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Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project

Sharpening


David Pease, Postcard Painting. (Late 1970’s)

Like most serious artists, the late American painter David Pease went to his studio, without fail, every day of his life. Sometimes, he painted. Other times, he sketched. Occasionally, he visited his notebooks, or looked through his collections (there were many collections) and sometimes he rearranged the pictures on his wall. On other days, he’d just sharpen his pencils.

The studio was critical. The collections were essential. And the sharpening was a metaphor for everything.

Sharpening a pencil is like fine-tuning an instrument: it’s the prep work, like soaking your rice before cooking, or stretching your limbs before running. But as an isolated activity, its got its own powerful syntax. It’s the art of paying attention.

Sharpening is also a synonym for honing, which is where the process of inspection meets the practice of introspection. (An artist hones a craft. A craftsperson hones a skill.) Honing is polishing and perfecting, but in old English, it was actually another word for stone: solid and impenetrable, and strong enough to serve as a tool for sharpening something else.

The key phrase here is something else.

There are many ways to stay sharp in the studio, some seemingly counterintuitive, because they involve locating sources of creative nourishment that might not seem obvious. You need sustenance, but you also need serendipity: routes you can revisit but also routines you can break.

And as paradoxical as it may seem, narrowing your gaze to focus on perfectionism might not be the most direct path to maintaining your edge. 

For David Pease, the nourishment came in those collections. Salesman samples. Color charts. Froebel blocks. Dexterity puzzles. Game boards with magnificent grids, and anything having to do with the 1939 World’s Fair, largely because of the trylon and perisphere, and yes, he had a collection of those, too. There were marcasite boxes and Crazy Kat cartoons and approximately fifty-four categories of postcards, but the taxonomies were always subject to change, because it was in loosening the grip between definitions that the real work began, leading to new connections, new discoveries, new ideas about everything.

To be clear, it was not the acquisition of artifacts that fueled David’s practice so much as the ability to investigate their edges. (Another of sharpening’s superpowers: keen observation.) He was a great believer in something called the chance operation, a theory attributable to John Cage that entered the studio in the form of play: there were dice and spinners, prisms and rolling logs—tools that randomized choices about color, rhythm, sequence, and choice—liberating the mind to think in new ways.

You become what you think about all day long, wrote Emerson.

And so it is to sharpen: your pencils, to be sure, but also your own independent mind.

David Pease was not alone in this. The late Italian architect Carlo Scarpa famously began all his courses in design at the University of Venice by demonstrating the art of pencil sharpening. To Scarpa, this humble act lay at the core of everything: trusting your eye, guiding your hand, learning how to respect and care for the tools that would become your most trusted partners.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it’s that inspiration is an archeological dig waiting to happen, but you have to be the one willing to do the digging. This is the work. Now is the time. That sharp ideological spade is as critical to your practice as a sharp pencil ever was, or ever will be. Trusted partners, both. And nothing random about either.





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