January 9, 2008


The painting at right, "Accumulation," is so named for a project I began about four years ago. Over the years I had accumulated an enormous variety and quantity of goods - canvas, stretcher bars, pigments, papers, ceramic supplies, glass and other mosaic supplies. As a mosaicist, painter and found object artist I had indeed found a lot of objects - boxes upon boxes, jars upon jars and bags and bags of STUFF. It was a problem of creeping studio materials obesity that my younger years and frequent relocations had kept at bay. It was the downside of stability and a place to call home. Like many problems that plague us in modern life, this one happened slowly but steadily. A number of materials had accumulated as leftovers from various commissions over the years - the leftover marble from that project for the park, the glass remaining after that mural in Philadelphia. All the materials I had collected from fifteen years of teaching compounded the problem. Found, donated, scrounged, given or purchased, I could refuse nothing or deny myself anything.

But I began to feel suffocated by the accumulation and frustrated by the chaos of my studio so I made efforts for a few years to stop acquiring new materials and to use up the old. I managed to make things more orderly and saved some money, but invariably the accumulation returned - like the well-intended dieter who loses weight only to regain it when she lets her guard down.
Oftentimes that same person in an unhealthy eating or physical lifestyle changes only when shocked into doing so by a health crisis. My shock came from my loss of a dependable teaching income to a competitor compounded with a significant downturn in my free-lance work. And then there was a personal turning point as well that I like to refer to as the "drill factor." I used to smugly make fun of my father for occasionally going out to buy more tools because he couldn’t find the ones he had in his shop. "When I grow up," I assured myself, "I’ll never be like that." Years later I found myself in the midst of a studio clean-up, finding not just one but three virtually identical drills. A chip off the proverbial block! It was time to change.

There are self-styled, self-help gurus like Dr. Wayne Dyer who write books about change like Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao. I listened to him speak on PBS once and had some misgivings about his methods. He isn’t the first "sage" to advocate relinquishing material goods. It was the way he seemed to be going about it - heaving just about everything and running away - that I had a problem with.

I am of the firm belief that anything that is relinquished quickly and thoughtlessly will inevitably return - sometimes with a vengeance like with that crash dieter who starves off weight then binges it back on again. Further, I’m suspicious of sudden epiphanies and conversions. In contrast to the popular exhortation to"change your thought and change your life," I once heard a much wiser maxim that went something like, "you can’t think your way out of a situation that you behaved your way into." I believe that what is at the root of this behavior for artists or anyone who might acquire too many things is an overabundance of restlessness combined perhaps with a short attention span. It is a creative nature but unfortunately one that can make you into a modern day hunter-gatherer. And in our consumer society we are inundated with calls to assuage the hunter-gatherer within us.

So trying not to heed these calls, I sought to turn chaos to sensibility in slow increments, confronting the clutter and putting it into service. I first sold off duplicate equipment. I relinquished some projects that were going nowhere. I vowed not to purchase new materials until I had used up as much of the old materials as possible. On this last step I had to make a few adjustments. If I had a commission that required materials that I didn’t have on hand then I would have to judiciously purchase them. There were also instances in which some materials required the purchase of additional ingredients in order to be used. So with these loopholes figured in to the equation, I assessed the materials in my studio and figured that I could probably produce art from it for six months to a year without having to acquire more supplies. Wrong. I am now in my fourth year and am still at it. What happened in those four years required restraint, ingenuity and hard work but it paid off in a neater, more organized studio.
The difference happened slowly. For a while it seemed that nothing had changed at all. But then, as the weeks, then months rolled by hidden "stashes" of stuff emerged - an extra box of marble that I didn’t know I had, some empty paint tubes that I made pigment for. By December of the first year, my stacks of bisque tiles were used up and I did not replace them, bringing my tile decorating days to a close. By spring of the following year, my wood blocks for painting oil on wood were used up. By the end of the year a broom closet that had once been crammed with extra canvas and stretcher bars was emptied and became once again a broom closet. In January 2006 I reinvested my income in shelving and storage bins and spent three days sorting and packing the remaining materials. The studio was finally not the overwhelming dungeon of unfinished projects that it had been.

There were some breaks in the discipline, of course. I couldn’t resist some expensive pigments and overinvested in a commission or two. And there were the inevitable donations of materials that I couldn’t pass up. But when I look at the space that once held about a hundred pieces of boards for substrates and see only three left I know that I’m still basically on track. And now my few purchases are made to complete unfinished work and not to assuage the restless hunter-gatherer within.

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