I’ve long known that all of my most successful pieces go through an ugly stage. What seems like a great idea, progresses nicely, and then suddenly, somewhere along the way,
I look at it and wonder…
…what the hell I was thinking?
With what feels like a boundless amount of time invested in creating my artwork, when a piece hits The Ugly Stage, I know I must engage all my creative problem solving super-powers to save it and persevere toward some semblance of my original design concept. I’ve gone through this so many times with so many pieces over the last three plus decades, that if a piece doesn’t go through The Ugly Stage, I worry that it won’t turn out so great.
A couple of months ago I was talking with my friend, UK silversmith extraordinaire Rauni Higson. We were kvetching about what it means to be always (always, always) pushing the proverbial envelope—and the limits of physics—to bend metal to our respective wills.
As Rauni joked about sounding slightly grumpy over the progression of a project, it came to me that, like The Ugly Stage, there is often The Grumpy Envelope Stage.
The Grumpy Envelope Stage is an essential part of pioneering something new.
There are things we can do with our eyes closed, without thinking, that go swimmingly because we’ve done them a million times before. The challenge, or the grumpiness, comes after deciding that doing something for the one-million-and-one time seems too boring to repeat exactly the same way. Then, it becomes much more satisfying to try something different, to combine two easily doable things into something we’ve not tried before, or to work near the edge of our considerable skill sets.
I’ve spent vast quantities of time experiencing this grumpiness— when I created my first Eastern repousse cuff bracelet and realized I’d thrown off the training wheels of supporting sheet metal; when I had an idea for a cutting edge, animated eBook with software that ought to work (and eventually did); when I knew in my bones that scaling up Eastern repousse to door size would be just like working on a giant book cover but with semi-communicating clients an ocean away…to name but a few envelope pushing artworks.
These projects were all exhilarating in the design phase, completely exhausting when they took far more woman-hours than I’d imagined, and a massive relief when they were completed.
Those vastly underestimated woman-hours and the inherent emotional labor involved in that exhilarating-to-exhausting roller coaster of progress remind me that, occasionally, I can rest on my laurels and create something I find easy to do.
Unfortunately for me, pushing that envelope is addictive, so now I build in time and support for the inevitable grumpy stage.
When we dance on the edge of what’s possible, things don’t go quite according to plan because we’re venturing into the untried and unknown.
We’re venturing into the realm of would-be-cool-and-ought-to-work. At least some part of the plan involves carving a new path through a thorny underbrush with a machete, rather than smoothly sailing down a placid river in a luxury yacht.
There is no way to know what you’ll encounter until you get there. If there are a few surprises or technical hiccups, it’s impossible not to feel a little frustrated or grumpy from slinging that creative, metaphorical machete in hopes of eventually finding a clearing up ahead.
Pioneering a process is inherently path-carving.
If it weren’t, more people would have succeeded in venturing down a path that is already there.