Our role in our alley is to plant sunflowers, every year, the bigger the better. They grow past the height of the gutters on the garage, and by the end of summer, the squirrels have knocked them down and are joyously chomping away at the seeds.
One year, I thought it would be nice to plant something else, for variety. The next spring, no fewer than three alley neighbors asked me, “are you going to plant sunflowers this year?”
That’s how I found out that my little alley flower box brightens everyone’s day. Now we just accept this and are happy to plant the tallest sunflowers every year. This year, I’m planting a variety of heights and colors that will hopefully bloom at different times and keep the show going longer.
When it comes to art though, I’m not in it for the beauty.
It can be beautiful, I’m not against it, and I’m not trying to make ugly things.
In my art, I want to connect with people, even if indirectly and if I never know.
I made a medal after my daughter died, it’s in the series, “Medals that You Wouldn’t Want to Earn,” and I don’t show that work anymore, I don’t promote it or talk about it. But then, one of my regular podcasts — you know how you get to know your podcasters? — he shared that he and his wife had a baby who was stillborn.
I reached out and messaged him and said, hey, please show this to your wife if you think she might get something out of seeing it. (And, I’m sorry for your loss.)
His story reminded me of why I make art — to connect, to share our stories, and to heal myself, sometimes, if I’m to be honest.
Prince died yesterday and a graphic with this quote came across my newsfeed, with no attribution:
“We don’t mourn artists we’ve never met because we knew them, we mourn them because they helped us know ourselves.”
And that’s exactly it. In making my art, other people connect to it, understand something better. I’ve made a contribution to the world, a dent in the universe.
That seems to be why it doesn’t usually work out very well when I try to make art that’s “just for pretty,”* as I think of it.
There has to be a reason behind it, a why, even if I don’t know what that reason is at the moment that I’m making it. I just trust, and make it anyway, trusting that at some point, I’ll figure out why.
*Where did the “just for pretty” come from?
A famous felter from a country with a long felting tradition was in the U.S. teaching workshops. With traditional (wet) felting, you make your item with wool, a rug, mittens, a hat, whatever, and once you’ve formed it into a piece of non-woven fiber, you roll it oh, about 800 times, to full the piece, or harden it and really make it transform from wool roving to this new fabric.
This rolling is done with the wool inside of some thin netting and perhaps a thing bamboo mat.
This man, the teacher, took the (almost) finished piece out and rolled it against itself some additional times.
A student asked him why he did that.
He reached for the words, since English was not his first language, and finally said, “for pretty.”
It’s one of those things that struck me and stayed with me. Also, it’s true, it does make the surface of the felt really lovely.
This seems to be the originator of the meme about Prince:
P.S. As I hit publish on this, the sunflowers have sprouted and are now about 5″ tall. I held back this post, wasn’t sure I was going to publish. You’re not stuck in a time warp!