Cut away to find space

I squinted to peer through the gap between the locked doors of the gallery for a glimpse of the serene, apse-like space that held my senior thesis art exhibition two decades earlier.

Although now empty, the grey, windowless room seemed to impossibly glow from within, lit by the sunlight piercing the oculus in the ceiling. It was a cathartic moment after an emotional yet celebratory memorial service for David Schorr, my college senior thesis advisor.

The remnants of the knotted ball of nerves I felt during my final crit with him still faintly twisted in the pit of my stomach. David was a printmaker, painter, illustrator, and graphic designer, but also a passionate lover of words— just the right words chosen for maximum emotional, or often comic, effect.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

At first the words stung. But, then they settled and started to make sense. Although my installation had the trappings of fine art with drawings, sculpture, and even a tree suspended over a rectangle of grass, the best part of it was the process and purpose behind it — how I rallied a team of local craftsmen and generous friends to help me make an installation of objects that told my story. In that simple yet profound observation, he both cut away who I was trying to be but wasn’t and found space for a future that could leverage my true talents.

“You are not an artist,” he said that day, followed by a dramatic pause. “You are a designer.”

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

One of the hardest things to teach a budding, young soccer player is to run away from the ball when your teammate has it. Invariably they run toward the ball like iron filings drawn to a magnet. It seems counter intuitive. Don’t you want to run toward the action to add your two feet to the mix?

No, you want to cut away from the other players to find space, then open up to receive the ball. Only then can you deploy your best foot skills to drive the ball toward the goal. And there lies much of the beauty in the game.

“Find space!” are the two words you are guaranteed to hear from my husband as he stands at the sidelines of our son’s soccer games. The next two are “Open up!”

My senior thesis project also involved literally cutting away to find space.

The most important elements of the installation were three large drawings suspended from the ceiling. To make them I adopted a drawing technique in which I held the eraser in my left hand and the charcoal in my right. I would draw and erase, erase and draw, until ghostly forms emerged from the background. A light gray shading lingered on the edges of the erased spaces, giving the forms both depth and a vibrating energy that was much more interesting than if I drew them directly.

I’ve found that cutting away to find space is a useful technique for creative thinking overall.

For me, a long walk in the wide expanse of nature results in more aha moments than a shower. But the same principle applies — absorb lots of information, then cut it from your conscious mind as you silently process it in the background. Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

When I’m helping my team evaluate ideas, I sit huddled with them holding a small pad of paper and a pen. I look at all of the comps, hear all of the explanations, and consider all of the cool innovations and clever extensions. But I only write down a keyword or phrase that sums up the core of the idea, stripping away the usually very well thought out, but at best supportive and at worst extraneous detail.

Inevitably, when you are least thinking about the problem you are trying to solve, your mind is most receptive to finding the answer.

After we cut away to expose the true essence of the idea, the team and I then evaluate it and, if it has promise, open our minds to find its possibilities and build it up again, bringing back some of those great supporting ideas and adding more.

As a kid, the farthest I got in soccer was the first grade town team. I was always lost in the pack, usually behind the ball, chasing it fruitlessly. I wish my coach taught me to cut away from the crowd, find space, and open up so I could unlock the beauty of the game.

But as I peered through the sliver between the doors, blinking from the bright sunlight, I felt tremendous gratitude for the lesson I learned from David. While standing together beneath the oculus in the same luminous room he encouraged me to cut away what wasn’t truly me and find my space in the wide open field of design.

I’m still working on it, David. But I’ve never looked back.


David Schorr, professor of art at Wesleyan University, died on June 16, 2018 at the age of 71.

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