I recently asked a long-time student, how she felt about learning so many things when sometimes she didn’t finish the projects. This is a bone of contention for a lot of people. I hear it all the time. “Oh, I can’t possibly sign up for this or learn how to do that until I’ve finished all the things from these other classes that I’ve already taken.”
I’ve confessed to Having Shiny Online Workshops Syndrome, so I understand that pressure. Sometimes I look at the things in the drawers and the trays cluttering my bench and I wonder, “When am I going to have the self-discipline to finish these things? Because they probably ought to be finished.” Then another, saner voice in my head says, “You know, guilt is really not a very good reason to finish anything.” So I asked Joan Geisler, my student, how she felt about situation.
To my surprise and delight, she said it wan’t an issue. “I have trays boxes and bins,” and my first thought was, well, don’t we all, tons of them, too many! Who knows what’s in most of them? But not Joan; she’d figured out a solution.
She bought really cheap trays, like you might see at a cafeteria. Whenever she takes a class, she puts all of the materials, supplies, partly done projects, notes, and handouts on a tray. Whenever she’s working on the projects from that class, she grabs that tray. Then when the class is finished she moves the parts, notes, and in-progress things to a box, which she labels. The boxes might sit on her bench, or she might decide she’s done with that work for a little while, and she puts that box in a larger bin. Everything is super organized and labeled.
If at some point she’s having one of those days when she can’t decide what to work on, or she’s looking for some ideas, she goes back through the bins and boxes and revisits her experiences from a class. Maybe she sees something she wants to keep working on, or maybe gets an idea for something else. Maybe she says, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of this, but I learned something from doing this project, and now that gives me an idea for something else.”
It’s a whole system, and not all the trays and boxes and bins match each other. She didn’t spend a fortune at the Container Store. She made use of lots of cool boxes that she’d saved. The key is she labeled them, so she can find anything.
Her concept reminded me of a couple of things. One was George Carlin’s famous comedy routine, “A Place for Your Stuff,” in which he explains, a house is really just a place for your stuff; your apartment, a place for your stuff; your suitcase, a smaller version of your stuff when you go traveling, and on and on it goes…
Don’t even talk to me about my purse. It’s ike Hermione’s bag in the final Harry Potter book. At some point I could probably pull out a tent and a couple of sleeping bags if required. No matter how small and lightweight I keep it, at my age it has become what my friend Dwynette refers to as the grandma bag. When somebody needs something, if you have a grandma bag, you’re the person who opens her purse and says, “Oh, here, honey, I’ve got one of those,” be it a nail file, a band-aid, a pen, a pack of Kleenex or, well, multiple bottles of hand sanitizers and masks.
The other thing that struck me about Joan’s concept, is that her studio itself has become a three-dimensional sketchbook or journal. A journal is a place where we record things: ideas, thoughts, to-do lists, random quotes, whatever comes into our minds – bits of sketches, scrawled and scribbled in ways that maybe only we understand. Our journals aren’t for everybody else. On Pinterest you can find all kinds of bullet journals that make your mouth water and wish they came in readily available, printed pages. Don’t.
Those boards will make you feel like a total amateur, if you keep any kind of journal or sketchbook. Journals, however, are personal like purses. You don’t open them up and show them to people unless you’re either going through security somewhere or somebody needs a band-aid, and even then you’re not displaying everything in there for everyone to see (unless the airport security person really wants to mess with you). Journals are private, like a studio, especially now when it’s less likely that we’re all gathering in each other’s spaces.
Perhaps if a studio is a 3D journal, then Joan’s boxes and bins and trays are pages in a room-sized sketchbook that could remind us of where we’re at at any given point and keep safe the ideas we want to pick back up or save simply because they’re cool ideas. At some point you’ll run out of paper in a journal and have to crack open another, but even still a journal is never complete. The act of keeping one is often lifelong, like the act of keeping a studio, like the act of keeping all of the things that you started working on and didn’t “finish.”
What if the state of incompletion that you brought projects to was the state you needed them in, whether or not that meant they were “finished?” If you’re a painter that may not mean they’re ready to frame and hang on the wall. If you’re a jeweler or a metalsmith, there’s probably a fair amount of raw materials caught up in there, but as long as you can still buy more to work with or recycle the metal, so what? The point is they are objects, memories, techniques, learnings of what not to do, learnings of how to fix what you didn’t mean to do, all caught up in these often tiny treasures of knowledge, self-knowledge, and technical knowledge. Knowledge that goes back millennia of how we do these things.
They are a little time capsules, and like a journal, we can close the book or turn to a different page. We don’t have to worry about going back and creating a polished essay for publication of every little jotted note that we put down on a day when it felt important to record it. Maybe those things turn into something great, but they’re never all going to get finished. While on the one hand that creates a kind of an angst, or maybe just a guilt complex, on the other hand, it’s really freeing. It frees us up to learn something new, to turn the page, to pull out another tray, or to put some things in a box.
One day we can peruse what we’ve done. Maybe you do turn those jottings into an essay or a blog post, or maybe you pull out that pendant that you started working on and suddenly, you have an idea of what to do with it that you would not have had if you guilted yourself into finishing it way sooner This happens to me all the time. In fact, Jessica Abel, an amazing creative coach, author, and artist refers to the projects in process, or the projects that we have in our heads that we haven’t started yet, as waiting in the green room. The green room is that place that, well, if you’re as old as me, was where all the actors and comedians hung out while waiting to make their appearance with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
Every theater, no matter how small has some kind of green room. It’s not the dressing room. It’s a gathering place for performers when they are not on stage. If you’re the privileged few, then maybe you get to go back and hang out in the green room after a performance with some of the actors or performers. It’s a place where they relax where they’re not onstage but in the creative mode. Jessica is very big on the idea that, in order to have creative focus, you have to decide how many things really belong in that mental green room, or maybe some belong in the idea vault to be pulled out later like Joan’s bins.
I’ve confessed to Jessica that my green room is more like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirements. It is junked to the ceiling with all kinds of cool things that you don’t know what they’re for and you don’t know which you’ll use or how you’ll use them until suddenly you need them, and then they appear. For example, when I taught in person, I had tons of pieces that I had started and not completed because they were part of class demonstrations.
I was always very conscientious to demo things that were understandable and attainable enough for my students but also in my own voice so that they might perhaps ultimately become components of larger pieces. It not only saved metal, it saved me a ton of time because as the holiday season would start looming in the distance, and I’d realize I needed to get a whole bunch of artwork out to multiple galleries immediately, I didn’t have to start from scratch. I would pick and choose which ones really spoke to me to be finished. And when I say spoke to me, I mean that when I looked at them, I knew what they needed to be when they grew up. Those turned into pieces that people wear, hold, love, cherish, or live with.
So if all of those projects in process are hanging out in the Room of Requirements, and if a studio is really a 3-D journal, then doesn’t it tell us that what we’re on is a creative journey? There are going to be lots of places we stop and stay for a while and other places we’ll miss entirely because you can’t see everything on a trip, but the journey continues. Another page turns in the journal, and while that big white space might seem intimidating, it’s also fresh and full of possibilities.
As Elizabeth Gilbert is famous for saying, so much of creativity is about showing up. You can’t always wait for inspiration and you can’t always wait for the muse, but you can get in there and start digging through the pages or the boxes, or whatever you left lying on your bench yesterday, then suddenly, like Harry Potter, you would be magically transported into a realm of ideas that weren’t there the day before. Instead of looking at unfinished projects as a recipe for guilt, instead of looking at all of the things we think we should be doing, we could look at them in terms of all of the possibilities. Yes, that too can feel overwhelming, but then we can narrow them down by what we want to do, what speaks to us most.
The voices of, “I don’t know if I can pull that off,” still come up for me every single day, but you know what? Most of the time, there’s a way to pull it off. And if there’s not, then, well, maybe it’s time to turn another page and come back to that project later. Maybe it’s just telling you that those ideas are not melding in your brain yet, or maybe your heart is not really into working on that thing. There’s really no one else, but ourselves to create the guilt of believing we should finish every single last one of our creative endeavors.
For those of us who work in precious metal, there is always the option to melt it down, send it back into the world of stock and have it again as fresh sheets of metal. Truthfully, I don’t actually do this with very many pieces in progress. I rarely decide that something didn’t turn out or it didn’t go where I wanted to go badly enough for me to send it to the scrap bin, but remembering that it’s an option, removes some of that overdeveloped guilt and ridiculous belief that I should finish everything I start. This frees me up to start the things I most want to work on. Paradoxically, that makes me more likely to finish pieces.
What do you want to work on today? Hit reply and let me know.