The Art of Puttering
Updated: Mar 3
A creative space is a little bit like a garden. You have to spend time tending it to make it productive.
Yesterday I was taken with the urge to spend some time in my basement, where I have an assortment of workspaces: my sewing and weaving corner, my woodshop, my artifact analysis corner, and my office. Spending time in my basement is not usually at the top of my list, but I wanted to try out a stone tool I had made for scraping deer hide.
I also wanted to consult some of my archaeology books about the best way to haft stone tools for this purpose. For those of you not familiar with ancient technology lingo, "hafting" means to fasten securely to a shaft or handle, as in a knife blade or arrowhead; it is a major preoccupation of archaeologists. In the pictures below, you can see me struggling with how to haft a biface for scraping a deer hide (a donation to science from a hunting friend of mine).
I got to reading some literature that I haven’t touched in years about woodworking in the Northeast of North America some 5000 years ago. This caused me to start a whittling project on a piece of wood I’ve been saving to make a spoon using a flintknapped spokeshave, a remarkably satisfying experience. Flintknapped spokeshaves are Indigenous artifacts that were intended for straightening wooden shafts such as arrows and tent poles. And as I was wandering around my basement, I was also picking things up, throwing away objects I knew I would never use and generally re-arranging. I got nothing in particular finished, and yet I had a sense at the end of the day that I had accomplished a lot.
Building a relationship with your creative space is not just good for upkeep, but also for feeding your creativity. Aside from working in a space (which we don’t always have the energy to do), puttering in a space is the next best way to build that relationship. Conversely, if you don’t putter but instead rely on your space to be a creative refuge when you have a few minutes in between long periods, you can find yourself less and less charged up when it comes time to create. This is especially true if you have let your space go, as I have over the last few years.
The same is true of your local makerspace. You don’t always need to go there with a goal in mind. Instead, it is sometimes just as satisfying to do a little cleaning around your area, read books at a bench while others work, give a piece of equipment some maintenance, or tidy up the materials. Obviously, you have to make sure you are not going against what the shop supervisor wants or needs, but as long as you check in, this kind of activity can be enormously appreciated by your shop mates and can help you get the creative juices flowing. It also tends to make people come talk to you and show you their projects while inviting you to show yours.
Consulting the Experts
Brigitte Clavette, who served as studio head of the Metals program at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design in Fredericton for 30 years, says that puttering is a really important part of her process. Now semi-retired, she still works with students to become masters of jewellery and advanced metalwork. “Sometimes I come in with the intention of working with a piece of metal, but I might encounter something else and get completely sidetracked,” she said over the phone to me in between assessing her students. “Puttering is big for me. I need to do a lot of thinking.”
Ms. Clavette has taught a lot of students over her career. As such, she has learned to help students not just with getting to the finish line with their projects but also how to develop their creative process. “Sometimes I have a student who is stuck and I will take them out of where everyone else is working, get them into another room by themselves just working on making textures or trying out some other technique without any goals.” They will usually find their way back to the group by themselves after they have had time away from their project. This is part of getting her students to stop focusing on the finished project, and instead to sit with their materials, spend time with their tools, and generally, just think.
“Mijoter,” she says of the process (pronounced mee-joe-TAY).“In French, it means to stew, to simmer. You need to let creativity have time to do whatever it feels like doing.” She says that she often finds herself cleaning out a closet when she is supposed to be getting pieces ready for art shows or writing proposals. “But then, out of nowhere, you have this idea and you go sit down at your desk and it just flows out.”
Puttering is largely invisible work, even to many craftspeople and makers. But Ms. Clavette says that puttering is part of the work too. “Where do you say that you begin work? At the moment you pick up a hammer? Of course not, obviously the work starts much earlier.”
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