• Sue McDowell

It's a "process"*


This morning I read that Charles Webb (author of The Graduate) has died. In the article about him in the Boston Globe, he was quoted as saying, " The public’s praise of creative people is a mask — a mask for jealousy or hatred." [By the couple’s various renunciations,] he said, “We hope to make the point that the creative process is really a defense mechanism on the part of artists — that creativity is not a romantic notion.” I find gems like this helpful in my ongoing attempt to make my creative endeavors a regular part of my new normal. A creative life that isn't romantic. That doesn't require long bouts of depression or the abyss of alcoholism. One that incorporates all the things humans have to do - eat, dress, interact with one another - with things only some humans do - draw, paint, sew, garden, create music, sculpt, weave.


As part of these ruminations, I've been mulling over why people ask makers, "So, how long did it take to make that?" This is often, but not always, uttered in response to the price of the piece and creatives interpret the question as "wow, this is expensive, how do you justify that price?" or "gee, this is expensive, can I understand how it was made so I can make it myself cheaper?" But sometimes, it's asked because the public is honestly very interested in process - and in understanding how creatives come to create. I've found that the asker sometimes wants validation that they, too, are spending a lot of time on bringing something creative forth in their life. They want reassurance that process isn't a dead end. The longer I do this, the more I find that there are no dead ends even though every effort doesn't result in a product for sale. Sometimes, it's just a lot of walking and exploring. As Emerson is misquoted to have said, "Life is the journey, not the destination." So here's a short walk on a recent project as an example of my "process."


For me, the creative process has to start with some form of inspiration. In this case, I was asked, as part of a class, to be alert to "stripes" - in photos, in views out my window, in other textiles I owned or saw. Shortly thereafter, I was surprised to come across the photo, Endless Sandbars by Scot Miller, in a book about Cape Cod. Talk about stripes! The photo from the book is on the right (below). My first watercolor pencilled attempt to understand the striping sequence is on the left. I find I have to draw out the image..so I can feel the pattern..and in the process I'm walking the sand..splashing through ankle deep water. Note all those little scratches in pencil as I try to match colors from Scot's photo to other media - the pencils or the yarn I think I'll use. I'm trying to pull out what occurs in nature (that unimaginable violet of fog on a blue sky!) to the tools and supplies I have on hand.

Inspiration (right) and first sketch/notes

At some point, I realized that I'd originally planned to make this into a scarf. And if that were my end goal, I would only be putting this image on the ends of the scarf since scarves are horizontal, not vertical. Or I would have to significantly enlarge the stripes - which might muddy the tightness of the original image. So I laid out test fibers for both a smaller and larger horizontal version of the image on a theoretical scarf.

The image would only be on the ends of a scarf?

But that didn't feel satisfying and I realized I needed to re-think how this would look in "scarf land" - vertically moving but, somehow, keeping the same colors and pattern that resonated emotionally. I did a different color pencil sketch putting the stripes vertically and, in my head, imaging them in lighter weight fabrics - silk or tencel - something with the right shimmer for water, the right depth for the sand. In it all I tried to keep the feel of the photo, even with the new vertical orientation. The pencil scratches at the bottom of this pic (below) are "ends per inch" - identifying how much of each color I'd need to keep the original striping pattern. As I worked on this I realized how little I understood about blending fibers together - would silk work with wool? And if it's thinner do I need more of it? I took a detour of several weeks duration to study those topics in more depth.

Should it be a scarf?

Ultimately I realized that as much as I liked the idea of a scarf and even the colors in a scarf what had resonated with me originally in Scot's photo was the horizontal pattern. And the completeness of foreground sand to background sky. That, and the colors, were what I found inspiring. With a bit of a jolt I realized I'd been trying to bring this forth in the wrong medium - what this called for was tapestry - where an entire scene could be created on the loom.


So I ran and got my little tapestry loom and, over the course of the next several weeks (remember my comment earlier about incorporating regular human activities into the creative life?), I was able to work up this:

Tapestry version with tools of this trade.

This had the stripes, but from my perspective failed on the colors. I know this is in part because I'm not an accomplished tapestry weaver and also because I just didn't have the yarn palette. But that aside, what it did do was convince me that, for me, the inspiration of this piece and what I most loved about it, was the horizontal nature of the sandbars. This was not going to be something I put into a vertically aligned scarf to my own satisfaction. (Though I always reserve the right to use those yummy colors in a future scarf!) What it did mean was that I had to re-think my medium choice and what I was trying to accomplish. Back almost to square one - albeit a more informed square. I pondered - What could I use to bring the sandbars, the gaps of minnow-filled water, and the squish of sand between my toes into a textile representation?


And then it hit me! Needle Felt! Yes, I know wool isn't really the "splashy" fiber that you first think of when you think cool ocean breezes. But I work fast and intuitively when I'm needle felting - much as the inspirational photo had generated a fast, intuitive response. And I can blend colors comfortably when I needle felt. All of my research sketching, painting, and analyzing had me firmly aware of the nuances of color that were really part of my love of Scot's photo. And that palette is one I'd already acquired in wool roving from near and far. And so I pulled out all my needle felting tools and roving and I tried to bring the blending of colors from the photo into a sample piece over a weekend:

Needle felted with tools of the trade

So where am I now? The result of all this creative energy and inquiry was roughly three months of intermittent work on this one particular idea. And no particular "product" to show for it. Though I could frame up either the needle felted piece or the tapestry one (or continue to embellish either or both), I don't have a scarf or towels to show for my efforts. There are some folks who would consider that a "dead-end." But I don't think so. I learned so much along the journey. I reaffirmed that this color palette resonates with me but will be challenging to represent. I learned how I need to rethink how I interpret inspirational photos into a wearable textile. Most importantly, I re-remembered how all the little details I unconsciously intuit from this picture (the cool waves, the light breeze, the call of a gull) will never be directly represented in what I make on the loom. All of this is very, very valuable learning that I'll reuse on my next idea that may, or may not, result in "product."


And maybe what was most valuable for me was that my brain went on a learning journey while my soul took a walk out on those sandbars for a cool, quiet, soothing evening beach walk so well represented in Scot's photo. I was able to have that incredible creative experience of being "there" even when I know I'm physically "here." That's magic, not product.


So if I had made a product from this process could I answer the question, "How long did it take you to make that?" I guess I'd have to answer, "Four months and a lifetime, really, a lifetime...."


Comparison of needle felting and tapestry pieces.

*Process, noun: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.




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