If you've spent any time in Facebook groups or other online jewelry forums, you've probably encountered a post from someone who feels their work has been copied. These threads usually get pretty passionate, with most commenters jumping enthusiastically and firmly onto one side or the other of the discussion - and sometimes things get downright ugly. Add to the mix that there is rampant confusion about copyright issues and what is or isn't protected, and it's clear we would all benefit from learning how to develop our own unique voices.
Earlier this year, AJE team member Karen Totten did an excellent and comprehensive post on the idea of "style" in art jewelry. It kicked off a series of conversations among AJE team members about how we came to our respective styles and what we do to keep them from becoming static or stagnant. I'll be honest: I've really struggled to find a style that isn't derivative of the work of other metalsmiths out there. I know what I'm drawn to, but I'm not often sure why. And as I've written about before here and on my own blog, the prospect of writing an artist's statement induces a near-immediate rush of anxiety, mostly because the "why" of my work isn't always apparent to me.
|Is there such a thing as "too unique"?|
So I was very much looking forward to this year's Roadhouse Arts spring retreat, because we invited master metalsmith Connie Fox to join us for a two day design intensive, based on her new book Maker Magic.
I was not disappointed. In fact, the process of walking through these exercises and explorations turned out to be incredibly personal, not just for me but for all the participants. We cried and laughed and shared stories and started examining the things that spoke to us, in our work and in the work of others.
By the second day, we were trying our hand at new creative exercises and dipping our toes in the water of new awareness. Why do I love foldforming so much? Why am I helpless against the pull of certain shapes and forms?
And the result, for me, was a piece that didn't look anything like work I had done before, but that felt personal. In fact, a friend of mine looked at the piece and said, "Oh my gosh! It looks like you!" There could not have been any better compliment.
Obviously, the experience of several days in close proximity with other creatives is going to be very different than reading and working through this book by yourself, but don't let that stop you. Over the course of 17 chapters, it will escort you through several exercises to help you identify what type of designer you are. Do you plan out every design before you tackle it or do you just jump in and go where the muse and materials lead you? Do you work best by yourself or are you energized by talking through your process and ideas with other artists? Is your work quirky? Serious? Playful? The answers to these questions will help you figure out what process helps you get to your best ideas.
From there, you get to figure out where your inspirations lie and what you want to say about them. This has always been the tough part for me, but Connie shares very practical skills and methods for getting you past any paralysis or awkwardness, as well as a thorough (and not at all dull) explanation of design elements and language. The best part of these approaches is that they can be applied to specific projects, not only a body of work. For example, in the space of just an hour, I had the beginnings of a whole new way to describe and explore my work and my aesthetic, which was pretty exciting. But if I have a killer cabochon or component that I'm just dying to do something special with, I can apply these techniques and skills to brainstorming ideas specifically to that project - I can dial it in. And like anything else, the more I exercise these skills, the more natural a part of my process they'll become.
|I have a much better idea why these shapes appeal to me and how to use them well.|
Connie shows us how to pull it all together by walking us through the processes she followed on three of her own pieces. I found this particularly interesting, since I'm such a fan of her work, and it helped me to have concrete examples of how process can come together in different circumstances and with different intentions. It also helped me see that a disciplined approach to design and making doesn't have to be boring or constricting - in fact, it creates a kind of freedom that is exhilarating! The book concludes with tons of links and recommendations, which makes it tremendous reference. I bought it after the retreat and downloaded it to my iPad, which is often in the studio with me, so that I can refer to it.
And so, back to my original point: we all start out learning by copying the work of others who are more advanced than we are. We take a class or buy a tutorial, and we are really happy with how the project turns out, so we start collecting more tools and techniques. But if that's where we leave it, we never really come into our own - our work just ends up looking a lot like the work being produced by other makers. How can we break into new territory, develop our own voice, create a style that really looks like us and not everyone else? It's a process, and it takes practice and discipline (there's that word again!) and more practice. It takes failing. It takes evaluating what you produce without emotion. It takes time, and effort, and intention. Are you ready?
Start with this book. I highly, highly recommend it. If you've had any kind of formal art education, a lot of it will be very familiar to you - but for many others of us, who came to making later in our lives or via circuitous paths that included other lives, other careers... well, this was new and exciting territory for me, and it fed a part of me that I didn't even know was hungry.
Until next time -