‘You’re freer if you know you can’t save anything.’ (by Olga Norris)

I was particularly taken by this method of teaching by Toshiko Takaezu, one of the potters in Clairan’s last post. In her comment Margaret provided a YouTube link to a fascinating film on the potter, and 3m30 in she is shown teaching a class and saying that at this stage they will be much freer in their interaction with the clay and shaping it if they know that whatever they do will be destroyed.

This somehow rang true with me. From the other end, so to speak, I often think about the piles of stuff I have made which still clutter up so much space (not to mention how much landfill I am still creating and will leave behind!). This thought of course runs in parallel with the compulsion to keep exploring ideas and to make them manifest – and the glorious learning spiral which takes something made in the past, deemed good at the time, but which had not reached its full potential until coupled with an idea in the present (see my blog post of 14 April). Perhaps if we deliberately destroyed more at the beginning of our journey into manifest self-expression, we would be able to articulate more eloquently and perhaps less indiscriminately prolifically later.

Too often perhaps we expect immediate success. This ties in with Margaret’s post on RCC: Everybody wants to get it done quickly, and my own blog post on the paper cutting day I attended last summer.  If we knew that at the end of a workshop we were to destroy anything we had made, would that not help us to concentrate more, concentrate better, and perhaps also discriminate better as to the quality of the workshop. I always have a notebook for workshops, and the best teachers I have encountered have led not only to the best notes, but also to the fullest memory of the experience – and generally to very little in the way of ‘product’. Now it is true that I never expect to come away with a completed or almost completed anything from a workshop, and neither do I expect actually to come away with an idea for a specific piece of work. I believe that to be serious about discovering one’s own voice, all the input has to go into the pot but that the soup should be one’s own mix. We all use an overlapping range of ingredients, but it is how we use them and what our results are that should be critical.

Perhaps our critical judgement might well be more finely honed if we knew that we had to destroy what we made for a certain period of our learning/experimentation. This probably seems contradictory, but I wonder if freeing ourselves to throw away whatever results from exploration and discovery for a certain while – rather than feeling obliged to make it into something ‘finished’– and instead noting avenues for further exploration might lead to greater discrimination especially in the quality of the thinking about making.

I look forward to reading your comments, and hope that discussion ensues.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation










No specific illustrations seem appropriate for this post, so, I thought I would share with you one of the paintings in the National Gallery of Scotland with which I spent much time during my university days: A Lady in Grey (The artist’s daughter, later Mrs Wiseman) by Daniel Macnee 1859.

11 Responses to “‘You’re freer if you know you can’t save anything.’ (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 clairan May 8, 2014 at 10:23 am

    PS Olga I loved that portrait. Reminds me of Sargeant.

  2. 2 snicklefritzin43 April 29, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Olga, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and my thoughts about my processes were stirred as I read, now for the third time. Appreciate the conversation that has developed and know that as each of us looks at how the work created is archived, displayed, disposed of truly is an individual journey when we do the creating separate from a learning community that imposes very definite constraints. Although, perhaps, each of us has within our place of creating some restraints due to space and the budget for purchasing materials to explore.
    For me there have been times of great production and exploration in my years of teaching textiles and in those years when I was actively costuming for film and stage, Now retired and going through the detritus gathered from a long history of working with cloth I find that within those boxes are sometimes amazing and ever so wonderful little bits of play with an idea, perhaps in preparation for a project or for a class or lecture and now many years later they still bring a smile and spark thoughts for creating something. And, there are bits, many bits, that have me scratching my head as to why they are in the mausoleum of my life with thread and fabric….and they need to be exhumed and done away with. Had work been created whilst living in small student quarters surely there would be less to deal with today, and in that thought, perhaps some of the delicious bits would also have been lost in the vast land of the unknown.
    Reading June’s comments always, always delights my senses. She puts a spin on a topic that gets my thinking parts wandering into new and unexpected places. And her use of language adds so much to my own vocabulary and understanding.
    So much wonderful information, Olga and commenters; the conversation is stimulating and encourages me to continue unearthing the hidden bits, re-evaluating their place in today’s space and interest for me and that bit of a shove of encouragement to explore more, play more, find delight in the craft of working with fiber.
    Many folks read a blog post and do not comment…that is often me…and yet I am taking time to do more communicating in that forum for I find much delight and community there. Thanks for pushing the topic of commenting into the dialogue…it was a very good thing, in my opinion.

    • 3 olganorris May 1, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      Thank you Kristin for your considered comment. I do like to see conversation in blogs – and especially in blogs like this one where we are all hoping – I assume – with our contributions to provoke thought and thence comment.

  3. 4 June O. Underwood April 18, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    It occurs to me that art school might have been useful (had I gone there instead of majoring in English lit) because as a student you are not expected to do great or even work that will sell but rather to explore widely. And then you are living in tight quarters and can’t retain many of your explorations. So much gets tossed as you move on, literally as well as metaphorically.

    The problem, I suppose, is knowing which things will be of no use or value in future years and which are simply dregs and should be lost to history and your own collections. That’s where I fail most, given that I also started too late to be the impecunious student who lost most of her work as she changed living quarters. I find when I go back through my stuff, as I have been doing lately, there are gems. Most of it is dregs, of course, and is easily discarded or recycled or whatever. But I can only decide which is dross and which is worth retaining in the cold light of day and after time has passed.

    Always interesting thoughts, though, and particularly as I am in the midst of the time-honored “down-sizing” (although I’m thinking of it as flat-sizing) that aging requires.

    It’s also interesting how “melodramatically” we attach ourselves to ideas which seem truly important at given times of our lives. My essential truth today is often a puzzlement to me tomorrow. Thanks, all.

    • 5 olganorris April 19, 2014 at 2:34 am

      You are right, June, I have written this post from the point of view of a hobbyiste turning serious rather than as one who went to college to study the practicalities of making art. Your point about the impecunious student is well-made too: I wonder how many comfortably off later learners spend too much money without enough thought about what they/we are turning it into. But I guess that’s nobody’s business but theirs, and the economy keeps turning anyway.

      I must say that also I wanted to provoke discussion. There seems to be less and less discussion on blogs these days.

      • 6 June O. Underwood April 20, 2014 at 9:32 am

        I’m usually up for discussion; can scarcely stand a day without it. But I’m gaining a good appreciation for the life filled with business (or busyness, too). I always made discussion a base value in my life, and found time for it. But lately, my busy-ness has interfered with a lot of base values. But discussion will return one of these days, of that I’m sure. In the meantime, I am grateful that others can continue sharing their insights. You, Olga, are an inspiration.

  4. 7 kathleenloomis April 18, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Not sure what I think of this philosophy. I can understand cutting down a piece of clay on the wheel (because you will use the clay again) or taking apart/reusing a pieced quilt made as a workshop exercise, but destroying things involving materials that were bought or made with some expense seems wasteful and self-indulgent. Perhaps there is some existential frisson to be gotten from destruction of your work, but I’d rather get my frissons from creation, not destruction.

    I like to keep things that I made in the past (even though I was only still learning or experimenting) for several reasons that come to mind right now.

    First, because they constitute a record of your artistic life; by looking at them later you can trace how your technique has improved, how your ideas have changed and/or matured. You can recollect what was going on in your life when you made that piece, or when you gave it to its current owner. I don’t do journaling but much of my past work serves that purpose as a memory bank.

    Second, you can often use them as learning tools. My sister likes to tell about a tiny pair of pinch-pleated draperies that she had to make in an interior design class in college. Although they were only a foot tall, all the details were correct. In later life whenever she had to make draperies she hauled out her little sample and knew exactly which hem to make first. You can also use your old work as a sketchbook, recording ideas that you may want to return to in the future.

    Third, after you have learned more and become more mature in your art you can often go back to those early pieces and use them as raw material for better work. I recall a stage of experimentation with hand-dyes and discharge that resulted in boxes full of nifty fabric that I had no clue of what to do with. Years later I went into the boxes and figured out a way to incorporate the fabric into my current work.

    Finally, you can often find something else to do with them if it offends you to just have them in a box under the bed. I’ve cut up inadequate quilts and turned them into placemats or tote bags.

    Of course I am a packrat so my natural inclination is to keep stuff, not throw it away. Not everybody is this way. But I just don’t see what is to be gained by this theatrical gesture of destruction. (Obviously I’m missing the point.)

    • 8 olganorris April 18, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      Thank you Kathleen for your thorough response to my (melodramatic?) proposition. I suspect that I put my case for destruction too starkly, also implying too sweeping an implementation of such. You encompassed what I was aiming at when you mentioned taking apart or reusing something made as an exercise. This is the kind of destruction I meant.

      I was not advocating the dramatic destruction of considered work completed on the way to maturity. That is indeed a record of development. I’m thinking about a specific period when learning technique, and when getting acquainted with the feel of the various kinds and aspects of making. Too often I have seen workshop participants focusing on the finished object made rather than on exploring the making.

      It is wise, like your sister, to keep an example of a lesson learned – that’s included in my notion of note taking. Indeed I agree that such examples are important.

      Yes, I agree that in some cases, like the clay, material can be destroyed to be recycled as new work. Of course the results of some learning processes can become the ingredients for future work. You are fortunate to be able to turn unwanted work into useful objects – but I would include that process in my definition of destruction in the current discussion.

      The example of the destroyed clay is an idea, a teaching/learning philosophy, and perhaps cannot be an exact – and maybe not even a loose translation into another medium. I was thinking generally about the possible benefit of beginning the learning of the craft of a chosen art by concentrating on the relationship with the process and materials and not yet on a specific end product.

      And in addition to that idea, as I also contemplate downsizing my archive portfolio, I’m enjoying thinking of myself as a self-indulgent destruction frisson diva! Thank you.

  5. 9 suburbanlife April 18, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Many years ago, when being instructed in throwing cylinders on a potter’s wheel, we were required to pull a cylinder, and immediately slice it in half vertically, inspect the wall, and encouraged to review how our fingers felt while pulling up the wall – then repeat this process many times. This had the curious effect of reviewing how it “feels” each time a good wall was achieved, and also of remembering what actions caused a less successful result. It was a great lesson in how mindfulness during the handling of the material clay rather than focussing on an end product “willed” leads to a better conversation with the material and a joining of the “actor” and the “acted upon” as an organic wholeness. A potter “knows” when a product is magically coherent, and when it lacks, just as a dancer knows when the dance feels “right”. G

    • 10 olganorris April 18, 2014 at 11:11 am

      Thank you for expanding the specifics of the ceramics class.
      Just like your potter and dancer, the needle and stitch also have a natural ‘right’ feel. This development of organic connection between actor and acted upon leads to successful results in end product, as you say.

      • 11 clairan May 8, 2014 at 10:22 am

        I love workshops for the space and time to “play.” Much of the work created there can be disposed of (and sometimes others like to use your discards as the basis for some vision only they can see!), and the rest can be brought back to the studio for contemplation and use (sometimes many years later). I tend to save scraps and bits. They often get worked into pieces where I wouldn’t have expected.

        And I am also a big proponent of note taking and writing about my own work. It always deepens my understanding and furthers my progress.

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