February 2015

The pipeline


I’ve written before about how becoming a scientist made me a better artist.

These days I feel like art and sewing are helping me figure out how to run a lab.

What do I mean?  In art and in sewing I’ve been coming up with my own projects for years.  Because one of these projects usually takes a few weeks or months to complete (as opposed to a few years for a science project) I’ve been through the process more often.  My process looks something like this:

1) Come up with a bunch of nebulous ideas

2) Make those ideas concrete

3) Gather materials

4) Turn ideas into things

I don’t always do things in this order.  But I do tend to concentrate on one thing at a time.  I go through periods of brainstorming, list-making, and otherwise fantasizing about stuff I want to make.  I sketch and plan and swatch and sample and try to find the perfect match between fabric and pattern.  I shop.  And I chew through the slow process of cutting, fitting, basting, draping, stitching, fixing, ripping, redoing…, or painting, scrubbing, wiping, blocking, detailing, thinking, fixing…until I end up with something that either does or doesn’t live up to my vision of it.

Being happy and productive (for me) as an artist basically consists of moving things along this pipeline.

When it’s working, I think this pipeline looks something like a laboratory funnel with a long piece of tygon tubing attached.  There are always more ideas that there is time to complete them.  That’s probably because many of the ideas aren’t all that good.  Having a lot of ideas also helps motivate me to finish things so I can get on to the next one.  Likewise I always need a bit more stuff around than exactly what I end up using.  Turning ideas into things is the longest and hardest part, and the place I’m most likely to get stuck.

Like any pipeline, this one is subject to various pathologies.  The most common, especially when starting out, is having too many ideas and no ability to turn them into finished products.  I feel like this is one area where experience helps.  The more I can envision the final product not just as an object but as a series of steps that will create that object, the easier it is to turn an idea into a thing.  I remember very distinctly how this happened with printmaking.  One day I was looking at a tree and instead of seeing the tree I saw an aquatint wash followed by a hardground line drawing.  In sewing I can (sometimes) see a garment in terms of a particular weight of fabric, a set of seam and hem finishes, an order of stitching.

I don’t think I need to say anything about the pathology of gathering too many materials.

There’s a third pathology too that’s rarer but equally important.  Sometimes that process of making and doing becomes an end in itself and I lose sight of or run down my supply of ideas.   This is the hardest to diagnose because it looks like I’m being productive.  I’m busy, but not inspired.  I feel like I’m just repeating myself and my motivation slips away.  When this happens its time to look for new ideas.

Where do new ideas come from?  Other artists, the natural world.


What does this have to do with running a lab?

I think a lot of my job right now consists of coming up with nebulous ideas and trying to turn them into something concrete.  As far as I can tell this is basically what a grant proposal is.  I need to take a vague notion of how we might understand the brain and turn it into a series of steps that one or two graduate students can follow.  I have an idea of just how long and arduous step 4 is going to be so I need to come up with something that I think will work (given sufficient effort) and will yield something interesting.  The process is not unlike what I do when I sketch out a series of paintings or garments.  I have to weigh the coolness of this ruffle or that overlay against how difficult I know it will be to sew flawlessly.

I want to have enough ideas developed that we feel motivated and excited as a lab.  I want to be eager to finish one thing so we can move on to the next.  I want everyone to have their own project.  But I don’t want so many ideas that we become paralyzed.

At the moment I think I have enough well-thought out ideas for maybe 4-5 people.  There are a couple more that are still at the hand-wavy stage but I think I can turn into something useable with a few months of reading and writing and talking to people.  After that I will need to look for new ideas, but at the moment I am trying to keep my head down.  There’s a lot of tubing ahead of us.


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Decisions, decisions

When I was in high school I had a t-shirt that said “I think I’m indecisive, but I’m not sure.”

I don’t remember who got it for me— my mom or my dad.  Either way it was obviously the right t-shirt for me.  I would take me ages to decide what to eat, to decide what to buy.  One of my favorite activities in college was to go to a bookstore and spend a few hours looking at things, picking things off the shelf.  Maybe buying something, maybe stashing it in my mind for next week or next month.  I still love doing this, only with fabric, and online.

My new job involves making a lot of decisions.

This is something I probably should have anticipated.  I get to decide who to hire, what equipment to buy, what software to use, what to study, how to spend my time.  It’s totally awesome.  Except that it totally plays to all my weaknesses.

There are a lot of neuroscientists who study decision making.  This week I heard two different talks on the subject.  One about deciding which way some dots were moving.  One about deciding when to eat. The first talk was highly controlled, highly quantitative.  The second qualitative and striking.  I don’t know that either speaks to the problem I have.  What is different about my brain that makes it so hard to put in a purchase order?

Maybe this is something I can get better at.  Once upon a time I was a painfully slow writer.  Then something shifted and I can now bang out a rough draft pretty quickly.

If this is something that will improve I hope it happens soon.  I still have a lot of stuff to order.


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