Just between the two of us, I have a confession to make. When I make art, I like mess. Mess is joyful. Come on. Admit it. You like mess too, don’t you? You can tell me. Confess to your love of mess!
I don’t mean the mess that arises from utter chaos. I mean the mess you get when you are up to your elbows in making your art and you just aren’t too particular where everything falls. When I describe my mess, I think it’s important to realise that any mess that just destroys my materials, tools, clothing or the studio is not the mess that makes me happy. I prefer the kind of mess where everything is close to hand, but you know exactly where everything is and can reach for it without looking. The mess removes the need to guess.
There is something very satisfying about a lived-in desk or a studio that looks like real work takes place there. I despair at architectural depictions of artists’ residences and workspaces, where everything is white and there is nothing on the walls. You can’t see a single paint brush or sculpting chisel. There are no splash marks, no half removed stains and no evidence of human habitation, let alone the presence of an immersed artist, working in full flow. The architect’s sterile model of the ideal artists’ work place looks more like a species of morgue, to me. It’s a dead place. If it’s not messed, I get depressed.
If the pile of papers, books and CDs isn’t teetering precariously, if the cables are not a rats nest of peril, if the guitars are not stacked up against the amps at different angles (though no angle that would cause harm or injury to a guitar), then it feels like I can’t work there. It isn’t homely enough. I can’t find comfort and settle into my task. I’m too distracted by the absence of stimulating tools and materials. In fact, a studio that doesn’t have a certain amount of mess looks like nobody has ever worked there. It’s quite uninspiring to have a working environment that is devoid of instant stimulations for the imagination. You have to say yes to an excess of mess.
Maybe that’s why I hate those homogenous, identical, grey or beige office cubes that seem to be all the rage in corporate life. Maybe that’s why I hate open plan offices with a clear desk policy. What is there to keep your mind active? Where are the splashes of colour to inspire you? Everybody needs weird little desk toys and gadgets to occupy the hands, while the mind wanders into new innovations. How anybody does creative work in a cubicle that most resembles a hospital insane ward, or prison cell, escapes me entirely. There should be no redress for those that eschew mess.
As a child, one of my favourite memories was being in the workshop with my dad, who made furniture. I would be ankle deep in fresh wood shavings that were coming from his perfectly honed jack plane. The sound, feel and smell of them overwhelmed the senses. There’s nothing quite like it. In our makeshift wood shop, there was also the smell of the sawdust coming from the table saw. It was all lovely and messy. Sweeping up was half the fun. It was my chance to impress, while cleaning up the mess.
Few things are as much fun as a drawer full of random resistors, or capacitors, or those itty bitty little transistors and diodes. When I am building electronic circuits, I love to have all my tools close to hand and pick-uppable without having to take the soldering iron off the joint I am soldering, or without having to move the multimeter or scope probe. Building a circuit, especially a prototype on veroboard, takes intense concentration. The last thing you want is to have to break that concentration to find a tool, or to put one away. Your bench needs to be all set for the epic and you need to work from start to finish, without leaving your position. Distractions ingress, unless you have your own particular mess.
One of my favourite things, when I was small, was to be given the task of finding a particular nut or bolt in an old ice cream tin full of spare or discarded nuts and bolts. I eventually knew every piece by heart and could find anything I was asked to find, but to everyone else it just looked like a pile of scrap metal junk. Having that special knowledge was a thrill all of its own. All of those silly little metal pieces became like my toys and I knew them all by sight and feel. I had a similar obsession with Lego bricks and Matchbox cars. It was nice to caress my favourite mess.
I love the continuity of mess, if you are in the middle of a long project and have to come back to it. Finding everything where you left it is important, to let you remain immersed in the task and to help you pick up where you left off. That said, I like to start with a clean work space at the beginning of the project. Then I can throw my stuff around, but to places I can memorise. I also think it’s the height of rudeness not to clean up your work space, when the project is complete. It’s a reset that lets you clear your mind of the old project and prepare for the new, for one thing, but more importantly it lets other people that share your space have a go at their projects, without having to deal with your “filing” system. Nobody wants to deal with mess under duress.
Leaving your mess behind is decidedly anti-social. I often reflect on now dead politicians that were once so certain of the rectitude of their beliefs that they changed the institutions and laws to reflect their ideas, and then moved on, leaving their mess behind for others. We often cannot expunge the mess they caused for generations after they leave office. It would have been better had those sorts of politicians stayed home and messed around with paint or clay, instead of ruining the environment or causing the lives of others to become infested with their mess. That sort of mess is just a stress.
Messing is a blessing, but leaving a mess is a terrible thing to do. You should experience the joy of mess daily, but clean up after you do. Tomorrow’s mess will be even more fun than today’s, if you’re messing correctly.
Express your art through your mess.