Perfection is boring (and hard)

For most of my undergraduate career, I was striving for perfection. In my photography classes, this meant an unmarred image. Everything perfectly in focus. The lighting exactly as I would see it in a magazine. 

I rarely ever achieved this, because, well, I didn’t have the skill or the equipment. But even when I did, the image left something to be desired. It was well-lit, yes. The model looked great, of course. The composition was fine. But there was something missing. 

In my ceramics classes, it was the same way. Not only did I need to work in porcelain (the “purest” of the clay bodies), but I needed to work thin. I needed to be precise. I needed to be exact. Not a crack or a slump in sight.

Once again, this hindered me. I had just started working with ceramics a couple of years earlier. By no means did I have the skill and experience necessary to create porcelain sculptures that were thin and perfect. As a compromise, I would make dozens of precise, tiny porcelain sculptures that I wouldn’t glaze or do anything with, because I was too scared to fail.

Consequently, my first two project critiques would go well. “This is a great start,” my professor, Blake Williams, would say, with saint-like patience. “The forms are lovely.” “I’m excited to see the idea develop.” But inevitably, the final critique would come, and I would be left with those same pieces, unfinished, lacking conceptual development and resolution. Every time, without fail, my inability to let go, my fear of ruining a piece that was good but not great, paralyzed me into non-action and guaranteed failure. 

Looking back, I can see it so clearly. At the time, I was just confused and frustrated with myself.

I had a huge breakthrough in photography when I moved to shooting large-format film and developing it myself in the darkroom. Suddenly, my exposure was always a bit too dark, my subject cast in eery light, dust marks adding texture to the deep greys and blacks that made up the majority of my negatives.

And I loved it. I realized that what had been missing from my technical-perfection-striving photographs was a point-of-view and emotion, any sort of human element. The pictures I was producing with my view camera were definitely imperfect, and better because of it. 

Held within those dust marks and dark, underexposed subjects was true, raw emotion, and with it, something the viewer could hold on to and think about more than just, “Oh, that’s a pretty picture.” Suddenly, my work was not just about photography. It was about art.

A similar breakthrough came in my sculptural work while I was taking a class with Pat Hickman at Penland School of Craft in the summer of 2013. The class was called Structures and Skin, and Pat was having us work with hog gut in our sculptural work.  One night in the class, I started making an artist book. Working on thin white paper, I meticulously drew and wrote and painstakingly sewed onto the surface of the paper in precise movements, planning everything out and allowing myself a limited amount of controlled freedom. At the end of that night, at about 4am, I felt that I had created a book that I was content with, and I went to bed.

The following morning, when I came back to the studio, I realized that the book was far from done,  but I didn’t really know where else to go with it. It was exactly what I had wanted to create: in my "perfect" refined palette of greys and whites, everything restrained and so clearly a product of an artist's mind that is fixated on the kind of work she thinks she should be making. 

And yet. It was not right. It was incomplete. I started to do what I had done so many times before: I almost put it away with the plan on looking at it "later" (read: never). But then I stopped. I don't know what it was that caused me to stop. Maybe it was the limited time I had in Pat's class, maybe it was my culminated sleep-deprivation from so many consecutive late nights in the studio, but instead of putting the book away, I did something that went against every natural instinct: I tore the book up. I tore it up and placed it into piles: one for pieces I wanted to reuse, and the other for pieces I could live without. And then I started over. 

I bought new paper, I got out all of my supplies, and I started over. But because I was using scraps from my previous book, it was already clear that this new book was not, by any means, going to be "perfect" or clean or minimalist. And this knowledge, the knowledge that I could not, by any means, reach the unattainable standard that I held for myself in my mind, freed me. It allowed me to explore.

What resulted was the beginning of one of my proudest, rawest, truest pieces to this date: Book of Secrets, which I still have proudly displayed on this website (see here). It is a layered, nuanced, imperfect piece that perfectly captures the person I was and the emotions that I was experiencing at the time that it was made.

Through the ripping of my initial book, which I now see was so clearly just a prototype, I freed myself of my fear. I told myself, “I made this once. If I mess it up, I can make it again." I took my precious book that I had spent so many hours on, that I felt could be perfect if I only made a few more really careful, deeply thought out decisions, and I did the thing that scared me most: I wrecked it. 

Once I had done that most scary thing, everything else seemed less scary. This gave me the freedom to truly explore my artistic vision without the fear of perfection. It allowed me to make art.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of my desire for perfection. It is still something that I struggle with everyday, in my art and otherwise (this blog, for example). I fight my illogical desire to be perfect every day, and sometimes I don't win the argument. But I'm getting better.

I’ve learned that perfection is seductive, but our fuck-ups are more honest and more beautiful because they contain a little bit of us and our process. They are a document of time and place, who we were and what we were thinking. They give our work perspective, infusing it with a humanness that is unique to each of us, and yet universally understood.

Anyone can learn how to take a perfectly lit photo of a beautiful place. Those are skills. Taking those skills and pushing them in a direction that only you can see, that only you know — that’s art. It's not perfect, but it is art.

I choose that. Everyday, I choose art.