Craft nights. Art parties. Workshops. I've always been envious of the people who can attend them and find their groove making art—normally a solitary activity, at least for me—in the middle of a crowd. During the first day of an undergrad writing class that I took years ago we were supposed to write a paragraph, a writing sample; it might have been a first memory. While everyone around me scribbled away, I froze. I was grateful that the professor let me write at home and bring my paragraph the following week. Was it the time pressure that paralyzed me? Or something else?
Three or four years ago I got a gift certificate to Brushstrokes in Berkeley: a paint-it-yourself pottery studio. It took me until I needed a serving bowl to finally go there. And it took me awhile to calm down and figure out what to paint. I scanned the room for examples and the variety of techniques overwhelmed me. I would just paint. I wouldn't try to do decals or carbon transfers or bubbles or sgraffito or draw with the ceramic pencil, although all excited me. This was new territory: painting on a three-dimensional surface, not knowing the properties of the paint, having no idea what the finished product would be like. I probably should have made a small plate to begin with…
The bowl was big. It took several hours and even though they have color chips hanging on the wall, it was impossible for me to tell what the colors would look like after they were fired. The young women who work there were all extremely helpful, enthusiastic, and encouraging. They assured each visitor that her/his work was pretty. What a relief.
A week later, I got to pick up my bowl. I use it constantly. After this first attempt, I knew I wanted to try some of the other techniques.
So heartened, I went back last Friday to make a present using the sgraffito technique: three coats Black Lab, three coats Golden Retriever. Scratched into it with a needle tool and brushed away the flakes with a foam brush as I scratched. An art camp was going on while I worked and little 4 1/2- year-old-girls kept oozing over to watch me. "That's pretty," said one. You're hired!
I won't see the new bowl for four more days. I rather like the slowness of it and the anticipation.
Instruction. Practice. Thinking. A friend articulated a process that I had not consciously labeled: you need a balance of those three things in order to learn, and perhaps to make it easier to work in a group as well. I'm making it four things and adding "example." You need to see examples of techniques and finished work so you know what the possibilities are, otherwise you will likely be overwhelmed. From there you can choose, focus on one technique and seek instruction. Practice gives you experience with the materials; you find out what the materials will and will not do. You can take risks and try new approaches based on what you've learned through instruction and practice. Thinking is needed to process the instruction and the practice and to develop your ideas. For best results: simmer gently.
I went into Brushstrokes knowing something about paint but nothing about ceramics and glazes. After help from the studio workers and two practice attempts, I felt more comfortable with the process and ready to try new techniques. I feel I'm internalizing the examples, the instruction, and my practice, and am starting to imagine and think about projects ahead of time, which propels me back to the Brushstrokes studio.
I've learned bit-by-bit to dive down inside myself when I'm in a group, to ignore the stimulus, the energy created by many individuals in a room together (even adorable 4-year-olds in art camp!), and find that magical place from which I can make something. And ultimately, I've found that I have to go to the studio with an idea in mind in order to work in a crowd. I bring sketches, notes, photos, props, whatever I need so I can be creative on my own demand.