We all intuitively use the word practice in at least two ways that we don’t even think about anymore. The first is the idea of doing something to improve your performance for a specific task. I had football practice and my daughter has oboe practice. The second way we talk about practice is the idea of a formative life path. Physicians practice medicine and Benedictine nuns practice prayer.

Internal Practice

I do some leather carving, cowboy stuff that I picked up from my saddlemaker father. I like doing it, but it’s the sort of thing that can drive me crazy on the wrong day. I learned a lot from my dad, but to improve from where I am presently performing, I have to apply myself. Part of the process is straightforward and would be the same for anyone (workable tools, appropriate instructional materials, stimulating examples), but part of the process is internal to me and involves my creativity.

Creative and Freeing

A few years ago I participated in a retreat at the Benedictine Center that had some art materials supplied, and I drew out a few things with colored pencils that were a lot like leather carving designs. The drawings looked pretty good for what they were, and coloring was fun, but I also recognized that there were some internal blocks for me that were keeping me from just being free in the experience. I simply wasn’t going to do it if I just felt like it was ugly when I was finished. So eventually I picked up a tracing tablet for my flower outlines and a circle template to speed up drawing guidelines for my patterns, and that improved my drawings enough and sped up that process enough that now I use it as a form of art journaling. It’s creative and freeing … and coloring is still fun.

Retreat for Practice

A couple of weeks ago I attended a leatherworking retreat at a retreat center in Minnesota. I'd never heard of a retreat structured around leatherworking before, and I was interested to see what doing leatherwork looks like for someone else. I had been designing some new flowers for my leather carving, and this weekend looked like a good opportunity for me to practice stamping them so that I could incorporate them into my regular work sometime soon. So, I grabbed some old leather scraps from the box in the garage, put some tools in a bag, and I even took along a heavy slab of stone to stamp the leather on.

I arrived at the retreat center and started into what I had decided to call “practicing my flowers.” It seemed modest and reasonable to me that I would have to run through carving my flower designs at least a few times in order to get them squared away enough to put on real work. The first evening I used a piece of leather that was a bit small, and I tried a quick pattern with a scaled-down version of one of my new flowers. The carving didn’t work well, so I decided to try bigger flowers the next day and I just traced a pattern from my art journaling and used that.

Honoring Practice as Practice

The carving worked better that time, but it prompted a response from people around me that I’m still trying to navigate. The carved pattern turned out good enough that it was evocative for many of the people who saw it that day. They were responding to it—the design had energy for them and they considered it beautiful. And, they had no category in their minds to be able to see that I wasn’t devaluing my work by calling it “practice,” nor was I devaluing it by saying that it needed to be improved. Indeed, I started the carving knowing that I wouldn’t be using it in a project and that I expected to dislike things about it after I had gone through the process of making it. It’s pretty good and I hope to improve on the elements of the carving the next time I use them.

But you try explaining that to someone who’s busy appreciating what you just made and really wants to see you as an artist. I’ve already had a handful of conversations where I’ve grown frustrated trying to explain that it’s on a scrap and not really for anything other than to try some new things. Two people were compelled enough with it that they started bending it into a cylinder shape trying to make it into something when I said it was just a practice piece. Now, don’t get me wrong, I liked that carving—it was like an encouraging friend after I had my first attempt at one of my new flowers turn out poorly. I also got a bit of a charge from the effect of the design. It’s powerful to have something, original to you, seem so beautiful that you have to pause for a moment. Usually it doesn’t work that well.

Energy and Beauty Beyond Technique

But why did it work that well? Ultimately because of practice. First, my previous leather carving experience allowed me to stamp up some new designs without a lot of trial and error. What I did the first or second time was workable, and I did improve things the next few times as well. However, this experience has given me some insight into a second sort of practice that I wasn’t conscious of previously. My art journaling provided a pattern that had energy and beauty that went beyond any technique or details. It’s a deeper sort of spiritual practice that splashed a bit over into my carving work that day. I think that particular carving had a certain life to it because I had built a little freedom and energy into it that came from me. I’m not totally sure why I’m so uncomfortable with seeing my leather carving as art. Perhaps it’s because I feel like I’m claiming something that isn’t quite true. However, I do feel comfortable seeing leather carving as a practice—something I do and that grows out of my physical and spiritual life.

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1 Response

  1. I loved Todd's reflection on practice. I am pondering what artistic gifts I have that want to come forward.