Last Saturday I was de-stashing at a local craft store. There were about 40 people, taking their online store onto the sidewalk, or selling the items they make at classes taught in stores and online.
People wandered over–it was a great Saturday morning, sunny and mild. I saw a lot of purchasing, so I was cheered. The first person stopped at my table looked at the collage packs I had made and said, “Whose are these?” Not understanding the question, I said, “Mine.”
“No,” the woman said patiently, “Who made them?” I knew now what she meant. This was going to be hard to explain. “I’m not selling brand name kits,” I said, “These are made up from papers and ephemera I’m not using anymore, so I’m selling them. De-stashing my art stash,” I smiled.
The woman picked up a collage pack. “Where are the directions?” she asked. “What’s this going to look like when I finish it?” I needed to be brave, here. “There are no directions, you can use the material in any way you want. No directions, no sample. It’s a collection of color-coordinated papers you can have fun with,” I said, hoping I was encouraging.
The woman was not to be fooled so easily. “Well, you can’t just put papers together and call it a kit,” she said, sternly. “It has to make something. It has to have directions, otherwise you won’t know what to make with it.” I was filled with ineffable sorrow. There was no spontaneity, no curiosity, no joy of experimentation here. Just determination to complete a task.
“Do you like to work with kits?” I asked.
“Well, yes, real ones,” she said. “I have some cards I’m selling here. You should come see them! They are perfect!” she said proudly.
And they were. I wandered over to her table and saw stacks of boxed, perfect cards. The Thank You cards were stamped and embossed on scrapbook paper. All had perfect bows tied, each with a rhinestone in the center. The Congratulations cards had bands of perfect glitter perfectly applied. Not one flake out of place. She beamed at me. “See?” she smiled, “This is what a kit looks like when it’s done. These weren’t easy.”
“They are perfect,” I agreed. “What do you think about when you are making them?”
“Think?” she said, looking puzzled. “I create a little assembly line, and watch TV when I’m doing them,” she said. “I know the steps by heart, so I don’t have to think, I can watch TV,” she said.
A vision of thousands of croppers, caught in front of their TVs, each in a confined craft sweatshop passed through my mind. “What do you do if you make a mistake?” I asked.
Her face froze. “I don’t make mistakes anymore,” she said. “I make the same cards over and over, so I know how to do it,” she added.
I smiled, “Never, ever? That’s impressive,” I said.
“Well, I wouldn’t tell you if I did. I rip them into a thousand pieces and burn them in the barbeque,” she admitted.
I’m sure that there are thousands of happy croppers in the United States, doing what they need to do to turn out perfect cards. They are satisfied with their exactly lined up ribbons, rhinestones and glitter. But my heart aches to climb up on their worktables and hold up a sign that says, “Create what you want!” or “Do no-rules art!” or even (my favorite) “Make meaning, make art!”
There is so much more to creativity than watching TV while you roll glue runners next to a ruler, completing kits. I’d like to gather those people up and take them to my messy studio with very few rules and see if they remember how to play, how to drop into the wordless creative joy that makes rich meaning and lights up your soul and makes you want to get up every morning.
I’m happy to say that I’m teaching a class in May that bridges the two worlds. I’m teaching Postcards from the Other Side of Your Brain at Valley Ridge on May 5 and 6 of this year. There will be directions and samples. But we will start the day by walking outside and breathing deeply. We will work individually in an environment where mistakes are welcomed and worked into the art. We will share our thoughts and work privately. If you want to work differently, you can. Because we will be making meaning. And that always yields the most amazing art.
–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who teaches art projects that start with meaning making and include heart-deep writing, and exploration into satisfying results. If you haven’t played in a long time, really played, come join the class.