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innovation and inner children

August 31, 2011

I’ve been putting more puzzle pieces together, and I’ve realized that if you are an innovator, like I am, you will likely never be appreciated by traditionalists. Yet you have to have a relationship with both tradition itself and its practitioners. Otherwise you run the risk of investing a lot of time and energy into creating a new art form that you show to traditionalists who inform you that “you just reinvented the wheel!”

So I join a traditionalist group, and/or take a class, to learn traditionalist forms. But the whole time, I’m poking my stick into dark and forgotten corners, looking to take what is known and repurpose it in an unexpected way, or combine it with ideas and elements from elsewhere, creating a new approach.

When I took my first handweaving class, in Autumn 2004 at the Indianapolis Art Center, our teacher Mary Burks was very open to experimentation. We learned the traditional tapestry weaving techniques: hatching, slits, interlocks, soumak, stippling, looped and cut pile, which we demonstrated in samplers. I believe at some point she also talked about traditionally-woven fabric types, such as plain weave (also known as tabby), twills, and leno. She talked about Convergence, the biennial conference for weavers, which is sponsored by HGA, the Handweavers Guild of America. She urged us to join HGA because they are a community of like-minded artists who publish the Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot quarterly journal. She also recommended Interweave’s Handwoven (magazine). And she suggested we track down a copy of Mary Black’s The Key to Weaving: A Textbook of Handweaving for the Beginning Weaver, 2nd edition.

I did all of those things, and more: I joined HGA; I subscribed to Handwoven; I found a used copy of Mary Black’s book online; I started reading everything I could find about weaving, fabric, textiles, as well as other fiber arts, such as embroidery, sewing, garment making, and fashion design. (Over the next several years) I bought a whole bunch of books to teach me about all of these things. Later I joined ATA, the American Tapestry Alliance.

Most of the weavers I have met (which includes many who were not tapestry weavers) enjoy weaving because everything must be meticulously planned out ahead of time. And they also enjoy the rigid structure of the grid. Everything is very orderly, very tidy, very predictable. In weaving classes I took, I often heard weavers say, “every time I look at Piece X, all I can see is the glaring mistake I made!” Sometimes the teacher would encourage this person to try to see their “mistake” as a design element, but none of them could do it. Instead they invariably picked out all of their stitches going back to the mistake, and started over.

Weavers pride themselves on how straight and even their edges (called selvedges or selvages) are, as well as how uniform their interior lines are. Even tapestry weavers who are doing everything by hand. Woven fabric and tapestries are finished by either evenly binding off all edges, working to get everything as straight as possible, or sometimes creating a decorative fringe or line of knots at the bottom. Tapestries can also be framed directly, or mounted on fabric and then framed.

Tapestry weavers in particular use a drawing they call a “cartoon” for the design they are creating. Almost no one creates “on the fly”.

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What I liked about weaving was/is the patterns created by interlacing. But I had no interest in performing a predictable set of steps that a machine could have done (and many complex weavers today control their looms with computer software). I wanted to create unpredictable, nonrepeating patterns. And I did that by crossing-over-and-under as the spirit moved me.

Sometimes I used embroidery floss or thinner yarns to weave over the weft I already had, in still-different crossing-over patterns.

I discovered that I love creating a dynamic color mosaic effect by using yarns that themselves contain color mixes.

My tapestry selvages are not particularly straight, and I created impromptu “fringes” from the weft yarns. None of my tapestries are completely finished, because I can’t figure out a way to “finish” them in a way that doesn’t kill their organic pioneering spirit.

None of my tapestries were created with cartoons. All of them began with specific yarns I wanted to work with, and line by line, I built up “neighborhoods” of colors that want to be together. If they actually create design motifs along the way, even better!

I just realized that my tapestries are examples of Abstract Expressionism.

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And I realized this morning that the very first paintings I ever did, as a child taking lessons at the local park district, were attempts to express my moods abstractly as well. The teachers I had did not allow that. They told me what I wanted to do was impossible, and pointless. In two separate incidents, they painted their own inserts into my paintings, so that the end result would conform to what they thought was appropriate. (When I complained to my mother at the time, she couldn’t figure out why I was upset.) Every single time I looked at those paintings afterwards, for almost 30 years, I would rage at how my vision had been destroyed. And both teachers expected me to be glad and grateful that they had “rescued” my paintings from a fate worse than death – nonconformity. Oh the horror! A couple of years ago, I finally threw out those paintings. It broke my heart, because the parts I painted were amazing and beautiful. But all I could see when I looked at them was how my boundaries were violated, all for my own good of course.

After those classes, I stopped trying to paint what was inside of me, and tried to paint what other people wanted to see. And I gradually realized, I hated doing that. And I sucked at it. So I stopped painting altogether for 30 years.

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I don’t want to follow traditions, but I don’t want to create them either. My mother would say, there are leaders and there are followers; everyone has to be one or the other. And I would respond, well I know there’s a third way, because that’s what I’m doing — I’m doing my own thing for my own reasons. And I don’t want people to follow me; I want them to follow their own heart.

I don’t really understand leadership. I’ve read a lot of books about it, and in one of my jobs, I went through a six-month program on leadership, but I could never figure out why it matters.

In my experience, traditionalists do not realize how the process of creating traditions operates. They revere the end product, but they don’t realize that the process itself requires a lot of trial and error, and most of the ideas explored will have to be discarded because they don’t work. So a person that creates or discovers something (that becomes a tradition) is a person who likes experimenting, which is inherently creative, unpredictable, and dynamic. In other words, people who create traditions are not people who follow traditions. They keep experimenting, and they are always replacing favorite ways of doing things with new favorites.

To an innovator, following someone else’s tradition, especially if you’re doing so in a way that disallows tweaking, modifying, or otherwise customizing it to your own preferences, is a sign that you’ve given up and lost heart. We show we care by changing things to suit ourselves.

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When we find ourselves in environments that require us to follow rules, and reflexively respect authority, we don’t do well. Leaders often see us as insubordinate when, in our minds, we were looking for ways to exercise our talents — by changing things. We don’t fear change, we seek it out. And we know uncertainty is necessary for creativity.

My parents “helped me out” early in my working life by getting me a job at … a national bank. I’ve often wondered if they knew how diabolically unsuitable for me that job was. Did they plan it that way? Was I supposed to fail? I found ways to do well at it, including discovering that I was good at computers (CRTs, in those days), while everyone else in my area hated using them. So I became the resident expert. I liked the diversity of people who were my customers. And I loved working in downtown Chicago, exploring the city, and taking advantage of its opportunities.

But I hated banking, and I resisted all encouragement to train for higher-level positions, or worse yet, take classes on banking. Later, when I was in college, my father seriously suggested to me that I become an accountant or maybe an actuary — because I like numbers. If you truly understood that your kid was creative, nonconformist, and always looking for ways to change the world, would the careers you suggested for them include banking, accounting, or actuarial science? I don’t think so. On the other hand, my father was never interested in understanding me, as far as I could tell. My mother, neither. Once they realized I was a disappointment, they lost all interest in me as a unique individual.

I do understand that it must be difficult to parent a child like I was, especially your firstborn. Both of my mother’s parents were creative, but all three of their children were raised in a way that discouraged creativity and encouraged conformity. If my mother has ever created tangible art, beyond domestic activities such as cooking and making children’s clothes, I have never seen it. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen a picture she drew or painted; a pot, vase or ornament she made; a garment she made for herself; a scarf or sweater she knit; a bird house she built; a statue she sculpted; glass beads she lampworked. She is a great cook, but as far as I know she never created recipes of her own. My parents’ house has an entire bookshelf of albums filled with photographs she took over the years, but she rarely tried to do anything art-like with them. She had piano lessons as a child, but she’s never played any musical instrument as an adult. She has a prodigious memory of songs, but I don’t think she’s ever written song lyrics or song music. She loves ballroom dancing, but did she ever try modern dance?

Maybe my mother was born to be an innovator, but somehow found herself living the life of a conformist. Maybe she resents that my spirit wasn’t thoroughly repressed by my life circumstances, like hers was. Maybe she’d like to get reacquainted with her own creative spirit, but she doesn’t know where to start.

To someone who wants to rediscover their own creative spirit, I recommend finding your own inner child. I have two of them, and how I first discovered them was I saw a hand-dyed scarf in various shades of pink, and realized that some part of me really wanted it. At the time, I hated pink, any and all shades of pink. But somehow looking at this scarf, I remembered a long-forgotten love of “cherry pink”, from age 6 or so. I bought the scarf. And I started using crayons and colored pencils and fabrics to look for colors and color combinations that made me happy for no apparent reason. And then trying to remember if there was a reason.

I will often be drawn to certain clothing items worn by children: sparkly shoes always catch my eye, and I know my girls are coveting them. A twirly skirt or dress.

You have to shut off judgment, your adult self telling you it’s silly to like certain items, that they’re inappropriate for your age, or station in life, or whatever else. You’re looking for anything that will entice your inner child to surface and show itself. So be very careful to not scare it away. Encourage it, try to picture it, talk to it. You can do this with “active imagination” or just impromptu in your mind’s eye.

If you’re not primarily visual, maybe music would work — songs you liked as a child. Activities you  liked to do as a child – rollerskating, bike riding, skipping rope, playing house, card games.

Invite your inner child(ren) out to play, and as you get to know them, incorporate some of their suggestions into your life. There are days that I let my inner children dress me, and on those days, my outfit is very colorful, and filled with patterns that do not match. Sometimes pink predominates. Or sparkly stuff.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2012 21:46

    I thought this post was so lovely, and it resonated with me in a very surprising way.

    I’m very much a perfectionist. I quilt, and I DO see the “errors” when I quilt. I’ve been trying to break out of that mentality, and I’ve been told that the Amish quilters have a saying that “nothing is perfect except God. To try to make something perfect is to attempt blasphemy. So ‘errors’ are design decisions left in for religious reasons.” Or something to that effect. I love it because it’s such a creative way to approach my “errors”.

    Having said that, I love and enjoy other people’s non-conforming artwork. I don’t see errors with them at all. And I definitely am a “third-wayist”. So I find this very thought-provoking, thank you.

    • January 11, 2012 00:05

      I’m glad you got something useful out of it!

      Perhaps you could try looking at your own work as if someone else had done it? Maybe then your own ‘errors’ wouldn’t leap out at you in the same way. I’m not a perfectionist, so maybe that wouldn’t work.

      • January 11, 2012 22:11

        I like that idea!

        I know another thing that helped was making my own designs — kind of like you talk about, except I plan everything out first — instead of doing other people’s designs. Seeing my own design come to fruition was like… WOW, I MADE THAT?? REALLY?? and that made the errors seem much smaller in comparison with the overall amazingness. 🙂

      • January 12, 2012 14:47

        creativity is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It’s so satisfying to make something that tangibly exists in the world, when it started as an idea or image in your mind…

      • January 12, 2012 18:42

        Absolutely! It’s like… this was in my head and now it’s in my hands… wow!

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