I’m pretty sure I only make plans so I have something to deviate from.
When I started the Sacred Mile Project I knew I wanted creativity to be a big part of the experience for myself. I thought I would take walks several times a week, choose something particularly beautiful from one of my walks, and make an art piece inspired by it. And maybe I will do that in future weeks, but the first small art piece for the challenge didn’t go at all as I planned.
On my first walk of the year at the wetlands, I experienced one of those rare nudges to venture down a little side path off the gravel. The side path followed the curve of a tiny creek. I took a few pictures of the open grassy area on the other side of the creek, wondering why I felt pulled so forcefully from my usual route. Then I saw a blur of white a little further along the trail. It was a sleeveless blouse, once a creamy white with a soft pattern of orange and golden-brown mums, now splattered with mud and torn in a few places. I picked it up, thinking I could at least throw it in one of the trash bins along the trail. But I ended up deciding to bring it home.
I washed it several times, but the black stains didn’t come out. I wasn’t upset about it, because I never had any plans to try to WEAR it. As it turned out, the stains added some character to what was, previously, a pretty-ish but uninteresting article of clothing. It seemed clear this blouse should be part of my first little art piece for the challenge.
A part of me felt a little bit over the top, literally bringing home a blouse I found in the mud and using it for a project. But honestly, this isn’t that far off from how I’ve been creating for ages.
I first started working with thrifted and found materials in my early twenties, when I was really, truly poor and barely able to feed myself from week to week. The creative urges don’t go away just because you can’t afford anything in an art store, and back in the late 90’s, thrift stores were still pretty cheap. But when I started having a bit more of a disposable income, I kept getting materials from the thrift store. By then it was more about diverting items from the waste stream, and decreasing the demand for new items to be manufactured.
Later, drawn into the Law of Attraction crowd, I got lots of messages about how I “deserved” nice, new supplies, and didn’t have to limit myself to thrifted things and other people’s cast off, unwanted supplies. I wondered if I just didn’t think I was worthy of lovely things.
But somehow I never did get over the thrill of working with items other humans no longer wanted. Part of it is the challenge of transforming “junk” into something I find beautiful, or useful, or both. Transforming one thing into another is such an exciting process and leads to so many surprises.
But lately I’ve been thinking more about why I love working with supplies that could easily be considered trash. And all my old reasons still hold up: I DO enjoy acquiring supplies at very little (or no) cost. I DO enjoy the challenge of making lovely items from discarded ones. I DO feel good about reducing waste and putting less money in big corporate pockets. But there’s much, much more to it than that.
For one thing, previously owned items are stuffed with stories. I may or may not ever find out their story, but I can feel it when I touch them, the texture and weight of each items history. Stories are the deepest and best magic I know, and working with materials who have their own stories is an act of transformation not just for the materials, but for myself. I don’t know exactly how this all works. I don’t know if I’m explaining it very well. But any time we brush up against stories, we are changed - and that includes, for me, the stories woven into objects whose lives before they came to us are a mystery.
For another, I find these storied beings more inspiring than shiny new things fresh from the manufacturer. There are so many ways to approach art. I know of many people who begin with an idea, and then make a plan, search out supplies to execute that plan, and make the thing. I think of this as end product directed art. Another way is to stumble on or accept items that speak to you, and the found items themselves direct what is made from them. This is what I think of as material (and/or) process driven art, and it’s the kind of project I most often find myself loving enough to finish.
Obviously these are only two approaches, they can be combined, and there are a million more ways to approach the artistic process.
I love materials driven art partly just because of how my brain works. I’m always looking at things and wondering how they might function beyond their original intended purpose. And beyond that, the more I learn to listen to the spirits of all the not-human beings around me, the more I find these items with a history have ideas of their own. As each one calls out to me to be taken into my studio, they begin a conversation with me. It’s usually wordless, and maybe it would be better described as a kind of dance, where I don’t really know the steps but my dancing partner(s) are very skilled at tugging and nudging me to move a certain way. The act of making art with these items is collaborative, and each time I’m surprised by what comes of us working together. I don’t HAVE to have a plan: I just have to play, and follow the nudges.
But more than anything, I continue to work with previously owned or discarded materials out of love. That is, it feels, to me, like an act of love to take up a being who has been rejected by others for whatever reason, and find a connection with that being, and let that connection fuel an act of creativity. Don’t we all want to be loved and appreciated? And don’t those of us who’ve had a rough start in life, who’ve faced a lot of hurt and rejection, appreciate love more when we find it? It makes my heart feel warm and joyful to make things this way.
And it isn’t like I’m some kind of savior or something. I’m just following my joy, following the burst of excitement I feel each time I find a being who wants to join in creative playtime with me. I also happen to believe in the ethics of the process, but even if it didn’t feel important to reduce waste, I would love working with old things, discarded things. For me it’s not some kind of sacrifice I make for the good of the planet. It’s a delightful way to dance with the spirits of everything around me to make something new.
So here’s my first creative piece for the Sacred Mile Project, a bit of embroidery showcasing the creation of something new and (I think) beautiful from something cast aside and damaged. Something literally pulled out of the mud, cleaned off, and re-made. I’ve loved every minute of working with this castoff blouse, and I hope they’re enjoying themself as much as I am.
All photos in this blog post copyright Michelle Simkins, 2024. Please don’t reproduce or use for purposes other than personal, private use without permission.
Don’t know what The Sacred Mile Project is? You can read the introductory post.
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