When a blind person opens his eyes, he will see trees, rivers, or mountains; but if he is an artist, he will see lines, shapes, and colors.
A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of two artist friends, I paid a visit to M. Maselli & Sons Hardware Store in Petaluma (Northern California). I was not there to look for new products inside the store. I wanted to explore what was sitting in the seven acres stretched out behind it. When I was growing up, we called such places junkyards, and we didn't play in them. But, today, all over the world, they strike me as incredible playgrounds for anyone who can't help creating with all manner of jettisoned stuff.
To say the least, I was flabbergasted once I started walking around Maselli's. Initially, what I saw were shapes and forms that could result in interesting patterns on cloth through rust dyeing. When I began to look more closely, I discerned cogs and gas burners and every category of things made of metal and now rusting in the open air. It's a good thing that I had to be somewhere else at a certain time or I'd have spent the rest of the day just browsing and gazing, imagining what could be made with what was visible in every direction. I think it takes a certain kind of mind and attitude to see beauty and inspiration in this environment. To the right person, it doesn't look like junk; it broadcasts artistic possibilities.
André Sardone is an Australian artist who tunes into and responds to such broadcasts. He takes "discarded pieces of machinery, tools and mechanical components that have worked tirelessly in very hostile environments until they are no longer of use to society." He sees "the beauty in their engineered forms," recognizes that each one "has a story to tell," and then transforms the scrap metal into a different kind of beauty.
I don't remember where I came across the following quote, which may or may not be an Egyptian proverb: "A beautiful thing is never perfect." Looking at the vast collection of rusting metal at Maselli's made me reflect on the limited notions we too often have about what is beautiful and what is perfect.
What does it mean for a thing to be "perfect"? The Latin origin of the word signifies something as basic as "completed." Over time, it has taken on other interpretations. According to Webster's, definitions include "being entirely without fault or defect," "corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept," and "lacking in no essential detail." Of these three, I consider only the last one useful because the first two strike me as unrealistic and unattainable. As Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) has said: "Have no fear of perfection; you'll never reach it."
I used to make myself crazy if my stitches weren't perfect, if a line wasn't perfectly straight. In time, I was able to see how pointless that was, for even when using a sewing machine, I myself am not a machine. My stitching reveals me, a human being, not a robot, not advanced technology.
At an art reception some ten years ago, I remember admiring a work that I thought was technically perfect, the stitching enviable. A friend commented, "Yes, but so what? There's no soul in it." I realized that I was obsessed with an ideal that, from another perspective, wasn't worth pursuing. Then a different friend quoted one of her teachers: "Perfection is overrated." Okay, then I could go for excellence. But more important is that what I create shows my human hand and heart, rather than that it be entirely without flaws. As such, it could still be perfect because it wouldn't be lacking in any essential detail; it would be complete.
Nowadays, when mark-making with thread, I purposely do not create the stitches exactly even and the lines always straight because I find random lengths and movement more intriguing. The upshot is that perhaps I don't have to see my creations as imperfect--though they are--rather, as a fiber artist friend has suggested, I can broaden the meaning of the word "perfect" to embrace something deeper and more accessible than an impossible ideal. Something can be perfect only if it also embodies imperfection.
As renowned calligraphic artist and teacher Kazuaki Tanahashi says of the Zen circle, "The ensō contains the perfect and imperfect; that is why it is always complete." In Heart of the Brush: The Splendor of East Asian Calligraphy, he encourages students with the following words:
Your lines may not look perfect. Don't worry. Lines drawn by anyone, including a master, will never be perfect. "Perfect" means that the result is exactly what you intended...All you can do is strengthen your skills and keep your expectations open.
In many ways, lusting after an ideal of perfection seems particularly Western, perhaps a throwback to the Greek obsession with the perfect body, which still haunts us today. I've come to appreciate the beauty in imperfection, the beauty in what's been used and reused, even in that which has been broken or discarded.
There's a lovely tradition in East Asia of restoring that which has been broken, unlike the habits of our throw-away society. In Japan, it is called kintsugi ("golden joinery") or kintsukuroi ("golden repair"). Instead of automatically replacing fragmented pottery, someone repairs it with lacquer or resin mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The intention is not to disguise the cracks, but to illuminate the damage, to welcome and accept what is flawed, old, rough, and imperfect, and thus also to value its history. It's the opposite of equating beauty only with what's new, smooth, polished, shiny, and perfect. Similar is the aesthetic philosophy of wabi sabi, which acknowledges that there is nothing that lasts or is perfect. That holds for every thing and every person.
Like "beautiful," isn't what's "perfect" a subjective experience? For example, I treasure rust: the gradation of colors it produces, its ability to act as a dye on fabric, its reflection of the forces of nature at work over time. But someone else might say that rust makes the metal no longer perfect, as it once was when first manufactured. It's all about what we're interested in seeing. When we focus only on the scratch, we are likely to completely miss the "diamond." As French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) commented, "Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot find it in anything."
Questions and Comments:
How do you understand the terms "perfect" and "imperfect"?
How do you apply them in your artistic practice?
Whose skillful and aesthetic transformation of found objects are you drawn to?