By Julia Rai
We all like to feel safe and secure, especially in these uncertain times; that’s human nature. Spotting hazards, listening to warnings, and keeping our family protected is our prime concern. We generally avoid taking risks and we look out for danger signs to keep us safe when we’re out and about. Essentially, as human beings we’re pre-programmed to look at the world from inside our comfort zone, the place we feel safest and most in control of our environment.
As artists, we also naturally like to stay within our scope of experience. We know what we do well, what we enjoy making, the techniques we like to use and what provides a consistent result for the things we make. It gives us a good feeling about our skills when we produce something right first time. Many people stay there, create things they are happy with and love what they do, there’s nothing wrong with that.
However, for a moment, ask yourself, why am I an artist, a maker, a jeweller or sculptor or a creator of things? Maybe you sell your work, so you see yourself as a maker of a specific style or genre that satisfies your customer base. Perhaps you are a teacher, so you mainly create work that will be a good project for students or forms the basis of a new class. Or possibly you make things for your own happiness just because you love to be creative. All great reasons to keep on doing what you’re doing! Life is short, time is precious and staying within your own lane is easy and satisfying. You are in your comfort zone and you’re happy there, leave me alone!
But what about personal growth, listening to new ideas, developing your skills, moving forward, seeing things from a different perspective, branching out? Or just not getting bored! When we try something new, it can be nerve-racking because it pushes us out of our comfort zone. Suddenly everything we thought we knew goes out the window and we become beginners again. That can be extremely uncomfortable but if you think about anything in your life that you’ve had to learn and master, you know that’s the price of individual growth and development.
As a teacher of metal clay, I often see people come to a class and expect to make something faultless straight away. Perfectionists are the toughest students to teach because they are so hard on themselves if they don’t master that new technique immediately. They are outside their comfort zone and that can cause a stress reaction in some people, a feeling that things are out of control.
It’s especially common in confident beginner or intermediate level metal clay students. They’ve just established a competence level with the material and see their comfort zone as a blanket that keeps them feeling secure. Now it seems like they are back at the beginning again and they don’t like it! My job as a teacher is to help them relax and see that it’s OK to let go of the notion that failure is wrong and their only goal is perfection.
Let’s talk about failure for a moment. From an early age we often see failure as being naughty or bad. We’re encouraged by every adult around us to succeed, that’s what makes the grownups happy and we like to hear their praise so that’s what we strive for. But we only master feeding ourselves, potty training, standing up, walking, speaking – all the skills we learn growing up – by failing.
If you’ve ever watched a six-month-old trying to use a spoon, you’ll know what I mean. Most of it ends up all over their face, in their hair, down their clothes, on the floor, splattered on their carer, or dropped on the cat! But some goes in their mouth and that helps them to master how to do it. It’s the same with anything we learn. We have to fail, often multiple times, to learn how to make it work.
At AMCAW, one of our primary goals is to help everyone who works with metal clay increase their skills, experience, competence, and confidence with the material we love. We provide opportunities for our members to create work with specific parameters to develop their creativity and design skills and push the boundaries of their imagination.
The big challenges we run twice a year have themes that allow people to really think about what their work says to the viewer. Making quality work using all the skills and techniques you feel confident with is great, but what’s the story behind your creation? Working to a theme allows you to explore a narrative, research a subject area and then interpret that in a way that has meaning to you. And that approach is the basis for a body of work, a collection or even the beginnings of a personal brand.
The new Bits and Pieces Challenge that runs monthly on Facebook gives people an opportunity to explore new approaches and have some fun with things that they might not normally try. There are no big prizes, but having to think about how to creatively incorporate five elements into a piece with a theme eases you outside your comfort zone in a relaxed, fun way.
Metal clay is a medium that allows us to experiment and play right up to the point before it’s fired. If what we’re playing with doesn’t quite work, we can rehydrate the clay and start again. This quality frees us up to explore ideas and experiment in a very real way without worrying about wasting the material. It’s one of the key things that has allowed me to develop my skills since I first discovered metal clay in 2004, and was vital when I was participating in the Master’s Registry programme between 2008 and 2019.
Creating 50 projects with very specific parameters pushed me so far outside my comfort zone, I needed a map to get back! I laughed, cried and oh boy, did I use bad words – a lot! – during those years. I had to learn things I never would have bothered to learn if I hadn’t had the motivation of the Registry projects to complete. And I was determined to complete and pass all 50 projects! Everything I learned made me a better artist and teacher, even things I would probably never do again.
All experience is useful, even if it’s just to show you what you don’t like or would never repeat. I’m grateful for the experience of participating in the Master’s Registry because it’s allowed me to progress in a medium that’s become a huge part of my life. I’m still learning, that’s what makes metal clay endlessly fascinating to me. When things go wrong now, I embrace it as an opportunity to learn something new, even if it does produce some colourful cuss words in the studio!
The Registry closed in 2019 but AMCAW is providing opportunities for metal clay artists to stretch themselves and take baby steps outside their comfort zone within a supportive community. We’ll continue to challenge our members and introduce new things to help you explore the discomfort zone, just for a little while, and grow as an individual.
And we’ll always be here to celebrate your failures because we know that they are helping you to learn in the most effective way possible. We’ve got your back, and we’ll guide you to a new, more fulfilling comfort zone every step of the way.
Julia Rai has been an active member of the international metal clay community for many years. From 2008 until 2019 she completed all 50 projects for the metal clay Master’s Registry, becoming the only person in the world to achieve Registry Level 5. The program closed in June 2019 and Julia is very thankful for what she learned by pushing herself outside her comfort zone for over ten years!