Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
I recently spent 4 1/2 hours cleaning a kitchen with a friend. This kitchen isn't mine and it's not hers and I won't say who it belongs to, but I will say that I've cleaned this kitchen before and have always been dismayed at its state. There is nothing like a common enemy to bring two women closer together as friends, and in this case the common enemy was filth ... and something that looked an awful lot like bird poop on the dish drying mat, which remains a great mystery to us both.
While we wiped drawers and hauled dented pots and pans from deep, deep cupboards, we both agreed on the following: stay on top of your cleaning so that this (arms spread, looking at the kitchen) doesn't happen. Do you wipe down the stove after every meal? Yes. Clear the counters at the end of each day? Yes. Wipe behind appliances? Yes. We both love the hum of the dishwasher in the evening when we turn out the lights. This is order. This is predictability. This is entering a clean kitchen in the morning and pouring yourself a lovely cup of coffee.
In a clean mug.
With no bird poop.
I know. Bizarre.
I come from a Swedish household and still refer to my mother's style of housekeeping as "Swede Clean." Her baseboards/door trim/decorative plates will always pass the white glove test. Mine? No. But this is why I don't display decorative plates or wear white gloves.
This friend and kindred spirit I spent hours cleaning with had a different impetus for an orderly life:
she grew up in chaos.
But that's not my story to tell.
My story is that I've spent the better part of 40 years fearing chaos, and in turn, holding the sad belief that if I remained tidy, I couldn't be an artist. I believed that artists live in stirred spaces where inspiration circled them at all times and if you took the time to sweep beneath and around their things you'd scoop away all that artistic energy and ready it for the curb and the Tuesday morning garbage truck (but do not roll it out on Monday night because the bears will get into it and spread it all over the damned driveway and that's just a nasty mess).
My last mentor in the clothing industry, Manuel, was a true artist and a craftsman; a master tailor from Manila with so much creativity swirling around him he created his own weather system. He used to write in the appointment book with the purple disappearing ink pen we used to mark wedding gowns (Appointment? What appointment? There's no appointment here.). He preferred delivering a gown to the bride at 11 pm the night before her ceremony (Nervous? Why are you feeling nervous?). He loved putting off and then solving the engineering challenges of a corset 3 minutes before a client was due at the door (Sew faster!). He loved dancing. And singing. He loved the beauty of women. And spontaneity. And chaos. And he loved me like a daughter.
He used to call me Booger.
And it was, at times -- for a tidy, methodical person like me -- utterly maddening to be with this kind of energy, especially when I let it dictate how I expended my own.
It took a lot of mental capacity to remain pulled together -- myself, the shop, the cutting, the appointments, the fitting, the sewing, the clients, the logistics, the dancing, the singing, the deliveries, the 20+ custom wedding gowns some months generated in an atelier mostly comprised of one seamstress, one tailor, one Manuel and one me -- I was the oldest 26-year old you ever met. And then I finally had a break down, I blew out my creative energy and had nothing left to give. I weighed 105 pounds and migraines seemed manageable compared to this idea that I wasn't inspired, ever, and perhaps never would be. That part was debilitating.
What? Booger, how can you not be inspired? I'm inspired every day of my life.
And this is when I started thinking that really being an artist meant belting out "The Girl from Ipanema" while busting out some Bossa Nova moves. And never worrying about tomorrow. Or schedules. Or disappearing ink. Or the challenges of the next client. Or caring when you finally made it home from work at night. Maybe I wasn't working hard enough. Maybe I wasn't loving life enough.
Maybe I never would.
Maybe something cold and Scandinavian and stoic and bleak was too lodged inside of me.
I left that career before I turned 30 and walked away from 12 years in the clothing design industry, something I'd wanted since I was 13. I didn't believe in myself as anything more than an assistant and I didn't want my own shop, my own line, my own label, my own runway shows. I just wanted out of chaos.
A different career altogether separates me from who I was then and who I am now (I'm taking a longish exploratory break from it, I say). But the lure of continuing to use my hands in the way I was taught initially is too great to ignore.
Manuel died two years ago. And while I know that rainy, silent day will come when I hear a Stan Getz horn or Astrid Gilberto sing off key and I'll finally lose myself to uncontrolled sobbing, I continue to think about my mentor. Can you be so good at something, so confident, that the only way to maintain your inspiration is to generate chaos? I wonder.
Or, can a quiet confidence in a skill well earned eventually offer one ... freedom? Did I misinterpret chaos as artistic freedom? Could it be that there were so few problems Manuel couldn't solve that sometimes he needed self-generated problems to stay alive and creative? Or, was he just simply sanguine and I, always the melancholic, am still reading too deeply into a situation and a relationship, despite years removed, that ultimately helped define me as an artist and a maker?
Maybe that's enough.
There is a German word: sitzfleisch. It means to be persistent in your work, despite obstacles. Like the good old: Ass. In. Chair. And I was this, all through my 20's, until I had to scrape that chair back and walk away. And among the myriad of lessons Manuel taught, perhaps the biggest and most unintended was to recognize where my own threshold for chaos resides. My work will be original and violent, but my counters will be wiped. My threads will be trimmed, my corners mitered.
Booger, are you sending this out the door? It looks like the dog's breakfast. Figure out how to fix it.
And for every screaming temper tantrum I never had, for every chair I never threw, the Swedes also have a saying, about persistence and discipline and a fair sprinkling of violence as well.
Translated, it means:
"You have kicked your way here."
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.