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Making Order/Making Meaning (or: the Zen of materials prep)

Perhaps it is simply the nature of the materials with which I work, or the fact that as an emerging artist I often find myself having to do a certain amount of rumplestiltsken-esque acrobatics when it comes to sourcing supplies. But regardless of reason, in the week leading up to my first workshop at the ABRS, I found myself spending a fair amount of time gleaming materials from a variety of creative sources (re-use centre! Back Alleys! Dumpsters!) and then sorting and re-packaging them so that they would be appealing and useable.

Collection, the first of those two steps, always feels a bit like a treasure hunt, bringing me to places I don’t normally frequent with a keep awareness of even the smallest details in my midst. Where was the creative potential in this? What about that? It was exciting– a dual exercise in observation and imagination.

The second of these activities, consolidation, is a process to which I return time and time again. It is slow, measured, and contemplative. Maybe it is a bit boring. But somehow I don’t mind too much, because sorting & re-packaging materials in this way is part of the “Making Order” component of my creative process. Cutting cardboard scraps into a pile of beautifully even rectangles; sorting, cutting, bundling yarn, laying out small objects… all paramount. Because for me, making order paves the way to making meaning.


These tasks bring me back to the summer I worked as a studio assistant for a more established artist- cutting rags and cutting handbills. They also remind me of some of the work I did at the Nina Haggerty as an RBC emerging artist apprentice and then as a volunteer. At the Nina, much of what I did consisted of mundane, repetitive yet oddly satisfying tasks such as aloquotting paints, cutting mats, sorting out drawing supplies and the like.


In all of these cases this kind of order-making was absolutely crucial to the subsequent meaning-making comes with creative expression. Whether it be the artist for whom I worked, the members of the Nina collective, or the participants of my mixed media workshop at the Arts-Based Research Studio, there were ducks that needed to be put in a row so that the play and exploration could happen.


This order-making, though “mindless”, mundane, and repetitive, is vital and often overlooked. It is the very “mindlessness” of the work that brings it the most meaning. When we simplify, decelerate and repeat I think it gives us space to appreciate the beauty in what is in front of us. While bundling, measuring and cutting yarn around my arm over and over, I am able to notice how the tension of the fibre feels around my flesh. I am able to admire the vibrancy of the pigment it holds, and how it absorbs or reflects light. This, in turn, compels me to reflect upon the significance of my chosen materials.

There are not a lot of choices to make once inside the flow of order-making. I am more or less free to go through the motions, following a task from start to finish in a kind of algorithmically-driven action pattern. There is no decision-paralysis here or fear of failure- only doing. The algorithm does the work- it holds my hand and all I have to do is put one metaphorical foot in front of the other. I can close my eyes, even- listening to the sounds of the world. Or I can look up at the sky. It doesn’t really matter.

It can be boring at times, grueling at others. But it is temporary and has a purpose of paving the way for expression. And in some small sense- order-making has a certain wholesomeness to it in that we are given a temporary sense of organization and clarity in a world where it often feels there is very little.

There are spaces outside of materials prep in which this occurs. I often wonder if this is what draws some people to mathematics. My father, a medical researcher, often speaks of the necessity of “puttering” for creative and intellectual progression. And there is something so generative about the simple, ritualistic act of showering that delving into philosophical inquiry while washing has become a running joke in internet culture. I have a deep appreciation for order-making and the permission it provides to question things we don’t normally make time to examine or that don’t seem to matter in the day to day.




In his book The Zen of Creativity, John Daido Loori identifies four qualities of the Zen Aesthetic as follows:

  1. WABI: Sense of loneliness, or solitude
  2. SABI: The suchness of ordinary objects
  3. AWARENESS: a feeling of nostalgia or longing for the past
  4. YUGEN: Mystery, the hidden ineffable dimensions of reality


I know very little about Zen approach to life, but I wonder if there isn’t something absolutely related in my collection and ordering of art materials. In collecting, there is a keen awareness of the suchness of ordinary objects. And in prepping and re-packaging, a process that happens in solitude, I am brought to marvel at the hidden dimensions of such objects. Ducks in a row. Paving the way to expression. Hands working, mind wandering, heart wondering.


This String Portrait Project  is supported by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.

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