Developing Artistic Vision

Serge Mercoufoff

I was never a very good art student. I would not have made a very good "A"rtist. The problem was that I was always far too practical.  I couldn't justify asking someone to spend money on my work when there was no practical benefit. You couldn't eat it.  It didn't provide shelter.  It wouldn't make you healthy. 

Some people might disagree with that last statement. They would say that art can provide meaning, clarity, or solace in an otherwise cold and confusing world. I agree with that. Art can be a very powerful thing. Just not the art that I was making.

My problem was always transitioning from craft to art. Craft is the study and use of the process. Art is the reason why. During class critiques I'd would hear things like, "This portrait represents mankind's struggle against alienation in a world where technology is ever present" or, "This is a still life of items left behind by my grandmother. She raised three children in a Japanese internment camp". I was just making things that I thought looked good.

I think that is why I've fallen so happily into the life of being a craftsman. You may not be able to seek shelter under something I've made, but at least you've got a place to keep your library card. The tricky part is that successful craftspeople don't just make things really well. They have a vision of why they are making what they make. 

Since starting my business and fully devoting myself to my craft I've discovered something really interesting. You don't start out with a vision. You end up with one. I'll be the first person to admit I didn't start out with a vision. I started because I was sick of waiting tables and working nights. It has been only recently that I have really been able to say what kind of work I make and why I make it. This is not a process that you can rush no matter how much energy you devote to it. It's kind of like growing up.  Below is my take on it.

The Steps of Creative Development:

Step One: The Baby Phase. When I started leather working (or anything really) everything was new and exciting. I knew very little about what I was looking at and it all seemed amazing. During this stage I kind of collected everything into my mental database and stored it all away. There is no curating or direction. It's all great. Like shiny car keys.

 Step Two: The "I want to be just like older brother" or the Aping Phase. This is when I started to have a little bit of discernment. I had found a few people who's work I really liked. Makr, Will Leather Goods, and Bexar Goods Co. were chief among them.  I spent a lot of time making really bad knock-offs. This is a normal and healthy thing. Most classically trained artists and craftspeople spend their early days producing stuff that looks like other people's work. The important part is that I saw this for what it was and knew that I had to make work that is my own. Don't sell your knock-offs!

Step Three: The Terrible Twos (or the Everything I Make Is Crap) Stage. Turns out you can't look at a Picasso and then sit down and paint like Picasso. No matter how much time I spent staring at the Makr website I couldn't make anything that looked as good. Stage Three is filled with a lot of nos. I started to learn what works for me with my methods of production. A style that works really well for Will Leather looks really bad when it comes from my hands. So I started to cut back on what I was trying to make and started making what I could make.

Step Four: The Snotty Teenager. So now I knew what I could do and I was starting to make work that looked like my own. Here is where I almost got caught up. I found a narrow space that I could occupy and thought,"okay, this is the kind of work I do."  This can be a really good place because for the first time I could tell what I didn't want to make. Designing got a little easier and I spent a lot of time dismissing other peoples work. "Ugh,  I don't like polyester thread", "look at how sloppy that stitching is", "that design really sucks." Now I'm not saying I'm above a little Schadenfreude from time to time, but at this point I didn't really have a right to talk. I was no longer producing work that sucked but I wasn't exactly Corter Leather either.

 Step Five: Moving Out of Mom's House. This is the stage I spent most of my time in (I still do spend a lot of time at this stage). Here is where I stopped worrying about what everyone else is doing. I don't see how I could have gotten to this stage without quitting my day job. When I had to start making a living, I stopped focusing on the outside world and really began to focus on the work I was producing. Instead of trying to find a new clever wallet design I was more focused on making sure I had enough product on hand for the show I was doing that weekend.

This sounds like the most boring phase, but I found that by keeping my nose to the wheel I began to really develop my vision.  When I would dye ten or twenty wallets in a row I found that there were some I liked more than others. I began trying to replicate those features on the next round of wallets. It's not always a conscious action either. There are a lot of little tricks that my hands have picked up on that my brain is not aware of. As a result I'm a lot faster now than when I started.

I also learned that I like the funkier leather. Vegetable tanned leather will show off all the scratches and weird blotches when I dye it. I started trying to bring that out more in my process. I like things that are unfussy and my design reflects that. I like things that look old, so I try to make things that will age beautifully.

I wouldn't have learned any of this with out grinding out the work that I have to do on a daily basis. It's a type knowledge that is gained in increments.

  Stage Six: The World Traveler. This is the stage I'm just starting to get into. I don't think anyone really gets to spend all of their time here. It seems like most people jump back and forth between 5 & 6. I couldn't have gotten to this stage without the confidence that was built up in the previous step. This is the stage where I'm confident enough in my vision to draw intelligent inspiration from around me and use it to create work that speaks with my own voice.

For example, here is an iPad case  I did over the holidays. The blue part was inspired by a Japanese textile pattern that represents waves. I include a journal with all of my cases in that hope that this will be something that you carry with you on the journey of your life. The waves speak of the journey. The contrasting color scheme inspiration came from a really old Louis Vuitton logo that was screened onto some of their bags. You can see how nonuniform the grain is which has been brought out by the dyeing process. I tried to create a contrast between the highlights and the darker areas of the leather. This reminds me of old photographs.

Why I'm doing what I'm doing not always a straight forward answer, but the spirit of my personal style is beginning to show. I'm very focused on gradient and tone on the leather's surface. I'm always referencing my love of personal history and my hope that someday my work will become part of it. I like things to be simple and unfussy. 

I'm not all the way there yet. I'm not really sure that this is something I can reach the end of anyway.  I have learned that they only way to get here is through consistent and thoughtful work. I first had to learn what I didn't want to make, how to make what I did, how to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, and then finally I could start to understand what I had to say.

If you would like to see where some of my inspiration comes from I've set up a Tumblr account where I keep a curated collection of things I find that visually inspire me. I also have a Pinterest account where I like to keep inspiration for projects I'm actively working on. If you are active on either platform please look me up as I'd like to see what inspires you.