Workshop as a Verb

In the arts, at least in art school, there are formal mechanisms in place for talking about work in progress. Artists have critique, performing artists have rehearsal, and creative writers have the workshop. I like how writers use the word “workshop” as a verb, for example, “Let’s workshop that poem.”

After graduating, many artists lose that formalized place and community, so they stop making art. Some artists find local groups to work with. Others go back to school–they enter a graduate program just to have that community again. But many more just quit. And this is a tragedy. Because the world needs more artists and it needs more art.

My definition of an artist here is, “a person who consistently makes art.” That is to say, you don’t need to make a living as an artist to be an artist. In fact, most of my friends who are artists, musicians, composers, and actors have full-time jobs that bring in their main source of income.  Yet they make art–mostly every day, at least every week.

As for the artists who quit? I wonder if they would keep at it if they could maintain the practice of workshopping with a small group of people who consistently show up ready to share their work and give them feedback on theirs.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

 

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When Artists Talk to Artists

Journalists have a talent for making the obscure understandable to the general public. So they ask questions that are pretty broad and help the experts that they are interviewing be understood by non-experts. It’s a great service to society!

Something different happens when an expert interviews another expert. Yes, it can get a little heady. But it can also be super fun, especially if it’s a subject that you the reader cares about.

This interview with Zappa guitarist Steve Vai  is one of those “experts interviewing experts” situations. It’s not for everyone. It’s niche. But if you’re into music and musical notation and in this instance, polyrhythms, then check it out.

The link above starts about 20 minutes into the interview. In the first 20 minutes, Vai talks about the importance of owning your publishing. It’s the business side of the story and an important one. As he points out, a lot of musicians sign crappy deals. So he gives some useful advice on that.

But the magic begins when he talks about music and his journey into it. He first heard Zappa as a student at Berklee. He was so obsessed with understanding what that music was about that he started transcribing it. He then sent a transcription of a song to FZ, and Zappa hired him to do more. Only later was Vai invited to play in the band!

I enjoy how Vai talks about the process of figuring out complex rhythms. In order to figure them out, he says, he has to feel them first, and then visualize them on the page. A truly synesthetic experience!

And I adore what he says to the interviewer, Rick Beato, at the end of the interview, “I’ve done 1000s of interviews, and not once has someone asked me about polyrhythms. Which is weird because it’s something I know a lot about!”

It’s fun to talk shop. Yes, there is a time and a place for it. And if you’ve got newbies in the room, don’t be rude, bring them in! But it’s ok to balance general speak with nitty-gritty.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

This entire series from producer Rick Beato is fantastic. It ranges in complexity from accessible videos about rock songs to advanced lectures on music theory and ear training.

This video in which he deconstructs The Police song “Every Little Thing” is great.

 

 

 

Craft in the Industrial Age

stickley

The Arts & Crafts movement was a design movement that emerged in the late 19th century/early 20th century in response to the gaudy design coming out of new industrialized factories that featured fake joinery and Victorian Era ornament. Faced with the chaos of industrialization, the members of the Arts & Crafts movement aimed to find a new aesthetic, one that celebrated the authenticity of handcraft while embracing new techniques that would make craft affordable to everyday people. Gustav Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Roycrofters in East Aurora, NY are famous leaders of this movement.

Yesterday we visited the Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, NY. It’s housed in the old Stickley Factory that was opened in 1900 and operated til 1985 when they moved operations to a larger shop down the road in Manlius, NY.  Also housed in the old factory is the Fayetteville Public Library which is one of the first libraries to build a Fab Lab. This little spot a few miles east-southeast of Syracuse, NY is a magical place. You can feel the history, the sense of purpose, the carving out of a new voice in the face of dramatic technological change.

There are hints of a similar movement today. Artists & Inventors like Nervous System are exploring desktop fabrication in a way that embraces the unique qualities of it. Artists & Inventors like Lauren McCarthy are exploring sensors and machine learning in critical and thoughtful ways. When we look back 100 years from now, who will be the leaders of the “Arts and Crafts” movement of this time? And what legacy will they leave behind?

Friday’s Printable: Mary and Mic

4 mar header

On Fridays, I post a pair of printable cards made from shots that I snap on my phone. Print them out, keep them for yourself, or share with friends. Enjoy!

Download this week’s cards here

A few production tips

  • PRINTING. Use cardstock to print these out and make sure the print settings are set to “actual size.”
  • CUTTING. I included a little mark halfway down the page so that you know where to cut. The best way to cut this in half is with a metal straight edge and an x-acto knife.
  • FOLDING. The best way to fold these is to line up the corners, then use a long flat edge, like the side of a marker, to make the crease.
  • MAILING. You’ll need some envelopes. Something like this should do the trick.

You can find more printables here

Vision is Always Ahead of Execution

One reason that creative people are drawn to new ideas, often at the expense of executing ideas they already have, is that new ideas have an ideal perfection about them. But once you sit down and start to execute a new idea, you soon realize how complex it really is and that you’ll never be able to make it as pretty and shiny as it appeared when you first thought of it. This reality bums you out, so you find a new, new idea.

I adore this excerpt from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland (1994) that makes an interesting claim about vision and new ideas and how they are perceived differently by beginners versus masters:

Fears rise in those entirely appropriate and frequently occurring moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student who began piano studies with a master. After a few months practice, the student lamented to his teacher, “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers,” to which the master replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”

That’s why they are called masters.

When he raised the student’s discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: Vision is always ahead of execution, and it should be. Vision, uncertainty, and knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from. Vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.

“Vision is always ahead of execution, and it should be.” If you can hold this in your mind as you are struggling with the imperfection of your own work, it will ground you. It will keep you focused. And it will earn you the title of master.

Friday’s Printable: Pickles and Subs

3 mar header

On Fridays, I post a pair of printable cards made from shots that I snap on my phone. Print them out, keep them for yourself, or share with friends. Enjoy!

Download this week’s cards here

A few production tips

  • PRINTING. Use cardstock to print these out and make sure the print settings are set to “actual size.”
  • CUTTING. I included a little mark halfway down the page so that you know where to cut. The best way to cut this in half is with a metal straight edge and an x-acto knife.
  • FOLDING. The best way to fold these is to line up the corners, then use a long flat edge, like the side of a marker, to make the crease.
  • MAILING. You’ll need some envelopes. Something like this should do the trick.

Going Deeper with STEAM

STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” and STEAM is a variation on that acronym that adds an “A for ART” to that grouping of disciplines.

There are two main reasons for adding art to STEM:

  1. It makes STEM more attractive to more students
  2. It infuses STEM with the rigor of artistic practice

We do the first one well. It’s a pretty effective tactic for attracting a diverse set of students to STEM.

We don’t yet do the second one well. This is because there is a lot of confusion about what artistic practice or design or creativity is. Many think it’s a free for all, do anything you want, just adds crayons or post its or pipe cleaners. But that approach to creativity is missing the mark.

Artistic practice should be integrated with STEM because it offers rigorous methods for the following creative processes:

  • Understanding Human Interaction and Empathy
  • Exploring and Iterating in a Problem Space
  • Using Decision Making and Constraints in a Solution Space

Human Interaction and Empathy. Creativity is about a deep understanding of the ever-evolving relationship between audience and viewer, writer and reader, producer and consumer. This understanding can be referred to as empathy. Folks in STEM disciplines tend to get wrapped up in the science and technology and forget about the effect that new technologies have on humans. Artistic practice brings that human experience to the forefront.

Exploration and Iteration. Have you ever seen Leonardo’s notebooks? Before he committed one drop of paint to a canvas, there was sketching. Lots of it. He thought with a pencil in hand and explored his subject by sketching variations on a theme. Only then could he make decisions about what to paint, build, create. STEM researchers can rush to solutions or outcomes too quickly. Artistic practice requires the practitioner to linger in that unfamiliar space for a while. To wade in the dark without a flashlight or a map. Uncertainty is a necessary part of being an artist.

Decision Making and Constraints. But artists don’t stay uncertain forever. Well, they may retain some uncertainty, but that doesn’t keep them from making decisions. Through their exploration, they figure out what is important and then make a series of decisions to highlight that important thing and let go of the rest. They say that documentary films come together in the editing room. An extraordinary amount of footage ends up on the cutting room floor. STEM researchers might see that discarded film as failure or inefficiency. But artists see it as the cost of doing business.

How might we integrate these deeper lessons from ART with STEM education?

From Idea Generation to Decision Making

Design and design thinking get confused with idea generation. This confusion is unfortunate because the most valuable thing about the design process isn’t idea generation. Anyone can come up with cool ideas. The most valuable thing about the design process is that it requires prioritization and decision making and then offers tactics (constraints) for implementation.

Yesterday I wrote about how the combination of priorities & constraints leads to clarity on a poster. But you can apply this same combo to organizational strategy. First, figure out what’s most important. Then, use constraints to scale those important things. Constraints, in this instance, means making decisions about what to do and what not to do. The idea is to choose a small set of activities so you can focus on scaling what’s important, and say no to other activities even though you think they are fun or cool or useful.

I often say that I’m puzzled by peoples fear of decision-making and constraints and their attraction to idea generation and post-its. But honestly, I’m not puzzled at all. Saying yes to everything is fun and easy. But saying no to some things and yes to others is hard and it’s risky. Yet, decide we must. Because while saying yes to everything might be fun, it leads to a mess. Saying no to some things and yes to others leads to clarity.

 

Priorities + Constraints = Clarity

poster

I don’t know who designed this poster template, but I love it. By looking at it you can see that the designer has prioritized the information in order of importance, then employed a set of constraints to convey the message in the simplest way possible. The set of constraints are made up of three elements: color, size, arrangement.

PRIORITIES. You know a that a designer has their priorities in order if  their work passes “the squint test.” That is, if their reader squints at it, they know what it’s about. Readers don’t need to know all of the information at once. They need to know the most important thing. Then, if the most important thing is interesting to them, they will move closer to the poster to get the details.

CONSTRAINTS. Designing something that is clear takes discipline. Effective designers use constraints to get their point across. Sure, they could use every color in the rainbow, but in most cases, that just confuses things. Sure, they could make all of the type close in size, but then how would your reader know what information is most important? Sure you could arrange elements all over the page equally, but then how would your reader know what to read first?

The most common pushback I hear from junior designers on constraints is that they limit creativity. I don’t know where this idea comes from but it’s false. The best artists and inventors use constraints. And you should too.