How an art installation can help you trust your creative process-
Do you ever get a vision of something you’d like to create but don’t know the process that might turn your idea into a reality? I envisioned a life-size giraffe grazing on the tree tops in my yard, a spirit animal* with a whimsical neck and winsome body. When we moved from southern California to the Pacific Northwest, where forests meet yards, even in housing developments, I thought about how I might construct one of these stately, elegant creatures to view out my window.
The idea first occurred to me when we moved to Bend, Oregon; a local artist constructs larger than life horses from lost and found pieces of metal. My hub was learning to weld so we started collecting rusty objects in hopes of constructing our own sculptures. Collecting and constructing are two different activities; we never got around to the actual assembling process. The collected metal became detritus that got left behind in another move farther north seven years later when we relocated to the Columbia Gorge near PDX.
Nearby our new location, life-size horse sculptures made from what appears to be driftwood look like they are grazing on grass next to the road leading to the Portland airport. I study these life-size animal sculptures every time we drive by. Consequently, I switch to collecting driftwood and dream about a giraffe made from the ubiquitous stuff. Only later do I learn that although the originals were crafted from wood, the actual horse sculptures near PDX are cast from bronze. (http://www.artnet.com/artists/deborah-butterfield/).
Driftwood is plentiful along the shores of the Columbia River where I hike and forage for fragments thrown ashore. Most days I pick up anything interesting, turning it over, sometimes seeing the possibility of a jaw, a rib, a leg or flank, maybe part of a neck in the pieces that have been beaten, broken, and bleached by sun, sand, tides, and time. I drag these wooden “bones” back to my car and drop the fragments under the trees and bushes around our house which has begun to resemble a boneyard.
For years I had no idea how the pieces might fit together and form themselves into a convincing giraffe sculpture. Still, I continue to forage, collect, and imagine. Meanwhile, I search online for directions on building a life-size giraffe from driftwood; they apparently don’t exist, so I’m left to figure this out on my own. This feels familiar, similar to my novel writing project.
For many years I’ve researched Van Gogh, collecting stories from his letters, curious about his time with Paul Gauguin in the Yellow House in Arles. I’m particularly drawn to the woman to whom Vincent handed his ear. Her unknown story has played at the edges of my mind for a very long time, her voice coming to me as I put the pieces together, constructing her journal. I’m still uncertain how it all plays out, but it looks very different than the commonly accepted male versions of the story.
As long as I keep writing, keep believing the out-of-order scenes and scraps of dialogue will eventually assemble into a novel, the project progresses, a story filled with surprises. When I allow it all to dumbfound or overwhelm me, I lose my way, letting overwhelm become an excuse to do nothing. When I return to the original idea–that art speaks, hence, ekphrasis –I find my way back into the work and the story moves forward. Writing is an act of faith, a found path that comes from doing the next thing, writing the next line, or drawing the next sketch since my protagonist also uses her journal as a sketchbook.
Maybe as act of procrastination, I take a break from the novel and ask the hub to help me begin assembling the giraffe. An art installation of the size I imagine calls for collaboration. I consult my drawing and measure the driftwood pieces we might begin with, laying out the proportions to resemble those of a young giraffe somewhere between 10 and 13 feet high; a full-grown giraffe can be 20 feet tall.
Originally I wanted to resurrect the giraffe in our front yard, off to the side, so I lay out the wood on our tiny front lawn and gather the pieces that suggest a torso. John fastens them together with screws, some 6″ long. For every three screws he puts in, I change my mind and ask him to back-out two. Indecision and experimentation. Eventually we get a better idea of what works, (and he quotes the cost of each 6″ screw- expensive wavering). If I overthink our points of connection, we’ll likely never finish.
After a few days of this we are ready to add the limbs, brace them, and let the awkward animal balance on it’s own four legs. Standing back to get a better view, I see our creation resembles a gawky, headless, prehistoric stick-figure. Uncertain how ungainly it might turn out, and noting how heavy it already is, we cart the half-carcass to our side yard. We live in a neighborhood with HOA rules about what’s acceptable in our tiny front yards. I’ve never seen anything against giraffes per se, but at this point I’m not sure this driftwood installation will be at all recognizable as the elegant animal I envision.
Once we relocate the headless body to the side yard we attempt to attach the core of the neck–a long, thick, twisted branch. We’ve already built and fastened the head together, realizing that once the neck is on, we will no longer be able to reach the top, even with our tallest ladder. And our back yard is a steep bank leading down to a creek. We build up a platform to stand the ladder on, precarious at best. The neck, with the head atop has to be placed deep inside the torso so the weight of it won’t topple the whole being, taking us down with it, which it almost does on our first attempt. I steady the ladder as John climbs up a second time to reinforce the long neck with more screws.
After the neck is secure we stand back to survey our creation. The head now reaches for the sky at an amusing, if not impossible angle. If repositioning the neck were possible I would vie for it, but risking injury seems unwise. At this point in the process I am willing to accept anything close to a giraffe likeness. Stepping away again to evaluate, I see the giraffe is clearly throwing back her head in laughter at us.
When I envisioned the giraffe we would build I pictured a somewhat whimsical but elegant creature. This giraffe clearly has different ideas but there is no practical way to turn back; we have to go with it. While we are adding more bulk and skin to the torso, and gluing moss over screw holes, our oldest son calls from Missouri.
Tell him we’re building a giraffe out of driftwood, I say, impatient to finish the project.
On speaker phone I hear, I wondered when you were going to get to that.
Had we previously mentioned the giraffe project to our son? I ask when John hangs up.
No, my husband says, that’s his version of ‘Of course you are.’
Later I send our son a photo. He texts back, …I can’t believe how convincingly shaped it is, especially the torso–it looks like the wood wanted to be a giraffe.
This morning while I sip coffee and study our completed giraffe, I’m contemplating my need to trust the creative process, to believe that these pieces of wood I’ve collected over the years always wanted to be this whimsical creature who, while not exactly looking like she’s nibbling on our trees, at least has some adventurous, if not humorous, sense of attitude.
Even when the story takes on a life of its own and rears its head back to laugh at my plans, I see how it’s best to give in and trust the process, letting the story that wants to be written find its way onto the pages.
Now that I’ve been through the process of constructing a life-size giraffe from driftwood, and lived to laugh about it, I’m back to working on my novel. I can’t say whether this is the first or the fifth draft. I’ve rewritten some parts ten or fifteen different times; other sections I haven’t yet written, so when people ask if this is still the first draft, I don’t know what to say. It’s such a long and convoluted creative process, I don’t know what to call it. Maybe I’ll just call it the laughing giraffe draft and press on with the creative process, knowing I can trust it to get me there, even if there isn’t anywhere near what I thought it would be.
- I want to acknowledge the term “spirit animal” denotes a far deeper meaning for indigenous cultures than I allude to here.