Toiling Toward Mastery
A lifelong exercise in patience, and paring design elements down to their most essential forms
I am a master of nothing.
Oftentimes I feel like an impostor, a fraud. But every day, I try to gain a little more skill and competence in my field. My failures are many and are often the same failure repeated. In my work as a book artist and binder — in the making and building of physical objects — there is no “Command + Z.” No way to erase an error and return to the previous state. In the early stages of my process, mistakes are easily remedied. But each consecutive step builds upon the last, making each advancing move more consequential. The final step is the most terrifying — it is the possibility of losing everything.
PLEASE BE CAREFUL!
I pass this sign and its three abrupt warnings almost daily, as I return to my remote high desert home from mornings spent in downtown Santa Fe. Away from the clusters of adobe buildings that make up this tiny historic city, Santa Fe is surrounded by endless space. Whatever lives in this emptiness struggles to do so. I look up at the vast blue sky and before me at the dry, dusty earth, lightly spotted with juniper and piñon, bright patches of chamisa, snarls of cholla. These mountains are raw, sculptural forms. Everything is sharp. The light comes in direct, burning angles. This landscape reminds me of Arthur Wesley Dow’s principles of composition. “In the space arts,” he explains, “the elements are but three: Line — the boundary of a space. Dark-and-Light — the mass, or quantity of light. Color — the quality of light.”
I wasn’t familiar with Dow as an arts educator, or with his principles, before I moved to Santa Fe. You hear his name around here often, especially in relationship to one of his more famous students, who is beloved by this region — Georgia O’Keeffe. In his practice, Dow valued simplicity, utility, and the reduction of design elements to their most basic forms. He applied his theories to what he referred to as the “space arts”: any art, craft, or design that was concerned with dividing space.
O’Keeffe espoused Dow’s method, having said, “It could be used to make every aesthetic decision. It also provided an alphabet, so to speak, that could be arranged and rearranged.” And it’s easy to understand why, when seen through the lens of her deep affection for the landscape of Northern New Mexico. The desert reduces everything to its most basic form.
In my home studio, I settle into the work of measuring board and bookcloth, making my first cuts, adhering the pieces together — each step building on what came before. When I was first learning this craft, I was so anxious for the satisfaction of the completed object. Sometimes my boards weren’t perfectly squared. Sometimes my cloth wasn’t trimmed evenly, or my sewing was too loose. I barely took notice and continued eagerly to the end, compelled by the desire for my incorporeal ideas to take some kind of physical form.
But pushing ahead despite those imprecisions meant many of my earliest books and boxes had to be rebound and rebuilt. Without a solid foundation for the completed work, nothing fit together correctly at the end. I still have the first book I made — a leporello (accordion structure). There are glue marks on the black backing paper. The folds are against the grain. The covers are crooked. I was so pleased with it at the time that I simply glossed over these imperfections. I didn’t fully understand then how every move matters. How each step needs to be isolated, performed precisely, in order to guarantee a well-made book, or box, or enclosure.
As angular patches of hot, white sun heat the brick floor in my studio, I think of the soft, diffuse light of the Pacific Northwest — the green landscape that engendered my first messy book. It wasn’t so long ago that I lived in that damp, forested wonderland, though its shimmering lights on the river feel so far away now. In Portland, the resources available to me were plentiful: equipment, community, and knowledgeable mentors. There were so many options, so many different paths to pursue. As a city, it’s a dabbler’s dream — bursting with resources, creativity, and ventures tried and failed. In a place like PDX, it’s easy to have your hand in a lot of pies, your attention pulled in numerous directions at once.
But here, in the desert outside of Santa Fe, I am isolated. Resources and community exist, but I have to work much harder to find them. Like everything else in this harsh environment, I have to really strive to grow. When I first arrived, I felt aimless. Without the enticements of the many pursuits I’d been involved with in Portland — working at a gallery and curating a space within it, experimenting in various forms of printmaking, taking workshops, attending lectures — I needed to reassess my direction. The opportunities I had in Portland to play and experiment were wonderful, and incredibly valuable, but without frequent access to those resources, I’ve been forced to narrow my focus. And it wasn’t until experiencing this imposed remoteness that I chose to devote myself to the pursuit of mastery in the craft of books.
And so I begin again. As Dow and O’Keeffe before me, I have found that the best way forward has been to break every aspect of my work down to its most basic elements. Thus, I continue the work of re-examining the tools, materials, and techniques that are fundamental to my craft. And I eliminate anything unessential. What remains is the foundation of my practice: bonefolders, each shaped precisely for its intended task; blades and measuring devices; linen thread; needles; brushes; tiny spatulas; adhesive applicators; bookcloth; paper; and board. These are the objects and tools I use to construct my work.
And as I build with these objects, my hands strive to perfect each move. I cut. I smooth. I fold. Now that I have discovered which elements are most essential for me to create, and which are not, I follow Dow’s advice to proceed “in successive steps up to compositions of great complexity.” To this end, I am working to add new skills, bindings, and structures to my repertoire. Everything building upon what came before it. And I am focusing on care and precision — practicing patience and refusing to sacrifice accuracy as I work to transform my concepts into tangible, material objects.
These are just the first steps in a lifelong endeavor. Like a road you can’t quite see the end of, mastery can sometimes feel like an unattainable objective — as if you’re toiling endlessly toward a point on the horizon that continues to shift further and further away. I stumble. I make mistakes. I fail. But I am grateful for all of it. And I am grateful to be in this place.
Whether your desert is an imposed or self-constructed frame of mind, or as real and tangible as mine is, the isolation of such a landscape has the power to provide focus and clarity around what it is you’re actually pursuing. To strip everything back to its most basic elements, like Dow and O’Keeffe, is the first step toward establishing the bedrock of your practice and your intentions. Toward mastery, or otherwise.