Issue 28 11.20.13

Issue 28
Inspiration and Realization

The following thoughts on “process in art” are taken from Shannon Wright’s blog, which is about art and the teaching of art.

Inspiration and Realization (Hard-Won Revelations About My Own Artmaking Process)

Ass Kicker S.Wright

All Terrain Ass-Kicker, 2009.
Proposal for military Hummer tire tread pattern, inspired by Afghan war rugs and “off-road” culture.
Cast black urethane rubber, recycled ground tire rubber, aluminum hanging hardware.
71.75″ x 12″ x 1″.
Original artwork and production by Shannon Wright.

A friend recently emailed me an interesting quote from Wendell Berry’s 1982 book of essays, Standing By Words. Wendell Berry’s words happen to apply perfectly to the enormous and complex challenge of making sculpture:

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.
— Wendell Berry

Ass-kicker render S.Wright

All Terrain Ass-Kicker, 2008.
Proposal for military Hummer tire tread pattern, inspired by Afghan war rugs and “off-road” culture.
Black and white C-Print.
18″ x 24″.
Original artwork and production by Shannon Wright.

The issue of where we end up, in contrast to where we originally intend to go, is one that sculptor Arthur Ganson touched on in a lecture at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco in October 2010. He said, “The real, physical world keeps me honest. Because I can imagine anything, but I like the discipline of the actual, physical world. It’s a really good grounding plane for me.”

Most of us only commit to figuring out how to make a tiny percentage of the ideas we come up with–– but once we do decide to tackle a given idea, it is often substantially altered by the fabrication process itself. British sculptor Tony Cragg celebrates his materials as active participants in the art-making process:

“[Sculpture] is an attempt to make dumb material express human thoughts and emotions. It is the attempt not just to project intelligence into the material but also to use material to think with. Sculptures are often and at their best not just the result of an artist taking a material, for example a piece of stone or a lump of clay, out of its normal environment and forcing them into a form which expresses a preformulated notion, but rather the result of a dialogue between the material and the artist. The material finds itself in a new form and the sculptor finds himself with new content and new meaning.”

––Tony Cragg, from the exhibition catalog, A New Thing Breathing

All of this leads to another, more practical, issue for sculptors. If I succeed merely in realizing my “preformulated notion,” then there is a good chance that another artist is out there realizing the same notion a week or two before me! This happens with many of my projects. In these cases, the only things that can save my work from sudden obsolescence are the richness and specificity that arise solely from process. As my friend and mentor, sculptor Elizabeth King has said, “It’s our process that saves us from the poverty of our intent.”

Mechanical Reproduction, 2012. Installation view at Mulherin + Pollard Projects, NYC.
Rubber stamp: basswood, cast black urethane rubber, hardware, paint.
Walls: latex paint stamped with oversized rubber stamp.
Dimensions variable.
Original artwork and production by Shannon Wright.

Thoughts on the Inspiration Stage

While on sabbatical in January of 2010, I compiled some rules by which I can gauge the potential of any one of my art ideas before committing to the grueling task of giving it tangible form.

  • If it isn’t funny, at least to me, it’s probably a dead end.
  • If it doesn’t have an elegant internal logic (with some peripheral room for interpretation), it’s also a dead end.
  • If it relies on absurd amounts of obsessive labor just to get to the point where I can visualize it as an idea, it will never happen. (Obsessive labor is fine and necessary in the later fabrication stages.)
  • If it has the fussy/hallucinatory complexity or “density of information” of an image that I might see in a dream, then I won’t know how to actually make it visible to others, and I should accept that I’m not the right artist to make this piece.
  • If the “style” an idea requires is not dictated by the story it tells (its internal logic), then I will change my mind so many times that I will never commit to it. I am enthralled by style but I tend to want to show my appreciation for all possible styles rather than accepting that I have to exclude most of them.
  • If I start with an abstract concept (like “animism” for example) and try to summon an image or object to embody that idea, I am unlikely to succeed.
  • Only when the image or idea arises fully-fledged as the result of seeing an existing physical object in the world and envisioning a specific alteration to it, will the piece have a coherence of materiality and concept. Alternately, if the idea arises from a word or phrase that has caught my attention, the piece may be successful.
  • If the title isn’t obvious to me and crucial to the idea from its inception, then the piece lacks clarity and is most likely doomed.
  • If a two-dimensional image is to be the final product, that image must arise from a preordained system that is integral to the concept. Generally, my own interpretation and “intuition” during the making process have no place in such a system. It is the system that saves it from being “picture-making” and makes it sculpture.
  • If the project isn’t virtually impossible to realize (within my limited means), then it’s probably not worth making.
  • Materials testing/ testing of the fabrication process must happen before too much labor is invested in “designing” the object. The convergence of an idea and a viable means of realizing it can easily extend beyond a year.

Thoughts on the Realization Stage

This past January 2012, on my winter break from teaching, I switched into pure “fabrication” mode for one super-intense month of 14-24 hour days. During this rare stint of mostly-uninterrupted work time, I arrived at a whole new set of personal “rules of thumb” based on my observations of what does and doesn’t work for me during the realization stage of a project.

Mechanical Reproduction S.Wright

Mechanical Reproduction, 2012. Detail: oversized rubber stamp
Basswood, cast black urethane rubber, internal hardware, paint.
14″ x 14″ x 14″.
Original artwork and production by Shannon Wright.

  • I have to make an entire full-scale prototype of each piece before knowing enough to make the “real” one. It is important to photograph every single stage so that I can retrace my steps.
  • I will enjoy making the mock-up/ test version of the piece, because it’s “just practice.” Once I start the real piece, my fear of messing it up becomes suffocating. I aspire to treating each piece like it’s just practice so that I can get the work done faster.
  • If a piece needs to do something, I need to force myself to start testing this aspect long before I focus on how the piece looks. The look of the piece needs to evolve with the action it performs, or the piece will be lackluster.
  • I will only get real work done under an impossible deadline. I will jeopardize my health and all my interpersonal relationships meeting the deadline. That’s how it works for me.
  • Everything will go hideously wrong so many times that I know I will never make the deadline. I will not tell any friends about an upcoming show out of fear that by doing so I will jinx the project.
  • For me, trying to keep a hired assistant busy for a set number of hours makes it impossible to focus on my own work and is more of a burden than a help.
  • I need to allow enough time to practice what I preach to my Installation Art students: if I spend two months making the physical objects for an installation, I need about two months to work with them in the actual space before the piece has a visual clarity and an internal logic. The first two exhibitions will have to be mostly practice, to see what the piece is actually about and what it should look like.
  • If a friend’s advice on how to solve a technical problem is at odds with my own instincts, then I need to trust my instincts. Otherwise I could find myself losing precious time before I finally go back to the way I originally planned to do things.
  • The cliché of “the happy accident” is legitimate. The accident may slow down the completion of the piece I am currently making, but it will inspire the next piece, which I would never have thought of without it. This is the kind of thinking-through-doing that Tony Cragg holds in such high esteem. It can result in a very different kind of object than the more cerebral “design, then build” model of working.
  • Having three weeks of mostly uninterrupted time to work on art (and a facility equipped with the tools I need) is the most fulfilling thing I know of. In his seminal work, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi explores the intense satisfaction that comes from absorption in extremely challenging creative work. He writes, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.” With each piece of art I embark on, the work is always the most difficult work I have ever done. When I am at my most overwhelmed and “baffled,” inundated with technical problems, it turns out that I am also at my happiest.

Shannon Wright was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and grew up mostly in Sydney, Australia. She earned her BFA in Sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University, and her MFA in Time Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She stayed in Chicago ten years, running the Columbia College woodshop, teaching and making sculpture. In 2002 she joined the faculty of the Spatial Art program at SJSU, which she now coordinates. Shannon’s work includes sculpture (some of it kinetic), installation, digital drawings, videos and collaborative animations. She is represented by Mulherin + Pollard Projects in New York City.