GUEST 3 | The Art of Improv with Twyla Exner


Twyla Exner

on The Art of Improv

Our Second guest, Twyla Exner is a Canadian artist and educator inspired by the wonders of nature and the idea of electronic technologies gone awry.  She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the University of Regina and a Master of Fine Arts degree in studio arts from Concordia University (Montreal).  Her artworks have been exhibited across Canada from Annapolis Royal, NS to Campbell River, BC to Dawson City, YT.  She is passionate about sharing in the creative process with individuals of all ages and backgrounds and has designed and facilitated lectures, workshops, lesson plans and interactive art making experiences for schools, community centers, post-secondary institutions, galleries and festivals across Canada.   She creates colorful organic wire sculptures, drawings, and is currently exploring molding and casting.  Her work exudes her love of nature and her fascination and conflicted feelings toward technology and its rapidly increasing role is our lives.  Here are her thoughts on improvisation and how it as a process impacts her art.

Things 2 & 3: Friends   Twyla Exner

Things 2 & 3: Friends Twyla Exner

What does working improvisationally mean to you? How would you define the ‘Art of Improv’?

For me, working improvisationally means to begin making without a set plan or preconceived idea in place: starting to work, responding to what appears and continuing that process until a work is complete.    

Have you always worked improvisationally?

I have always doodled which follows the improvisational process for me.  But I have not always worked improvisationally within in my art practice.  As an art student, I was concerned with creating as “perfect” of works that I could, which for me meant planning, drafts, and gridding off drawings.  As I’ve become less concerned with making “perfect” representational works, I am more inclined to work improvisationally.   

Do you work improvisationally, consciously, intentionally? If so, how do you begin? If not, how do you find yourself getting there?

When I started working improvisationally, it was not a conscious or intentional process. I was just exploring mediums and learning about making.  I had a great Professor in ceramics who encouraged us to respond to whatever might be happening with the clay.  I will never forget the day I dropped a pot I was so proud of on the floor.  I was upset but he just came along and picked it up, and said “but look how it captured gravity”!  The process of making ceramics has so many points where something can go wrong.  You could make the perfect piece and then bump it while it’s still wet.  You could accidentally take off a little too much clay while altering it.  It could crack or warp in the drying or firing process.  Someone else’s glaze could splatter all over yours.  Especially in a group studio full of students, there are so many opportunities for hiccups along the way.  At the time that I took ceramics, I was a planner but I loved clay.  Accepting mistakes and responding to changes was a difficult process but I believe it made me a more resilient artist and gave me a different approach to making.  As an artist who now also works as an art instructor, the improvisational mind set is important and valuable in all my activities.

Thing 1   Twyla Exner

Thing 1 Twyla Exner

How often do you work with improvisation?

It depends on the project that I’m working on and the materials I’m working with.  I have the most fun while working improvisationally but the planner still lives inside of me.  I work improvisationally on my wire works.  I tend to plan and more carefully draft my drawings but the improvisation does creep in here and there.  Currently, I’m working on molding and casting barnacles that are then placed onto used television satellite dishes.  Molding and casting does not allow for much improvisation, but the placement of the barnacles gives a little more freedom.   

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 almost always have some wire works on the go as all I need are my fingers and a pair of needle nose pliers.  They fit into my life at any time, I can work on them while I’m watching TV, visiting with friends or travelling by car, similar to how knitters or crocheters are always working on something. For example, I will work on making a lot of tubes or knobs when I am tired or distracted or if I feel stuck because I know I can use them and it is a productive use of that time.  That provides a stock pile of parts that are ready to go and I can begin to work improvisationally to combine the parts and build onto them to create a sculpture.  I don’t have any special method of starting: I just get to work and see where things go.  I usually start with one of my stock piled knobs and build around it, adding more knobs or tubes or decorative elements as I go.  Often, I will create 4 or 5 separate sections of a sculpture in the same colour scheme and then puzzle those sections together into a sculpture.  Sometimes the sections puzzle together perfectly and sometimes I must build a section of a specific size or shape to close the piece off.  Deadlines are my most powerful motivator, but if I am close to finishing a piece I am usually excited to complete it and start on a new one.

Where do you find inspiration? How do you use it?

I’m inspired by the wonders of nature and the idea of electronic technologies gone awry.  I gather inspiration from books and digital images that capture everything from micro photography of cells to images captured by satellites.  Images of ocean life, fungi, plants and seed pods are some of my favourites.  I am fortunate to live on the edge of a forest in Northern BC, so walks in the forest and incredible creatures such as moths and toads also form my inspirations.  I have a collection of digital images of space occupying and Earth-bound satellites.  I also have amassed e-waste technologies such as circuit boards, CDs, wires, telephones and other discarded treasures.  These inspirations arrive in my work as material or imaged based inspiration.  In some of my creations, the influences are obvious while many of the wire works reference natural forms, patterns, colour combinations, attachment and grow patterns while appearing to be abstract.  I also love science fiction books and TV shows and those narratives play easily into my works.  

Thing 5: Albino   Twyla Exner

Thing 5: Albino Twyla Exner

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 make art with kids and so I say “there are no mistakes in art, only opportunities for us to exercise our creativity” at least three times a week.  It’s a good reminder that when things do not go as planned or there’s a drip on the paper or skills are still in development that there are still endless and wonderful possible outcomes.  Those outcomes may lead you down a path you never may have come across through careful planning.  My advice to someone interested in trying to work improvisationally is to experiment with a new medium.  You will likely be free of the expectations you have of your “comfort” medium when you try something new.  Another great way is to collaborate with another person.  Play the “exquisite corpse” or pass a drawing or sculpture back and forth with an artist who works with a completely different approach than you.  It’s fun and may force you outside your comfort zone.

How would you finish the sentence, ‘What if, . . .?’

What if you could free your creative creature without imposing any rules or obligations.

What are you reading, listening to, watching, or any other inspirational obsessions you would like to share?

I enjoy reading science fiction, art theory, graphic novels and kids’ books.  I’ve just finished reading: Thinking Through Craft by Glenn Adamson which considers conceptual and historical inquiry on artworks classified as “craft”, One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry that examines 100 of the artists’ demons through comics, and The Adventures ofBeekle by Dan Santant that encourages us to place our destiny in our own hands.  I love watching cooking shows (I’m a terrible cook) and recently enjoyed Zumbo’s Just Desserts.  With every episode part of me wishes I had become a cake sculptor.  Depending on my mood, while I’m working I will listen to CBC Radio 2, music (a mix from the 60s-today) or podcasts.  Currently my favourite podcasts are Art for Your Ear by the Jealous Curator that features interviews with artists, Art Made Easy with Patty Palmer which is an art education podcast (motivation and art material info for educators can also be useful for artists) and TedTalks Art.     

Thank you Twyla!  It has been a pleasure learning more about you, your work and your improv process.  I too believe there are no mistakes in art, only opportunities. . . I look forward to looking into some of you inspirational obsessions as well, I am always looking for new podcasts and Art Made Easy sounds very interesting!  I hope to get up close and personal with one of your 'things' someday soon.  You can learn more about Twyla on her website and catch a glimpse of her day to day on Instragram.

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.