallery work. Instead, I want to explore what writing about craft means – and what aspects of craft I most want to write about. Oddly, by constraining things, I feel like I’m opening up enormous new fields of possibility.
Mandi Ballard says
This post really speaks to me! It is exactly how I’ve come to feel about my fiber art in the past two years.
I used to push push push to get work done and try for shows, but suddenly I realized that wasn’t making me happy, only stressed. So I took time off making anything that could be considered finished art and this year I took up weaving and spinning and fiber prep.
Over the summer teaching myself these creative things has got my mind turning over and over the question of why. Then I think, why not? I don’t have to make for money or anyone but myself, and isn’t that enough? I think it is, and I’ve opted to not join a guild, or look into local fiber groups and shows, or even to follow up with a gallery.
I’m incredibly content in creating and challenging myself each day. I no longer want to prove anything, and that is freeing.