Something to Think About

Making, Not Knowing

I was intrigued by the phrase Making, Not Knowing, when I read about the artist Ann Hamilton recently on the website BrainPickings, and learned of her essay with that title, adapted from her 2005 commencement address at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes:

One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know….You have to be open to all possibilities and to all routes — circuitous or otherwise.

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But, she cautions, “Not knowing isn’t ignorance.”  It is a manifestation of a “willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result” much like pulling a stack of fabrics from our stash to make our next quilt is the epitomy of “knowing in suspension.”  Who knows how these colors will work? Sometimes we try to circumvent this process of Not Knowing, by following a pattern, using the fabrics that the designer specifies, ordering wads of fabrics we may not ever use in future quilts.  I am not opposed to this, as you know. But then this becomes more about checking off the boxes, and that idea of Making, Not Knowing is cut short, because I do know what it will be.

Sometimes I think we are hampered, as Maria Popova of BrainPickings notes, by social media: “In our own culture, obsessed with celebrity and panicked for instant approval, what begins as creative work too often ends up as flotsam on the stream of ego-gratification — the countless counterfeit crowns that come in the form of retweets and likes and best-seller lists, unmoored from any real measure of artistic value and longevity.”  Our eyes can glaze over from countless IG posts, or blogs (not this one, of course) and we forget what our real task is: a life of making.

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“A life of making isn’t a series of shows, or projects, or productions, or things; it is an everyday practice.  It is a practice of questions more than of answers, of waiting to find what you need more often than knowing what you need to do….Our culture has beheld with suspicion unproductive time, things not utilitarian, and daydreaming in general, but we live in a time when it is especially challenging to articulate the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious, aren’t easily quantifiable, resist measurement, aren’t easily named, are categorically in-between.” (Hamilton)

Finally, Hamilton notes:

“Every act of making matters. How we make matters. I like to remember, and remark with regularity, that the word “making” occupies seventeen pages in the Oxford English Dictionary, so there are multiple possibilities for a lifetime of making: make a cup, a conversation, a building, an institution, make memory, make peace, make a poem, a song, a drawing, a play; make a metaphor that changes, enlarges, or inverts the way we understand or see something. Make something to change your mind — acts that amplify.”

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While this sounds like an improv challenge, I don’t work that way.  After many years of quilting, I know what makes me happiest, and my style is my sandbox, the edge of my picture frame.  But in cleaning out my sewing room yesterday, I found little bags of cut pieces of fabric — obviously even though I had an idea, it was the process of Making, Not Knowing which yielded discarded shapes, fabrics, designs, steps on the way to my art.

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So, get into your sewing room, your studio, or drag cartons out from under the bed, whatever, and pull out fabrics.  Sketch out a new pattern, go for a walk, go for a walk through a museum, capture what you see and let the making flow from your mind and your hands, even though you don’t yet know what it will be.


Be open to all possibilities.

11 thoughts on “Making, Not Knowing

  1. amen! I love diving in and have a “what if?” Attitude. I usually answer that question a bit too quickly but it is fun just the same. I just finished a wall quilt that looks nothing like what I imagined as I started but it is nice anyway…and it got juried into a show at an art gallery (not a quilt show).

  2. Thank you for this thought provoking post. It’s a great way to start my week. I need to stay focused on my own journey and let it take me where ever it may go regardless of outside influences or even my own preconceived plan.

  3. I enjoyed reading this post. I started cleaning my fabric storage area and found a number of pieces cut for what, I don’t remember. Maybe they will become something I don’t know about yet. And of late, I have been making things I see that I need–like a shower curtain last week!

  4. My fabric stash is in suspension, dear friend. Good thing you exempted your blog, as I find such irony in social media and blog posts dedicated to the evils of time absorbed in social media. I enjoyed a little tour of the V&A Museum Dior exhibit this morning. Oh, how I love social media, and London for that matter. Well, I best get back to being categorically in-between.

  5. Thought provoking and inspirational as always Elizabeth! Sometimes it’s good to go with the flow!

  6. Your posts always leave me thinking. I do believe we all know what pleases us by our past works. It’s just fun to play and experiment to find out if our minds can be changed. lol Love the baskets.

  7. Back when this was posted, I was in the midst of three pieces with near deadlines. So I tucked it away for later. The deadlines have been met, and “later” has come. (I also missed a book promo on “How to Do Nothing,” so now I have to read the book. No short cut.) I especially appreciated being directed to “the importance of experiences that don’t produce anything obvious . . .” As always, nice to think along with you.

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