Art and craft

Judith Wombwell

Here are a few words on what it feels to successfully create art, and why we can never really understand it.

This weekend I attended “The Fabrication of Imagination,” a show put on by the Arts League of Lowell, Massachusetts. The people there were fascinating.

I met Judith Wombwell, an artist originally trained as a choreographer who created the quilt shown here. The medium is photos of irises, printed on rice paper, then painstakingly origami-folded and sewn together. This piece took 3 years to create. If you look closer at the actual piece, you find yourself inside of it, endlessly fascinated.

I had to ask myself about how it feels to do this, what happens in the mind, and what happens in the resulting piece, and how. I have my own experiences to draw on as a writer for half a century, and my wife’s as an artist, and those of all the other talented people I know.

Two ingredients are key to create great art.

You must have creativity. You must have the desire to communicate something. Sometimes the artist does not even consciously know what she wants to say, but she has a powerful need to say something. But creativity on its own is not sufficient. A creative person without skill fails to communicate. Her art seems naive, random, undisciplined, trite, wrong.

The other key ingredient is craft. The artist must practice. She must develop skill. Let’s look inside the cliche of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. Imagine that you are a musician, a sketch artist, a writer, a dancer, a movie director, a comedian, a painter. In hours and hours of practicing your craft, you develop more than skill. You learn which elements of your craft suit your desire to express yourself. You fail, fail, and fail, and learn all the way to fail, and the narrow path to success amongst the failures — and how to succeed with failure as a basis. Craft creates the facility to express what you want to say. Art is a language and craft is fluency in that language.

Craft by itself is not sufficient, either. For craft without creativity makes you a hack. You can create, but what you create is just endless copies of stuff that’s already out there.

Craft and creativity combine to give you power. But there is more to it than that.

The artist in command of her craft has a thought. She wants to express that thought as art. There is no need to think about the craft — the drawing of the line, the folding of the paper, the swing through the air of the body, the typing. Those things have become second-nature, unconscious. The artist in command of her craft has a thought, and her mind and body turn that thought into art. This is flow, the highly productive and pleasurable state of the skilled worker facing and succeeding at the challenge. The artist in a flow state creates art the way a walker walks — not by thinking of where each footfall must go, but as an organic process.

Once you are in a flow state art gets better, because each choice generates further choices, which you can then modify with the craft you have mastered. The connection between your creativity and your expression is alive and protean. The art seems to create itself with you as the medium.

Now what you are creating is not just art, but an oeuvre. The question is not, “What is this piece I am creating,” but “How can this lead me to the next challenge?”

Unless you enjoy the process of acquiring the skill, you will never reach this state. But when you do, your power becomes unlimited.

Here is the irony. I don’t think artists can explain their art. Because you have not mastered the craft as they have, they do not have the language to speak to you. But even if they did, I do not think most artists are conscious of what they do. Artists talking about how they make art are incomprehensible. Curators talking about how artists make art are mostly incomprehensible, too.

You can write a book about craft (I did). You can marvel at art. But at some point in the process of mastering the craft, the artist can no longer climb back down to deconstruct what she is doing. You are left with nothing but the art and the barest traces of how she made it.

Perhaps that is enough.

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