Thursday, July 9, 2020

Working in Series

Many thanks to fellow tapestry weaver Michiele Elliott for suggesting that I blog about working in series.  It's a huge topic, but then again, if not now, when?

Probably each artist who works in a series, in whatever medium, has unique reasons for doing so.  All I can do is share my own reasons and experience and urge you to poll the makers you know about their experience with series.  

If you have not worked in a series before, it could be that your main question is, How do I know if this idea is worthy of a series?  Here is a checklist of sorts that might help:

  • Do I have lots to say about the idea?  Lots of thoughts about different directions it could go?  This is probably the best reason to do a series.  You have more ideas and possible directions than you could possibly cover in one piece.  In a recent blog post, Rebecca Mezoff included this footnote:  **I believe this is also why I like to work in series when weaving tapestries. I get an idea but it takes me quite a few tries before I have explored it or perfected it to my liking.  Along similar lines, photographer Sam Elkind (whom I happen to be married to) says "the goal for a series is to follow the common feature of the images to concentrate on and build up the strongest possible grouping.  I seek the most compelling graphical elements of the images and shape them until the images in the series rhyme with each other--creating not a repetition, but rather a reverberation in which the images build on each other." I love that idea of the different pieces in a series "rhyming" or "reverberating" with each other without repeating.  (By the way, Sam just published a book called Summer Music that is a perfect illustration of a tight series of work.  Just sayin’!) 
  • Am I really excited about it?  You will need this excitement to carry you through what could be an extended project.  Sam says, "Sometimes a series just stands up and demands attention."  If you have an idea that you just can't stop thinking about, that's a clue!  Pay attention!  Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic that ideas that are ignored or postponed for too long will eventually seek and find another artist to play with.  
  • Do I have the time and energy to start a series right now?  This question is not so much about whether the idea is series-worthy, but whether the time is right.  For some of us, corona-time is a great opportunity to tackle that big project we've been thinking of; for others, it's way too daunting in such a stressful time and the mere thought makes us want to lie down.  Or get another cookie.  Honor and respect where you are.  
If you're not sure about the answers to these questions and aren't ready to commit to a capital-S Series, it's okay to just sneak up on the idea.  Do a small piece about it, see if that scratches the itch for you. . . or if it makes you even more excited to keep going on this subject or approach.

Why should you even consider working in a series?  Some of the answers are implied above--it gives you the chance to explore an idea, or a group of related ideas, in some depth.  Some ideas are just too big to fit everything you want to say about them into one piece.  

A series is also useful practice in artistic discipline.  I know, that doesn't sound like much fun--like saying "Eat your vegetables--they're good for you."  But for me, it's been true that when I push myself to finish something, even when I feel like I've run out of steam--that's when some of the best ideas happen.  You work through all the obvious first, second and third ideas.  When you get to the seventh or tenth idea, you find yourself in genuinely new territory.  This is what happened to me when I worked in handmade paper in art school.  The best pieces were the ones I did last in the series.

In my artistic life, I have completed perhaps four series of work.  Each one has been made in a different medium, in different circumstances, and with very different inspiring ideas. In graduate school I did a series of  collages, reliefs and sculptures in handmade paper, all of which were inspired by aspects of the natural world--and by exploring the properties of handmade paper.  The primary motivating inspiration for this series was the need to have a certain amount of work for my MA thesis show. 

Aspen Grove, (c) Molly Elkind c. 2000 

For my first solo show, I did a series called Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek, mixed media fiber collages about hikes along Dodd Creek in north Georgia.  I had an epiphany of sorts while gazing at and photographing the beautiful waters of the creek and needed to explore the imagery and the emotional content in some detail, so the series happened.  It incorporated handmade paper, fabric, and bead embroidery. 

Ways of Looking at Dodd Creek #8, (c) Molly Elkind 2009 

For my second solo show, I did two series of tapestries.  One series, My Real Name is Mary, was inspired by an icon of the Virgin Mary and by my own history as a woman who carries that weighty name Mary.  The other series, Book of Hours, was inspired by the colors and patterns of illuminated manuscripts.  You might call this my medieval period!   You can see some of the pieces from these series on my website here and here.

Mater Dolorosa, (c) Molly Elkind 2017

Currently I have a few different series underway, but I suspect that they may all be bleeding into each other at this point.  My minimes, small improv pieces of weaving, are really not so different from my experimental collage-inspired pieces.  Some of the pieces about the grasses and wildflowers of the high desert are also experimental and could be called minimes.  It may be that all this work is rather too diffuse to fit into one series, and that's okay too.  

Wild Grass, (c) Molly Elkind 2020

Native Grasses, (c) Molly Elkind 2019

Sometimes a series is only apparent in the rear view mirror.  You look back at work you were doing at a particular time, or on a particular subject, or in a certain medium, and you realize, These pieces all hang together; they are all about the same thing.  Sometimes as artists we don't really know what we're about until we can look back on it with some distance.  So a series can be a post-hoc description too.  

Have you ever worked in a series?  How was the experience for you?  Let me know in the comments.