What makes a series work?


What makes a series work? This is quite a long essay as I explore, as a kind of post-mortem for the Third Thoughts series, this question.

I was so fired up about Third Thoughts, but thirty-some small artworks later I have lost interest. Normally I would be happy with a series with more than 30 pieces, but these are quite small pieces AND I hoping to keep going until I had somewhere between 50-100 artworks. There are some great pieces among the Third Thoughts artwork. But when I was done, I was done. Why?

And what did I turn back to? The Boundary Waters series – still interested, still lots to say.

So what, for me, makes a series work?

Passion. I come to this passion in three ways.

Sometimes I am struck, almost in a physical sense, by a moment, a color, a movement, a sort of stop-time event that grips me and won’t let me go until I do something with it. Those are the glory moments of being an artist and so infrequent as to be a miracle and a blessing when they happen.

Sometimes the passion begins with a tiny idea (for example, maybe I should raise bees) and then I start reading and the next thing I know the whole topic is out of hand and ripe for a series. Although not blatantly apparent in my artwork, I am a very “think-y” artist (OK, person). I like to research a topic (some would say obsessively), to ponder what interests me about a subject, to write about it, to distill tons of information and feelings into a series of artwork that says,”Here is what I think AND feel about this topic.”

And lastly, sometimes passion comes from living a topic. My landscape gardening, my canoeing, my wilderness journeys. I experience these topics as part of who I am and the way I structure my days and years. My library has huge section on the environment, nature, and the wilderness. I’m interested in an ongoing and very profound way.

I know when a series needs to be started as I feel an actual physical stirring inside of me. I think of it as the sap rising, the ideas and images percolating, percolating, just waiting to come out. And it’s not always the happy-side-of-the-street passion. Passion often slides along the dark edges I choose not to acknowledge in my daily life.

If I have to beat myself up to start or continue a series, I am going in the wrong direction. If I find myself cutting up completed work, adding more layers, endlessly tinkering – all not good signs.


But I know from the very beginning when an artwork is going to be passionate. For example, when I painted the fabric for Boundary Water #19, there was power in the brush strokes. I can close my eyes and be once again in that moment, the passion flowing out my arm and hand and on to the fabric. I cut up the fabric, I sewed it back together, I stitched it. It was heart, hand, mind – done! Oh, the joy of making art when that happens.

Did it come out of the blue? No, I had a photo from the Boundary Waters in my notebook of a Mother Log with little green pine trees growing out of the fallen and decayed log. What a beautiful, concrete example of the reality of life – that from death comes life, that the organic matter in all things, including we humans, recycles endlessly. It’s a big theme in a simple piece.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t false starts. No matter how prepared I am intellectually, when hand meets material, then the fur really flies! Start, stop, cut up, discard, start again.

And then, finally, I make a piece about the Boundary Waters that says here is freedom, peace, adventure, the smallness and brevity of humans, the greatness of an eternal nature. And that first piece, combined with the fabric I have already dialogued with in its painting, will start the series off. I go forward exploring, explaining, experimenting, feeling, thinking, pushing, narrating, and summarizing.

I want to develop series that are not JUST about what you see before you in terms of shape and color and structure, but what is behind the physical structure: the figure behind the screen, the archetypes lurking in the shadows, the emotion I’m holding close to my heart, and the philosophical and personal meaning I have attached to certain colors and images which may attract, intrigue or hold the viewer for entirely different reasons than the ones I attached in the making. That is real power, that is real art.

Third Thoughts ran out of gas as a series because I couldn’t find the intellectual or emotional thread that could tie the pieces together, that made my investment in time and energy worthwhile. I started without considering what exactly I was trying to say, what would pull me along to make more, to try more, to HAVE to create. I was seduced by thinking that my thinking was already done in the paper collages.

A series works when I am passionate about the topic, when I have something to say that is both personal and profound, that stirs my emotions, that tickles my brain, that makes me wrestle with myself or my materials, but, in every case, drives me to be in the studio and to try. Perhaps not always to succeed, but to try.

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Author his web sitehttp://www.VirginiaSpiegel.com


04 2008

14 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    Great thoughts. I am passionate about techniques. How to get my ideas and inspirations out viva process. Sometimes a subject, thoughts or reactions get me hopping but I love playing around with presentation.
    I do love your work and saw one at Art Quilts Elements in Wayne, PA where I was lucky enough to exhibit as well. I feel blessed by this passion and I can see you are too!!

  2. 2

    As someone who’s contemplating the start of a new series, this essay about passion is very though-provoking. It was also helpful to look through your beautiful Boundary Waters series as I read. They helped to illustrate your point. Thanks for the essay (and all you do!).

  3. 3

    Pat – I look forward to seeing your new artwork. After such a long enforced break, your output is going to be exciting. Thank you for your comments.

  4. 4

    Hi Virginia –

    The posting and the comments have been helpful to me. I’ve never thought to verbalize my thoughts, to make them real outside myself – until after the series is well underway! Your observations on the requirement of passion/powerful emotion is valid for me – as well as some of your other points. However, I have never considered how far a series might go – usually it goes until I’m done with it. And a series tends to build in me whatever is next in me to be birthed in my work, even if there seems to be no relationship between them whatever.

    I now have a series reverberating inside of me that has yet to make it’s way out. Oh, I’ve done a few smallish samples – one is one of the two collage pieces I donated to your ACS sale. It has to do with aging, rusting, layers, etc… but my own life has been in turmoil for over a year now with very little artwork being formulated and developed outside my head and heart. I look forward to setting up my new studio next month and beginning to work again. It will be a vast relief to bring out what has been stirring for so long!

  5. 5

    Claudia – Lovely metaphor and one I can really appreciate!

    Stephanie – I couldn’t imagine even trying to re-evoke the spark that caused an artwork to be created. But that is the joy (no pun intended) of a series, following a thread forward while still thinking about what has come before. Onward is my motto!

    Lynn – Too much pressure is bad, but ditto too little. I do make artwork that is not part of a series, but, for me, dedicating a chunk of time and effort to digging deep, emotionally and intellectually, is usually worth it. You are saying the same thing: a series requires an emotional and artistic investment that “onsies” often do not. How we think at the start (Is this a series?) isn’t as important as starting!

  6. 6

    This was really interesting to read, Virginia. I found a lot of familiar sentiments in my own way of thinking. But I rarely start work thinking they will be a series. For some reason, it makes me feel pressured, like I will have to continue working and make more even if I don’t want to.

    Do you ever feel that way or do you always work in a series?

    Often I am making series now anyway but I can’t start out with that expectation. I’ve got a lot of new work that has not made it onto my website yet but I’m finding I’m moving more and more toward multiples because if I don’t have some kind of emotional pull in the work, I don’t want to do it. And that has caused me to move into more pieces.

  7. 7

    Interesting to read your thought process. I thought I was finished with my Joy series at five, but did a sixth and have plans for at least three more. One will be a garment. I have a tendency to come up with a name for the piece and then have to figure out how to make it work. Numbers 1 and 3 sold (#3 was a big winner and went to Sacred Threads last year), I’m considering a book and to re-invent #3 as I miss it. Do you ever make duplicates or near duplicates? If so, did you find it successful or fulfilling?

  8. 8

    ya know… the photo of the edges of that stack o’collages is very evocative….

  9. 9

    I enjoyed your comments about how passion develops. I used a similar analogy recently, talking about letting things “cook”. Often the sensory input from diverse sources combined sparks something unique and different altogether from the sources themselves, like when you put a bunch of unrelated items in a pot and come up with a creation that delights! Perhaps a series “runs out of gas” because it was only mean for that dinner party of 30. Any more and you’d be stretching it thin.

  10. 10

    thank you…

  11. 11

    Thanks for the comments and questions. Karen – I feel this is a completed series and that perhaps the paper collages were the studies for the series. I do have some pieces in the series that I am interested in and could develop, oddly enough, into their own series.

    Denise – Isn’t writing great? It makes you articulate, in ways that others can understand, what you intuitively know.

    Alison – I never set a number when I start a series, but I had 365 paper collages that were gold mines of unconscious thought. I was so surprised that I felt thirty-some artworks represented the best that 365 had to offer to me, in terms of inspiration. I also, as you do, recycle back to some older series and consider them to be open-ended. Others, obviously, when I’m done, I’m done.

  12. Karen #

    Do you feel that these 30 pieces are a complete series? Or an unfinished series that won’t be completed? Or are they merely studies and you have learned from their creation?

  13. 13

    I find there are certain images and emotive/essence representations that continually demand inclusion in the work I do. I consider these images/reps as my series. I find that when I feel ‘stale’ (which is too often for my liking) I begin an internal and external search for another image or sensibility that calls to me. Is this understandable at all? It’s quite difficult to put into words.

  14. 14

    Interesting that you envisaged a series of 100 Third Thoughts pieces, and felt the passion /rationale exhausted at 30. I have an open-ended expectation once I feel myself readuy to tackle another in some way that makes it a #2 of something. One series I last aded to in 1994, at #14, I feel is not yet completed …. others I have felt finished at a lower number…. I do work much largetrthan you tend, to, though.