holding our treasures loosely
When my daughter Kaija was nine she began taking art lessons. Her teacher preferred the term “studied with,” so, when Kaija was nine, she began “studying with” an art teacher. We both loved the studio where she studied. It was in the city and full of energy and warmth. Large tables filled the center space and the surrounding walls held shelves brimming with objects and books of images. A huge cage, with a permanently open door, housed a bird that could come and go between the room and the perch. The sound of giggling children and teachers filled the space not taken by the music played from around the world. Artists of all ages and abilities could chose their medium and worked along side one another, giving critique and praise as asked.
Everyone began their study with a self portrait created through additive clay sculpting. Kaija was excited to begin. A full six months (and many hundreds of dollars of class fees) later, she was finished. Her sculpture stood approximately two feet tall, wore Kaija’s trademark bright colors, and had her hands clasped at her waist. She was painted, glazed, and ready to fire. Into the kiln she went.
During the six months that Kaija had spent creating her self sculpture many things had occurred. A hesitant “separater” from me, she had grown to love the studio. She emerged from her two hour Friday afternoon sessions a lighter being than she entered. It was as if the difficulties of the traditional classroom setting that she faced all week at school fell off of her as she entered the studio and she left floating. Having struggled her entire life to adequately give shape and life in tangible forms to the ideas and images in her mind, she seemed freer to create and explore than I had ever seen her. Even when she spoke of not liking her sculpture, she was able to see value in the making of it. This was new.
Given that I am not an artist and had little understanding of the process she was learning, it was difficult to accept that little observable progress seemed to be made each week. After her second month at the studio I began studying the sculpted Kaija each Friday as we arrived. My real Kaija would take the clay girl off of the shelf and unwrap the many wet rags that had kept her pliable for the seven days since she had seen her last. Many weeks I couldn’t see any visible difference when I picked her up. Sometimes, when I’d come to get her at the end of class, Kaija would proudly display the parts of her sculpture that she had undone. From my ill-informed perspective, not only was she not progressing, she was going backwards. I wondered when she would ever complete this first project, giving her the freedom to explore other mediums and forms in class. I added up the dollar amount that this self portrait would represent when the firing was complete and hoped she would be ready soon.
Little did I know that this would be the exact time that things would go South. Or North. Depending on how you see things.
Once in the kiln I could not wait to see Kaija’s finished work. I determined where it would live in our home and Kaija’s teacher hoped to include it in an upcoming gallery show. When I got a call from the studio the next week, however, I went numb.
Kaija’s piece had exploded in the kiln.
When I asked (certain that the answer would be “yes”) if it could be reconstructed from the pieces in the kiln, a long pause ensued. “Perhaps...” the kind instructor said with a pause that belied the real story. Her sculpture lay in pebble size pieces at the bottom of the kiln. While reproduceable, it would never be put back together as it was.
I agonized about how to break the news to Kaija. I worked myself up into a tight ball of disappointment, fearing that Kaija would be crushed by the loss of her work. I waited until I could wait no longer to tell her what had occurred. Without missing a beat she said “O.K.” and headed back to her bedroom to play. That was it. Moments later I checked in to see if she was crying inconsolably (as I had) and she was, instead, fully engaged in creating a camera out of a box. She seemed un-phased. Completely. Truly. She had already moved on. I kept waiting for her to fall apart. I was obsessed. I couldn’t let it go. Certainly, “one of these days,” this loss would hit her and she would grieve.
That day never came.
Come to find out, Kaija had learned the real lesson of studying art...and life. I don’t know if she was created with it or if she learned it during her months in the studio but she had figured out that, while the outcome is meaningful, it is nowhere near as important as the process of creation.
In truth, she was not very happy with, or connected to, her actual self portrait sculpture. It was an “assigned project” that had served its purpose. It had, in her mind, been completed when it went into the kiln. It had given her a way of integrating into the culture of the studio. It had provided an avenue for her to engage the instructors and other students about. It offered an opportunity for her to explore the relationship between the creator and the created. The sculpture was secondary to the internal work she was doing...that of nurturing her creative self, learning to handle the frustration of not being able to give physical form to an internal image, and of asking for help in the creative process. These were the outcomes. The sculpture, to her, was just a “thing.” The really important lessons had happened deep inside of her.
There was so much for me to learn from her during those weeks. There is so much for all of us to learn from her now.
We, in Western culture, become so tied up with that which is measurable and seeable. We want the finished product so that we can display it, alongside of our other accomplishments and awards. What we miss in our pursuit of these is the slow, steady learning to be had in experimentation, the resilience we develop through loss and failure, and the deepest reward of internal growth. We don’t understand the freedom to be found in holding the finished product lightly in deference to the process itself. The changes to our insides are frequently much more important than those to our outsides and yet we often matter less to ourselves than we allow the opinions of others to matter. We look to “show off,” rather than internally value, our growth and development. The statue matters more than the process involved in making it.
Learning how to be part of team can be much more meaningful in the long run than being awarded the trophy for most points scored. Cultivating the ability to tolerate ones imperfections is more healthy than spending ones resources (financial, time, energy, etc) trying to force physical “perfection.” Mastering the fine art of being a peacemaker may not win external accolades but will bring with it a calmer internal world. The externals can be taken in a second. The internals cannot be taken. Ever.
Kaija’s teachers worked tirelessly to recreate her sculpture using pieces from the kiln and photos taken before firing. The reproduction weighed four times what the original sculpture had weighed and has been completely disowned by Kaija. In her mind, it is not hers. Hers was lost in the firing. Her sculpture served its purpose and didn’t ever need to come home. Oh that we might all be so faithful to what really matters, holding our treasures loosely.