Several years ago I endeavored at the side of some dear friends to make 120 feet of pork sausage. It would take a bit too much exposition to describe the event for which this sausage was necessary, but suffice it to say it involved delusions of grandeur and a gathering of 120 individuals expecting to be fed the next day. The leader of this operation was a geologist with equal expertise as a chef and a commanding vision for food. The rest of us carried out the roles of meat trimmer, meat grinder, spice measurer and casing manager under his guidance. Together, we were a fine-working machine with meat dancing between us, transforming into fine Italian sausage. Conventional wisdom informs us that sausage making is anything but pretty, but I insist on disagreeing. We were a gorgeous bunch, coursing with brotherly love, capability and inspiration. We met our frustrations and setbacks with robust verve. When one grinder suffered a malfunction early in the game and we quickly retooled a KitchenAid as a replacement. After three hours of sausage making we had a brief but intense meeting on quantity and decided to play it safe and make a meat-run for forty more pounds.
Our performance was admirable and yet, that much meat in one space, left to novice cooks creates a chaotic tableau that would induce a sweated brow on even the most foolhardy of chefs. Just as we were hitting full stride at about hour six, our chef called for us to stop. We were in the groove and it was hard to comprehend what he was asking. He demanded that we come to a complete halt and clean the entire operation before going any farther. Every part of the sausage maker and grinder needed to be cleaned, as were all the utensils in our employ. The unprocessed meat was tidied, the finished product was neatly stored and the surfaces were wiped down thoroughly. Only after the whole operation had been reset could we begin again.
In the frantic moment I carried out the restart, trusting in the wisdom of our chef and giving little critical thought of why. I assumed that it was a simple practical fear of poisoning our guests that required us to cleanse the kitchen of gathering bacteria. While this indeed, was the primary reason, the act of shutting down productivity at its height to clean and reset has an effect separate to simple sanitation. It regrouped our thoughts on the process as a whole and opened our perspective back to the grander goal. On the ground level we were making sausage and trying to do so with quality and efficiency. However, the sausage was only a prop to accomplish something daunting, to learn about each other and feel that priceless kinship, and yes to provide something a little astonishing to our guests. I’ve found myself thinking of this moment in the subsequent years as an example to follow in matter’s unrelated to cooking. It has been particularly relevant in the artist’s studio.
In the studio it is all too easy to lose sight of the goal of a painting I’ve set out towards. In fact, I’ve come to expect that my original goal in a painting is only a way of stumbling upon something new and interesting. Still, there can be painful frustration as I plod along trying to perfect a peculiar little facet, getting lost in the details. Or else, a spastic accomplishment will snowball out of bounds and I will be giddy at its result. In these moments I’ve come to remember the sausage and shut the operation down, swab the decks and restart. If timed correctly, this can save a painting, or bring it to greater heights.
The practice of scraping down a painting has been a tactic that shares a similar principle as the sausage shut-down. Often after painting for a long spell, at the point when the surface of the canvas is quite wet with paint, I take my palette knife and scrape the entire surface. This only removes the surface body of the paint, leaving a stain in the texture of the support. The ghost of the image left behind is quite revealing. The edges of brush marks are unified by the blurring effect of the scrape and any fussiness or heaviness is leveled. It’s as though the surface marks are the ego of the painting that the knife humbles to reveal the image’s subconscious. It is fairly easy at this point to rebuild the painting upon those foundations. Like the advance of wave breaks, the succession of attempts and scrape downs narrows on a greater clarity for the painting.
It is not always the surface momentum that defines the success of an endeavor. The footage of sausage being produced or the impasto of the painted surface are easier to observe in the heat of creation, but a good deconstructive pause reveals the importance of the effort loping along invisibly.