I am a dilettante

3 06 2012

I spent the day yesterday at an arts festival, in the artist demonstration area.  It has taken me years to get to the place where I can accept the label of “artist”.  I look at the things I do and think, these are just… the things I do.  The things that interest me, that give me pleasure.  These aren’t art.  These are just the things I like to do.  Somewhere there’s this idea that art has to involve more suffering than this.  I’m lacking that film montage that shows me overcoming countless obstacles to achieve my dream – although, if we do get around to making that montage?  I want “Eye of the Tiger” for maximum cheesiness.

Anyway, arts festival.  I was there armed with the tools of my particular craft, which in this case included a spinning wheel, drop spindles, a bin full of different colors of fiber, my lazy kate basket, finished yarns of different kinds of wool, and finished garments that I’ve made from handspun.  And interestingly, one thing I didn’t realize was a tool – my handmade socks, which got at least as much attention as my spinning wheel did.  On my right I had a young artist who works on collages of sewn paper and fabric – his particular tools were bins of beautiful paper, precision scissors, and a sewing machine.  On my left, my potter friend, with her wheel, clay, and shaping tools.  And beyond her, a new addition to our artist group, a weaver with her Schacht Baby Wolf loom (hello, lust in my heart) and beautiful samples of the flowing, feely, colorful fabrics that flow from her heart and mind.

I spent the day spinning and talking – and telling so many people, both adults and children, that of course you can do this.  I don’t know how many times I heard “Oh, I just don’t have that kind of talent,” or “I’m too uncoordinated,” or saddest, “I always wished I could do something like that.”  Those are the ones that break my heart.  Those are the ones that I call over and press a drop spindle into their hands, and say, “You can do something like that.”  People are so certain that they’re going to fail – but worse than that, that failing says something terrible about them.  First time with a drop spindle?  I guarantee you’re going to discover, several times, why they’re called drop spindles.   I still do and I’ve been doing this for years.

I’d like to say I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve been demonstrating now for enough years, and I’ve shown enough people how to use a drop spindle, that I’ve seen how it gets passed on.  I’ve had children come to me, eager to try something new – there seems to be some compelling fascination with the spinning motion of a drop spindle.  I willingly hand it to them, show them how to use it, and everything is going well… and then there’s a parent behind them, saying “Be careful! Don’t break it!” Okay, normal parenting things.  It’s when it progresses to “Oh, your yarn doesn’t look like hers!” (really? you think?) or “Why isn’t yours even?” (because that comes with practice and your child has been spinning for oh, 30 seconds?) or my own personal favorite: “Well, I guess if anyone saw you spinning they’d put you back to cutting wood.”

At one demonstration I even had one little boy take the offered spindle and say “I just know I’m going to be a miserable failure at this.”  I must have gotten That Look on my face, because the boy’s father said “Oh, he plays a lot of video games.” That little boy – truly, he couldn’t have been older than six – didn’t convince himself that he would fail because of video games.  It wasn’t the video games telling him that he couldn’t do anything correctly.  I’ve never in my life wanted to gather a stranger’s child into my arms so much, to tell him that he could do anything he wants to do.  And I did teach him to spin.  It really didn’t take much.  He got it right away, and he spun beautifully, like someone who had done it many times before.  I’ve thought about him so many times in the two years or so since he handed my spindle back to me with a solemn “Thank you.”

I’ve been spinning now for almost six years.  I started teaching other people how to do it about three years ago.  When I started it was just about showing people something that I thought was fun and interesting, and I figured hey, with no grades or anything, this is just fun and easy and angst-free.  And mostly it really is.  But there’s also this consistent current of being afraid to fail, the fear of not being instantly expert at something – and beyond that, the feeling that if you’re not an expert, then what you’re attempting isn’t worth the effort.  That loving it, just for the sake of the art itself, is not in itself enough.  So many have been waylaid by the idea of “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” – but it’s perverted into “If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all”.

It’s not that I’m immune.  I’m not a big fan of potentially looking foolish in public myself… which is the biggest reason that I have never in my life bowled.  (I know.  You’ll take me bowling.  There had better be a bar.)  But I haven’t let it paralyze me or keep me from things that I really do think might be interesting.  I love to sing… I’m not professional quality, but I love it and I spend time on it.  I love to paddle kayaks… not someone who’s going to handle the big water, but I love it nonetheless and I treasure the time on the water.

The words amateur and dilettante get tossed out as pejoratives…  you’re just an amateur, you’re only a dilettante.  The implication being that you’re not really serious, that you’re not spending the time, the angst, the suffering that you need to be a true professional artiste.  Years ago someone reminded me that the root of the word “amateur” was “to love” – that an amateur is someone who loves a subject.  And that the root of “dilettante” was “delight” – someone who delights in something.   I am still an amateur and a dilettante in the world of spinning, and Goddess willing I always will be, even though I already am a professional who makes a little money doing it.  My goal is to bring more amateurs and dilettantes into the world.

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