Thoughts on Play


I never think of play as a “dirty word” but I do get the feeling from conversations around me, that it’s a word artists question, in order to figure out how play fits into a serious (or not so serious) art practice.

First off, why would anyone downplay play? Maybe it’s all the emphasis on being adult, taking responsibility for your actions and your life. Being intentional as opposed to being spontaneous?

Or maybe it’s related to having had numerous classes, read bookshelves full of books, and researching techniques endlessly online. Isn’t it time to get serious now? isn’t it time to get down to business?

Or maybe it’s because we human beings, are part of a grand creative movement; sparked by an evolutionary thought capable of achieving incredible traction over three generations: Each of us is creative; gifted with an inalienable right to pursue not only life, liberty and happiness, but also the pleasure of making. But what’s that mean, really?

Any movement has its beginning, its zenith and its decline. You can’t track it when you are in the middle of it, because you don’t have the advantage of distance. So we can’t know exactly where we are, or where we are going, but we can certainly look back and see where we were.

Where we were as a group of textile artists, artists, fiber artists, enthusiasts – pick whatever fits – is all over the place. If you look back ten years and track your path, maybe you can recognize exactly when it was that you developed an interest in surface design, or quilting, or weaving, or painting. I can recall exactly the moment of walking into a Michael James’ class in Boston, Massachusetts in 1977 and thinking “Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?” I was a horrible piecer. I had no patience. My background was in psychology and religion. But I LOVED it. For me, that was the moment.

Point to be made – few of us came to a passion fro creating from organized backgrounds in art school or City and Guilds, or because we apprenticed with a Master pattern maker or a Master painter. The only Masters I knew in the field of quilting before Michael James were little old ladies who met at the church every Thursday for lunch and a quilting bee. Now those girls knew what they were about. NO fussy conversation about art, craft, color or design. Get that quilt on the frame and let’s get busy. Any by the way, has anyone met Betty’s new boyfriend? Wink, wink. Hurrumph.

The surface design movement as we know it was barely invented then. Forward thinking people like Susan Moyer, Yvonne Porcella and Nancy Crow were jumping in with both feet, but it isn’t like they knew each other. It isn’t like a support network existed. They were flying solo. Just like you were before you knew your local guild existed, or discovered there were on-line lists for discussion…

It’s a fabulous, however brief in the overall scheme of things, history. And here is where it leads: a bunch of us were never prepared for this passion. We’ve come along, picking up information wherever we could. Taking an odd class here and there. Reading. Playing around.

So what I tell my students is true for you too. What got you here is enthusiasm. It’s the fuel that allows you to overcome any number of hurdles to get to a class – the time, the family, the expense, the logistics, the plane trip. The hotel, the bad meals, the not sleeping in your own bed. The life partners – children, spouse and others – who have no clue what you are so excited about. Which fuels a sense of loneliness once you actually have time in the studio.

But it’s the enthusiasm that could also stand to be channeled. That’s perhaps, where we are now. Classes under our belts. Internet sources for every supply we can imagine. Internet groups where we can not only learn something, but also make some friends who share our passion. Good enough friends that maybe we agree to meet them at a workshop. Good enough friends that we think it will be ok to room with them, sight unseen.

Part of embracing your artist is not only perfecting technique, or developing a unique, individual style. It’s paying attention to work habits. To preferences. To what throws off your balance. To what fires up your creative spirit. It feels great to witness your own development, and to know that you can repeat your creative successes – or even better – build on them.

This where the journals, record keeping, and writing become valuable. History is established. And records to which you can refer. It’s not about what the outside world thinks of you. It’s about your own system of honoring how you work so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you walk through the studio door.

BUT I have a very hard time believing any artist would be satisfied finding a style and then never deviating from it. Human beings thrive on variety. Enter the value of PLAY. Whether it’s socially correct or not, we all know artists whose style never changed after the first genre painting he or she did sold quickly. I am not talking about them.

The rest of us – anyone who wishes to generate authentic work – have to discover the balance between the mature understanding of our process and the play time we need in order to keep the work fresh. It takes both discipline and play to weather a long and productive career as an artist. 

What are your strategies?