Work/Life 3

Cover image by Jeff Rogers. Copyright Uppercase Publishing 2013

If you read my post back in May, you know that I applied to participate in Uppercase’s new illustration annual, Work/Life 3. You also know that I struggled with what I perceived as my own failure to deliver my best work, but I’ve since (mostly) made peace with it. As a wise friend pointed out, what’s important is to do the work and put it out there. It’s not important (or good for your creative practice) to expect a perfect result every time.

But this post is not about that. This post is about the process that led me from application to final submission.

  1. Application: after I saw the call on Twitter, I took a few days to consider whether I should submit an application. Ultimately I decided rather firmly that it was worth the investment. That decision was further solidified by how incredibly easy it was to work with Editor-in-Chief Janine Vangool and her staff. They were the consummate professionals throughout, and the turnaround time between my application and acceptance was surprisingly quick.
  2. Bio/questionnaire: this was way more thorough than I ever anticipated. There were pages upon pages of essay questions to answer — some mandatory, and some optional. To make a long story short, I had trouble with the instructions page and never found the form until after the deadline had passed. As a result, my answers felt rushed and incomplete, and submitting the interview late also meant that I received my assignment late, which did not get me off to a great start. Still, I felt pretty jazzed about the assignment and confident in my ability to complete it in the month I had left. As it turned out, I would need (and get — thank you, Janine!) an extension.
  3. Assignment: a couple of days after submitting the interview, I received the following instructions: “Go to the hardware store, a grocery store or a flea market and select some objects to use in an assemblage or composition about you.” It was a classic, Project Runway-style materials challenge — in others words, right up my alley.
  4. Brainstorming: I decided to adopt a two-pronged approach. Firstly, I would do my usual sketchbook brainstorming by making lists (of concepts, formats and possible materials) and creating a mood board of sketches and inspiring images. Secondly, I would take a leisurely stroll through Lowes and let the materials do the talking.

brainstorm materials

Project 1: Mobile

With a new baby on the way and notions of balance buzzing around my head, my first idea was to construct a mobile. I thought about the main areas of my life I’m constantly struggling to balance (relationships, health, family, finances, creative fulfillment, and home) and made a representative drawing of each. Then I translated the drawings into electrical wire using needle-nose pliers, and put together a diagram of how the whole thing should hang together.

health mobile-diagram

I assembled the mobile using wooden dowels, metal cotter pins, beading wire, and white plastic screw protectors. After adjusting the balance of the various arms, I held everything in place using steel split rings and clear plastic washers. When I finally hung it and photographed it all together, I was disappointed. The bright colors and wonkiness of the wire made it all look too much like a school craft project. So I went back to the drawing board.

mobile mobile-detail

Project 2: Tornado

I thought that perhaps the trouble lay in trying to make unruly materials behave too precisely. Life is never precisely in balance anyway, so why not let things get messy?

tornado

I decided to create lots of tiny ink drawings on pieces of wood veneer, which would appear to be spinning within a multi-colored wire tornado. The crazy colored wire would serve as a backdrop, but it would be tempered by the consistent color and texture of the drawings on wood. As it turned out, this approach did not add any sort of natural charm to project. It just looked messy. Next!

Project 3: Geodesic Dome

Frustrated with my lack of success using bright colors and haphazard materials, I went completely in the opposite direction. I kept the small drawings on wood veneer, but decided to suspend them from the triangles of a Buckminster Fuller-style geodesic dome. I used wooden dowels and glue for the dome facets, so the piece ended up being totally monochromatic. It looked cleaner than my previous two ideas but totally uncompelling. I considered upgrading the ink drawings to tiny gouache paintings instead, but there wasn’t enough time to execute that approach, so after making just a few triangles, I put this idea aside as well. I didn’t even bother to photograph it.

Project 4: Family Tree

Clearly I needed to scale things down a bit. I narrowed the concept to just one area of balance (family) and decided to only use two colors — green, and the natural brown of the wooden dowels. What emerged was a three-dimensional family tree.

I still used electrical wire, but it looked a lot less messy when I used it to write instead of to draw. I also used electrical tape, which was a similar hue to the wire, just in a lighter shade. At first I thought the names of our relatives should run along the length of the branches, since the loops in the cursive somewhat resembled leaves…

branch-layout

…but the proportions were all wrong and it ended up looking like a spindly sort of bonsai.

tree-mockup

So instead I cut leaf shapes out of the electrical tape by folding them in half over the edge of some wax paper…

tape-leaves-cutout

…and used those to hang the names off the branches perpendicularly. It gave me some more flexibility in regards to placement and made the entire sculpture look a little more filled out.

hardware-assemblage-detail

To finish things off I stuck my family tree into the base of a mini plunger, which I covered in more pieces of electrical tape to resemble grass. I made a little red swing from wire and twine to stand in for our still-to-be-born kidlet, and added a couple of hardware accents — mushrooms, flowers and a bird — to liven up the hillside.

Hardware family tree

Though I would have loved to have kept tweaking this project (adding fruit or blossoms to the branches, perhaps?) or trying other ideas, I ran out of time. Unlike personal projects, which you can revise indefinitely for years, professional projects require the best work you can do in the time allotted. Luckily for me, Janine took my neurosis in stride and put together a fantastic spread that included a range of my other work and a very flattering write-up. She made me feel instantly better about the project.

One day I will figure out how to properly express my gratitude to her. For now, let me just say: thank you, Janine and everyone at Uppercase, for being total mensches. I regret to say that during this process I became exactly the kind of artist I normally hate working with, but you took it all in stride and were always gracious. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you fine folks.

Define Failure

I had a really rough morning. I went to bed feeling ambivalent about a creative assignment I had just turned in, and sleeping on it didn’t seem to help. Distancing myself from the work for a few hours didn’t provide the clarity I was hoping for, and instead I awoke with that vague but panicky feeling that accompanies the submission of work I don’t count among my best.

Those of us who work in creative professions hope that our work will always continue to improve over time as we achieve new levels of skill, taste and practice. In general this is true, but like the stock market, improvement over time doesn’t happen in a steady, straight line — it appears through the average of successive peaks and valleys. Though I understand this rationally, when I slide into one of those dips I can’t help but feel like I’ve just gone backwards — like I’ve failed.

creative-development-chart

Let me pause for a moment to define what failure is to me: failure is the inability to submit work of which I am unequivocally proud. Did I complete the assignment to spec?* Yes. Did it solve the problem in a clever and aesthetically pleasing way? I think so. Did I immediately want to run out and show it to everyone I know? No. And that’s what feels like failure.

Somewhat ironically, the harder I’ve worked on a project, the worse I feel when it doesn’t work out. I take no comfort in knowing I tried my best. If that was my best, then what good am I? Being able to blame a lack of time or effort is much more comforting than having to admit a project fell short due to bad decisions, a lack of good ideas, or poor craftsmanship.

My feelings of failure are also directly proportional to the stakes of the assignment itself. In this particular case, the piece in question was created for inclusion in an illustration annual, where it will serve as the sole representation of my entire body of work to over 1,000 industry professionals. This one piece will introduce me and my work to all of the editors and art directors I have been hoping to reach for years. So pardon the hyperbole (“I didn’t make something spectacular! I don’t deserve to work in this town again!”) but you see, the stakes could not be higher.

hardware-assemblage-detail

I was seriously considering pulling the whole project this morning, $500 investment be damned. How could I have my not-amazing work to appear alongside the obviously-amazing work of dozens of other artists? Allowing such an unfavorable comparison would surely be more detrimental to my reputation than not appearing at all, right?

Luckily I asked that question out loud, to people I trust to give me honest answers, and they wholeheartedly disagreed. My husband insisted it would be a mistake to not participate in the book. As one of the only artists in the book working in three dimensions, my piece will introduce me as someone to consider for editorial props. Other friends agreed that even if it isn’t the piece de resistance of my entire career, my submission is still strong enough to encourage people to check out what else I’ve done.

Fortunately, as with all failures, there is always something to be learned, and the sting eventually fades over time. With this project I learned that complicated assemblages (especially using unfamiliar materials) are better served by a “lean manufacturing” approach (finishing a small section of the project in its entirety before starting on the rest) than by an industrial approach (making all the pieces first and then assembling them all at the end). Never again will I waste time and materials because I discovered too late that a good idea didn’t come together in execution, and that is extremely valuable — even necessary. In fact, I might argue that on the stock market graph of creative development, you can’t have the peaks at all without the valleys. After all, without the failures, what new knowledge is there to propel you to greater heights?

All that’s left to do now is to try to channel my inner zen master and let this project go, while also hopefully maintaining a little optimism. Who knows? Maybe my little sculpture is right up Tim Burton’s/Brad Bird’s alley, and they’ll insist I contribute my talents to their next film. Stranger things have happened.

*For those of you who are curious, the assignment was to create an assemblage using only supplies from a hardware store, a la Project Runway’s “unconventional materials” challenges. I can’t show you the actual piece until the book is published, so the tiny detail up top will have to do for now. This was also my monthly project for April.