Process vs. Product

 

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The first couple days of summer are spent lying outside our house, spreading blankets over the grass and moving them across the yard as the sun moves to different positions in the sky.

Our guitars lie with us, occasionally being picked up and cradled like our beloved babies or pets as we work on finger picking or playing pleasing chord progressions. Notebooks sprawl open across the surfaces of the blankets, dusted in tobacco shavings, pages blowing away in the wind, sending us running from time to time.

We’re both low on cash.

On the second day, I say to Sasha, “We need to find some way to continue our lifestyle as it is, but make money at the same time.”

That night, Sasha, Serena, and I sit around the kitchen table with our sketchbooks and snacks discussing an Etsy store. We talk about how we can come up with several types of crafts that each of us specializes in, how we can start selling them and see which ones people want to buy.

The next morning, I wake up to gray light and the wet sound of rain outside my window. I am supposed to go to Ferndale today, but I hesitate. Should I stay home instead and apply for jobs on the internet? Something inside pushes me forward, and I decide to stick with my original plan.

As I dry my hair, I think about my own debts and what produced them. Student loans, of course–a car loan, to buy the vehicle that took me across the United States–wisdom tooth surgery, unavoidable–and credit card debt, almost completely owed to international travel.

I notice that I have few material possessions that have put me into debt. I am thrifty when it comes to physical items, but I splurge on experiences. I think of how I could sell valuable THINGS if I had them, but what can I do with the experiences I bought?

Before I leave for Ferndale, I post a Craigslist ad, in two different languages, offering Spanish-English translation services or tutoring. Might as well at least TRY to make some money off my experiences, right?

Sasha and I visit our roommate, Mitch, at his office in a radio station in Ferndale. We play with the office pup, eat some cheeseburgers from a little nearby stand, and tour the building with its walls plastered in band swag and posters from concerts past. Afterwards, Sasha and I walk to the town’s cemetery, a zig-zagging collection of cement slabs built into the side of the hill. We pause at rain-dripping flowering trees and snap photos of snails clinging onto the sides of graves.

As we turn to walk onto the main street of the town, we come across an abandoned building. Through the murky windows we can see piles of hardware store junk–shattered glass, heaps of keys, rusted appliances, crumbling shelves. The exterior of the building is peeled away in layers with jagged edges, showing its previous colors like rings of a tree.

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Sasha is in a frenzy, trying to snap photos of the building and its contents through the old panes of glass. “I’m having anxiety about this right now,” she says. “I need to capture as much of this as possible. What if we come back and it’s all gone?”

“It looks like it hasn’t been touched in 20 years,” I say. “I don’t think you need to worry about it disappearing in the next month.”

Nevertheless, I step away and smile as I watch her dart between the windows, exclaiming and moaning as she discovers new angles from which to view the devastating sights. Sasha loves to see the effect time has on physical objects, to see things get worn down by forces of nature. To her, the most fascinating things are trash, abandoned objects, or ruined structures.

The day before, she had mentioned that this tendency makes it difficult for her to make art that other people want to buy.

“I had this picture of a bag of dead fish on the side of a road,” she said. “I was like, ‘isn’t this beautiful?’ And pretty much everyone else’s response to it was disgust.”

When she feels like she’s taken enough photos of the abandoned building to keep moving along, Sasha rejoins me and we start walking down the main street to find a coffee shop we’d been told to visit. As we scan the storefronts, Sasha says, “I hope we run into my friend Brian.”

Almost as soon as the words leave her mouth, a man in a raincoat carrying a belt laden with tools runs across the street towards us. It is Brian, and after an introduction, he immediately guides us to the coffee shop we’d been looking for.

The coffee shop’s interior is cozy and quiet, with a small fireplace and shelves of books on the wall. Brian shows us the shop’s current art exhibit, a collaborative project between himself and his girlfriend, Natalia. The works combine ceramics, wood inlays, and photography.

One ceramics piece, crafted by Natalia, sits on a wall-mounted shelf. It is a three-dimensional model of a fetal pig, cut down the middle like an anatomy diagram. The exteriors of the animals face outward, but their insides face a mirror on the wall, reflecting their serpentine organs–the entire piece visible from a single vantage point.

Through long horizontal windows that run along the back of the coffee shop, we can see a large wood workshop where canoes are built. Their skeletons hang suspended from the ceilings, bony ribs around thick spines, waiting to be covered with skin and made whole.

 

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Brian offers to show us the shop and we follow him through the doors. We are immediately greeted by a smell that reminds us of our fathers–sawdust and fresh slabs of wood. Brian gestures to the work benches that line the walls of the room and tells us that they will soon be offered for rent to craft workers who need space to work.

Sasha and I are excited by the mention of working artists. We tell Brian about our Etsy plans, about our house, and how we want to collaborate with others to make art and make a living from it.

Brian tells us he’s been trying to gather a similar group together–he has been trying to establish an artist collective, comprised of people with a variety of skills who could make craft items together while still pursuing their own personal projects.

The three of us begin chattering, and Brian offers to show us his workspace. We follow him outside and through the misty air to his apartment. The room we enter is wide and filled with diffused white light from the windows, adorned with plants and small pieces of wooden art. Natalia greets us and I introduce myself to her–she is petite, dark-eyed, and serene. Her energy is warm and relaxed, but alert.

We all talk together about our ideas, and Natalia shows us a table she recently built on her own. The short, blond wood structure is reminiscent of mid-century modern furniture style, with close-clustered, pointed legs and a glass display front. We talk about different media–wood, fabric, paint–and how each type allows us to make our art functional as well as beautiful.

Brian mentions having a camp-out in the coming week to bring together the artists he’s been talking with. It would be a time for us to share our skills, identify projects we could share, and discuss a collective rental of a studio space for us to work. Sasha and I urge him to contact us about it, and leave his place feeling enchanted, refreshed, and optimistic.

We stop in a fabric store briefly to murmur over the pretty patterns, and then return to the coffee shop to get warm drinks. A fat black-and-white cat sprawls across one of the leather-backed chairs by the fireplace and I kneel beside her, brushing my fingers along her soft fur. Sasha joins me and extends her finger to the cat’s nose, and the cat begins licking her finger. We both giggle and speak softly to the animal as we stroke her and wait for our coffees.

Natalia soon joins us with her computer to use the shop’s wifi. The three of us sit by the warm fireplace, talking about art and life.

We talk about combining art and science, and how important it is to be able to communicate complex ideas to other people.

We talk about trying new things and how valuable it is to fail, to slowly work toward expertise–how society as a whole tends to make the mistake of valuing the product over the process.

I think again about my debts owed to the immaterial things I’ve gained.

After a while, Sasha and I say goodbye to Natalia and walk back to the place where I parked my car. As we tread along the damp small-town streets, talking, Sasha spots a heap of trash lying in someone’s yard.

“Trash pile!” she shouts excitedly and runs down the block. I laugh and stand waiting across the street as she moves around the garbage with her camera phone, shooting it from every possible angle. She crosses back over to me and we continue walking for a moment until I’m distracted by my own personal favorite beauty: flowers.

“Look at this one!” I breathe as I cup a huge orange blossom in my hand and raise its face out of the fence it bends over. The inside is black ringed with white, with large fluffy stamens and wide petals. I lean over it and smell it, spend some time feeling the texture of the petals in my fingers.

After I leave the flower, Sasha and I walk the last block to my car. “I think we should be thankful to be this way,” Sasha says. “I think it comes from my parents–the interest in little trivial things around me.”

I agree. “I feel like I’ve been taught to see the potential of things. Or to notice the small details of things and appreciate them,” I say.

“It’s never being bored, that’s what it is.” Sasha says. “It’s finding something fascinating in every moment.”

As we head home, we talk about the importance of interacting with the world without a specific goal. We point out that we’d just had a wonderful day without forcing any specific objective on our surroundings–moving through our world and being open to the things we encountered.

I don’t know what my end goal is most of the time, but I feel like I live in a world where people care the most about those end goals. This creates a constant sense of tension inside me, forces me to work against my own natural tendencies in order to survive here.

Art is only valuable when it can be sold. Labor is only valuable in the form of a product.

But the work itself is what I enjoy. Why can’t I just do my work and still have enough money to live? There must be some way to make this possible.

I am trying to stop moving against things, trying to stop fighting myself, trying to carve out my own place and fix the broken parts of the world for others.

So, I think again about what matters to me:

It’s the process, not the product.

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