on art, being terrible, and the beginner’s mind

I’m waiting for 4 pm so that I can get busy with a call with one of the Craftsy folks I’m working alongside right now; we’re working on scripting this week, which is more fun than it sounds like, really, especially the second time around. I’ve been testing dye recipes this week, which is exactly as messy, fun, and occasionally frustrating as it sounds. When I’m not obsessing over the upcoming Craftsy class and what to fit into it (which is perpetually engaging as there’s naturally no way to fit everything I want to share into 6 modules, but that space allows plenty of room to stretch my legs) I’m engaging in comfort making.

Months ago, I received an email from a reader who thanked me for prioritizing my creative life. Roughly, she said it was comforting to see, and that it wasn’t something she did in her own life but was something she wanted to do- eventually, was the sense I got. This is something I’ve heard in different forms throughout my adult life- a few of my friends have said something similar, but never quite those specific words. It struck me, clearly. I’m largely surrounded by other working creatives in my daily life, and even in my online communities. I’ve noticed, though, that when people do tell me they don’t think of themselves as creative, they are frequently musicians, they teach art to children, they are incredible bakers, amazing gardeners, talented yogis, etc- you see where I’m going here, obviously. We are so quick to dismiss our own gifts.

Many of my students- dye students, knitting students, and yoga students- have told me that at some point, if they didn’t quickly excel or feel adept at a new skill or hobby, they’d stop doing it, and I get that. It seems to be something folks start doing in their late teens or early twenties, and it can come from a few different places; sometimes it’s about being uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, which is a funny sentence to write but a very common state for people, overall, and a good thing to work with in general. Other times, individuals are dealing with having been discouraged from doing something unless they’re the very, very best at it; perfectionists are a horse of a different color, but they also benefit from learning to find comfort in uncomfortable spaces.

We talk about the wisdom of the beginner’s mind a lot in Buddhism, but I think there’s really something to the beginner’s mind when it comes to creativity, too. I’ve talked to several my fellow teachers about new students, especially teachers who are originally auto-didactics, and while we do value a traditional education many of us feel that firmly grounding oneself in the fundamentals, working the basics for 12-24 months, maybe doing an apprenticeship (if possible) and then throwing everything but the science out the window and stretching for self-expression is a great way to go. (As an aside, if you can find a textiles undergrad program, go for it- they’re far & few between, but lucky you if you have access!)

Some truly gorgeous things have come out of my students’ dyepots- you can see some of their work on my Pinterest board of their projects. Every time I hear, “I don’t think I could knit/ dye/ paint/ do yoga/ dance/ bake/ grow things/ play the piano/ wrangle ponies on the open range,” etc, I think about these students, folks who took an online class or came into a studio for a few hours. Okay, that last one is probably pushing it, but hey, we all have dreams. I’ve been digging through some of my stash to find yarns for a friend (what’s up, Liam, I totally haven’t forgotten you, life ate my face) and in one small corner of a bin, I found treasure: the first yarn I ever spun, and some very early dyeing. The first thing I ever knit is down there, too, somewhere- I need to find that. They are all hot garbage, and I feel like sharing failures is important.

 

old work - 1

These yarns say: I HAVE SUCCESSFULLY APPLIED COLOR TO A BLANK YARN. WHERE ONCE NO COLOR EXISTED, NOW, COLOR ABIDES.

These are from my first year of dyeing, and they aren’t the absolute worst thing in the world, but they sure don’t inspire a deep sense of satisfaction, either. They are a super-soft fingering weight superwash wool dyed a flat, solid tomato red, little to no movement. If it had been my intention to make a solid that day, okay, whatever, but I’d been looking to make a yellow-based veil dye with red overtones; clearly, citric acid and I weren’t very good friends at the time. I was probably still using white vinegar, actually, which on top of an obvious heat management problem would’ve been part of the issue. I like having these around. It’s good to see progress.

More dramatic of a progression is in spinning.

 

old work - 2

Sweet bald Moses, how in holy hell did I think that was an acceptable size for a skein?

Right, so the problems here are OBVIOUS and GLARING, but for the uninitiated: I took a perfectly serviceable stretch of nice, hand-dyed merino wool top, failed to pre-draft it, spun it on a drop spindle in alternating spans of vastly underspinning or massive overspinning, and made the skein/ hank itself annoyingly small in circumference. A closer look helps a little in understanding why this yarn isn’t really great for garments.

 

old work - 3.jpg

WUT THE WUT. There was definitely a time where I’d rather subject myself to a lengthy waxing session than show THE ENTIRE INTERNET this skein of yarn. Over it!!

This was definitely a learning experience, and struggling to teach myself to spin sent me to my local yarn shop at the time, which had (and still has) one of the best handspinning support networks I’ve encountered. I’m so glad it did! Spinning is a form of meditation in my life these days, and I’ve owned countless wheels over the years, learning to repair different models as they pass through my hands. (My current romance is with a Schacht Matchless DT, who lives on top of a cedar chest in the hall when not in use, although my attentions are frequently diverted by my small collection of Turkish spindles.)

While beautiful things can come from the hands of beginners, starting a thing is frequently like learning to ride a bike and involves some wobbling and maybe even a little falling down, spending a little time feeling embarrassed, and being uncomfortable while we learn how to sit with new sensations and movements. That’s cool. Perfection is overrated. Fixating on perfection, and only perfection, hinders progress; if we got off our bike the first time we tried riding, we’d never learn to ride. Craft, art, any form of making is like that, too.

I’m filling my stressy, empty hours with watercolors, alcohol inks, and soap. Watercolors have been a huge exercise in being uncomfortable for me over the last 18 months; I’ve really enjoyed getting to know and understand the medium and work it into my flow, as well as stepping out of my comfort zone and sharing my work. Dealing with the, “Who do you think you are, painting?” internal monologue was exhausting; now I post paintings as a giant GO SCREW to that voice of self-doubt. Alcohol inks are just a messy joy- a quick explosion of color followed by cleanup because I can’t be bothered to place plastic wrap down and 91% rubbing alcohol is cheap-cheap-CHEAP, friends. Soap, though- that’s been the most recent challenge (CHEMISTRY) and it’s a blast. It’s a newer hobby, scads of new things to learn, and I have tons of room to suck at it— it isn’t my livelihood, nobody is going hungry if it’s terrible soap, and that’s really freeing. It’s just soap! Or maybe it’s just yarn. Or just yoga. Or just dancing. Or you know, just wrangling ponies, out on the range.

So if you’re thinking about giving up on something that you’d always wanted to try- for whatever reason- or maybe not even giving it a shot at all in the first place, sit down for a second and reconsider. Do it for me, a teeny-tiny bit, but do it for you, a whole honking lot. Prioritize your creative life. Tell your negative internal monologue to sit in the corner. Get back on the bike and stick it out until you feel just a little less wobbly. I’ll warn you- something amazing might happen. Watch out.

 

  One thought on “on art, being terrible, and the beginner’s mind

  1. Kelly Harms
    May 11, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Sarah, I found you through your first Craftsy class and I was hooked. I’m so excited that you’ll have another soon — I just love your teaching style! I went out and bought dyes and rounded up some different wools — someone even gave me a whole Lincoln fleece! I’ll be making some wonderful, messy and gloriously non-perfect rovings very soon (my daughter and son-in-law just returned from being stationed for a year in South Korea, so my craftiness has had to take a backseat to family for a while though I am spinning — learned through Craftsy — while they are here.)

    But as I checked out this blog, I found even more that I appreciate about you, your approach to life, and your willingness to share so much with your readers. I often have that negative voice in my head and it can be really hard to ignore, but reading that someone who I respect and admire so much goes through the same monologues makes me believe that I just need to put my work out there and get over myself!

    Seeing your first attempts also made me feel good about my first spinning attempt, so thank you! 😉

    • May 25, 2017 at 1:53 pm

      Hey, Kelly! I’m so glad you liked the class- I loved making it, Craftsy is a really fun gig. And I swear, spinning does get easier & better with time- it’s really meditative for me these days, possibly a little too much so; I have to work a bit to get out of my “default” spinning weight and keep from happily zoning out when I have a wheel in front of me! I love to dye, but spinning is probably my favorite craft of all (don’t tell anyone). I’m beyond envious of your Lincoln fleece- what a score!

      • Kelly Harms
        May 25, 2017 at 9:52 pm

        I also was just given 3 alpaca, 1 llama, and 1 pygora fleece! I have wonderful fiber friends. And I just bought a Wensleydale wether and the breeder is giving me his recently shorn fleece. From no wool to literally bags and bags full in a few short weeks. Downside – I have lots of fleece to wash!

  2. May 12, 2017 at 9:07 am

    This is so very true! Thank you for showing your “first attempts”. I think we tend to forget everyone starts somewhere.

    • May 25, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      I think we might be better off overall if folks were a little more open with their flaws, fears, and fuck-ups! Perfection is overrated and gets in the way of not just getting things done, but even getting started. Kids know best: just get in there, get messy, have fun, enjoy learning and don’t stress out about results.

  3. May 12, 2017 at 10:18 am

    >Tell your negative internal monologue to sit in the corner.

    This is one of the hardest things ever, for me. That voice is SOFUCKINGLOUD. And so convincing.

    • May 25, 2017 at 2:00 pm

      ME TOO, friend. Internal monologue can be such a positive thing but when it turns on you, NOPE. Put it in the corner with a dunce cap and start again.

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