How Long It Took

When people first see my work, a good portion of them ask me one simple question: how long did that take? To which there is a simple answer: I have no idea.

The reaction to this, most of the time, is poor. I’ve seen confusion, and even suspicion cloud people’s faces. Gears churn, judgements are rendered. Why doesn’t he pay attention, set a timer, do some basic book keeping here? But the truth is, my total disregard for time keeping is actually worse than it appears: I don’t ever bother to date anything I’ve done, (or sign anything for that matter), so I don’t even know when I started a particular piece, much less the specific hourly total it took to finish it. Clearly, the time spent is a detail I just don’t think about. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a detail that matters less.

On the other hand, I sure can think of one that matters a whole lot more: total awesomeness. But how long does awesome take? Yeah, I don’t know either. What I do know is that the total time spent is moot when all that matters is the end product – I’m sure as hell not getting paid by the hour.

If we can all agree that awesome takes awhile, (assuming that it’s achieved at all) then a better question might be, why strive for such a lofty goal in the first place? Answering that means first acknowledging that there are plenty of other things for people to look at besides my sculptures. Like things from the Renaissance for example. Or Egyptian ruins, or  Gothic cathedrals, or Mayan pyramids, and so on and so on. To expect people to look at what I’ve done for any length of time, much less deeply or contemplatively, a pretty high bar has to be cleared. With that in mind, awesome doesn’t seem crazy, it just seems reasonable.

Seen from that wide angle view, the onus is on me to get really really good at what I do. And it goes without saying: having an onus on you is pretty motivating.

So pretty early on in my career I spent a lot of time getting better at making things, settling in to a role as a perpetual student, taking the discipline of it seriously. And as I did so, things took a surprising turn: getting better increased my technical skills, true enough, but more importantly, I gained a kind of fluidity with my creative thinking, as well as increased confidence in trying new and dificult things. In other words, working with my hands had a mental, and emotional pay off, not just a technical one.

And I noticed something else: merging ability, confidence and creativity sets in motion a proccess that begets something I’d never really understood before - ownership. Notice I didn’t say mastery, which is perhaps a synonym, because mastery sounds like a rank, and I’m not trying to earn a black belt at this. Ownership is my preferred discription, which to me simply means the co-mingling of knowledge and ability. The result is alchemical. The better I get, the greater the ownership I have. The greater the ownership I have, the greater the agency.

Ownership, knowledge, ability, agency…the jargon mounts. But really all of it leads to that last one: agency. Agency relates to options, choices, avenues…my dictionary defines it as “Active force; action; power. That by which something is done…” Gaining agency therefore operates in a different way than buying something, which is really the more orthodox path to ownership. Buying, (usually with the swipe of a card), gives said swiper the right to use, and then store, that something in perpetuity. Ownership, as I’m defining it via agency, is more about expanding on one’s powers, rather than simply paying a usage fee.

At this point I should interject that I understand the sheer utility of paying for stuff – buying things is great. Thank you capitalism! (Though I prefer the part before the oppressive plutocracy takes hold.) But the convenience of the one method doesn’t erase the truth of the other.

Expanding on one’s powers, or even having any power at all, is an essential human need. That’s how money takes on such a mystical aura – most of the time money is the replacement part for power – we usually see it as one and the same in fact. It is certainly hard to argue that buying other people’s knowledge and labor is an easy and addictive short cut to knowing much of anything at all. On the other hand, one could argue (and I would), that true poverty is ignorance, and no matter how much money you have, you can’t pay cash for knowledge. That’s why it’s completely possible to be rich, and ignorant, and powerless.

Buying information is possible of course. So is downloading it for free on the Internets. But I now understand that there is an important distinction between knowledge and information - information might spark knowledge, but then again it might not - it’s neutral, inert. Here’s an example: Imagine a bunch of sticks lying on the ground - An architect draws up plans to build a house with them. The plans are information. Knowledge is the thing needed to actually build the house, (or to artfully conceive the design, and draw up the plans for that matter). Knowledge can be gleaned from the assembly process, if those involved actually follow through, (because it’s a lot easier to not follow through on plans after all) and if those involved pay attention. The really compelling point out of all this is that knowledge comes out of actions, not just words, and results in a physical artifact. After awhile, if a bunch of houses get built, and all the attendant hassles and challenges are overcome, that now familiar alchemical process of merging ability, confidence, and creativity is set in motion to form… well like I said above, to me it equals ownership.

We live in a time when we are removed from the world, physically, and creatively. The cycle of buying things, as opposed to knowing how to do things, means that we are more and more dependent on the ability of others for the necessities of our lives. Our creative interaction withers as a result, because we can’t tinker with systems we don’t understand. I like the idea of understanding a system, of really being on the inside of something. Knowing something, really knowing it, in any sphere (it sure doesn’t have to be carving), becomes a transferable skill - it might not mean that you can become an expert at everything, but it does mean that you can confidently attempt pretty much anything.

So how long did it take? No idea. I’m still working on it.

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