decision Maker2 Yes ◦ image by Jonathan Allen
Written by Lee Ann Norman
In my writing I often address the value and meaning of art objects. I want to locate and articulate their “work” in the world, or how they affect us and transcend their categorization into genre or style. My latent insecurities on writing about art objects and ideas generate a deep affinity to objectivity: I don’t want to restrain what I feel as a witness to specific sights or sounds. The unity between emotive response and analytical, intellectual observation continues to be what I seek.
Before I was a writer, I was a musician. It’s a different way of thinking. The intellect required for its mastery is realized through emotion and other nonverbal means, and it never denies the value of feeling. This way of experiencing arts can be overpowering, and my desire to escape this world of feeling an encounter with performing arts necessarily requires might be overcompensation. Rendering the world, whether through cross hatches, drips, dribbles and dabs, or slick, oily swoops seems to elevate these cultural objects because they exist outside of us. It is easier to deny the feeling that informs their rationale when we can hold them at arms length. But embedded in objects are stories and histories that need to be recorded, remembered, kept, and shared. Our books, paintings, songs, and dances are responses, the residue of interaction and experience.
Cultural objects reflect the identity of the people, evident through their form, intensity, presence and context. I’ve read many versions of this statement in critical and theoretical texts. This knowing burdens my work with responsibility, that the writer is an intermediary, an interpreter and keeper of culture. My “work” is to tell the most accurate story about cultural objects, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Each engagement can become an anthropological adventure, and again, this is how I approach this situation
I vacillate between detachment and partiality to unify my creative interests. Noticing the traces that point back to soul stirrings — the concrete, the transient — creates an opening to imagine complementary ways of perceiving. Locating this balancing place has preoccupied my work for some time now; I’ve learned it helps me tell better stories. Humans are social creatures, and our “things,” even the beautifully designed ones, are meant to be shared. This ability to render the world and translate feeling into objects is a strength that enables us to embrace ambiguity and ask better questions. Objects don’t have to live in a dichotomy that relegates them to be categories of “art” or “not.” Our demarcations have never been so neat and tidy.
My objectivity is subjective, and so is yours.
Jessica Charlesworth grew up in a family filled with creativity. Her mother was a fashion designer, and her grandfather was an engineer, a tinkerer and inventor. Exposure to culture, arts, and crafts was an important part of her life. “I grew up in a small town outside of London, Great Missenden,” she said laughing. “You couldn’t sound more British if you tried: Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.” The children’s book author Roald Dahl lived in this same town, she remembers, and on occasion, you might run into him at the market or the shoe shop. And he would sign your books, which was great for a little girl who loved stories and devoured nearly everything Dahl wrote. Jess’s love of reading however, didn’t naturally lead to a love of writing. Although she loved crafting, making, and playing, Jess hated having the creative writing exercises her teachers gave in school. “The pressure was too much,” she said. “You’d get a flash card or three with an image, and you had to write a story. I’d just want to say: This is a lemon; here is a beach ball, and this is a sheep,” which would mark the end, she explained. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid, even one as precocious and imaginative as Jess seemed.
As a teen and young adult, Jess decided to take her love for arts further; the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level training allowed her to learn new skills like welding and woodworking alongside the fundamentals of drawing and painting.
In foundation year, it was really about playing and figuring out what you want to do . . . [we were] trying out different artistic mediums and ways of thinking. I really loved going [from a very restrictive environment] to this one because it was so different, and I could make stuff up, like one should do in art school. You get really introspective about your brain, your family, identity and personality. I’d never really done that before.
Jess’s work began to take on quirky, fantastical qualities that explored all of the relational and social aspects of art making. One project manifested as a filing cabinet representing her life. She drew images representing her likes and dislikes, personality traits, hopes, and feelings. These images were then tucked into file cabinet drawers, channeling the spirit of artists like William Blake or Frida Kahlo. It was an indulgent way of approaching art, full of teenage angst and comedy, but it was useful. For Jess, it opened up ways of thinking about the possibilities of expression in others and herself.
When I hear music that I love, I listen to it repeatedly, in a loop. I want to know everything about it — every warble of vibrato or auto tune, every quarter tone and turn in a glissando, every “paradiddle” stick pattern on the snare drum, harmonic progression and chord change. If I can identify it all, I think, I might understand why it moves me, and this knowing will reveal something I previously did not know about myself. Listening was the first way I began working through essential questions about the human condition, and my dabbling and experimenting with other art forms has helped me continue this quest. Maybe Jess’s youthful crafting, art projects, and finding her way to design and writing have been helping her find her way too. I am reminded of the conversation we had about how the word “weird” as a descriptor is not accurate enough to capture the essence of what we really mean, the awkwardness, discomfort, and tension alongside uniqueness. I am reminded of the storybook she created as a child about the oddball spider and his alien friend, the way she used to take the material in her children’s play kits to create something entirely different than their intention. I am reminded of watching her work out in her mind that the idea of thinking through making is what appealed to her about all of this. She tells me about how this manifested as experimentation with design in art school.
I’ve always been making things, but designing a drawing so it can be a reference for someone to make [what I’ve drawn] is so intimidating for me. I think I’m less comfortable planning something ahead of time to be “right;” I’d rather be prototyping or sketch modeling, trying something out and fixing it. It’s one thing to plan and draw, but I couldn’t always visualize something until I was making it; then I could go back to the drawing. This idea of designing through making, this hands on practice, is something I learned at Manchester. They were very encouraging of people being designer-makers.
The degree program at Manchester Metropolitan University exposed Jess to more ways of thinking about art and design. She really liked the idea of materiality, or how the resources an artist or designer used would determine everything about the thing being made; and for awhile, this way of working was fun. Soon, Jess began questioning her motivation for making her projects. “I always loved the making, but then I needed to know why, and that’s when my philosophy started to evolve,” she said. Victor Papanek in particular made a huge impression. His 1971 book Design for the Real World focuses on a socially conscious design methodology that does not ignore aesthetic concerns. For Papanek, good design is responsible and beautiful. He believed designers could be innovative and quite creative in the ways they work to solve societal problems and enhance our quality of life.
I remember finding this [book] at the library and thinking: Whoa?! Being ad hoc with problem solving felt very immediate and important at the time. This [kind of design] was for people who didn’t just want a barstool in their home. We would get that kind of generic brief from the school [for assignments] often, but I wanted to understand design theory and art theory. I was hunting for some sort of reasoning and direction—what’s my content, who is the person I’m designing for, when it is for. I think that’s why I began to bring in stories as a way to guide me through the making process.
Some design theorists and critics have written on the idea that in an ideal world, design would always go beyond its functionality, that in theory, a barstool could be more than a tall seat. Design can signal intention and address the ethical questions of reason, rationale, and meaning. Like art objects, designed objects can have a “work” in the world, that extends beyond their use value.
What consumer goods are for the life of man, use objects are for his world. From them, consumer goods derive their thing-character; and language, which does not permit the laboring activity to form anything so solid and non-verbal as a noun, hints at the strong probability that we would not even know what a thing is without having before us “the work of our hands.”
I begin to wonder about the “work” of designed objects. A practice that considers these issues might constantly be asking the question: What else?
OurBioAge ◦ frontview ◦ hires ◦ image by Jonathan Allen
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Lee Ann Norman is a Writer & Communications Strategist with a passion for sharing compelling stories. She helps people help themselves through thoughtful content curation and active listening. Discovering what people value allows her to understand how to create clear and concise prose that effectively communicates their best ideas.