What R U working on? Insights into the artist’s most current work — from the artist herself.

On [Not] Meaning To, and the Unexpected | from the "worktable" of Sharon Arnold

After you've been staring at something on your worktable a while, there comes a moment where something magical and unexpected happens — usually an aesthetic discovery amid mundanity — and you realise it has nothing to do with you. This is a recording of just such a moment...

I've had two projects moving alongside one another for the last year. One is a more organic progression of the cutouts I started last autumn; the new cutouts are more organic and akin to fur, flowing across the page like some kind of body or river. The other is a return to an old series of topographical contours I abandoned a couple of years ago. These new contours are flowing, mercurial, non-linear, and more akin to weather maps or topography. Whereas the work I've been doing previous to this is more related to language or musical progression, the new work seems like a return to something more about landscape or environment.

The two projects have more in common than I anticipated. In both, I must choose where the cuts and the lines go, and think about the future flow of the shape, rather than align the marks I'm making with a grid. Tapping into that flow or meditative state isn't as easy when your work isn't predetermined line by line. When I was sewing miles of adding machine paper, the process was nearly mechanical as I stitched the same mark over 125 yards per roll, and I was able to find a flow in the work without thought. In these newer pieces, it seems as soon as I get into my groove I hit a spot where a decision must be made, and I have to stop and determine an aesthetic outcome. Will the body of the shape turn this way or that? Will I draw or cut here, or will I leave it blank? What do I do with the borders?

I don't have the same set of rules as I've had for past work, in which I'm drawing/stitching/cutting systematically line by line, row by row, not letting the lines touch. This work (now) seems less about cadence, syntax (like a language) or formatting. I'm thinking about how the flow of the fur goes; like water here, like locks of hair wrapping over there. But after a while I might have a liberating realisation such as this: here I've made the cuts too far apart and in an instant I understand they can be two different strands of fur, they didn't have to be connected; and the cuts themselves are shaped like scimitars or sabers. I think, Oh! I didn't mean to do that and yet I do [that], over and over again.

Carefully planned accidents, cut in paper.

Along similar themes of [not] meaning to; the lines in my contour drawings have become more shaky, interrupted, overlapping and otherwise messier and less controlled. As I mentioned, the last time I worked on this series I had all these restrictions: the lines mustn't touch, they have to act a certain way in certain places, I can't pick the pen up once I've begun a revolution around the shape. This time it's different. The pen is all over the place, my hand's shaking everywhere, and lines are crossing each other all haphazard.

At a certain point, I came to realise I wasn't actually looking at the paper in order to see it better. I had removed my glasses and my eyes had slipped out of focus; and, almost by not looking, I could see more clearly. I'm more than certain this opens the door to a slew of metaphors, but in a sense it's more literally true - if the lines or cuts are too sharp I'm probably thinking too hard about it, because everything seems to work better when I can find a more intuitive and less tactical approach. Perhaps all these rules in the beginning are what opened up a path to circumnavigate around them, since I'm constantly setting them up, only to break them all over again.

This is the moment I was talking about, that moment of magic through mundanity. I'm figuring out the work through sheer process and accident, trial and error, strategy and surprise. I'm looking and not looking, and the work emerges almost in spite of itself. I want to lose control even more, if possible, but one rule remains: I can't force it; this loss must happen entirely on its own. Usually it does, whether I mean to or not.


Sharon Arnold is a Seattle-based artist and writer. You can follow more of her work and writing on her personal blog, dimensionsvariable.org.

Images used: Ambition [elevation:∞], detail, 2009, 40 x 52 inches, ink on Arches Cover White paper; Chimaera, detail, 2009, unfinished, Strathmore Drawing Roll