Today, as part of our continued Black History Month coverage, we’re thrilled to share with you this essay written by print maker, surface designer, textile artist and teacher based in San Francisco, CA, Jen Hewett.
Making, Making Do, and the Lessons of Failure
By Jen Hewett
Decades ago while I was in college, I interviewed my Aunt Maudell for an African American history class I was taking. The assignment was, I believe, to interview the oldest living member of our families to get an oral history. Auntie Maude, the oldest of my Granny’s 10 siblings, was in her 80s by then. She had stories.
She told me about her mother, my Great Grandmother Elma, who would sew clothes for her daughters’ dolls using bits of scrap fabric leftover from her own sewing, or from fabric cut from dresses too worn to mend. She told me how my great grandmother, long before the Easy Bake Oven came around, would always bake a little cake batter in the jar lid for her daughters’ tea parties. But my favorite story was about my great grandmother’s attitude towards cooking mishaps. She was a talented cook, but sometimes her cakes didn’t rise properly. “My mother never called those failures,” Auntie Maude said. “She’d slice that cake, pour some cream on top, and call it a ‘pudding.’ And we loved those puddings.”
I never met my great grandmother, who died before I was born. She was clearly a woman who made and made do. As a working artist, I like to think that I inherited her creativity and resourcefulness. However, there is one way I know that I differ from her: for much of my life, I only saw failures, never puddings. I am a recovering perfectionist.
This perfectionistic streak started early, when, as one of a handful of black children at my affluent, conservative Catholic elementary school, I tried to fit in by conforming. As I got older, I realized that the best way to do this was to be the perfect student. In the restrictive educational environment I grew up with, being “perfect” meant following the rules, never questioning authority (even when they were wrong or hurtful), and avoiding failure at all costs. I was a creative kid, but there was no room for this creativity at school. Creativity, which requires a love of experimentation, and an acceptance of failure as a possibility, is at odds with conformity.
Already naturally shy and anxious, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, so I buried my creative side. I kept my head down and my voice low – and I avoided mistakes at all costs. I overachieved academically, which in itself wasn’t a problem. But I achieved at the expense of developing and using my voice, allowing the fear of making a mistake or saying something stupid to paralyze me. In my teens I started having panic attacks, and those attacks continued through my 20s and early 30s, when I graduated from college, worked in education, started and closed a business, got a corporate job. It was at this last job that I had the mother of all panic attacks, and finally decided to seek therapy.
Showing any signs of weakness publicly was taboo. Public failure was a privilege not open to us.
Therapy wasn’t something that was done in my family. Showing any signs of weakness publicly was taboo. Public failure was a privilege not open to us. We kept our problems to ourselves, and would never, ever share them with a complete stranger. But I had spent my professional life watching my colleagues regularly speak up, take risks, and recover from mistakes, and I wanted that confidence for myself, too. I suspected I could start to find it with a therapist.
At the end of my very first session, my therapist told me I was a perfectionist, and gave me an assignment: Consciously make a mistake and see what happens. I don’t remember what the mistake was, but I do remember what happened: nothing. I’m sure it was just a small mistake, but it was enough for me to unravel years of conditioning. I was learning to be vulnerable. It surprised me to discover that choosing to be this kind of vulnerable helped me build my confidence. And with that confidence came the willingness to try new things, to risk failure.
It was during this time that I took a screenprinting class and became hooked, spending much of my free time at the shared print studio. Using the lessons of therapy in my creative life, I experimented. I made a lot of mistakes, and my skills developed from these mistakes. As my skills developed, so, too, did my creative voice. And with that voice I created a creative practice that is now, over a decade later, how I make my living.
But making it as an artist, especially in the age of social media, requires more than just making good work. You have to consistently put your work out there. Like most other artists I see my work as an extension of myself, and sharing it requires being vulnerable. Putting my work and myself out there means being open to criticism, but also having enough confidence in my voice to choose what criticism to accept, and what to ignore – and then to get back to the work of making art.
I have made and shared a lot of work in the 11 years since I took that first screenprinting class. A lot of that work has not been that great, but enough of it has been good. Last year I realized two, big, creative dreams: the publication of my first book, and the release of my first commercial line of fabric. I also gave talks, went on a book tour, and traveled to India. It was a busy, fulfilling year.
And at the end of that year, through a series of mishaps that involved miscommunication and holiday family drama, the cake I’d made for my parents’ church’s Christmas brunch didn’t quite turn out the way I’d planned. So I channeled my great grandmother, and salvaged it as she would have. I sliced that cake into tiny bits, then added some frosting, a pint of cream, and a handful of frozen raspberries scavenged from the back of the freezer. While serving the cake, I recounted my Auntie Maude’s story, and my mom declared it the best dessert she’d ever had.
Cakes, life, work – none of these things have ever turned out quite as planned, but out of it all has come quite a bit of pudding, and immense gratitude for the lessons of failure.
All photography by Jen Siska for the book Print, Pattern, Sew by Jen Hewett