As artists we are always making manifest our ideas, literally making stuff, physical objects. Some are good. Some are bad.
Some of us throw out the old or unsuccessful (we think) objects. The others we display or place in boxes in storage. After years theses objects accumulate, as residue of our lives. Looking back we can see the objects and remember what we were thinking, feeling and struggling with during the time the pieces were made.
If we are making life meaningful through making artwork it is because the process itself feels important, the results are mostly satisfying, and/or we benefit in some other way, by making sales or having exhibitions. What we also do is leave a legacy behind. Our personal histories are in those boxes and digital files. We leave this history behind, a record of us. Adding to the history of the era of our lifetime. Art becomes a record of our own existence as well as part of human history.
On the personal level, something more substantial than the trail of breadcrumbs that Hansel and Gretel left behind happens when we leave a path back to our former selves through our art. As artists with many years of practice and production under our belts, we are able to clearly see the arc of our development, to see how far we’ve come. Looking back through the old work is important not just for the historical aspect but for our current work as well. We change as we go through life but some fundamental aspect of who we are remains. It is fascinating to find the thread of imagery or issues that persist in the work throughout the years. It can also be helpful to be reminded of topics, materials and ways of working that once interested us. There was a reason we made these things. They are the seeds of our current practice.
I’m sure someone famous once said, “Work from your work”. This means that we start where we left off. If we’ve been out of the studio for a while, we start again by making what we were making before we left. It is ok to repeat ourselves; in fact, making things in series is a useful and legitimate way to make progress. Van Gogh painted the same bridge over and over; Monet painted the same pond again and again. There’s something about repetition that brings us ever closer to the essential truth about a subject.
Having access to our own historical body of work can be a valuable resource when we are stuck or stagnant, or having a hard time getting started after and absence from the studio. There are the dominant themes that we remember, but there will also be many other things in the old work that we will have inevitably forgotten about. These little surprises can awaken a dormant interest we once had. Don’t throw away old, seemingly unsuccessful work before completing a thorough documentation, it may turn out to be a future source of inspiration.