on The Art of Improv
Our guest this week is Jessica Molnar. Jessica is a mixed media artist, textile designer from Bellingham, Washington. Her love of and experience with bookbinding, restoration and printing led to the foundation of Odd Duck Press where she sells her one of a kind, works, art prints, homewares and gifts. On her blog, also at Odd Duck Press, she shares about her experiences as an artist, a mother, and interviews fellow artists highlighting their work, process, and practices. I am happy to share with her beliefs that we are all artistic creatures whose individual lives impact the world through our art of living. And am happy she is spreading the word, and even more happy to spread her words.
What does working improvisationally mean to you? How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?
For me, working improvisationally means being adaptable, resourceful, curious, and willing to experiment. I think the “Art of Improv” is a great metaphor for life; forging ahead with free will and adapting to the unexpected. The surprises can be the best part! I find this to be true for many of my projects. This is definitely the case with my painting Happy Accident. It’s a large mixed media piece on canvas and while I was working on it a corner of the canvas caught on fire. This made the colors bleed through. It was such a cool, striking effect that I turned the canvas around and started working on the back. The idea of the “Art of Improv” also makes me think of the concept “beginner’s mind” from Zen Buddhism which refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.
Have you always worked improvisationally?
Yes, I’d say that working improvisationally has always been pretty much a way of life for me. I tend to work this way in the studio, but also in larger contexts, too. One example is when my husband and I decided to move from California to Washington. After we got married, we decided to leave the Bay Area since housing prices are astronomical and the job market is cut-throat. At the time, we were living in our Airstream trailer in an industrial yard. We set our sights on Washington for its natural beauty and lower population density. We didn’t have any savings, but we did have an America’s Cup 12 Meter yacht that my husband bought at a lien sale. After a couple years on the market and no luck selling, we decided to scrap it. We both quit our jobs and spent the next year making scouting trips and living off of the scrap metal from that 65 ft. aluminum sailboat. My husband documented the whole thing here. In March of ’09 we hitched up our trailer and made a break for it. By the time we were ready to go, we only had $1,000 left and no jobs lined up. The adventure that ensued was indeed epic and hair-raising at times. It took us a while to get our bearings, but we managed to land safely and are now settled into our cozy home in the county. That was some serious improv! And that’s just one example ; )
How often do you work with improvisation?
Every day, in one way or another!
Please share a bit about your process. Do you have methods to getting started? Do you have tricks to getting unstuck? Do you have motivators to finishing up?
I like to have a few different kinds of projects going on at once. Right now, I have a few small projects like dioramas and collages, some textile design projects and one ginormous mixed-media piece. I like having different size projects as well as projects that incorporate totally different mediums. That way there’s always something to work on if I get stuck. For me, getting stuck is often an issue of cash flow, so it really helps to have some projects that are purely digital. If I’m feeling blasé about all of my projects, that’s a big red flag that I’m running on fumes and I need to recharge. That’s when I like to go outside, curl up with a novel or prepare some sort of laborious meal like homemade pasta. When it comes to finishing up projects, I find that the biggest motivator for me is seeing the piece come together. My aforementioned ginormous mixed-media piece, spent years in limbo and I’m really excited to see it coming together now. I submitted it to a local gallery to be considered for exhibition in 2019. That feels very motivating!
Where do you find inspiration? How do you use it?
A lot of my inspiration comes from my lived experience. During my tumultuous 20’s, art-making was my way of processing emotions. I still find a lot of my inspiration from my life stories, but these days, art-making feels less like DIY psychotherapy and more like a celebration. I’m also inspired by process. I really enjoy it when the process is drawn out, laborious and repetitive :D I’ve worked in textile restoration, letterpress printing and bookbinding + restoration; all very tedious, persnickety crafts. And so fun! Another big inspiration for me is the materials that I work with. I love working with found and salvaged materials. I have lots of little collections of things like: individual words cut out from books, wishbones, bird’s nests, hoards of paper and fabric scraps, insects, and vintage magazines. Some of my favorite projects are those that I made as gifts. A while back, I was living in New Orleans and my brother was living in NY. He was going through a rough patch and we were missing each other. I made a little piece of mail art for him out of some random bits and pieces I had lying around. It was a small diorama, (approx. 4”x6”x1”) that I sent out in the mail as is, no packaging. I just addressed the back of it, stuck some stamps on it and popped it in the mail. It arrived intact, he still has it and it’s still one of my favorite pieces.
What advice would you give to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally? Can you share some good advice that you received that helped you become more comfortable this way?
I feel that there’s a tremendous tension that comes into play as a professional artist between managing the business side of things and nurturing the creative side. It can be really, really hard to reconcile! I get huge rush out of making progress toward my goals and checking things off my to-do list. That kind of stuff is easily mapped out and understood logically, whereas the creative side of things springs forth from…who knows where! The Mystery! When I’m truly in my creative flow, I feel more like a conduit rather than the agent, which is an incredible state to be in, but getting there…that’s the challenge. I’ve gone through agonizingly long creative droughts, which have been heartbreaking and demoralizing. I’m just now reconnecting with this intuitive-creative side of myself. I’m learning to create the necessary internal spaciousness that allows me to tap into that flow. If I’m feeling anxious, stressed out, exhausted, etc. I tend to get caught up in being busy. I can never access creative flow from that sort of state. I can do business-lady stuff, but I can’t make art. Recently I started doing breathwork, which is a very strange sort of guided meditation. My friend Amy Kuretsky offers this on Patreon. I highly recommend it! On days when I do breathwork in the morning, I find that I’m able to get into that creative flow and operate from a place of inspired action.
How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’
What if I let go of the result?
What are you reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?
I just finished reading Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky. The author is such a fascinating person and a multi-talented artist. He directed one of my all-time favorite movies, Santa Sangre. On a whim, I googled him to see what else he’s done and discovered this book which is an epic, mythologized account of his family going back a few generations. It’s surreal, grotesque, heartbreaking, achingly beautiful and transcendent all at the same time. In the prologue he writes, “Our family tree is the trap that limits our thoughts, emotions, desires, and material life, but it is also the treasure that captures the greater part of our values. Aside from being a novel, this book may, if it is successful, serve as an example that all readers can follow and, if they practice forgiveness, they too can transform family memory into heroic legend.” I love that! Examining and transforming my stories, family stories in particular, is something that I’ve been working with a lot, especially since becoming a mother.
Thank you Jessica for sharing your work and your life of art with us. I love the idea of thinking of unexpected results not as mistakes, as many do/would, but as happy accidents. I think this is at the core of harnessing the power of improv to aid in artmaking and more importantly living a happier life!!! I relate to your description of being in the flow and feeling like a conduit to a mysterious force. It is exciting have figured it out for myself and am always excited to learn and share how others experience it. I believe your ‘What If’ response might be the key! And I can not wait to track down Where the Bird Sings Best, which was interestingly already on my list, but your description just bumped it up to the top.
If you would like to be featured on The Art of Improv please contact me! I would love to hear how improvisation impacts your art making process.