Friday, March 5, 2010

The Psychology of Collaboration


Working together with another artist(s) to produce something that is part of you both (all).

Sounds like a good thing, right?

Maybe; but I am not sure it is for me. Here is why:

Last year, I tried to be a part of a collaborative mail art group. I failed miserably at this collaboration.

The idea :
Start a small art work that can be shipped in a 8X5 padded envelope. You could have up to 5 pieces and then send them out to members your group. They would have one week to work on it and pass it along to another artist. You would eventually get it back when it has gone through about 4 people. You also work on whatever comes in the mail for you, and send it on to the next person. Simple enough, right?

Well, not for me. I started three pieces and sent them out. I never received anything in the mail until a month later when I was in the apex of the semester and getting ready to go in May on a two-week study tour to China and Japan.

But it isn't the fact that I received the pieces later that made me fail at this. It was that I never thought about the psychology of collaboration. Here is my definition:

The psychology of collaboration is all the questions and inner struggles that you face when you are working a piece of art was started and belongs to another artist.

I'll admit, I procrastinated a bit on getting my own pieces started. I wanted them to be perfect - but that will never happen.

Finally, I sent them off into the world to be worked on by other artists that I didn't know well. It was just when I received other artists' work that became a procrastination nightmare.

These thoughts went through my head when I received the mail art:

Wow, these are so cool.
I could do this, this, and this...
Maybe I can add this to the piece and take this out...
Wait, what if I do this, and she hates it...
Maybe I shouldn't be doing this...
I wish this was my piece...
What if I "ruin" it?
What if I make bad art...
These are professional artists - what the heck am I doing with them...
Maybe this is a bad idea...
How could I have thought that I could do this...
I have so little time now, I will work on this later when I have more time...
I cannot "deal" with this now...

Then the piece gets put aside until I can "deal with it," which is never.

Then the embarrassment and self-consciousness of holding onto the pieces too long (and not working on them at all because of fear) becomes so great that I start making myself less available. The pieces never get sent back either. I "lose" them in my other mail for months.

Collaboration falls apart and I have let everyone down - including myself.

At the time, I never thought that this would be the end result of my first attempt at collaboration. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun!

For someone who is obsessed with process, the idea of documenting a piece of art work at each stage of development is very exciting. I loved seeing what everyone else in the mail art groups (there were 2 others) was posting up on Facebook. It was amazing to see the transformations.

Yet, I hesitated and do what is very familiar to me now, "choosing by not choosing."

If you wait long enough, your choices of what can happen are limited. Wait too long on a scholarship/grant deadline, you will miss it. Forget to pay your bills, you get a late fee. Decide not to enter an art completion, you will never get in.

I know all these things, but I still do them.

And this time, my procrastination and self-doubt robbed me of an opportunity to participate in something special. I was not only hurting myself by procrastinating, but letting my group down.

So, through this mail art experience, I realized that I was not ready for collaboration.

Almost a year has gone by since that experience. And I am taking a small step into the realm of collaboration - this time with new rules and new eyes.

An artist friend from my advanced sculpture class, Sunshine, mentioned on the first day of the semester that she was looking to do an art collaboration with someone. She said that she wanted to exchange a piece with an artist, and we both work with the pieces for two weeks then exchange back again.

Sunshine is an amazing artist who has a BA in metalsmithing. She attends my advanced sculpture class for the critiques and to continue her mentee relationship with the instructor Richard Keely.

I am a great admirer of her work and her dedication to exploring her own process. So when she mentioned collaboration, my first instinct was "YES, I want to do this!"

But then my self-doubt compelled me to admit my hesitancy. I explained to her my previous failure at collaboration. She was understanding and still interested in working with me.

Here is what makes this collaboration different (and I hope more likely to succeed):

I know the artist that I am working with
I know her current work
She knows my current work
I see her every Friday, therefore cannot "avoid her" as easily
She is very friendly, and understanding
We are peers
She is interested in process
She has a similar aesthetic interest as myself

We started our collaboration three weeks ago. She brought me this amazing rubber and fiber piece to work on. Sunshine said that it was a piece that she had been working on for a while and still wasn't happy with it. She wanted to see if I could work on it, which would let her look at it again with fresh eyes. I loved the piece from the start, which is a good and bad thing. I also had ideas right away of what I wanted to do with it.

I hesitated to start, though. And I hesitated even more to bring her something of my own to have her work on. Nothing I had seemed "worthy" of her time.

Finally, I started heating up my beeswax to give the tufts a thin coat of wax. This would change it into something that I could understand - fiber and wax.

Here is what was going on in my head again, while working on Sunshine's piece:
This piece is so cool...
I wish it was mine...
I am going to give it a coat of wax and see how that looks.
But what if she hates it?
What if I ruin it?
Maybe I can take the rubber apart and shape it.
But then it would never go back to its' shape.
What if that is what she liked about the piece.
I wish this piece was mine so that I wouldn't have this pressure.
Okay, lets put it in the wax.
Hmm, that looks interesting. How about the red wax.
Oh no! I am not sure about that one. Why didn't I test it out first?
Is it ruined now?
I am confident that Sunshine is improving my piece, and what am I doing here...
Maybe this was a bad idea.
Maybe I am just not meant to collaborate.
How can I be so bold with my own experimentation and so timid with this piece?
I wish this piece was mine.
I will let it dry and then see how that looks.
Looks cool, now for some embroidery on it.
Oh, the needle puts a hole in the fabric that cannot be hidden!
Did I just ruin it?
Just finish this embroidery, Jaime, and stop thinking about this so much.

Even more questions than before! I knew I needed to work out some of these issues, so it was time for the journal. I wrote in my journal about ten pages about how I didn't expect this collaboration to be such a thought-provoking process. I thought it would be more about working with new materials and making it a part of me.

Instead it has been a process of not only making art, but also examining my own artistic self-doubt and worthiness as an artist. Powerful work, to say the least.

This collaboration is not done. Sunshine was not in class last Friday so that I could give her the piece. So my doubts are still crackling in the air.

But I am now aware of the psychology of collaboration. And will continue to explore these mental processes while working with the physical materials.

My hope is that this collaboration with Sunshine will help me redeem myself as someone who is able to collaborate.

I will continue to explore my own inner landscape of doubt, while pushing forward to create.

Your Turn:

Collaboration: Friend or Foe? Have you collaborated with other artists? Was your inner critic on high volume while working on the piece? Anyone else have more struggles with your own inner voice more than the material before you? I would love to hear your stories.

Thanks for letting me share my process with you! ~ Jaime Lyerly


  1. Jaime, my goodness! I had no idea the extent this collaboration had on your inner turmoil as an artist! I'm going to try to not allow your perceptions to make me nervous!

    I'm super-excited about the collaboration as well and so pleased that you are in to it. I'll send you my write up later this afternoon - it defines some of the things I imagine to gain from the experience. And you're welcome to post whatever you like.

  2. Sunshine, I am so glad that you took the time to read this rambling.

    I don't want you to let my perceptions change how you work on our collaboration.

    The main point behind this post was to ACKNOWLEDGE the fact that my inner critic runs overtime when someone else's opinion is involved.

    It is a growing process and definitely part of what my blog is all about "Art making is a Journey."

    It is more than just a blog listing my accomplishments, but one that has my struggles as well.

    So I am working on a much more positive post which describes this collaboration so far, which will include both of our in progress shots.

    Looking forward to getting more in depth with this process.



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