13 July 2008

Habits of Thought

We fall into patterns, routines, and habits of thought without even realizing it. We reach again and again for our preferred problem-solving paradigms, favored short-cuts for thinking, and familiar perspectives. Even (perhaps especially) when we are in the midst of change, we may find our selves reaching for the tried-and-true rather than struggle through discovering something new.

I just experienced this while working on a piece. And while the piece doesn't work, I've learned something about my own creative habits in the process.

For a few months, I have been sensing a change in my personal aesthetic. Two weeks away from work in early July provided freedom for creative play to discover my voice. Over the two weeks, I started four new pieces that reflect the change in my style.

Note that I say I have started four pieces. Even though they are not particularly complex, I have yet to finish any. I am in a quandry because I don't know what done means in the context of my new work. I used to embellish and heavily machine-quilt my works. When I couldn't stitch anything else to the quilt, then I knew it was done. But, for a variety of reasons, that no longer appeals to me.

So here I am with these new pieces. Are they done? I'm not sure. A couple of them feel done to me, even though the only quilting on them is in-the-ditch. One needs a little more quilting, but I'm afraid of overdoing it. And one still needs to be assembled. (It's a collection of fifteen miniature 9-patches that will be attached to a base quilt).

So on this Sunday afternoon, I headed to my studio to finish one of those pieces. I was still feeling a little uncertain about my work, so I decided to make a quick-and-dirty mini-quilt. I grabbed scraps and began arranging them to find an appealing composition. I didn't want to over think it. I just wanted to start and finish something within thirty minutes or so.

I began with a composition that reflects the type of work I am doing now. Geometric, graphic, and minimal. I liked what I had, but didn't trust that it was done.

As I began stitching down the pieces, I again fell into habit. I started zigzagging the edges of the elements in the green form using matching thread. I decided not to zigzag the circle and curves, but to instead free-motion quilt them. My stitching and thread choices emphasized the notion of a sun, rather than just shape. (The sun is a recurrent motif from my earlier work.)

Once that shape became a sun, then the composition felt unbalanced and I added more stitching using metallic thread to the shapes inside the green form and quilted the lower background. I was becoming unhappy with the piece so I quickly finished it and pronounced it done.

After a lunch break, I looked at it and immediately realized what made me unhappy. The piece is an uncomfortable and awkward melange of my early style and my changing aesthetic. The underlying composition (minus the extra embellishments) reflects the direction I want to move toward, but the added metallic-thread stitching is a habitual return to my quilting past.

If I look back on the process, I remember feeling like I was going through the motions, not feeling very interested or involved in what I was doing as I was adding the extra stitching. And that is reflected in the uninspired quilting. I just wanted it to be done, but I wasn't able to discern what done meant. I didn't trust myself enough to create a spare piece with minimal stitching. The lack of trust meant I reached for things I was comfortable with--turning the shapes into a sun and using metallic threads for free-motion stitching.

My lesson here is that I reach for the familiar when I am feeling uncomfortable. Instead, I need to stay with the uncomfortable, rather than mindlessly reaching for habitual solutions. Discomfort is part of change and growth. And I need to allow myself the space to discover new methods and preferences, without continually referring to the past.

Perhaps I'll need to err on the side of underdone, rather than overdone, for a while. I can always take something off the wall and add more later. It's a lot easier than ripping.

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