From Concept to Execution

photo by Sarah Cleary

photo by Sarah Cleary

Ann Patchett says that the act of writing is like seeing a beautiful butterfly, reaching out to touch it, and then smashing it dead. What she means is that no matter how talented a writer you are, it is impossible to write the book that you have in your head. You imagine something eloquent and perfect and, despite all efforts, something gets mangled in the process.

As a writer, this is, without a doubt, the source of all creative suffering. You can’t get the beautiful thing that is inside of you out. You may very well end up with something else equally beautiful, but it will not be a direct representation of the beautiful thing that lives inside.

When I started making sculptures two years ago, my entire life got an upgrade. Visual art gives me everything that writing does not (and writing gives me everything that sculpture cannot).

Making sculptures is collaborative, outwardly oriented, physically demanding. It takes me out into the world; I have to ask questions, get advice, and rely on other people. It gets me out of my head and into my body. Writing, on the other hand, suits the introvert in me; it is insular, solitary, and autonomous. I can go days without needing anything from anyone.

These two pursuits provide the perfect balance. When I start to feel withdrawn and closed off, I work on a sculpture. When I feel too reliant on other people, too exhausted, or my thumb, say, has swelled to twice its normal size from pressing bullets into foam for a hundred hours and I can no longer bend it, I sit down in front of my computer and pick up writing again. Some people wonder how a writer can also be a visual artist. I wonder how I made it so long without being both.

The biggest surprise about making sculptures relates to Patchett’s metaphor. Instead of mauling the butterfly during the creative process, as one does while writing, visual art allows you to hold the creature in your hand, to study it, and to make an exact replica of it, down to the tiniest detail.

In the photo below, the top image is an idea I sketched in two minutes on an 8″ x 10″ piece of vellum at an artist residency. The bottom image is the finished piece, titled Rewritten, 78″ x 54″, finished four months later out of silk and shredded love letters.

Rewritten sketch to final

In the photo below, the left image is the concept sketch I gave to Andy Paiko, the glass artist with whom I collaborated on At My Most Beautiful. The right image is his hand blown vessel. The only difference in the two is that, at the last moment, I turned the stopper upside down because I preferred the line it created in that position.

at my most beautiful sketch to final

Being able to take an idea and turn it into something you can touch or hold, something that can catch the light, is one of the greatest joys in my life. It makes me feel that all is right with the world. And it strengthens my resolve to get back to my computer and to capture in writing that beautiful thing inside of me that is trying to get out.

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