Helmut Smits is a Dutch artist based in Rotterdam whose work includes a range of playful experiments that all seem to start with the musing, “I wonder what would happen if…” He attempts to draw a circle with straight lines, applies paint to the bottom of a door to create a fan-shaped painting on the floor, and prunes trees in line with the top of a building to create a perfect diagonal. Years ago, I posted another of his joyful works: a rainbow made by a windshield wiper. For these wax sculptures, Smits starts by burning the lowest candle until it creates an opening the size of the next candle up. Then he extinguishes the lower candle with the upper, sealing the two together, and lights the next one up. This introduces some randomness based on the way the candles burn, leaving pieces a little bit off-center, or slightly angled.
Why is this joyful? I could point to the proportions: the juxtaposition of short, squat shapes with the long skinny ones. Or the mix of bright colors, and the occasional quirky pattern. But for me, the most joyful aspect of these sculptures is that they serve as a tangible a reminder of art as play. So often, when making something, we sit down and say, “I am going to make this thing now.” We feel we need to see it in our minds before we make it in the world. But there’s another approach, which takes a set of materials and an idea, and says, “I am going to try some things until I discover something I like.” There’s an inherent serendipity to this second approach, which recognizes that accidents and mistakes might lead to something new. It’s the difference between executing on a vision and exploring your way to a vision. It’s a more intuitive, less rational process, and it opens up so much space. But it’s also risky. This approach promises no outcomes. You might break new ground, but you might end up with a total mess. The only guarantee is the joy of the process itself.
This approach is at the heart of invention, but so often we forget this. My best work always bears little resemblance to the kernel of an idea I started out with. But for some reason when I have to create something “serious,” like a presentation, I find it impossible to remember this, and often I end up ploughing through in a joyless way. One of my biggest new year’s resolutions for 2016 is to keep a playful approach to my work even when it gets hard (especially then!). I’m trying to ask myself, “What is the most joyful way I can approach this challenge?” I’m not sure how it will go, but if nothing else, I hope at least it will be more fun than my normal way of doing things. And success or failure, there will be some interesting experiments to share along the way. If you’ve tried anything similar, let me know how it went and what you learned!