'You made those earrings yourself? Do you know so-and-so? She does jewellery too, I had her fix some stuff for me, and she made this piece for me, see!'
After the above brief exchange with a well-meaning friend, it took me a moment to get over the sharp twinge of annoyance, and then I went home wondering why I was so annoyed. After some serious thinking and taking the entire conversation apart, I've realised something quite simple:
I do not want to live my life by everyone else’s comparisons.
As a person who’s almost fanatical about keeping a distinct amount of privacy between myself and the outside world, this can sometimes be difficult. More so as a developing artist struggling to even be comfortable calling myself ‘artist’, and painfully aware of every shortcoming and screw up in my work.
As an emerging jewellery-maker and crafter, this issue of ‘comparisons’ is the biggest bugbear of my existence.
After all, it’s about finding a voice and the right path – the little byway explored that produces a sudden ‘click’ in the head, like gears interlocking at last and you know somehow, against all instincts sometimes, that you’ve got to follow like Alice down the rabbit hole, or forever wonder.
I suppose everyone starts off trying to find their particular niche – comfort zone – call it whatever you like, but that particular state of being where there’s a solid centre that feels right – by learning from other people’s work. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also a very good teacher. You learn technique and you learn elements of design (if you’re wise and lucky, you might have gotten a good grounding in all this already in art school or something similar). You learn that no, you don’t open jump rings with your fingers. You find out that you can’t stand weaving 4-in-1 chainmaille because it doesn’t click even after 72 hours of working on one measly length of bracelet, but Byzantine is a breeze.
You also figure out that what works for everyone else might not work for you. Or rather, it’s a gradual process – wrap, twist, weave, knot and curse till your fingers turn raw, and then one day, all frustrations come to a head when you realise you’ll never come up with anything original that has to do with wires, knots, or weaving, and you might as well just give up while you’re behind.
So you turn to hammering things flat. And realise, guiltily, it’s so much more instant gratification. It feels comfortable. Ahhh, but is that really –art- or is it just a cop-out? the brain whispers maliciously, it’s obviously not as intricate as –real- wirework, the knots and wraps and so on. Come on admit it, you’re a second-rate charlatan, you just can’t stick the hard work.
Who wants to admit to being second-rate? You redouble your efforts and keep on trying to weave, trying to work the damned wire into proper shapes that go flawlessly when –other- people attempt it, but when you do, they mysteriously graduate into tangled chunks of unhappy matter that even birds wouldn’t nest in. It’s either you’re a) slow b) stupid or c) just don’t have the knack, and of the three alternatives, c) is the scariest of the lot. Because, you see, it’s so easy for –everyone else-, something –must- be wrong with you since you can’t do it.
‘Why isn’t your work symmetrical?’ A friend laments, albeit half in jest one day. It takes me ten minutes to fully formulate a reply, and weeks after to brood on it to come up with what finally feels right as an answer. My personal answer anyway.
Symmetry is –boring-. At least, for me, it is. Now, there’s definitely a time and place for it, like the Venetian necklace I struggled with for two weeks, and creating two similar pieces for a pair of earrings can occasionally be the most harrowing thing on earth. It requires a great deal of skill, but to me, it’s still boring. I can do symmetry in my sleep.
Asymmetry however, that requires some serious thinking to balance out two halves of a whole, or three, for that matter. It challenges me. It makes me go, ‘…uh, no, that idea won’t work, the thing looks schizophrenic.’ Or, ‘Hey! That fits…why I don’t know but it fits and nothing else will do.’ It forces me to step out of my comfort zone and go out on a limb.
(My old studio art teacher would be thrilled. He told me once that I was ‘too safe’, that I kept myself to such a tight symmetry that I was restricting myself. It took me a while to get over the bad grades and the angry hurt at my work being judged like that, but he was right – even though I still think there might have been a better way to break it to a tense, pugnacious 18 year old who was trying so, so hard it was almost brittle.)
Along the way, I’ve discovered also I like clean lines and simple designs – a friend calls it an ‘industrial edge’. It only looks simple, I've found. You can’t cover anything up with an overlay of wirework. It either is, or it isn’t, and sanding down a circle for an hour over is not my favourite past time (or anyone’s that I know, really). But it’s got to be done, or it won’t be obsessively, plainly, uncompromisingly –round-. It just won’t look as good. There’s a lot of love put into that one, stupid, easy little circle in Modern Sunset. To everyone else however, it’s just a circle.
This is where the whole issue of ‘worth’ vs ‘value’ comes marching in. Intriciate has always been prized above the plain and simple. There’s nothing wrong with this. By and large, it’s merited since intricacy involves an amount of labour and skill that should be compensated accordingly. However, I find myself struggling with the mentality that intricate = mad skillz and simple = so easy it’s not worth paying for.
Case in point: I sawed several shapes out of old CDs to prepare for a big project. Not intricate, no. Labour-intensive? Hell yes. Skill? Absolutely, it took several tries and one ruined CD to make the curves easier to negotiate so I didn’t snap the sawblade. Simple? Well. The shape was. The process –leading- up to the simple shape looking as simple as it finally did involved an excrutiating amount of labour, skill and finesse. Try filing down a shape with needle files and sandpaper for an hour to get it perfect, drill a hole only to have the thing crack, re-cut and re-sand the whole damned thing again, then come tell me it’s ‘easy’.
So. What all this boils down to is this: I make jewellery, yes. It doesn't mean that just because I stick with stark and simple, I'm far less capable or that my work is worth far less than anyone else's gorgeous piece of wire-wrapping or silver-smithing. It doesn't mean that my work has to look like everyone else's, and it definitely doesn't mean that my artistic vision is similar to anyone else.
Well. Technically, in an ideal world, yes.
But in the meantime I'm still trying to work out where I fall in the grand spectrum of things. Because, given the society in which I live in, the company that sometimes comes around me and the perceptions of several millenia, I'm still never going to be considered Good Enough to be in the company of artists who do Actual Skilled Work.
I keep -telling- myself that I'm an artist. Now I just need a mental rework and several layers of thick skin to remember that I can't - and shouldn't - live by anyone else's comparisons.
Much less my own.