Facing Down Failure: AA2A and Essex Crystals

18/19 Century Essex crystal – Annina Vogel Jewellery

Failure is supposed to be good for artists. It’s supposed to be the fuel to our creative fire. Samuel Beckett is quoted: “Fail more, fail better..” and motivational blog posts and videos encourage us to ‘Fail 100 times!” in order to succeed. It’s right that you have to push ahead into failure in order to have successes.

But also, you know, failure sucks.

And I can tell you that during 2016, after a year of rejections, I was getting profoundly discouraged. The effect on me is that I came to rely heavily on deadlines for open shows to bash out a piece rather than developing my creative ideas. Another pressure is that you can’t talk about it because as artist we feel we need to project ‘success’ in order to market ourselves. I became more and more isolated as I don’t tend to go to previews if I don’t get into shows – well not if it requires an expensive trip to London.

Historic Essex Crystal dog door handle

Sometimes you need a boost. Sometimes you need contact with other artists, and a push to get things out of your head and notebook and into a more public realm. Sometimes you need to blow failure a big thumb-to-the-nose raspberry. In this respect I want to tell you about something that has helped me to take a step forward and face off the year’s rejections. Thanks to an ‘Artist Access to Art Colleges’ placement that ran from October 2016 to April 2017 at National Glass Centre at Sunderland University I have had an adventure into the world of miniature glass painting, reverse intaglio carving and Essex Crystals. More about these in a bit.

AA2A is a scheme to put artists and art students together. The artists to make work and the students to rub shoulders with a working artist. I’ve loved interacting with the students at NGC, giving and receiving feedback. And the feedback, good or bad, has somehow forced my ideas into clarity and helped me to talk myself into a more confident position. I especially found it useful to gather experiments and trials together into a little research display at NGC.

Aside from this, I’d been feeling a need to find a different way to sustain my creative practice. The way I have worked in the past is that I do loads of reading and thinking, and eventually a piece of work pops into my head almost out of nowhere,and then I work out how to make it. But in order for that to work I have to be ready and attentive for that ‘poppy out’ moment. And as I (usually) sustain my work financially with part time freelance contracts which are often very complex and demanding, I find it harder and harder to cultivate that attentive moment when work pops out. As a result things emerge VERY slowly, one piece at a time over several years. BUT, what I do find flows from my hands all the time is stuff like complex Aran jumpers, and heirloom lace knitted scarves and I’m even making – as a complete novice – a Latin and Ballroom dance dress for a friend. That’s been an adventure, I can tell you. I realised that I have no problem making time for these because I love a technical challenge. I was wondering: could I bring together a technical challenge with my creative development? I had the idea that technique would anchor me in the creative process more thoroughly, I’d motivated to do it, and perhaps creative ideas would emerge, and then, some work…

Anyway, I applied for and got a place (at last! A success!) on the AA2A scheme. I knew nothing about reverse glass painting or reverse intaglio carving but I reckoned I could thorough enjoy the process of learning these techniques and adapt some of their wonderful qualities into my own work.

Historic Essex Crystal from Sandysvintagecharms

So, back to Essex Crystals. These – or more accurately reverse intaglio painted gems – are wonderful pieces of weirdness that emerged in the Nineteenth Century. Intricate carvings (often animals and plants) were made by hand into the back of rock crystal cabochons, and these were then painted with oil paints to give an intense luminosity. They often depicted hunting dogs or favourite pets in tiny, colourful, almost three-dimensional form, that are somehow animated by the optical space of the gem. They have become popularly called Essex Crystals after the Nineteenth Century painter and miniaturist William Essex, and the name has stuck even though Essex’s work was never carved.

Historic Bumblebee crystal from Pinterest

I’m going to write in the next few posts with more stuff from the Essex Crystal research.

In the meantime though, I wondered what your experiences of facing down failure and the creative process have been? How do you sustain your creative practice? Does getting involved in technical stuff help or hinder this?

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