Sixteen years ago, I finally left my last day job to make sculpture. Money was, and usually is the first question we’re taught to ask about such an endeavor, but whatever answers I found, when they came, weren’t about money. Slowly, I’ve begun to make some sense of what I’ve been learning – about art, about myself, about how we teach art as a subject, about design, and about work in general – which is too often divided into narrow categories according to how much money or status it generates.
I like working with other people, so I’ve spent a fair bit of the past ten or fifteen years doing projects as a “teaching artist” in Oregon schools, as well as running workshops on how to build with earth (“adobe” or “cob”), some of which have focused on building design and related ornament, or decorative work. Out of these workshops have come a couple of little how-to books, which gave me a chance to organize and expand on some of what I was learning, as well as to share the sheer pleasure of making large-scale sculpture out of mud!
Of course, any time you make something, especially when you make it with other people, you have to talk about what it should look like. This combination of making and talking has been, I think, a better education about art than anything I could have gotten in school – but I’m still working it out, which is what these essays are about.
I hope each one of them will stand alone as an individual story and an attempt to clarify something worthwhile, but they came to me as a progression – partly because any story relates the progress of a person’s life, but also because art means fitting things together, a process that begins with observation, then collection and assembly of materials, then (and always) play, and revision, and the pursuit of new perspectives. Eventually, you reach the limits of your idea, your material, or your time – and the piece is finished, and you have to say goodbye, and start over.
A Frenchman, a Quaker who had served in the French underground during WWII, once told me that “chaque adieu c’est un petit mort” – “every goodbye is a little death.” So with art, as with any job – when you’re done, when the process ends, the work dies, and if you’re still alive, you have to begin again, from scratch. But “scratch” isn’t nothing. It’s what you have on hand, and as you work, every finished piece, every job, every dead idea makes more material for the next one. It builds up, like compost, and fertilizes the life that comes after it.
So these essays have been building up, and the order reflects that history – somewhat. Writing means digging into the compost and sifting out the bits that haven’t broken down and decomposed yet or – like plastic – that you don’t want in your garden anyway.
Now that they are in somewhat finished format, I’m posting them because you don’t just make compost in order to put it in bags and store it away – it has to be spread, given back to the soil that it came from. Maybe some new seeds will sprout. Maybe the rains will wash it away. Compost is an act of faith, and it happens whether we decide to participate or not, just as plants will grow whether we sing to them or not – but it does seem to me that our willing and joyful participation – our singing, our writing, our art – makes for better compost, stronger seeds, and more beauty.