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Making Friends with the Unknown

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Last week I wrote about the rigidity of the purist whose obsession with rules and technique are actually driven by a fear of self-expression.

This week I want to talk about another common avoidance based technique obsession–the always-acquiring, never-doing life of Technique Flitting.

Part 2: The Technique Hummingbird

If you’re anything like me, you love learning and experiencing new things. If you’re also like me, your eagerness to lap up all kinds of exciting art, design, or craft techniques can leave you constantly putting yourself in learning and accumulation mode–never exploring anything you learn deeply or with much integrity because you’re on to the next thing before the latest one has had time to sink in.

It’s kind of like reducing your passion for creativity to a technique shopping experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy shopping and love me a flea market–but creating isn’t shopping.

Creativity has a deeper role to play in your life than shopping, and if all you do hunt down cool bargains, buy them, and then go look for more stuff, it ends up minimizing your gift, your passion, and the role that art and creativity plays in a human life as a vehicle for transcendence, understanding, and true expression.

All critical pieces of a life well-lived.

And, just as the obsessive Technique Nazi from last week may hide behind her rules and purism about her craft in order to avoid figuring out what she wants to say, the Technique Hummingbird is masking that same anxiety in an onslaught of newness and temporary stimulation.

So both extremes are expressions of the same fears.


Part of this reliance on technique to avoid personal expression is because expressing yourself is uncharted water–it’s usually ambiguous, hazy and unclear–and ambiguity is usually uncomfortable.

Plus, it leaves all the decision making up to you because the question is no longer about HOW but about WHY.

And then, even when you DO have an idea, these questions continue throughout the creative process–are these the right marks? Are these stitches expressing what I want? Did I make good choices–am I expressing this idea or that observation about the world?

It’s all questions and very few answers.

Of course, this also feeds another fear: what if you try to head down the road of self-expression and then realize you’ve got nothing to say?


What to do…what to do…

Make Friends

The thing is, ambiguity is a fact of nature, and an important part of the creative process.

It is, therefore, your friend.

Rather than dreading ambiguity or feeling discomfort, consider that ambiguity makes room for everyone. There’s always more than one right answer–in fact, it’s not even about right answers.

Ambiguity is possibility—and nothing cheers me up more than possibility. It provides a rich playground to spend lots of time in–a lifetime even.

Ambiguity also implies impermanence–which doesn’t have to mean loss. Impermanence can be a good thing: I’m glad I’m not in the same place I was when I was 16. I also love the adventures I had in my twenties and now treasure the stability of being a happily married home owner in my forties.

Throughout all this time and myriad changes, I’ve created artwork. I’ve been drawn to lots of different materials (due to my own technique hummingbird tendencies) while simultaneously revisiting a handful of materials and techniques over and over. I’m never bored and it’s always an evolution.

Being an artist is living in the ambiguity. And there’s great joy and even solace in ambiguity and possibility.

So right now, if you feel like you don’t have any ideas, or that all your ideas suck, take heart. Not having ideas is a temporary situation.

If you’ve been focused solely on technique for ages or haven’t made anything in a while, it’s natural to draw a blank when you ask yourself “Why” instead of “How.”

Ideas will emerge, I guarantee it.
All you need to do is pay attention to yourself and your life–notice and wonder about it.

For instance, think about what’s happening in your life right now–same old, same old? Maybe you need to create work about boredom or anger–what does that look like? Or maybe it’s same old-same old in a lovely way–so how do you express tranquility and steadiness?

Or maybe you’re drawn to formal issues–shapes, colors, scale, light, etc. Immerse yourself in these things–go on an observation binge and you’ll see you’ve got something personal and unique to say on that topic.

Explore and Allow

Whatever you do, treat your forays into personal expression as an exploration not a test.

Allow yourself the ideas you have–don’t judge them. You don’t even have to understand them. You just have to shush your left brain need to control it all and let your right brain explore them.

Don’t decide they aren’t interesting enough or smart enough. For instance, I’m on some circle obsession with my collaging–going on for months now. Rather than decide that that is banal or silly or shallow, I just observe it and indulge it. Here I am with my circle thing, I think, as I punch out more circles and glue them down. I wonder what this is about?

It’s being on your own side and giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to justify what you’re doing or explain it to anyone–you’re just observing and experimenting.

Start treating your ideas like they matter, and they do.

And the more generous you are with yourself in this way, the more generous others are  about it too–because you own it.

When you start using technique to explore ideas, you’re striking a healthy balance between technique and expression–each informs the other.

It doesn’t mean you’ll get it right all the time, but that’s a given.

Because even though we all love to make great stuff and then stare at it like a star-crossed lover, it’s really all about the ride.

A rich, rewarding, courageous, meaningful, playful, aesthetic ride.

What do you think? Have you been hiding behind technique rules or lots of  learning and no doing? Please share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

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Fear of Content?

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Part 1-The Enforcers

As committed creatives, we all know that technique is important.

But in almost any art, design or craft medium, there are those who worship technique above all else.

(And coming from a fiber art background, I know this is especially true of my field in particular, but technique totalitarianism can be found in all forms of creativity.)

And really, I think that can be fine–you know, whatever floats your boat–except an obsession with technique is usually accompanied by a lot of rules about what counts, what doesn’t, what’s cheating and what isn’t.

Which is usually accompanied by judgment.

And that’s just stifling.

But aside from stifling oneself, I see it enforcing a stifling creative atmosphere where you can feel like you’re risking outright rejection by your creative tribe just by experimenting or breaking the spoken or unspoken rules of the group–whether those rules are about hand stitches only or what comprises a “real” painting. I mean, who wants to be judged by the very group one wants to belong to?

If you’ve felt stifled and afraid to create “wrong” work that will be looked down upon by rule-driven creative peers, I’d like to point out something I’ve noticed over the years about technique tyranny.

Here it is:

Most obsession with technique is masking a discomfort with ideas.

Yes, I’m talking about Fear-of-Content–an effort to avoid the question of “what are you trying to say and why?”

It’s a way to stay in a black and white comfort zone that relieves a person from exploring the ambiguity of  personal expression.

Maybe it’s a fear of not having anything to say, or a fear that what you have to say is unimportant.

But when you start down the path of personal expression, then technique is there to serve you and not the other way around. No longer a slave to technique, your options open up about how to use your technique(s) to convey a thought, idea, emotion or moment in time.

Suddenly, when you begin to commit to your personal expression, it’s okay to use a machine on that quilt or charcoal in that painting–if that’s what will help you express your particular vision.

And, what’s so…ironical…about this process, is it might end up leading you to an even deeper commitment to particular techniques afterall–because once you know what you want to say, you’ll want the tools to do it.

But if this happens, it comes from an empowered place–and there’s no need to compel anyone else to do what you’re doing, pass judgment on other colleagues’ choices, or subjugate your vision to unhelpful rigidity or petty rule enforcement.

What also starts to happen is that when you allow yourself to create on your own terms like this, kindred spirits start coming out of the woodwork as well–so even if your risk taking removes you from one tribe that prefers rules and technique, your authentic experimentation lets your true tribe find you and support your efforts.

Ain’t no mountain high enough!

Next week I’ll share Part 2 of Technique Tyranny and the Fear of Content.

In the meantime, what do you think about what Part 1? Do you buy it? Have you experienced Technique Tyranny?  Do you do it to yourself? Does it feel safer than delving into deep expression? Please share your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

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Sarah Kay–Joyful Creativity

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Last weekend one of my sisters showed me this video of the Performance Poet Sarah Kay‘s Ted Talk.

I wanted you to see it because she’s so joyful and so committed to her art form and her process, that it’s very inspiring.

Click on the video below to watch–or, if you don’t see anything, click here to see it on YouTube–it’s worth it. Enjoy!

Typically, I don’t start writing my blog posts or newsletters until I’ve got a clear idea of what I want to say. I ruminate for a few days before I write, and then, when I finally hit on my “hook,” I get started–and not before then.

Perhaps that sounds simple or obvious, but it’s the way I write my newsletters–therefore, it’s my newsletter writing process.

I’ve only started to notice my newsletter writing process because lately, I haven’t been able to use it, and that’s made it challenging for me to write anything at all.

In fact, in the last month or so, I’ve actually missed a week or two, which is highly unusual for me. (Okay, I was sick too, but still.)

And because I can’t change the nature of my schedule (at least for now), I’d like to find a way to adapt my writing process to my situation.

And this got me thinking about you.

If you’re trying to make room for your creative dreams and are having a hard time of it, maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel like you can “do your thing” the way you normally do it, or the way you used to do it, or the way you’d prefer doing it.

Maybe you like to work undisturbed for hours, but you can’t carve out a big block of time in your current busy schedule. And if you can’t do it that way, you think, “Why even start?”

Or maybe you feel like you need lots of privacy to create, but your home and your family aren’t designed that way and you feel too exposed to dig in.

This is challenging. And the funny thing is, this kind of block/thought can live underneath your own radar–it can be holding you back without your consciously realizing it.

Which can make it hard to fix.

However, once you are aware of it, then things can shift.

(Less Than) Ideal Conditions

The thing is, it’s a two step process:

  • you have to realize what you’re thinking/believing AND
  • you have to be willing to let it go.

This second part can be hard. Because maybe you’re pissed about not being able to follow your natural process. You WANT 4 or 5 hours in one solid block dammit.

Or you WANT to be able to work on something for longer than 5 minutes without 10 people hunting you down because they’re hungry or because they can’t find something they need right this second as they look down at your work and carelessly say, “What’s that?”

You want that. Is that so wrong?

No, it’s not.

And yet, it’s also getting in the way because the stars are not aligning to make your that happen.

So if this is you–if you realize that you aren’t creating because conditions are not ideal, then you’re probably going to have to let that attachment go in order to start creating. To be the artist you are.


But you can take your time about it. Feel free to be huffy, grumpy and out of sorts for a while.

And while you’re huffy, just consider letting it go. And when the huff dies down a little, maybe express it in words–privately in your diary, or out loud over coffee with your best friend, or to the guilty parties directly–”can you guys PLEASE give me some time to myself?”

And as you let yourself both be upset and consider the possibility of other options, your resistance will start to shift. A solution may pop up out of nowhere–maybe it suddenly feels okay to ask your loving family not to look at what you’re working on because it makes you self-conscious, or you feel more willing to try using the 20 Minute Technique and set yourself a lower bar for what you might accomplish in one sitting.

Now that I’ve figured out what’s impeding my writing, I’m asking myself, “How can I adapt so I can get back on track?”

What other way can I write my newsletters when I seem to have no space in my brain for another new thought?

How can I transition between disparate tasks in ways that work for me?

Or could I adapt in another way, and change my writing schedule instead?

What do I want for myself and how can I make it happen?

And so I ask you too:

What do you want for yourself and how can you make that happen?

Big Hugs! -Sarah

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Fear of One Hit Wonder Syndrome

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You know that favorite piece of yours–that one you love like crazy and feel most proud of?

Are you secretly afraid you can’t beat it? Or that it was just a happy accident?

I mean, you know you made it, but it feels like the exception and not the rule, and maybe you’ve decide that it doesn’t count?

Or you feel like you’ve mysteriously managed to trick Fate and slip one by him as he dozed off on his 24 hour shift at the Dickensian Don’t Get Too Big for Your Britches accounting desk in the sky?

Maybe you’ve even made something you love so much that now it’s paralyzing you from making more work because you think none of it will ever measure up to that piece again.

And if it’s been a while since you’ve made anything and you feel rusty, these worries can bring on a full-blown bout of extreme self-censorship and anxiety about ever trying again.

Listen, you’re not alone. Almost every artist, crafter, writer or designer I know secretly harbors these thoughts or has done at some point in their creative life.

Thing thing is, it’s total garbage. You made it once and you can make it again–or do something better.

Your best work is there to remind you what you’re capable of and the incredible possibilities that lie before you. You’re not a One Hit Wonder, over the hill and past your prime.

No one is.

Even One Hit Wonders. Because their singular “hit” was about the market and has nothing to do with the music.

You have a lifetime of creativity and possibility in front of you. And in that lifetime, sometimes you’re going to make crap–it’s inevitable.

And those of you who push yourselves out of your comfort zone most often will make more crap than the others.

But you will also make more great stuff too.

The great stuff and the…. “wadders” as we say in the sewing world, are like a yin yang inevitability–each is necessary for the other, and together they make your path.

The “wadders” are not mistakes, and the time you took to make them was not wasted. They’re paving stones on your path to better work. The real trick is to enjoy and honor them.

And the more you create, the easier this is to do because…the more you create, the more you own your process.

The more you create, the more you realize you are not your stuff. You are, in fact, a many splendor-ed thing!

The more you create, the more you embrace the evolution of your own artistic journey and the less you care what others think about what you do.

The more you create, the more okay you are with your mistakes, side trips, and risk-taking.

The key is to commit to yourself and your particular creative path regardless of the “success” of the work you make. Why? Because you’re already in it for the long haul–whether you realize it or not.

You could get hit by a bus tomorrow, but you”ll probably live to a ripe old age and you’ll still be drawn to creativity and creating–whether you’re making anything or not–just like you are now.

How are you going to spend those years from now til then?

Are you going to get to the end of your life having protected yourself from bad feelings and occasionally looking silly, or will you include yourself in the creative experience simply because you want to, because you enjoy it, because it makes you feel like yourself, fully connected to being alive?

Will you give yourself challenges? Will you make things you have no idea how they will turn out? Will you immerse yourself and go to your particular edge?

Will you live your life like the artist you are–creating, looking, thinking, noticing, reveling, marveling, appreciating and making-making-making–unwilling to rob yourself of your particular creative experience, your particular creative path?

What will you choose?

Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.


What Knocks Your Socks Off?

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Think about the artwork that really knocks you out.

Work you love so much that you’re almost mad the other person made it and not you.

It might be work by a great master or it might be something by your next door neighbor.

Now ask yourself, “Why does it knock my socks off?” What do I love about it so much?

After you’re done saying it’s beautiful or gorgeous, things get a little harder, but really, you’re just getting started.

That, and it can be challenging to find words to express our response to visual art, design, or crafts because really, they’re wordless.

Keep going anyway. Describe the work to yourself. What is it “doing?’ How is it “being?’ What resonates for you? Why do you like this piece so much more than something else?

Ach! It’s not easy is it? It’s tempting to say, “I just like it and that’s enough.”

Sure, but before you quit, consider digging a little deeper for your answers.

Why bother, you ask? Well, because there’s gold in them thar hills, that’s why!

Why it’s Worth It

Neill House with Chimney from the American Folk Art Museum

Last week, I was visiting a museum with a friend whose taste is quite different from mine, and as we walked around, we were drawn to very different work.

For instance, I’m partial to a lot of folk art, outsider art and medieval art. One of the things all this work has in common is the flat picture plane–where the artist is unconcerned with creating the illusion of perspective.

My friend doesn’t like that kind of thing at all. And as we were discussing our different tastes, I thought, “Well, why exactly do I love the flat picture plane?”

At first, it felt hard to articulate because, as I mentioned above, the visual, aesthetic response is more like a felt emotion rather than a thought, and words can almost seem inappropriate.

But you can glean a lot of useful information for yourself as an artist/designer/crafter by trying anyway. It helps you understand your own taste and creative priorities more fully.

Sooooo, I continued–why do I like the flat picture plane? Well, I like it because:

  • It feels emotional–raw, direct, fragile, genuine, honest.
  • I like the constant back and forth that often happens in flat work where the artist straddles offering a narrative and expressing a flat, decorative feeling.
  • I like the “thingness” that a flat picture plan brings to a piece–the surface is what it is. Perhaps this is why I like a lot of decorative arts and traditional crafts in general–they are themselves, not a depiction of something else.

Now I’m not saying these proclivities are better or worse than someone else’s–they’re just mine.

But they’re helpful to consciously know–as a creator. It helps you define more clearly in your mind who you are as an artist and what your aesthetic goals are.

Everyone is drawn to particular artists, designers or crafters more than others, and you can experience the inspiration you feel from your favorites much more fully by exploring your responses to them more deeply.

This, in turn, helps on your own creative path enormously.

You start to notice your own patterns and artistic proclivities more overtly and begin to respect them as your voice, style, and artistic vision. You begin to embrace your own symbolism and artistic values with more intention.

By considering these ideas and consciously delving into your own particular aesthetic experience, you’re engaging in fuller, more serious way with other artists–living or dead–as well as connecting yourself more directly to the larger cultural continuum, and that’s important to do as an artist/designer/crafter.

Including yourself in the larger cultural conversation in this way enriches your aesthetic experience in general and changes how you approach and perceive your own creative endeavors.

It’s another step toward taking charge of your creativity and treating it respectfully. I think it’s powerful.

What do you think? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear.

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Join Me for (Virtual) Coffee?

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In the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of networking. Meeting lots of people about my artwork and my workshops, and I’ve been amazed at the results.

I’ve made the most surprising connections and learned so much about such a variety of interesting, passionate people.

(I’ve also learned a lot about the city of New York that I didn’t know–so many buildings I’d never been in before, so many subway stops I’ve never realized could be so beautiful. Okay, maybe not “so many beautiful subway stops,” but one down near Wall Street really stopped me in my tracks!)

It made me realize that I want to get to know my Make Great Stuff readers better too. Most of you live far from New York and it would be hard to get together for coffee in person….but why not have a cup of coffee and get to know each other over the phone?

I still have to work out the details–like setting up a calendar and inviting anyone who wants to join me for a 30 minute phone call and chat to sign up for times that I’ve got available–but I wanted to put it out there for you to think about.

What do you think? Would you be game for a virtual cup of coffee?

Please share your thoughts, I’d love to hear from you!

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