The Power Underlying the Creative Process
The process of making contains a powerful mythology that transcends the subject matter. It is, in itself, both a story that spans generations, as well as a rite of passage. Joseph Campbell speaks to the power of mythology in his book "The Power of Myth", in which one of the passages explains about myths what is equally true about the creative process-
“..what we are seeking is the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have the resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
For those attracted to the maker process, there seems an underlying current in their desire to create that is difficult to explain. It often seems that the ultimate reward often has little to do with the obvious outcome. What happens between the moment of inspiration, until the point that the final outcome is achieved, is perhaps equally or even more important than the outcome itself.
This observation would be academic if creatives only used it as a point to revel in, or as a point of distinction from those that don't have this desire. It seems that there is something more important about the process, about the mythology of the creative process, about the rite of passage that occurs in the creation of any given object. It is as if these stories and lessons are here to inform and guide our direction throughout the process.
A Broken Stepping Stone
Sometime in 2001, I got a wild hair and decided to cast a concrete stepping stone. This was before there was much discussion on the subject of 'artisan concrete', and before Al Gore had made the internet a thing. There wasn't much out there to pull from, but I had an idea, and that was enough.
I pushed all the rubbish in my basement to one side, and embarked on a journ
ey that would inform my professional career for many years to come. I rounded up scraps of foam and wood that were laying around, picked up some wooden letters from the craft store, got a bag of 'post hole concrete', and set out on my journey.
I was overcome with excitement. I cast the stone late at night, following none of the best practices for concrete. I woke up early the next day and began to pace. I may have lasted until noon, but that could be a revisionist history of the matter. I headed back the basement and began to pry away the form, like a kid on Christmas, with no regard for anything. I broke my stepping stone into pieces in the process, which did not do anything to dampen my mood. What I got was a broken piece of concrete that would prove to charge my imagination and set my course for years to come.
I carefully set this broken stepping stone in my front yard. This was met with a chorus from my roommates "why is there a broken piece of concrete in our front yard?" All I heard was "That's amazing!". In the midst of the rubble, you could barely make out the word "Namaste", in the days before there was a Yoga studio on every corner of my small town. It was an invitation to all who entered my house- Life is amazing! And so the journey began.
Informing the Journey
What could a broken stepping stone have to do with someone concerned with making a concrete countertop? Is this a lesson about not using too much water in concrete? A lesson about the importance of using fiber reinforcement? Is this just about learning to be patient? Yes... Well, not really... Kind of. The fact is, the lessons I learned about making objects of concrete, from this seemingly insignificant stepping stone that I broke to pieces, have been present throughout all of the projects I have created since. Here are some of my takeaways, neatly distilled for you.
It all begins with an attitude and an ambition. I set out to make something with no real expectation in mind, I was heading out on an adventure. I didn't start this adventure terribly concerned with the final outcome, only with an excitement of the possibilities . All of the most rewarding projects I have encountered since have started on this same footing.
Failure is not an accident, but it is a necessity. Concrete can whoop you in so many different ways, there is no real sense in trying to avoid them all. If you are new to the medium there is no way to know all of the potential pitfalls before you start, so don't try and get it all right before you get your hands dirty. The initial failures serve to provide a foundation to begin experiencing success, and the sooner you fail the closer you are to experiencing success. These failures inform the process better than anything else can. As professionals in the trade, much of the work that is done is designed as failure management and mitigation.
What you think is what matters. I really didn't care what anyone else thought of the thing I had made. I get lots of calls with people asking "is this the way it's supposed to be?". I don't know, what do you think? There you go. Creating from what other people think is important is a dangerous thing. Instinct is an important tool to have when the concrete is wet, and it is hard to have instincts when you are overly concerned with what others will think. This idea is reminiscent of Michelangelo's hand full of dust.
Beware of the paradoxes. If you think you can sell something to someone (selling your spouse on how cool their counters are counts in this statement) that is broken or crap, you will be wrong. Building for yourself is important during the process, but a broken stepping stone is seen by others as a broken piece of concrete. They don't see, or necessarily care about your process. This is the first of many paradoxes with concrete, be prepared to stay flexible in your understanding and approach. Right at the moment you think you know what you are doing, prepare yourself for an awakening.
Questions are more important than answers. For all the answers there are on the interwebs, they amount to nothing if you don't begin with good questions. My first question was "Can I make this thing, and will it be awesome?" (Yes and yes, by the way). The experience provided me with more questions that helped me as I moved to the next adventure. The most important question that I learned to ask as a result of this project- "If I do 'x', what will happen?" A hard matter to appreciate about creating concrete is the fact that everything you think, do or say affects every other part of the process and outcome. Every answer, or choice, produces a ripple effect through the remainder of the project. Learning how to ask questions, while not letting uncertainty cripple you to the point you stall, is the balance that only experience can provide.
Experience matters. The most valuable thing I got from this process was experience. I could have thought about concrete, read about concrete, theorized about concrete, and so on. I could have done that for years and not been as far along as I was after a weekend of making a broken stepping stone. Get out there and make something, more often than not the process is more important than the outcome.
Have fun. This process has the power to allow you to feel "the rapture of being alive". Don't miss your chance to experience that, it is worth the cost.
The Fine Point
I don't get paid just to sit around and talk about theories involving mythology (which I am most certainly not qualified to speak about). We sell the products to help you create your awesome project, and I make my living from helping to sell those materials. What I am about to say next may feel to me like a shameless plug if I didn't believe in the materials we sell, but I do believe in them and here is why.
I often get the question "What makes your materials better than the products of another company?"
Here is the answer as I see it. Our company is a collection of artisans and professionals who have made their living crafting objects out of concrete for a long time before they became part of our team. We have been out there running into problems, and solving them in time to run into new problems, collectively for many many decades. We are intimately familiar with the problems that arise when creating objects from concrete. We have built this business from the lessons we have learned in that journey. We have gone out and made our broken stepping stones, we have boiled that experience down, and made a collection of materials so that your stepping stone wont break. Our main ambition is to provide materials and services that are designed to help you succeed, whether you are a DIYer on their first project like Storefrontlife was, or you are a professional concrete artisan that is serious about the craft like many of our clients are. Our collective experience, and how that is distilled into our materials is what sets us apart