“..when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.” – Barbara Bloom
In my “other life” as a brand strategist and storyteller, I never cease to marvel at what I learn from my clients. Their creative and business inspiration span the four corners of the globe; lucky for me, those corners sometimes intersect.
Like the day I first learned about the ceramic art form kintsugi, which is reported to have originated in Japan
Kintsugi is the art of repairing pottery with lacquer and precious metals. This restorative practice is designed to embellish the object, in some cases making it even more beautiful than it was before the breakage occurred.
In this latter element, kintsugi is so much more than a mere practice. It’s a philosophy that, according to Wikipedia, at least, “treats the breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.”* Some translations of the term kintsugi even come out to “golden journey”—pointing to how it’s not just a object, but a story of experience that’s memorialized.
I used to cover up mistakes in my art. Now I embrace them as part of the story.
Several of my clients have mentioned kintsugi as their inspiration for becoming more vulnerable in their business—sharing their struggles and battle scars, even wearing them proudly, as a part of what makes their work rich, expert and beautiful.
As Brene Brown has pointed out, such vulnerability is what allows us to be truly intimate and communicate meaningfully. But like the Eastern philosophy behind it, the vulnerability, even honesty, inherent in kintsugi may sound foreign to many Western ears.
Whereas kintsugi-repaired pottery shows off with gold, silver and even platinum the crack that once marred its surface, a “good” Western repair job will make the crack as minimal as possible—resorting whenever possible to optical illusions that encourage the viewer to forget the crack, or not even notice it in the first place.
As with art, so with business.
While my clients and I put kintsugi to work as a metaphor in their branding, I got to thinking about what this means for my own creative practice. Because let’s face it: mistakes happen.
If your creative work is like mine, on a daily basis you are confronted with decisions about whether to “fix” an unintended result of your normal creative actions. For me, it is often an Alethia Grey panel or page that turns out differently from what I expected. Other times it’s an unforeseen pucker of fabric or mis-sized patchwork piece in Project M, my quilted steampunk novel that releases later this fall.
In these instances, I find myself torn between two alternatives: “fixing” the mistake, while losing both time and momentum on the project, or “leaving” the mistake in and continuing on as scheduled, a bit wiser and more strategic the next time I approach that same task.
More often than not I choose the latter approach.
Yet I’ve always felt quite guilty about it—especially when the internet bursts with memes from famous writers about pursuing excellence in every detail.
In the West, excellence seems so often to be equated with flawlessness. We want the finished product, not the mess of the journey it took to become something beautiful. Why not feel guilty when you deliver a product with its full story gleaming through?
Because of kintsugi. That’s why.
If brokenness—or perceived “lack of flawlessness”—can be celebrated in one art, why not in another? Is it not possible for me to own and accept irregularities in my art that arise not from carelessness, but from the learning process that naturally accompanies experimentation?
Perhaps kintsugi become more precious when you’re working with experimental art, as I now am. I never used to own the term “experimental” (or its companion “improvisational), but lately I’ve begun to make friends with them.
The level of precariousness—of possibility for breakage— that comes with such endeavors, however, still seems uncomfortable.
Yet kintsugi provides a way to deal even with this discomfort.
When your work is experimental, you are never a master of anything. You are always a student, always an explorer, always starting from ground zero. “Mistakes” (or “breakages” or “irregular outcomes,” if you will) are more likely and more frequent because there is no blueprint for the work you are doing.
It’s as if you’re carrying delicate china with greasy fingers as you dance, knowing that any moment you’re liable to drop and shatter one of them, if not all.
In such a landscape, unintended outcomes (ie: “mistakes”) are inevitable. They are a necessary function of the journey. A part of the story of discovering what the “thing” you are making really is.
They also require more of the viewer and the maker than a traditional piece of art.
After all, how easy is it to approach a piece of experimental art—or anything different from what you’re used to seeing—and struggle to understand it? The additional brainpower necessary doesn’t always seem worth the effort, especially because you must understand far more about creative intent and apply a more critical eye to identify the details woven together.
To a traditional mass-market perspective, such added work is anathema. Irregularities are a sure sign of death. Whereas, to the experimental artist and the kintsugi master, they are a sign of life.
Kintsugi, then, is perhaps less for decorative objects and more for rigorous ones—meant to be known and loved in the process of messy usefulness as much in the final beautiful product.
All of which suggests to me that those little irregularities—the “cracks” in my comic panels and fabric pieces—are worth keeping, if only as a testament to the journey of learning and growth that unfolded as they did.
Of course, to all this questions naturally arise. What about editing? What about striving for excellence? What’s the true difference between a flaw and a features? When does celebrating the irregular become little more than a license to be sloppy?
I cannot answer these questions for you. I am still answering it for myself.
So far, the best understanding I’ve come to is that kintsugi, in my work, is a way to understand and celebrate growth. It’s reserved for the irregularities that result in spite of careful planning and patient execution—not from mere haste or sloppiness.
For myself, I believe that honesty to the process requires I celebrate the process of my learning curve, even flaunt it, rather than hide it in shame behind my attempts at perfection.
When Alethia Grey comes out in digital and print forms, a few page designs will look slightly different from the others. When Project M releases, here and there you’ll see a pucker, or an irregular-sized design that doesn’t flawlessly fit the mold.
I hope you’ll smile with me when you see this, and remember that I choose a kintsugi approach to art.
Given the choice between glue or lacquer, I’ll choose the lacquer every time.
It’s a journey flecked and decked with gold.