I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it...Picasso

Monday, August 23, 2010

Kaleidoscope Eyes

I have to say, the glow from that first outing has kept its charge for some time now.  I find myself drawing on the experience of being out in public with my work and can feel myself changing.  Its a shape shift into something that has always been there.  Maybe it's a melting.  The melting of a persona that was fabricated over years of my life, applied as a mask to survive, please others, do what I was told, be what I thought I should be.  I have several talents and I have pursued most of them.  Success has rewarded some more than others but when I look back to my childhood my earliest impulses were to make things with my hands. 

I never drew very well.  My eyes didn't translate depth to the flat surface and though my hands were quite capable under well guided circumstances I just didn't draw well.  I longed to be able to sit under a tree with a sketch pad and good lead pencil and just sketch for hours.  I dreamed of what it would be like (still do) to see something in my minds eye and be able to translate that onto a sheet of paper.  But in reality, me, not so much.  And because of that I got it into my head that I wasn't and could never be an artist.  No drawing, no art school.  Never mind that I would spend hours in the art room of my hippie high school in Seattle working with clay, throwing pots on the manual kick wheel with its huge concrete wheel that looked like something out of a grist mill.  Just because I loved helping Don, the art teacher, set the hay on fire to do some Raiku clay firings didn't mean that I could make making things a way of life for myself.  My sense of color was just an additional asset when it came time to decorate my house when I grew up or helped me be a "good dresser".  No, it didn't matter that I loved having dirty hands and swooned over the smell of wet clay or loved the transformation of wax into metal or that even if I couldn't produce a realistic drawing, the sight of a blank sheet of paper gave me butterflies.  Blank, white paper.  Total possibility.  No holds barred.  Freedom.

Instead, I graduated from high school and took off for New York to dance.  I was better than most but I certainly had my limitations.  I lived in that skin for many, many years.  Eked out a living and always felt like a bit of an impostor.  I lived the life in full passion but at the end of the day I never felt like I was in my own club.

Through the years I have always had these spells (as my grandma Matie used to describe them) where I was overcome with the primal need to make something.  I would see a piece of embroidery and would have to run right out and buy a hoop, needles, thread and cloth to make something.  It never really mattered if "it" became something.  It was the doing.  I had to do something with my hands.  Sometimes it was as simple as painting something.  My BFF can tell you that when we shared an apartment in NYC all she had to do was mention changing a paint color and I was out the door to buy paint.  Christmas would come and I would get the urge to crochet and scarves and afghans and hats would abound.  I remember one year, in my deeply New Age period,  my BFF had started knitting and she had some beautiful yarn scraps.  I made little drawstring pouches from the yarn and put bits of sage, crystals, totems and a little scroll describing what each item meant and why I chose those particular things for each loved one.  I crocheted and beaded elaborate bags for tarot cards and rune stones but at some point the limitation of my skills and materials would burn out and my hands would once again be left idol and bored.

By the time my son was born I had reached the end of the line with my limited skills and all I ever got from my little forays into stitchery and house and furniture painting was a feeling of letdown.  It just didn't scratch my itch.  My hands were busy for a while but my heart was left empty.  I wasn't getting anything out of it anymore.  It all looked crappy and crafty and I wanted my hands to have something to take real pride in.

This is where the broken pieces mosaics come in.  I needed a new skill and this one seemed to be one I could teach myself.  It was also a technique that required multiple skills and materials and gave me a sense of multitasking.  I felt like I was doing alot.  The many steps gave me a deep feeling of accomplishment and the extended period of time it took to finish a project satisfied my need to work for something.  And there was room to grow.  Little things like knowing that earthenware tends to crumble a bit when you nip it but china cuts crisply.  Vintage Fire King splinters like the tempered glass that it is and those splinters usually end up in your fingertips (note to self to avoid).  Dishes that have started to discolor and turn brown and crackle are going to break with a dull snap unlike new plates from the damaged shelf at TJMaxx which snap with a bit of a ring.  I have grown to love the experience of being able to look at something, tap it, run my finger on it and know exactly how it is going to behave in my hands.  I recognize the clays and glazes and though I can't tell you the elemental composition of any of it, I know its ways. 

Glues and adhesives are the soap and water of my work.  At any given time I have anywhere from 5 to 10 different compounds to stick one thing to another in my studio.  Silicone, construction adhesive, tile mastic, craft glue, goop, E-3000, epoxy -  all do something different from the other.  I read about glues.  I have charts about what makes one thing stick to another.  Glass to clay.  China to wood.  Leather to metal.  Fabric to  fabric.  China to china.  These things are ridiculously important to me.  Grout!  OMG!  A science and an art.  Sanded or not sanded?  I almost never use unsanded anymore because it has less integrity but sometimes the sanded can scratch delicate china so every once in while I have to go no sand.  But that presents additional challenges because if I don't get the right water to concrete ratio, it tends to crack as it dries and it requires constant tending through the drying process.  Often I have to make a slip (runny grout) to fill the cracks and insure the piece is sound.

Color.  Choosing the grout color is, for me, the most challenging part of mosaics.  What will make the work pop.  Do I want it to pop or do I just want the empty spaces to show?  And there's many ways to color grout.  You can buy it premade and I have this nifty sample case with wands of color that I can hold up to a piece, like a color chip and choose a prefab color.  Sometimes those colors aren't quite right so I have to go the custom route.  I can buy concrete tints which are usually  powders and sometimes liquids but they tend to be earthy tones that you would use on a patio or floor.  I use acrylic craft paint sometimes and I can use that two ways - mix the paint into the grout or grout in white and then apply the paint to the whole piece and wipe it clean.  The grout drinks up the paint and wipes off the ceramic.  It creates two completely different looking finishes.

Okay, I'm boring you now.  I'll stop.  Here's my point.  Opening the door to a new skill changed my life.  Taking the leap to learn  how to do something new is a door opener of unforeseen proportions.  That new skill may seem basic and simple at first but it leads  you into a world of seeing things used differently.  Looking beyond the obvious and teaching your eyes, your mind to see and understand in a new context.  It's like looking through a kaleidoscope.  Initially the image is one thing but as you learn to turn the lens you can see the same elements in a million different ways.   You have new eyes and therefore new things to do.  You can change.  You can change what you see, what you do, how you do it, why you do it and how you feel when you are doing it.  You can remind yourself that everything holds new possibilities.  Nothing is static.  Not the things  you use everyday, not the vehicle you take to work everyday, not your home, not your body, not your kids or your friends or you pets, not your Self.   Everything is in constant motion and to live with the illusion that things stay the same, to assume oneself into "this is how I do things" is life numbing.

Learning something new is the most restorative tonic I know.


  1. Neely, Great post! I think your journey has similarities to the paths many of us have stumbled and bumbled on, only to finally find something where we feel at home, that we're so eager to learn all the ins and outs that it never gets boring. And I loved reading about your process, the importance of the glues, grouts, etc. I feel that way about my rocks - that I know the textures so well, I know what kind will work best for what purpose. And I also require different glues, different kinds of paints for different surfaces, etc., etc. So I found your details and challenges really interesting.

  2. I love this post! It's so important to change and grow and you have and will continue, I know. I also love that there's finally a photo of the artist at work!