Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Do We Know When a Piece of Art is Finished?

I was in a sculpture class in high school and our assignment was to make a plaster sculpture that required an armature. An armature is a structure that supports the piece from inside and is never seen once the piece is finished. We were provided with blocks of wood for the bases and various gauges of wire, chicken wire, wire cutters, etc. with which to construct this supporting structure.
One of my classmates, let’s call her Linda Yen, created an armature of a horse that was so lovely the teacher called a halt to the class. Everybody was gathered around (the way I remember it) for a discussion about what to do next. The armature was so beautiful that the question arose as to whether the piece could be called complete at this stage. The instructor asked the philosophical question – one I still use every day -“How do we know when a piece is finished?” What a great question! The teacher was wise enough to let the student decide whether and how to proceed with the assignment. I remember some of the options:
· Leave this one as-is and call it complete.
· Finish the piece as assigned (cover it in plaster bandage and then more plaster). The sub-text to this was that if it loses something, she could attempt to make another wire sculpture.
· Stop now and create another companion armature to cover in plaster.
There were so many possible outcomes. The piece could look even more gorgeous when plastered, but there was no guarantee. What if it looked worse? None of us knew for sure what would happen. What if she were unable to create another equally graceful armature? I remembered the instructor taking a photograph of the armature “just in case.” It turned out the student chose to cover the armature in plaster as originally assigned. It lost its grandeur, appearing heavy and clumsy when it was finished. I remember her attempt to remake a wire armature afterward. It, too, lacked the beauty of the original.
I always took it as a lesson: When something looks really lovely, maybe it’s time to call it complete. Maybe it’s not what you were expecting, but try to step back from the “assignment” (your preconceived notions, your original expectations) to see the piece for what it is. If it is a treasure, treasure it.
I didn’t realize how deeply impacted I was by this learning. Let’s face it. Most of us in high school don’t learn by others’ mistakes – we much prefer to make our own. I know I did. I was truly impressed with Linda Yen’s original sculpture. I was equally disheartened by her loss in finishing the sculpture with plaster in a way that dulled its elegance, and then by her struggle to re-create another fine armature that also fell somewhat short.
Cut 42 years into the future:
Last week my friend Peter started posting digitized slides he rescued from our old high school in the midst of its demolition. In typically wasteful fashion, the venerable old building was being torn down while still full of books, supplies, furniture, art, and, oh yes, a carousel of old slides from the art department. What are the odds Peter would come up with images of the art work made by our cohort in the late 1960s? He did.
This is a photo of my life lesson. This is a slide of Linda Yen's armature from 1969. How do we know when a piece of art is finished? Is it when the teacher says, "Let me get a picture of this now, just in case?"
The larger lesson from this event is encoded here, too. What if your life isn't what you thought it was going to be? What if you have a different life? Is it possible for you to step back and see its elegance, beauty and completeness? Maybe it's not what you expected, and it has turned into something even finer. Imagine that.