“Divide each problem
into as many parts as possible;
that each part being more easily conceived,
the whole may be more intelligible.”
~ René Descartes, Discourse on Method
I’ve never been able to write much at home. Writing typically kicks me out of my place. Going out to write surely doesn’t reflect any insufficiency of the home desk or front stoop. Choosing to go someplace especially for the purpose of writing is choosing away from distractions and demands. There is only one thing to do, and that is to make note of the journey. The distance from mind to page becomes more proximate with travel- even a walk across town. Perhaps it’s in the change of venue. Pursuing contemplative and reflective processes draws my steps away from bills, chores, demands, and other such moorings.
Getting out prompts adaptation and awakens the senses. This time, having a rare morning off, these words are joined together in a busy coffeehouse. The servers in this place are creating their offerings with a mix of cheer and methodical authority. It reminds me of how I talk shop with fellow visual artists and writers about projects and tools. Process deserves its due, as those foundational procedures are what allow us to venture forth in our own creative ways. By knowing how a result is reached, the various processes in our midst can be seen to connect and relate. My questions for the café workers are similar to those for my friends who are mechanics, repairers, cobblers, and cooks: with the “new eyes” that admire unfamiliar methodology that inspires crafts familiar to my instincts.
Learning more about creative processes leads to a more conscious appreciation for the disciplines that help make things happen. My life in photography- which began as I taught myself at 15- was steeped in scrupulous applications of calibrated processes. Starting out with cribbing from Morgan & Morgan’s Photo Lab Index with a memo pad in the aisles of B. Dalton’s bookstore on 5th Avenue, and learning more through art college, I so hungered to be fluent in the profession that I followed all the steps and processes I could find and use. By the time I reached the heart of my 14 years in custom photographic lab work, I bought my own copy of Morgan & Morgan, adding in my old notes into the thick tome of formulas, specifications, and logarithmic film charts (classed by manufacturer, beginning with Agfa). With a beam balance, I made my own developers and paper emulsions. Accomplishing all those techniques permitted me to teach them and to be able to look at those arcane photo methods in perspective. There are measured aspects: temperature, quantity, time intervals, and chemical agitation. Parallel to these are human aspects: assessing density, contrast, and color. No instrument can replace a cultivated human eye. A third factor is a consistent and respectful use of the equipment- from optical glass, to densitometers, to gently winding color filters back to zero before making any printing changes. With such command, the ground can be flown away from, the lifting off limited only by creative energy. Somehow, that photo-instinct which I applied every day for years and years manifested in my approaches to cooking, baking, calligraphy, and bookbinding. Reverence for method and practice is followed by the twinning of imagination and intuition.
Setting down the writing materials- with care, of course- I asked the coffeehouse staff about procedure. Comparing notes, there is indeed a specialized methodology to what they create for their discerning audience. After all, Arabica Coffee Company is Portland’s finest and has been for many years. In the sequence of photos (below) Salli barista par excellence graciously described the steps that bring those famous cappuccinos into being:
After the coffee cup has been heated with boiling-hot water,
milk is poured into a beaker to be steamed,
anticipating the finishing steps.
A special blend of espresso beans is finely ground,
and evenly loaded into a measure.
The process of tamping the ground coffee is called dosing.
The coffee is brewed under hundreds of pounds of pressure.
As the fresh coffee is brewed, the beaker
of steamed Maine milk awaits!
Pouring the steamed milk into the thick brewed coffee
is skillfully done here by Salli. The result below, known
as a rosette, resembles a forest fern.
As she set the finished cappuccino down on the counter,
Salli sidearmed a little spoon into the saucer. She said the final drop
of the spoon into its place "is like signing the artwork."
By the end of this quick photo session, a rush of customers diverted us all back to our routines. A few good side-conversations evolved. A fellow calligrapher asked about this essay and the pictures. Mentioning my appreciation for creative disciplines, she offered her opinion that “there isn’t enough discipline in this culture.” Another good friend pulled up a chair and noticed my typewriter and journal. He owns an art gallery, and added his observations about creative processes. As much as there are frameworks to comprehend, we have the serendipity of side conversations to savor.
Processes that may appear unrelated actually do intersect with an individual’s sense of perspective. It is for us to make those connections, beginning by noticing them. Preparing and sizing my materials when conserving a book is the same as my mother’s way of cutting fabric. Writing reports at work has my father’s unambiguous and persuasive language. My best example of craftsmanship as a photographer was learned across town in etching classes taught by a Tamarind Institute lithographer. This instructor had a refreshing willingness to rework her printed images; it was not the discouraging purism I saw in the college photo department. During my high school senior year, I got to meet the great typographer and graphic designer Ismar David. He took me to his drafting table and showed me his sketches for a stone memorial he was designing. I looked wide-eyed around the studio filled with tools, spring-armed lamps, and drawings tacked to the walls, listening to the artist talk about how he wanted visitors to the memorial to understand what they’d see. Mr. David shuffled through a sheaf of pencil schematics on tracing paper that animated all the angles. A three-dimensional design. I remember this as if it happened last week, and these glimpses affirm the role of procedure on a long journey of undetermined structure. Process helps establish foundation. By understanding how something works, we can make things work in our creative pursuits. And as process recedes into second nature, intuition and openness to spirit become procedure.