I once won a blue ribbon at Oregon’s Polk County Fair.
Not a particularly noteworthy accomplishment, I admit, but there is a back story that I believe is worth telling.
Oregon’s economy and history are primarily rural, bring built on the industry of ranchers, farmers, loggers, and those who provide services to them. Each summer, county fairs from Multnomah in the north to Klamath in the south, blanket the state.
I grew up in or just outside of small towns: Sheridan, Willamina, and Independence in Polk County, which had a great county fair: dusty, noisy, smelly, and filled with accidental reunions and laughter. The variety of competitions available gave women the opportunity to show off their canning and baking prowess, with 4-H projects of lambs, hogs, and cattle being the real draw.
There were also art competitions: watercolor and oil landscapes, primarily, with birdhouses and quilting filling the Crafts portion of the arts competitions. One summer, however, they held a graphic design competition. Its theme was “Promoting Oregon Tourism” and entrants were instructed to submit original posters to highlight the attractions in our state.
While in the process of creating my poster I discovered that applying Elmer’s Glue to tissue-paper can be problematic. It can also reap great rewards.
I selected a particularly vibrant turquoise tissue to represent the sky in my poster. I painstakingly tore it into the shape of the sky over Mount Hood with its horizon, creating a silhouette of our beloved dormant volcano.
After applying the glue to the tissue and then laying it on white poster-board, I was horrified to see it wrinkle with a determination I did not know tissue paper could muster.
Hoping to repair the mess, I pealed back the soggy, disintegrating, glue-slathered, and seriously mangled tissue to find a fascinating repeat pattern of turquoise dye floating on a pure white background. The image left behind was the perfect negative outline of Mount Hood.
Knowing an opportunity when I saw one, I carried on.
Next came adding text in the form of letters shaped by tearing more tissue to create “Ski Oregon” in the white space. Catchy. You may recall that the State of Oregon used this slogan for some time while promoting tourism — a coincidence, no doubt.
I entered that marvel in the fair and received a Blue Ribbon for my adolescent chutzpah. My friend and fellow competitor, Virginia, sniffed that it was “just an accident.” Whatever … .
More important than receiving a blue ribbon was discovering the joy, surprise, and rewards of accidental discoveries in the act of creation. Every artist can recount similar moments of surprise and horror that become the strongest elements of an artwork. It’s alchemy at its purest, and is a huge part of what motivates us to create.
The driving force behind creativity — and creation — is pure accident motivated by curiosity.
Examples of which include: iron oxide, ochre, charcoal, indigo, sand, clay, heat, wine, and the malleability of stone, wood, leather, and finally, metal. All were discovered purely by accident and immediately became media for artwork.
Accident is the source of all great works of art, scientific discoveries, heavenly bodies colliding, and genetic mutations — powerful stuff.
Respect the power of the accident and encourage our children to play and experiment with all manner of media, from mud to metal. The next great accident is just waiting for a perfectly wrong combination of materials to collide.
Lay the groundwork for your own happy accidents!
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