One of the questions one of my first editors wanted me to ask the artists I interviewed was, “How do you know when you’re finished?” I didn’t always ask the question, though, because it seemed kind of evident: you know it’s finished when it’s finished. Right? It’s your work, and you know when you’re done.
In the decades since, of course, I’ve learned it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy knowing when you’re done, and even when you do know, it’s not that easy to explain *how* you know. Some people just know; it’s a gut thing. Others have tests and tricks–leaving the room and then popping back in, suddenly, trying to catch a view of the piece through fresh eyes. Others walk away for a day or two. Some go pour a glass of wine and sit with the piece, mulling it over and checking it from various angles. I talked to one artist long ago who said when it was time to go smoke a cigarette, the piece was done. She came back from her smoke break, started another piece, and when it was time to go smoke again, that piece was done. It seemed to work for her.
What I’ve been thinking about lately is when people stop too soon. You know: you’ll see something someone has created, and it’s wonderful, and you really like it, but you think to yourself, “Gee, if only they’d carried through and added _______.” Maybe you’d like to see a little bit of text, or maybe you’d like things a little more polished or, conversely, a little more grunged up. Maybe you want some beading, or maybe another glaze would have made the piece sing. Whatever it needs, you can look at it and see that it’s just not quite there.
What makes artists stop too soon? Is it that they have a minimalist aesthetic and truly believe less is more? In some cases, that’s it. In others, though, you get the impression that something else was going on. Perhaps they ran out of time, or maybe they know that their collectors are unwilling to pay what they’d have to charge if they spent more time on a piece. I think, from having to talked to so many people and hearing their thinking, that often it’s uncertainty: if you’re not really sure if something’s finished, it feels much safer to leave it alone and walk away than to do more to it and risk ruining it.
I’ve been thinking about this especially as it relates to the Alabama Chanin-style projects people post online. If you’re not familiar with Natalie Chanin’s style of over-the-top beaded and stitched embellishment, check out her website for examples. The work of her artisans is stunning, and there are legions of women who want to create an exquisite garment (or entire wardrobe, if they’re *really* ambitious) in that style. But, over and over, you see skirts and boleros that, while lovely, just don’t quite get there. They don’t have much beading, and maybe there’s only a fraction as much applique and stitch work as you would find on an AC original. The creators mention in their posts that they’re not quite satisfied with what they’ve made, but they don’t really seem to understand why that’s the case. What it is, over and over, is that they’ve stopped too soon. Whether it’s that they’re not sure they would ever wear such heavily-embellished pieces or that they got overwhelmed at the amount of work involved, they stopped before they got close to capturing the essense of what Chanin does with her garments. It’s that rich, over-the-top lushness that captivates us, and without it, it’s just some t-shirts remade into simple garments, never mind that they’re completely comfortable and serviceable.
We’ve all seen college or assemblage that stops just short of being fabulous, paintings that would reach the next level if only there were a little more detail, sculpture that just almost gets to where it seems to want to go. If minimalism is truly your thing, great. But if you find yourself wondering, again and again, why your work just doesn’t seem to quite get where you want it to go, think about whether you’re stopping too soon. Create a piece and deliberately take it past the point where you’d usually be inclined to stop. Take photos of the process and think about how it feels and how you feel about the finished piece. Too over-the-top? Or just perfect?
For some fabulously detailed stitching, check out Layered, Tattered and Stitched: A Fabric Art Workshop by Ruth Rae.
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