In a workshop recently a student shared something I had said several years ago that had stayed with her and altered her perception. She said that during a previous class she had described a drawer in her studio as a “drawer of shame,” because it was full of failed paintings. I asked her to reconsider how she was defining this space. “What if it were a drawer of possibilities?” I asked.
I didn’t remember this conversation, but as she shared it I felt the shift this simple reframing had offered her. She said it completely changed how she thought of this previous work. Instead of seeing it as an expression of her failure as an artist, it represented effort, unfinished exploration, something that could be worked over and responded to.
Often in the classroom I will encounter a student who has become stuck, either because they are attached to what they have done so far, or because they don’t like what they have done so far, or because they simply don’t know what to do next. They want me to help them through this difficult moment. “Make a mark,” I tell them. “Give yourself something to respond to.” We learn where to go next step by step, doing one thing and reacting to it, studying our work, looking for weight, for contrast, for movement and authenticity of self expression. “Uncertainty is a virtue,” David Bayles reminds us in Art and Fear, the classic treatise on “the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.”
I had an opportunity to be in the role of student recently when I took a workshop from artist Lorraine Glessner. Over the course of two days, we explored the way line leads the eye and communicates information. I drew with a sharp-edged rock and ink. I fashioned an enormous brush from a bamboo stick Lorraine had brought with her and some soft plant material I gathered outside the studio.
Dipping my brush in ink, I painted. Ink ran in lines down my paper. I struggled to control the brush, attempting to draw the way I normally approaching drawing, but with this restraint in place — an enormous and difficult to control paintbrush — I merely made a mess. Ink spilled on the floor and got on the walls. I was far out of my comfort zone, but it was okay.
I wasn’t making art. I was just learning how to work with these materials.
I allowed the brush to rest loosely in my hand and observed how the bristles behaved when I painted. I stayed as long as I could in uncertainty, building my tolerance for not knowing, for watching and responding. Instead of regarding the work as good or bad, I looked for where to go next. I got down on the ground to wipe up the spilled ink and, in a moment of spontaneity, wiped my ink-soaked sponge on my work. A giant arch. A half circle. It was beautiful. It was just what the piece needed to complete it.
Each of us has something that hasn’t worked in our studios. In her book Mapping the Intelligence of Artistic Work, author Anne West asks us to consider how failures often teach us more than projects that work. “What can’t you get at? What would you like to unpack, rework, or retire?”
What does your drawer of possibilities look like?