Get Good at Failure
In 2013 I was selected as a finalist for a public art project here in Asheville. Myself, a sculptor and a muralist/ceramic artist team were selected from a large pool of applicants to adorn a bare block wall on a new boutique hotel. I saw it as an exciting opportunity to push the boundaries of what I could do with stone.
I proposed a pair of huge stone mosaics, each approximately 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide. They were the faces of spirits. Apu was male, the spirit of the mountains, all jagged lines and rough stones, fierce and unyielding. Rio was female, the spirit of the river, all curves and smooth shapes, the gentle forces that wear those unyielding peaks down to sand. It was a yin-yang design drawn from our landscape.
The process was fraught with challenges, none of which I rose to. Most difficult for me was an event hosted at a prominent local art gallery. Each artist set up a display of their design and showed examples of previous work. My presentation materials were lackluster. My design was limited to fine line drawings of the faces. I didn’t even color them in. To me, a line drawing opens into a limitless world of possibility. To everyone else, it looked like a scratch at an idea with lots of room to grow.
At this point, I had no real practice with the technical side of fabricating and installing a large piece like this. I imagined it could be done. I brought a mosaic with me to the gallery as a demonstration, a proof of concept. It was so tiny! It was literally 1/10 of 1% of the size of the mosaic I was proposing to build. Nothing I presented suggested the scale or impact that the artwork could have. Including me.
The gallery event was this introvert’s version of a nightmare. If felt like being the new kid in school walking into the noisy cafeteria on the first day. I didn’t want to be noticed. I didn’t want to be not noticed. Really, I just wanted to be anywhere else. Iâ€™m sure that people could tell.
The folks in attendance perused our portfolios, asked questions about our designs, and then had the opportunity to vote for their favorite. The votes tallied at the event were to be combined with online votes and the opinions of the arts commission to choose the final artist.
The online voting was open for a couple of weeks. During that time each artist was expected to submit a finalized design with a detailed budget. The amount of money available for the project was $25,000. Our budgets were not to exceed that but address how that money would be spent. Because the artwork was going to hang on a vertical exterior wall, the budget had to include engineering costs.
I connected with a local engineer and we had fruitful discussions about how we might do such a thing. I have always enjoyed the technical challenges of my work and this was especially exciting because it was such uncharted territory. The engineer wrestled with the concept of my art and identified ways to make it real. It was to be a complex system of steel fasteners embedded into the concrete wall that could bear the load, resist wind shear, and survive the elements. He sent the specifications off to a fabricator that he knew who could create such a system. The day before the finalized proposals were due, I got the quote from the fabricator. It was going to be just shy of $20,000. My budget would be 80% gone before I purchased a single stone. I was screwed.
I did not get the project. It was awarded to the team of muralist Ian Wilkerson and ceramic artist Alex Irvine, a gifted duo also based here in Asheville. I was very, very disappointed. Crushed, really.
Hindsight suggests that I was also very, very lucky. The project would have either bankrupted me or seriously damaged my reputation because thereâ€™s no way I could have completed even a fraction of it for the budget available.
I was still very disappointed. I had failed.
“You got your name out there.”
“Being selected is an accomplishment.”
“You learned a lot.”
All the words of encouragement I was offered sounded to me like versions of “You failed.” And though I was busy enough with my work, I am more likely to dwell on disappointment than celebrate successes. Sometimes what-could-have-been seems more real than what-is.
I kept the sketch of Apu up on my wall. He kept watch over me in my office and I would study his face from time to time, imagining how he would look realized in stone. I just had to see it, so a few months later, I started working on a scaled down version of Apu. Instead of covering a whole wall, it would be about the size of a door. I wouldn’t have to worry about engineering or vote tallies or committee feedback. I was making it for myself- to see it and to see if it worked. Nothing else really mattered.
I worked on it at home on weekends, shaping stones in my driveway and then laying the pieces in a specially made sandbox in my yard. I started with Apu’s beard, jagged lightning lines cut from a native gneiss, an unruly stone that speaks to me of these mountains. Each piece I cut and added to the sandbox got me a little more excited about the project. It was beautiful to me.
Progress was slow. In fact, four years later it’s still not done! I have taken it apart and moved it at least three times since then. I still love it; I just don’t find much time to work on it.
From Apu to GreenMan
In 2015- two years later- another opportunity to put the face of a spirit on a wall appeared. The spirit was the Green Man, intended for the wall of a local craft brewer’s tasting room. During the dance of the design process, I showed my customer Apu, only half finished, laying in the sandbox at my shop. Here was my great failure. Here, too, was proof to my customer- and to myself- that it could be done and that it could look amazing. They saw the potential and hired me to make Green Man. The failure of Apu led directly towards GreenMan, which helped me secure my current public art project in schools in Norfolk, Virginia. The failure was instrumental in teaching me how to do the work and helping others see the idea and believe in it. It was disappointing, yes, but it was an important stepping stone forward.
Apu is still only half finished, resting regally at the shop, periodically overrun by bamboo grass. Maybe someday someone will want him for their own and I will finish him. Sometimes I think he would make a good grave marker for me. His stern countenance would be a capable guard of my earthly remains, and a good reminder that it’s only failure if you quit.