The best advice to becoming a better artisan is always to work hard at your art and to never stop learning. Realistically though, the path is much more complex than that, and often it involves a very necessary period of reflection and self-evaluation.
Frequently, you need to take a step away and make sure that you are still doing your art for the right reasons. In the SCA, this is summed up in a phrase often quoted to new apprentices - “do what you love”. That is, indeed, the crux of it, but taking a look well beyond that is crucial. You really do need to pursue your art because it brings you joy. Yes, projects can be frustrating, and often you need to step away and do something else for a bit, but if the work becomes an anxiety filled chore, it is up to you (and you alone) to figure out why that is. More often than not, it comes down to doing things for the wrong reasons (because you are constantly doing favors for others, or because you are stuck in a research or artistic rut, or because you are doing things you do not really love because you think they will get you some form of recognition, rather than doing them because it is your calling). Explore the reasons and take steps to resolve it, even if that means working harder, choosing to step away, or choosing to change your approach.
We, as artisans, also need to practice better self-assessment. It is very important to look at our own work with a critical eye. What could have been done better? What would you do to improve next time? If the piece wins a competition, by all means, enjoy the moment and add it to your resume, but you should still look at your work to see where it could be improved were you to do it again. There is always room for improvement.
We also need to really decide what outlets we truly want/need for our art. If, for example, your art is costuming, you can absolutely craft pretty garments that you (or others) will wear with pride. Ideally, no one would ever give more than a passing comment about how much they like it. You may never do more than make pretty things and wear them and feel beyond content with that. THAT IS OK. You do not have to display, you do not have to teach, and you most certainly do not have to compete. Not every fighter who takes the field at Pennsic is working to become a Knight, nor is he fighting a tourney to try to win Crown. The SCA is a very large organization with room for many playing styles and we can all find our niche within the Society.
If you are trying to progress in your art (or if you are interesting in becoming an apprentice), you will eventually need to display your items publicly in some manner (whether it is competitions, open displays, in roundtables or the classroom), and there needs to be an understanding that when you choose to do that, that you are absolutely asking for feedback on the art. You are not putting it out there to get comments on how pretty it is (though you will get those as well), but rather you are putting it out there so that you can both share (teach) and learn (from critique). This is not for everyone, and honestly, it is much more difficult for some individuals to put their work out there than others. If you do, however, want to grow your art, you really are dependent on the feedback and suggestions of others to achieve that. Keep in mind most of all that this is actually a very large part of the “never stop learning” advice I first mentioned in this article.
When you do put it on display, and receive advice, it is key to keep an open mind about what you hear. Remember that someone is taking time away from their own art to speak with you. Why would they do that? It is almost always because they like some facet of your work and want to assist you in doing it better next time.
A friend of mine, Mistress Ragnveig Snorradóttir of Atlantia, listed the following items to keep in mind when receiving feedback:
- Don't panic.
- You're not marrying this person, so you can choose to take their advice or not.
- They showed up today believing they could help you.
- Step back. Do they have a point?
Artisans love to help other artisans. In fact, the Order of the Laurel exists in part to facilitate that very thing! Remembering that when listening (or reading) the commentary can help to shed a much better light on the words that are given. Was it suggested that you need to improve documentation? That is less likely to mean that your documentation is horrible, than it is that you just need to put work into improving that area. Perhaps you should organize it better so that they can find the information they need about the item. Maybe it means that your research could be more deep and you are ready to think about more complex aspects of your art. Maybe it means that they love what you are doing and that they want to see more in-progress photos so that they can learn more about how you did it (perhaps even because they want to try it too). It could mean a million things, and every one of those are more likely than it meaning “your documentation sucks”.
Engage in a conversation with the judge or commenter if you can, ask them for the things they would like to see improved and work towards those goals. (And remember that not everyone is eloquent, or even articulate, and take that into account when possible, when trying to find the value in their advice. They likely mean well, but things might not be translating properly. Take a step back and view the conversation with a fresh heart and the idea that that person is, indeed, trying to help you.)
Remember also that even the best mentor out there might occasionally give poor advice, or they might be referencing older research, or they might just be wrong about something. As mentioned before, you can absolutely choose not to take that advice, but make sure that it is not a knee-jerk reaction on your own part. It is always ok to ask for resources or clarification. Likewise, it is ok to offer your own resources and clarification, but do so with grace. It is also perfectly ok, at the end of the day, to thank the person for their comments and just move on.
Finally, remember that art takes time. Being a fabulous artisan takes an exceptional amount of time. Again, one needs to take time to reflect on what realistically your goals are, and what should they be. Can you actually fit those into your life? I forever see comments from people that they do not have time to invest in hand sewing, or they might like to paint, but do not want to spend time researching period materials, or that they do not want to write a dissertation as documentation. I think many woes in the SCA A&S community are easily resolved by looking at things in a very practical, and personal, manner. If you want to become a master at your art (and possibly receive some formal recognition of that), you need to put the time in there to work towards that. To use a comparison, if a fighter wants to be King, or if he/she desires to get Knighted, then he/she is going to weekly practices and he/she travels to other areas to learn techniques taught there. He/she works at home practicing and he/she is growing his skill daily over a period of many years (or decades) and learning from others each step of the way how to improve his/her skill set and how to be better on the field. He/she starts to teach others, and even learns from them as he/she is doing so. The journey of an artisan is not so different from that.
Yes, this might involve rearranging priorities in your life. It might mean giving up TV shows in favor of practicing calligraphy. It might mean tabling some ideas until the kids start school and you have more free time. It might mean focusing on one art, rather than five different ones. You can still love your art and work on it, and it is ok to accept that the road might just be a bit longer because of the bumps along the way. It might even mean that you can't travel this path at this time at all (just like a fighter working 2 jobs might not make it to enough practices to make vast improvements). Remember that those who have A&S awards, just like those fighters who display acts of prowess that win tournaments, have made similar choices. They really do understand “life”, but they also know what it takes to excel at something and that they are actually there to assist you in your own journey as an artisan.