[edited March 20, 2008: I think we had some good discussion here for a while, but we've gone from respectful disagreement to finger-pointing and sniping. And I'm not saying I haven't been a participant in this facet of the discussion, but I do feel it needs to stop. That was never what I had in mind here. I am closing the comments to this post. However, if you feel that you have a point to make on the general (non-situation-specific) topic, you are welcome to post it over on the More Food For Thought post. And if you feel you have more to say about the specific example I used here, you are welcome to email me. I appreciate everyone's participation in this conversation - I think it's given us a lot to think about!]
Pull up a chair, my friends. This might be a long one. I don’t have any pictures either, so you might want to put your reading glasses on .
I want to talk today about something that has crossed my mind from time to time since the mid nineties when I first became involved with the online polymer clay community: It’s the idea of ownership. Who did what first? Who copied whom? And why do we care? And why are some of us so passionate about it?
Even way back then, when our internet community was small, and pretty much consisted of Wheat’s Craftwolf mailing list(remember that??), heated discussions would arise. Polymer Clay Central went so far as to create a separate message board where members could go to duke it out! We clayers, while often friendly and generous, have a territorial side, too.
The ownership question is certainly one that is on our minds as a group. At Synergy, the panel discussion Inspiration, Originality, Infringement was lively and interesting.
It is also a question that is on my mind recently on a more personal level. I am going to use my own situation as an example in a larger discussion. A few days ago, I was contacted about an image I had posted. A few people felt as if I had crossed a line and had let another artist’s secret out of the bag with my post:
…after looking at your posts about “your” stripe blend and the accompanying pictures it looks remarkably similar to the core of Dan Cormier’s presentation on “Beyond the Blend” at the Synergy conference in Baltimore.
Although admittedly your blends are not as precise as his, your technique of proportional stripes is identical to what he showed and how he does it.
I was reading you stripy blend post and was struck with how much it was almost Identical to what Dan was teaching at Synergy.
Many others felt, as I did, that the image I posted was my own work and was not breaking any unwritten rules:
I just wanted to let you know, it’s not hard to come up with something similar.. I’ve created something similar to what you’ve done, in a slightly different way, and until saw your post, I thought I was just clever…
Other forms of skinner blends have been around a long time and I make stripes all the time–accidently or on purpose. So making stripes from skinner blends is not anybody’s personal technique. Sarah Shriver is where I learned you don’t have to use just triangles and have been playing with that idea ever since.
I never for one minute thought you were duplicating anyone and I attended Dan’s seminar.
Once again we find ourselves divided by the topic of ownership. Dan and I have exchanged email about this particular instance, so I’m not saying anything here that I wouldn’t say directly to him. I like him, I respect him as an artist, and I applaud his ability to develop a curriculum and tools around a very intriguing concept. What I respectfully disagree with is the notion that precise, mathematical color mixing in a blend environment is a concept that he has the exclusive right to explore and share. Anyone who knows me and how I work knows that, for years, my mathematical background has factored heavily into my work with colors. I won’t stop now because someone else suddenly “owns” the idea.
I think what bothers me most is the knee-jerk reaction that a few people have had. They argue that the posting of a single before shot for my own work is capable of undermining people’s desire to take an in-depth two-day workshop. Aside from the fact that I believe my work differs from his as much as his differs from those who came before him, this is where I have to cry fowl. Anyone who had an interest in going “beyond the blend” before is not going to abandon the idea simply because I posted an image of a proportional blend.
Students choose to attend a class based on the reputation of the teacher. Whether the material is a closely-guarded secret or not, plays little part. Look at Donna Kato. She has made videos, written books, and instructed millions of people through her appearances on the Carol Duvall Show. And people still line up to take her classes. Even when the material is readily available in one of those other formats.
Good teaching, no matter the topic, embraces the philosophy that knowledge is to be shared.
What if Judith Skinner had decided to keep her blend a closely-guarded secret? What if the only people who enjoyed the ability to experiment and build on her technique were those who took a class with her? Our community and our artwork would be greatly diminished for it.
In a recent blog post Kathleen Dustin eloquently stated what I see as the crux of the matter:
You as artists and craftsmen MUST be open, sharing, and eager to help other artists/craftsmen. Believe it or not, it hurts YOU and the whole community when you are secretive about what you do.
[...] no one else can or should want to do what I do specifically, so I do not feel threatened by teaching the techniques surrounding it. After all, wise King Solomon said in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun,” so who am I to think that the techniques I use cannot be discovered independently by someone else, or be done even better by someone else?
I fully embrace this philosophy. When I make something I think is interesting, I am driven to put it out there. That’s part of why blogging appeals to me – instant sharing. And that’s what got me into trouble this week. I was free with something that a few people thought was not mine to share.
When we accept a culture of accusation such as this, we risk introducing a fear of exploration and experimentation into our members. One creative person said to me, “It seems that the polymer clay internet community has become so….watch doggy and easy to offend. I have spent more and more time being annoyed than inspired by it lately.” She went on to say that she has stopped producing some of the work she loves because an aspect of it resembles that of a well-known artist. She doesn’t want to be seen as a copycat, despite the fact that her work predates that of the other artist. What a shame it is, that a fear of accusation is keeping her from developing the ideas she finds most appealing!
At Synergy, we heard much about the history of polymer clay. In her talk about early polymer clay beadmakers, Kathleen Dustin said of millefiori, “because this technique is so uniquely matched to the properties of polymer clay, it was quickly — but independently and individually — developed by this handful of American artists.” We readily accept that this pivotal technique was simultaneously discovered by multiple artists twenty years ago. Why then, do we not extend this same courtesy with other techniques in the present day?
Another artist wrote to me, “discussion is good and this is something the clay world needs to discuss.” If the number of unsolicited comments I received yesterday is any indication, she’s not alone in feeling this way. So I say, let’s talk! Leave a comment. Speak your mind, engage in discussion with other commentators – let’s hash out these ideas and see where they lead.
I welcome opposing viewpoints and lively debate, but let’s be sure to “play nice.” I’ll delete comments that cross the line into flame-war territory, regardless of what side they are supporting.