Now that all the hard work is over, the production process is complete, the works are in the gallery, and I have time to breathe, I would like to share with you the story behind my major work created for my Advanced Diploma of Jewellery and Object Design, undertaken at the Design Centre Enmore -TAFE NSW Sydney Institute in 2012.
For my major subject Concept/Designer-Maker, I designed and made a series of 12 interconnecting brooches inspired by the book The Treehouse – Eccentric Wisdom From My Father On How To Live, Love and See by Naomi Wolf (Virago Press, 2007).
The Treehouse is one of my all-time favourite books, as it seems to sum up my whole philosophy of living a creative life. The pages of my copy have corners turned over where important quotes may be found, and the pages are covered in my underlinings and scribbles. I am always tempted to buy extra copies and give them away to friends and family who are feeling lost and need to find their creative potential.
During a year of chaos, right after she turned 40, the highly acclaimed feminist thinker Naomi Wolf decided to buy a near-derelict house in the midst of a desolate meadow filled with thorns. The property had been on sale for years; it was dark, dusty, abandoned – like something out of a Grimm’s fairytale. And yet for some reason it called to her.
Naomi begins to invite friends and family to come up and visit on weekends, away from the bustling metropolis of Manhattan, and to help restore the old house.
Whilst starting to rebuild the little run-down cottage, she realises that this process parallels a kind of internal reflection and repair that she herself desperately needs. She has lived for too many years trying to fit into the many “boxes” associated with her career, motherhood, and international success as a writer and thinker. She has become hard, closed, and overwhelmed.
The protagonist in this process of healing is her father Leonard, an eccentric poet and teacher of literature. Leonard quotes Shakespeare whilst weeding the garden, and has a collection of medieval astrolabes, just in case one day he needs to navigate by the stars. His definition of wealth is not based on a specific figure or a set of luxury items, but rather “the idea that you might spend your last dollar on two ripe plums, and enjoy them so fully that the memory of how good they were could last you forty years”.
Through the course of the book, Leonard outlines the twelve key principles of creative wisdom which he considers essential for truly “living” a happy, successful and meaningful life.
The overall message of this book is clear – that everyone is an artist in some way or other, and that our mission in life is to find out what that form of art is and to work on that art every day. We all have a unique voice that needs to be expressed, not only for the benefit of others, but because it is the one thing that will make us happier and more fulfilled within ourselves. Passion is the key to everything, and without it we are simply fooling ourselves.
The puzzle cube represents the physical environment of ‘The Treehouse’ - a symbolic structure within which the imagination is allowed to run riot.
From the outside, the cube appears cold and hard, but as you remove each piece, an exciting inner world is opened up. The internal focus of the cube also refers to the necessity to occasionally do “inner work” on ourselves - looking inside for inspiration & peace.
The puzzle pieces all interconnect and work together to build the cube, demonstrating how each of Leonard’s 12 lessons of creative wisdom is crucial in the context of living a complete and meaningful life. With any one piece missing, the structure will fall apart.
A magnetic back plate for each piece adds another “magical” element of play and also allows the individual blocks to be worn as brooches when inspiration or motivation is needed.
The outside faces of the blocks are made from 0.75mm mild steel sheet. These have been formed by scoring and folding, then bead-blasted and blackened with sump oil. Sterling silver rivets are also visible from the outside, referencing the DIY building that the author does both on her cottage in the woods and on the treehouse she builds for the kids.
The insides of the blocks are constructed from 0.7mm sterling silver sheet, with a saw-pierced design unique to each piece. Multiple flat pieces of sterling silver have been soldered together to create the complex forms of each block. This sterling silver element has been rivetted onto the mild steel outside with 1mm sterling silver rivets at two points.
The 12 brooches were exhibited at the exhibition Mine, held at the Danks Street Depot Gallery in Sydney's thriving Waterloo design precinct from 27th November - 1st December 2012.
The following paragraphs provide more detail for the design of each block as individual pieces for the Designer-Maker series:
LESSON 1: BE STILL AND LISTEN
The Treehouse opens with the author, Naomi, purchasing a tiny cottage on the edge of the woods, a place that is desolate, barren, overgrown - “a wreck surrounded by peace... like something from a Grimm’s fairy tale”. This place represents a space for her to escape from the chaos of city life and a high-powered career, and to reflect on where she may have gone wrong in life. The stillness and silence allow her to hear her inner voice for the first time in a long time.
IMAGERY: Winter landscape, bare branches, ruins, thorns, dreamlike, darkness, stillness
LESSON 2: USE YOUR IMAGINATION
"The little house in Boston Corners made me feel the way I felt when we were growing up - that I had entered a kingdom of pure imagination; that the ‘real’ world outside had rules and limitations and laws of nature, but inside where we lived, anything at all could happen".
The little house in the woods, as well as the treehouse that the family builds for the kids, are both symbols for magic - the creation of “a kingdom of pure imagination” where anything is possible. Creativity is favoured over practicality. There is a sense, even among the adults, of child-like play and the creation of “miniature worlds” that the daily concerns of real life cannot penetrate. The house is a safe place, a “crucible of magic” and adventure, and a return to childhood.
IMAGERY: Fairytale kingdom/castle/fort, treehouse, magical city, royal, regal
LESSON 3: DESTROY THE BOX
"To Leonard, Dan practices brokering but is a writer; Terry sells ad space but is a singer. Leonard wishes they would break the boxes that insist that what they do for a living is who they are - the boxes that occlude, to themselves and to the world, the artist that is central in each of them".
This chapter addresses the restrictions we place on ourselves, for example when we confuse our “career” with the “work” we were born to do. The humanist view is that art can change us and save us - but only if we are willing to challenge and reject the expectations placed on us by ourselves and other people. We need to be willing to go back and become students again, instead of thinking that we already know everything.
IMAGERY: Layers of resistance, punched through, smashed, destroyed, ripped, roughened
LESSON 4: SPEAK IN YOUR OWN VOICE
"...the amazing thing is that, when I get it right and reach them, when they break into their own true voices, ‘the light in them’ leaps out: they change, even physically. It is a kind of miracle. The air around them becomes clearer, and a radiance amps up in their eyes and faces. Speaking in their own voices, they become, if ony for a moment, what they were put on earth to be".
Authenticity is more important than what other people think of your work, the agendas of your education, or the cliches of commercial success. When we speak from the heart we become radiant and charismatic, our own unique creative light shines through. What makes you, personally, feel strongly about the subject you are working on? Once the imaginative drive is unleashed, it is unstoppable. Living for your art is to burn with a “hard, gemlike flame”.
IMAGERY: Flame, light, illumination, candles, sound waves
LESSON 5: IDENTIFY YOUR HEART’S DESIRE
"My family had rules too, they were just wierd ones. If you saw something your heart went out to - no matter how broke we were, or rather, especially if we were broke - you had to buy it. It’s not that, if your heart went out to it, you could buy it; you had to. . . The insistence that we had to honor our innermost inclination – and the phrase was always ‘If your heart goes out to it’ – sent the clear message that is was actually naughty to disregard what Yeats calls ‘the deep heart’s core’ ".
There is a psychological symbolism to the objects we surround ourselves with, and these tell us of the personal mythology we want to create for our own lives. Magic is created when we fulfil our heart’s desire after dreaming about it for so long - “Does your heart go out to it?” Yeats tells us not to ignore what comes from “the deep heart’s core”.
IMAGERY: Arrows, strong direction, pointing to the central core
LESSON 6: DO NOTHING WITHOUT PASSION
"Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
This anonymous quatrain has lasted for five hundred years. If you don’t feel that feeling about where you are in your life - change your life".
This chapter asks us to think about the people or experiences that you literally cannot live without - if this thing was taken away, you would say “I would die”. If you have a shadow of a doubt that you are not in the right place, you need to change direction towards what is most important. Look for the spark, the knots that you feel in your heart when you are denied the thing that you are passionate about.
IMAGERY: Sparks, knots, scribbles, bursting out
LESSON 7: BE DISCIPLINED WITH YOUR GIFT
"Don’t wait for inspiration, but sit down quietly, and begin; once you have gotten to work, shut up, even to yourself, about writer’s block; use your imagination; and keep working. That is your draft. The first one will always be terrible; don’t worry about that; keep working. Cut anything that in not in your own voice or anything about which you do not feel passionately or anything that is not true. If you have taken a wrong turn, go back; that is part of the process. The edit, edit, edit. Finally, know when you are done.
Of all these, ‘get to work’ is the most important".
Technique and structure must be balanced with emotion. You need to know the rules before you can break the rules - your audience can tell whether you have made an intentional mistake or if you have just been lazy or careless.
Writer’s block is the enemy of creativity, but commencing the creative act drives out fear. Don’t wait for inspiration - just start. There is no revising a blank page - just keep going. Work is always “in progress”, a process of trial and error. It may take many attempts to achieve perfection - just keep trying until you get it right.
IMAGERY: Building blocks, steps, machinery, clockwork, incremental progress, time passing
LESSON 8: PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS
"There is a story about a monk who lived in China; he spent his lifetime carving a stone cicada. It was a beautiful cicada. The very last thing he did was to carve a perfect ruby tongue in its mouth. Of course, no one would ever see the ruby tongue. But the monk would know it was there. As a monk who was praying with his work, and as an artist, he knew that only when that unseen detail was finished would the stone cicada be complete".
Plot is the armature and details fill it out, providing texture and clarity. To do this, we need to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary, every day. Sometimes you need to “kill your little darlings” (creative ideas that you are very attached to) if they are not working. We also need to know what details are necessary for us to feel satisfied that the work is completed, even if it is something that no one else will ever see or know about - such as the stone cicada’s ruby tongue.
IMAGERY: Millimetre measurements, filigree, fretwork, repeat pattern perfectly executed
LESSON 9: YOUR ONLY WAGE WILL BE JOY
"From my father, I got the idea that wealth was not a specific figure or a set of luxury items. That wealth was the ability to buy two ripe plums and enjoy them so fully that the memory of how good they were could last you forty years".
Don’t listen to other people’s opinions about your work - it is more important that the work is authentic than whether it is popular or commercially successful. Creative work should, above all, make you happy - the artist is driven by “fire in the belly”, not how much money they will make. Don’t confuse the life of a work of art with the life of the artist - some great art has been hidden for 300 years, but it is still great art even though no one is looking at it. It helps to approach the work as if it were not your own, and then step back and make the necessary changes to make it great. Remaining true to your inner creative light is absolute, a way to achieve spiritual transcendence.
IMAGERY: Circles, coins, sunlight, bubbling over
LESSON 10: MISTAKES ARE PART OF THE DRAFT
"False starts are sometimes what lead you to the beginning of the real work, my father feels. There is such an important place in anyone’s life for false starts, he believes, for dead ends from which you reverse and for imperfections; human error. He believes in accepting that there will be first and second and third drafts. If you are stuck or going the wrong way, it’s okay. Just stop and revise….. There is no shame in realizing you are going the wong way. The only thing to worry about is being afraid to go anywhere".
False starts lead you to the beginning of the real work. “An artist has to drip sometimes”. To be flawed is to be human - don’t wait for perfection, it will stop you in your tracks. Make use of imperfection - “the diminished thing” - and make do with what you are given. Mistakes are everywhere - they do not equal failure, they are just part of the draft. Mistakes are a crucial part of the process.
IMAGERY: Scratches, crossing out, scribbles, scrunched up, mis-printed, blobs, scuffed
LESSON 11: FRAME YOUR WORK
"The Chinese artists have something they call ‘the doctrine of the final inch’. When one of them nears the completion of a project - with, say, only an inch to go - he stops; goes away; meditates; prays; then comes back and approaches the final inch as if beginning the project anew".
The doctrine of the final inch - that you must take as much care at the end as you did at the beginning. Death is necessary, but it frames a life - we must be ready to die, satisfied with our achievements. The worst thing that can happen is to die feeling that you have wasted your life. Don’t pretend that death won’t happen, we need to think about it now so that we can put the finishing touches on our lives. You have to know when your work is done. We are remembered by the art we leave behind.
IMAGERY: Autumn, cold and darkness coming, change and decay everywhere
LESSON 12: SIGN IT AND LET IT GO
“Every person has a destiny or task, and if he or she pursues it, that is his or her light . . . I’ve observed people making things that are so beautiful, working in the most obscure places; children making dolls in the Sahara out of wooden spools. The creative process is everywhere. I would like to feel at the moment of my death that I had honored that light”.
“I really wish, ” I said, “that you would stop talking about the moment of your own death.”
“You can wish all you want, honey.” My father laughed. “It’s not going to change the outcome.”
Death is inevitable - it brackets our lives and reminds us of what we must create while we are still alive. We need to feel at the moment of our death that we have honoured our creative light, and hence to face death with sadness perhaps, but not despair. “You can wish all you want, but it won’t change the outcome...Honey, let it go”. To sign the artwork is the very last thing we do before we send it out into the world, as a representation of ourselves. A signature indicates that we are satisfied with the end result, and that we are ready to move onto the next stage - onwards and upwards. Freedom.
IMAGERY: Wings, blue sky, release, freedom