I think photography and quilts have a lot in common – both are about ideas,seeing, design, composition and colors. I love to do both of them and I know that many of you do as well.
Today I have an inspirational article for you by Arno Rafael Minkkinen (http://www.arno-rafael-minkkinen.com) a famous photographer, born in Finland and now working in the United States. It’s about “Staying on the Bus”.
In June 2004, Arno Rafael Minkkinen stepped up to the microphone at the New England School of Photography to deliver the commencement speech. And there he shared a simple theory that, in his estimation, made all the difference between success and failure. He called it The Helsinki Bus Station Theory.
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory
Minkkinen was born in Helsinki, Finland. In the center of the city there was a large bus station …
Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19. Each bus takes the same route out of the city for at least a kilometer, stopping at bus stop intervals along the way.
Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer. Meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity. Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus 21.
You take those three years of work to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on. Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab—because life is short—and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time, you are going to make 8×10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane. You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that illicit the same comment. Haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8x10s of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the f**king bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference.
The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line, but only for a while – maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north. Bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another, but soon they split off as well. Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.
It’s the separation that makes all the difference. And once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire – that’s why you chose that platform after all – it’s time to look for your breakthrough. Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it. Your vision takes off. And as the years mount up and your work begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!
You regain the whole bus route in fact. The vintage prints made twenty years ago are suddenly re-evaluated and, for what it is worth, start selling at a premium. At the end of the line – where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or, better yet, a cup of coffee – that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.
Why? Because you stayed on the bus.
Georges Braque has said that out of limited means, new forms emerge. I say, we find out what we will do by knowing what we will not do.
And so, if your heart is set on 8×10 platinum landscapes in misty southern terrains, work your way through those who inspire you, ride their bus route and damn those who would say you are merely repeating what has been done before. Wait for the months and years to pass and soon your differences will begin to appear with clarity and intelligence, when your originality will become visible, even the works from those very first years of trepidation when everything you did seemed so done before.
We can do a whole lot of things in art, become ten different artists, but if we do that, there is great danger that we will communicate very little in the end. I say ride the bus of your dreams and stay the course.
This is the story for photographers. But it applies to quilters as well. Maybe you started out doing Baltimore Appliqué Quilts like Elly Sienkievicz – stay on the bus and make your own designs. Or you began with copying quilts by Carol Doak because you love the paper piecing technique – stay on the bus and develop your own foundations, maybe even your own technique, creating one-of-a-kind quilts. Or is thread-painting your thing and you started with a book by Libby Lehman? Stay on the bus – the possibilities are endless.
Stay on the bus! The main point of The Helsinki Bus Station Theory is not to do more work, but to move on, do more re-work, follow your path. It is the revision that matters.
The artists who get off the bus after a few stops and then hop on a new bus line are still doing work the whole time. What they are not doing, however, is revision. They are so busy jumping from line to line in the hopes of finding a route nobody has ridden before that they don’t invest the time to re-work their old ideas, to revision the results and go on from there, to practice their techniques, to re-think what they are doing. But this, as The Helsinki Bus Station Theory states, is the key to producing something unique and inspiring.
Is there the right bus to take? Nobody knows the best bus, but if you want to live your creative life you must choose one. And once you do – stay on the bus!
If you are interested in the whole speech by Arno Raffael Minkkinen click here.