Quitting Art?

I've not been able to post these last few weeks because I was intensely involved in activities in South Korea. I am part of a team of four women (Lissa Miner, an American woman living in Seoul; Youngmin Lee, a Korean woman living and teaching bojagi in California; Misik Kim, a Korean woman living and teaching in Seoul; and myself in California) working on two projects. Three of us are bringing a Korean fiber art exhibit to art centers in Northern California next year. And three of us are organizing a 10-day culture/fiber art tour to South Korea next October. I flew over to deal with important details for both.

I was also invited to give a presentation on creativity and facilitate a workshop on "Composing in Small Spaces: Textile Cards." (Many thanks to Misik Kim for the invitation.) The day-long event took place on the green campus of a former university in Suwon, just outside of Seoul. It has been turned into a center for art, craft, and design, called Smart Republic of Korea. It includes studios, classrooms, and galleries. My group met on the ground level in a large area with high ceilings, where we enjoyed a lovely breeze coming in from the open doors.

The following images are from the textile art workshop upstairs where Misik Kim teaches in addition to her classes at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't write about my workshop experience, but focus instead on the inspiring artwork I viewed in private and national museums and galleries as well as the patterns and shapes that captured my attention wherever I looked. (For example, in and around Seoul there are such interesting bridges that I'd love to do a whole series of wall hangings based on them.) But I have decided to share my day in Suwon first because of how one student in particular responded. I think it's relevant to anyone pursuing a passion and wondering whether it's really the right track to be on.

Before we started the workshop part of the day, I shared my philosophy about creativity, which includes spontaneity and improvisation but not perfectionism and formulas. We don't have to know ahead of time exactly what we're going to wind up with. I also told them that I wasn't there to teach a technique. Rather, my intention was to convey an open-minded attitude toward art-making. I encouraged them to "sing" with their own unique voice, to bring forth what only they could express. I was able to do this thanks to Mihe Shin, a photographer/artist, who generously translated for me the entire day.

Then I gave a simple demonstration and general instructions for creating a small textile card that fits inside a photo frame card, which in turn fits inside a deckle envelope. It can be sent, gifted, framed, or become part of a larger project. This exercise is a way to prime the pump, cut through blocks, spark ideas, try them out, and invite surprises. My emphasis is on letting the class time be fun. I urge participants to feel free to experiment and play, with no agenda in mind, thus allowing something new and different to arise.

I set out a pile of fabric scraps and design samples, some papers, beads of many colors, and other items for embellishment. The women also brought their own stuff to work with. Everyone was given already-cut pieces of flexible but solid material to serve as the foundation, along with a fusible and a cropping frame. They could do any kind of stitching, by hand and/or machine. No limits, except for size.

As I walked around the "mess" on every work table, I watched as each woman did something entirely different from the woman next to her. One braided strips of white slinky fabric as part of her background. Another cut out the circles in a fabric's pattern so that aspects of a second fabric underneath could appear through the holes. Yet another layered small pieces of organza. Everyone did some hand-stitching. I was glad they jumped into it right away. It was as though all I had to do was give them permission not to follow someone else's pattern but to originate their own design. By the end of the short workshop, some people had made at least two cards. 

I had the whole group display their cards on tables at the front. Although they'd all received the same guidelines, the creative diversity was fascinating. Also, I never said they should stay within the frame or expand beyond it, yet some of the women clearly moved out of the box. Though I had lined up some of my own cards on the ledge of the blackboard, I was gratified to see that no one had made anything like mine. Each card was truly an original work. And several gave me some new ideas.

In the end, it was not the resulting card that mattered but the process they'd gone through--how they felt and what they learned. Since there was no formula to follow and nothing to copy, I wanted to know how the exercise affected them. Because I'd not seen anything these women created in the past, I couldn't assess whether what I saw was a big departure from their usual expression. 

At first, the women were shy to voice their feelings. Then, gradually, I heard how much freer and looser and more spontaneous they were in engaging with the materials, maybe trying something different since there were no strict rules, no test, and no judging, for I had encouraged them to remember what it was like to be in kindergarten. 

Then one woman was brave enough to step forward and reveal her heart. She had been conflicted about attending the workshop, for it meant skipping a class. At the last minute, she'd decided to come. She expressed how it was exactly what she needed, for she had reached a crossroads where she was torn about what to do. She shared with us that she has felt lonely, that her artwork isn't cherished by others, yet that of her studio mate is. Her doubts had grown to the point where she found herself on the verge of forsaking art altogether. Now, she knew she wouldn't give up.

How the workshop experience and my words flipped a switch inside her, I certainly can't explain. But when we shift our attitude, when we let go and simply move inside the process rather than fixate on some outside measurement, something happens--things get clear and we know that we have to follow our passion, regardless of the circumstances, however we can.

I told the young woman that Van Gogh, among so many other artists, had to paint, even though no one supported his art except his brother Theo. Yes, it definitely feels wonderful when we receive kudos for our artwork, be it dance, music, weaving, or writing. But perhaps the difference between being an artist and not being one is not whether someone praises what we make, publicly displays it, or purchases it, but whether we have to keep creating anyway. 

Questions & Comments:
Have you ever been at a point where you wanted to give up making art?
How did you overcome it, if you did?
What would you advise others at the brink of forsaking their passion?

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