Repetition, Evolution and Craft

La Cruceta del Vigia, Ponce, Puerto Rico

A friend recently shared something with me that I’d like to pass along. Paying it forward, as it were. Before I show you what he shared, though, I’m going to go back a couple of weeks to Art and Fear, which I reviewed in this space. There’s a parable in there about quality versus quality.

The short version goes like this: a ceramic teacher divides his class in half, and tells half of them they’ll be graded on quantity, and the other half that they’ll be graded on quality. To get a good grade, the “quality” group has to produce a masterwork; the quantity group, on the other hand, is being graded by the pound.

When the end of class rolls around, the group graded on quantity fares better; while some of what they’ve created is of poor quality, much of it is at least competent, and some of it even great. The quality group, in the meantime, has gotten itself so bogged down in endless debates over what makes a good pot that they don’t have much to show for all their talk, and the pots are lousy anyway.

There are a few lessons to be drawn here, not least of which the simple fact that all the theory in the world, no matter how attractive or how good it may sound, doesn’t amount to squat unless you can back it with results. Just as importantly, it’s by putting things into practice that we learn what works and what doesn’t; it’s where all that theory is realized, and made concrete (or porcelain, if you’d rather).

Speaking of making it concrete, let’s go back to our regularly scheduled post. What my friend passed along is a story that unfolds over several years’ worth of practice. An artist named Jonathan Hardesty (who also goes by MindCandyMan on charted his evolution online for all to see. His first attempts at painting – just working out the basics of line, shape, color and composition – are all there, and you can chart the progress all the way through to his later works, which are fully realized art by any standard.

It’s inspirational, but not in the often-told, generally hackneyed “person just happens upon their art or craft one day and almost immediately discovers a long-buried talent” sort of way. While I’m sure that happens every now and again, I think there’s something in that conventional narrative that poisons the well, ‘cause people miss the part of the equation that involves them putting in a shitload of effort no matter how talented they are. At the beginning of this “version,” on the other hand, there’s no inkling of some phenomenal talent. There are just a handful of studies in color, line, shade and shape. That and a lot of effort that leads, slowly and seemingly inexorably, toward someone finally being able to fully realize their vision.

It’s inspiring because it applies to the rest of us, as well. There’s a debate to be had over the role and nature of talent (whether it’s inborn or cultivated), and we’ll no doubt get to that another time. Leaving talent aside for a moment, though, just think about your own work. If, as it’s been said, it takes ten thousand hours to get good at what you’d like to do, that’s an awful lot of hours to invest, especially when you’re measuring them out 1/125 of a second at a time. I’m not sure that the 10,000 number is meant to be taken literally, or if, like Jesus’ “seven times seventy,” it’s just a simple reminder that it’s something you’re going to have to do quite a lot of. Whichever it turns out to be, plan accordingly but also realize that you will see results for your effort, even if it doesn’t always feel that way at the time.

As sometimes happens, this story came along just when I needed it. It’s easy to look at other people’s amazing work and be intimidated by it. After all, they’ve already had so much time to get to where they are, and here we are – well, here I am, anyway – still a newcomer by comparison. How and when do I get to that point, if ever?

But then I’m reminded of something: when you see work like that, you’re (hopefully) seeing someone at their best. Like a first date, an artist (no matter what their medium is) is going to put their best foot forward. Often as not, that means you only get to see the pinnacle of their work – the peaks, with all the valleys (the false starts, the doubts, the things left unfinished or never started) glossed over or omitted. Part of the value of Hardesty’s work is the reminder that none of us is alone in that process… it’s just that most of us aren’t generally brave enough to put all of it – not just our highest highs, but our lowest lows and every point in between – out before an audience, and essentially grow up in public.

I rather like the idea of calling the act of something “putting it into practice,” ‘cause really, at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. Practice, and when that’s over, more practice. We continue ‘til we’ve got it right, and keep going ‘til what’s right gets that much better. There’s no destination, no perfection; only perfecting.

You can see the original thread tracing Jonathan/MindCandyMan’s evolution here, and further along his journey here. His personal website is here. And the “Online Atelier” he started to pass on what he knows is here.