Un-learning – “If it’s too easy to create, it can’t be any good.”

My mom started back to college in 1975, the same year that I started kindergarten.  She graduated in 1981, with a degree in Art from the University of Nevada, Reno. 

When my sister and I were on summer vacation, spring break, or whatever random break we had from school that she didn’t, she would take us to the University with her.

Some days, depending on the class my mom had, we could sit in the back and participate.  I remember her setting us up at a giant table with a huge pile of clay and tools that looked like those at the dentist’s office.  We made all kinds of bowls and vases.  I have no idea what happened to those projects.  Maybe they just got mushed up and put back into the giant bucket of clay.

One project that I made didn’t get mushed up.  In fact, I think my mom still has it.  Her whole class was outside the art building, and there was a big pile of junk, old pieces of rusty metal, wood, bricks – all kinds of stuff.  I have no idea what my mom’s official assignment was other than to create some sort of sculpture, but my sister and I got to play with all the stuff and create a piece right along with the rest of the students.

I remember one student, Mick. He was a huge man with a long, bright red beard.  He pulled objects from the pile and stacked them up.  Then he’d stand back and adjust something.  He looked very official yet very artsy and also like he knew what he was doing, so I did the same thing.

I pulled out a piece of thick wire that had been bent into a  triangle shape and a rusty pipe maybe 7 inches long.  I pulled the bottom wires of the triangle through the pipe.  It took maybe five minutes to do this.  Then I showed my Mom and Mick.

They were thrilled!  Apparently, I had created a piece of art, and I had no idea that I had done it.   My mom loved my triangle metal thing.  I remember thinking, “but I didn’t really do anything?” I had no idea why they found my creation so great.  I thought it was kind of lame.  I remember looking at it, wondering what they were seeing that I didn’t, even though I had made it.

I am just now un-learning the lesson I learned from this experience as  I actually learned the opposite of what my mom and Mick intended me to.  They encouraged me to put random objects together, to think outside the box, to create something new with old objects, to value my creative attempts.  I did what they asked and found it unworthy of their praise, so I somehow decided that if something is too easy, it is not art, it’s a child’s attempt at art.  In order for creations to be worthwhile, they must be difficult, time-consuming.  Otherwise, they’re just something I pulled from a pile of junk and they’re still junk, just in a new form.

It’s taken daily writing and reflection over the past eight months to discover this core belief that I’ve had for so many years, and also to realize where it came from.  It’s woven its malevolent fingers throughout every aspect of my creative life, and its time to put it to rest, to get out the shovel and bury it again, but this time not in my unconscious where it can lurk and strike at will, making me tackle giant “worthwhile”  projects when all I may want is something small and fun.

Quilts that took me longer to make or challenged my skills more have always had a higher value in my mind.  I have been thinking of my novel as a more valuable writing exercise than a short story or this blog though this blog is what makes me write and view life as a writer.

I’m finally learning the lesson that my Mom wanted to teach me all those years ago.  Playing with words or fabric, creating of any kind, regardless of the level of difficulty, is worthy . . .  of praise, time, energy.  It’s what I feel called to do.  It satisfies my soul. 

If I only work on “hard” things, I never hone my craft.  I can’t play and let loose, and playing is so much more fun than just working on “hard” stuff.  I’m finally getting it, it just took 31 more years than my mom had anticipated.  Sometimes, despite attending college at such a young age, I’m a little slow.

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  1. Margaret Duarte on August 1, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    I so agree with what you say in this article, Amy. I was just talking with my granddaughters this morning that I never sang because someone told me when I was young that I couldn’t carry a key. “Everyone can sing,” my granddaughter said, looking at me as if I were missing a few screws. “It’s like playing.” I smiled. Coming from her, it made so much sense and sounded so easy. “I forgot how to play,” I said. “I’ll teach you,” she said. That’s the best way to learn–as a child does–through play. And that’s when we make the most beautiful creations. As you did with your sculpture, for the sheer fun of it.

  2. Amy Isaman on August 1, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    What a great conversation with your granddaughter!! It’s been a tough lesson to learn, that playing and creating is much more fun and productive than just always working at tasks. That’s depressing and difficult. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Valerie Pharis Zunino on August 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Spoken (written) so well Amy. Just because something is hard(er) than expected doesn’t make it’s value more when it’s completed!!! I’m trying to dig in with the quilting and just have fun. Wonky this and wonky that have helped me be free.

    • Amy Isaman on August 17, 2011 at 10:55 pm

      Thanks my friend! I still need to do a wonky block or two – have the entire thing designed but haven’t done a single thing yet. Someday I’ll be able to retire.

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