04.16.20
Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project

Generating


Notebooks in Frederick Hammersley’s studio, March 2012. © Frederick Hammersley Foundation.

The studio is a sanctuary for the imagination. It’s where we address discipline and embrace chance. Both are necessary. (Neither is optional.) The studio is where we learn to wake up to our own motives and to mine our own methods, where we battle with our demons and learn to be brave. Along the way, we try, and we fail. We experiment, and we learn. The studio is the test kitchen, the seed lab: it’s where we realize that practice is at once speculative, iterative, and generative.

Hard to be generative when life has closed down around you. But not impossible.
 
To generate is to procreate—to beget, like offspring—which calls to mind all sorts of beautiful life cycles, gestational journeys in which ideas take shape, find form, and reveal new sources of light.

Here’s one.

Stop confusing generating with inventing.

To generate an idea is not a foreclosure on an earlier idea. The notion of retracing your steps, revisiting your work, even reworking something you previously produced is no different from, say, grafting rootstock or baking from a sourdough starter. Generative thinking can be restorative sooner than repetitive, expansive rather than reductive. The geometric painter, Frederick Hammersley spent entire periods of his prolific career re-making earlier paintings—working something over, painting on the reverse of a canvas, even removing the canvas itself to revisit its tactility, its weave: all were maneuvers that served to reawaken his thinking and reassert his practice. That new work emanated from exercises in reconstruction was part of a journey that benefitted from time, space, scrutiny—and trust.

But there’s something else here, and that’s the idea that we generate new work by seeking adjacencies in the liminal spaces bordering the things we already know. There’s a kind of implicit alchemy to this idea: assume that you are already sitting on a bounty of ideas past. Think of this existing arsenal of thought less as a mysterious abyss than as an abundance of possibility. Take small steps. Venture forth with the strength and presence you’ve gained from all your hard work up until now. And then?

Go rogue.
 
In his writing and thinking, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s true daring lay in his willingness to remain intellectually agnostic, drawing from multiple sources and working both across and between disciplines. He thought about cognition and perception, considered reason and intuition, and believed in history as a rich, vital form of biography. Most importantly, he resisted doing things the same way twice: he championed getting out of your own way, taking chances, making discoveries, and trusting your gut. All life is an experiment, he once observed. The more experiments you make the better.

Hammersley, who died in 2009, produced a series of experiments in the 1950s that he later referred to as hunch paintings—and what is a hunch but trusting your gut? To answer to intuition is not only deeply Emersonian, it’s also highly actionable. After all, if the studio is the seed lab, generating is also germinating. Those seeds know what to do. And so do you.


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