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Personal Artistic Efficacy: Part 2

What brought me here today:

This is the part two of my personal artistic efficacy post. If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here. The original post just became too long to be read in blog post form. I’m not a spring chicken age-wise. The amount of accumilated artistic knowlege and experience that directly relates to my personal artistic efficacy is much more voluminus than I thought.

Edit: This post got longer and longer and longer as I edited it. This kind of seems like it goes against the whole editing process. I could have cut this post in two again. But having a part three to this subject just seem a little too much

Book binding:

I began to learn about book binding while still in art school. One of my instructors created a course in book binding. It was a awesome course too. We used this book. I loved getting to design and then physically create books. In this course, my education in graphic design, printmaking, and illustration all began coming together. A friend of mind at Herron took the course and wrote his own book about book binding!

I spent a large chunk of time creating handmade books. The coptic stitch quickly became my favourite way to create journals and sketchbooks. In my middle 20’s I was selling the books I created. I never made much money at it though. There were workshops that I taught at a small art paper store. And I did help the owner to create some packaging for some of her products. But the relationship soured and I stopped teaching for her.

What serves me now:

I still make my own sketch and notebooks. They’re incredibly simple saddle stitched little books. But they serve my purposes. There are times in which I do get a little more creative with my sketch and notebooks, but not often. The books I make for myself are much more utilitarian than my previous creations.

I do think that the time that I spent working with a needle and linen thread has served me well. Creating folios and precisely placing the holes, along with careful stitching, taught me a lot of patience. I had to be in the right fame of mind to put a book together. Rushing could result in split papers and warped book covers.

Jewelry:

I have only ever taken one jewelry making course. It was a silver clay workshop many years ago. I had a fabulous teacher who was certified in the teaching of the techniques of silver clay jewelry making. The course was so good that I bought my own tools to create more silver clay pieces. Some of the tools and materials were a little pricey, but worth it. I even managed to work with a small hand held torch without burning my house down!

The vast majority of my jewelry making knowledge comes from watching online tutorials and reading books. There was a lot of trial and error involved in my accumulation of knowledge regarding jewelry making. I also had an excellent friend who is way more talented and knowledgable about jewelry making that helped me when I had questions. The efficacy I have isn’t anywhere near what a professional has in this art form.

What serves me now:

One thing jewelry making taught me to pay close attention to the details. I had made up my mind to learn how to create a beaded chain. The kind with loops and wraps. Here’s a good tutorial for it. To create decent chain required a lot of practice. Even with the tutorials, I had to come up with my own way of working so that the beaded chain looked the way I wanted it to.

The other thing jewelry making gave me was the tools. I use my jewelry tools on a daily basis as a doll maker. My needle nose pliers come in all kinds of handly when I need to bend wire parts for the insides of dolls. Or for pulling a needle through a thick part of material. I also use my jewelry making tools while constructing my larger, paper mache dolls. Knowing how to use these tools has been a life-saver for me many times while creating artwork.

Ceramics:

Like book binding, I do have some professional instruction in this art medium. I didn’t take any ceramics while at Herron. The first ceramics course I took was when I was getting my art education degree at the University of New Mexico in the early 2000’s. I enjoyed the course and began connecting with that part of myself that enjoyed making little dolls and animals again.

During the last year of the program I was required to complete a year of student teaching. One semester was high school, and another in elementary school. A classmate and I were assigned to the same elementary school. We had agreed to help each other with firing the kiln. I didn’t feel like I was knowledgable enough to do it on my own. My short stature made it almost impossible for me to prep and load the kiln myself as well.

On the day that I needed to prep and load the kiln, my classmate bailed on me. She said she was busy. I attempted to get the kiln turned on and loaded myself. Long story somewhat shorter, one tearful call to my professor accompanied by one flash-burned right hand and arm later, I managed to get everything done. After this incident, I was terrified of kilns.

Baby-steps:

While still teaching art in the elementary school, I was fortunate to be assigned to a school that had a licensed therapist who was also a special eduction teacher. He had asked me if I could fire some of the work his students had created in class. I told him about my fear of the kiln. He came up with a series of exercises that would help me through my fears. It took an entire semester, but I did it!

I cannot adequately convey to you how scared I was of kilns at this point in my life. The teacher who helped me said he could see me start to shake when talking about using a kiln! Being able to use a kiln was such an important part of my job as an elementary art teacher. I had to try and get past my fear.

The next year, I took a ceramics workshop with a retired art teacher. He taught me even more about how to work with clay and kilns safely. This means, safe for the students and safe for me! During this ceramics course, I actually participated in a raku firing. The instructor made sure I was comfortable and felt in control during the entire firing.

What serves me now:

Up until my trauma with the kiln burning me badly, I had never had a powerfully scary experience creating art. Making art was a space in which I felt completely safe. Getting burned so badly made me suddenly unsure and unsafe. The teacher who helped me work past my fears, and the teacher of the ceramics work shop helped me to work through my fears. Then I had no problems working with ceramics and kilns.

My own fears highlighted for me how some students might feel in my art classroom. I could better recognise when as student was in a place of fear, and help them to work through it as well. The fact that my fear was specifically related to a kiln, helped me to see that a student may be fine with drawing, but painting may scare them.

Polymer clay:

I had been messing around with polymer clay since Sculpey became widely available in the early 80’s. Before Sculpey arrived, I would make and use salt dough to create little pieces of work. As a miniature hobbyist, I delighted in how easy it was to create realistic foods for my doll houses with it. The early form of Sculpey only came in white. This meant that all the finished pieces required painting. I didn’t mind. It was nice to be able to create tiny objects for my doll houses.

When I was much older, I did a great deal of experimentation with other polymer clays. Mostly Fimo. It was a little harder to work with. The clay took a while to warm up. But the colours were fantastic! Everything that I know about working with polymer clay I learned from a series of books whose titles completely escape my mind right now. But again, I am self taught.

I did make a lot of polymer beads that I used in my jewelry making. Several techniques that I learned from the aforementioned books created some amazing beads. While living in FInland, I didn’t do any work with polymer clays. Polymer clays should always be baked in an oven that is dedicated to non-food use. And I wasn’t comfortable with the off-gassing that would occur within our apartment oven.

Time to burn the house down:

While I was at UNM, I took a puppets and masks course. One of our assignments was to create a puppet show. I wrote a small skit, and then created four rod puppets. The heads and hands of the puppets were sculpted using Sculpey. I created all of the parts. Then turned on the oven to bake them. I remember sitting down on the sofa to watch something on TV. And then woke-up to my upstairs neighbour banging on my front door.

The entire apartment was filled with smoke. Black smoke was accumulating at the ceiling, and pouring out of my cracked kitchen window. My polymer clay was on fire in the oven. My upstairs neighbour saved my life. Once he was satisfied I was okay, he helped me open the windows and set up some fans to pull the smoke and smell out of my tiny apartment.

The happy ending to this was that I actually used the burned puppet parts. There was a lot of sanding and a tonne of paint needed though. After this scary experience, I never have put polymner clay in a regular oven. I bough a toaster oven. New Mexico is a warm, dry place. I used the toaster oven to bake my polymer clay in a well ventilated classroom or outside on the patio at home.

What serves me now:

Not falling asleep while baking polymer clay is one of the biggest lessons. Sometimes, even the simplest steps can go horribly sideways. In addition to using a dedicated toaster oven for all subsequent ploymer clay projects, a timer was also implemented as well.

I do love the colour and detail that polymer clays can offer. But I’m also aware that they are plastic. Plastic use is something that I’m trying to reduce within my art practice. In Finland, I began experimenting with creating my own paper clay. It was much more economical. I could use recycled paper and just a few items from the store to create the clay. The end product is biodegradable as well. Win-win.

The paper clay that I can make, or purchase also works much better in conjunction with paper mache. It’s light weight and sands well. I usually add several coats of my own homemade gesso to the surface before paining. And sand after the last coats are applied. That way I can get a more cohesive surface layer to the entire piece.

Crochet:

I started learning to crochet in my middle 30’s. There had been several previous attempts to learn how to either knit or crochet. They ended in a lot of knots and extremely sore hands and wrists. When I had to have some major surgery that would leave me in bed for an extended period of time, I decided to give crochet a try again.

There was a fantastic store called Village Wools in Albuqueruque, New Mexico where I bought yarn for doll hair. I picked up some beginner booklets, some yarn and a few hooks. The first thing I tried to crochet was a square. I made a triangle because I forgot to add the extra stitches when I turned the piece. Eventually, I figured it all out.

I didn’t really crochet in earnest until moving to Finland. It’s a very knitting and crochet friendly culture! So many people knit and/or crochet too. I learned how to create more intricate squares and then join them all together to make large afghans. Among the few things I brough back with me from Finland, includes several warm, crocheted hats and scarves.

Sewing:

I come from a family of women who sew. Most of my clothing as an infant, toddler and small child was handmade. All of my clothes were tailored to fit my body as a kid. Going to the ‘yardgood store’ was something I enjoyed a great deal when I was little. It always seemed to be quiet and weirdly good-smelling, or so I thought. The pattern books were so much fun to look through too!

There was no sewing machine that I could use in the house I grew up in. Which was probably a good idea. I would have probably broken it if given the chance. So I didn’t take a sewing course until I was in the six or seventh grade. And I hated every single second of it. Every. Single. Second.

An ill fit:

There was some kind of animal shaped pillow that all the students were supposed to make. My mother bought a pattern for a skirt and made sure the teacher taught me how to make a skirt instead. I hated how it singled me out from the other students. It made me feel like a freak. The fabric was nice, but the skirt I made just…was not good. This experience coloured my view of sewing machines for the decade or so.

Detente was achieved in my late 20’s with the gift of a Kenmore sewing machine from my parents. That machine was a tank! It wasn’t fancy, but it got the job done. The Kenmore machine was used when creating some of the larger, fabric and felt dolls I made prior to 2014. When we moved to Finland, I gifted the Kenmore machine to a friends daughters. I hoped that this solid, easy-to-use machine would help them learn to sew.

Embroidery work:

I create a metric tonne of embroidery work on a weekly basis, but I have never taken a single class, workshop, or online tutorial to learn how to do it. There was a book that I picked out of a public library discard box, published in the 60’s that I read. It had a lot of history of Nordic needlework traditions in it. Alone with some good pictures of what the stictches looked like.

I’ve only actually done needlework in front of a person once in my life. She was a skilled needle worker too. Her advice to me was to make sure that the back of my embroidery projects were as neat and tidy as the front.

Patterns a no-go in sewing and embroidery:

I concider myself to be an idiot in several distinct ways. One of the ways I’m an idiot regards my complete and utter inability to follow a pattern that was created by someone other than myself. I can sit down and create a set of patterns for a complete outfit for a large doll. While at the same time, I cannot understand a pre-made pattern for doll clothing that I might purchase.

The same goes for embroidery work. My sister is very good at creating counted cross stitch pieces. I gave it a try once and did not last more than a few minutes before I was completely disinterested with the whole concept. The pictures that I could create with the technique did not appeal to me in the slightest. Creating my own pictures. That appealed to me.

How has this served me?

Not being able to use pre-made patterns means that I can create my own unique artwork. I’m not using someone elses creative output as a starting point for my own creative expression. If I want to make a green doll with three heads, four arms and tremendously long legs. I can do that. There’s not fiddling around trying to retro-fit an existing pattern with my own ideas.

Creating my own patterns leaves me beholden to no one but myself. If a pattern works, that’s great. Sometimes a pattern doesn’t work. But that’s okay too, because I learned something while I was making the mistake. There have been some patterns by talented creators that I’ve been able to follow. What I’ve noticed about these patterns is that they all use the same materials and techniques that I use. So I suppose these patterns put me at ease from the start.

What does all of this mean?

Efficacy is built over time, practice and accumulated knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge comes from direct instruction. Other times, it’s self-guided. I’m naturally an intrinsically motivated person. Especially when the subject matter is of interest to me. If there’s a technique or material that I want to know more about, I have no problem seeking out information or people who can assist my learning.

I don’t easily give up on learning a technique either. More often than not, once I’ve learned a technique, pysanky for example, I move on to a new technique that I want to learn. Each subsequent technique adds to my overall artistic efficacy. This adds to my skill sets as an art teacher. Having working knowledge of a wide variety of tools, materials, and techniques gives me greater freedom to create my own artwork as well.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you again next Tuesday.