As a high school student, my schedule permitted me to take a sculpture class at the nearby community college. To my surprise, I discovered we would be working with live models. After my initial shock at seeing naked people in the classroom, I was forced to wonder about the arbitrary division that made me an adult in one context, and a powerless child in the other!
I soon learned of another arbitrary division, one that I continue to question: size. My sculpted nudes were all sized to fit within the grasp of two hands. The instructor repeatedly commented on my "small work." Finally, he diagnosed me as "inhibited" before the class! It's embarrassing to be singled out and judged when you are a high school student among adults. I didn't know how to respond. I wish he had asked me for my rationale. Articulating what made me "work small" would have been so enlightening and helped me develop as an artist. I felt there was a difference between walking around a sculpture, and being able to see all sides at once, being able to intimately examine the form with one's hands, not just observe it with one sense--the eyes. Besides, everyone's work was smaller than the actual model; how was "too small" determined? How and why did it diminish value? Apparently, size mattered, but not in any way that had been articulated. I'm sad to say that I have only one piece left from that class, a "large" work that I completed in order to satisfy him, and that won a ribbon. I eventually tossed all the others.
Years later, I discovered that many cultures celebrate small format art. One of my earliest introductions was a display of Moghul miniatures, also often referred to as Persian miniatures, which were the source of Moghul inspiration. The miniatures have informed my work in three areas: story, space, and succinctness. Most were created around a story or poem, there are versions that fill the space and those that are conspicuous for their amount of "emptiness," but none have any "extra."
It's difficult to pick up one of my pieces that does not have a story behind it. Just as the Persian miniatures are icons that have the power to include the viewer in a long ago experience or emotion, mine are also connected to real events. I didn't think this was possible; I thought they would simply be perceived as motifs. But, I have been surprised at the number of people who react viscerally to the designs, and how evocative they are of others' personal experiences. The spirit and story of the artist goes into their work. How would you convert one of your own vivid experiences into a color? A symbol?
Persian miniatures also teach about space. It's amazing to me that some entirely fill the field, while others are spare and uniquely balanced--large fields of color fill the "empty" space. The latter remind me of the most modern stage sets: open geometric spaces infused with hues of varying values that whisper or shout a background truth to frame the action in a small, concentrated portion of the stage.
There is a natural anxiety about emptiness that involves a certain perception of incompleteness (like "too small!"), but it can be very powerful.
Sometimes, you need everything to tell the story. What is amazing about the Persian miniatures is that even when the entire space is filled with people and objects, there is no "extra." Frames--around the paintings and within them--keep things concise. See the "bead" in this miniature? Try drawing a circle around a bead’s holes, or a square frame on each side of a square bead.
There can be a lot of pattern, but it is used to separate elements, so they’re not lost in the crowd. The paintings are succinct: everything contributes to the story--no "fluff." The "story" on Joan Miller's bead is clear. Every character belongs there. As in the miniatures, minor design elements become a patterned background, a container for the story.
Two great empires thought small was magnificent. What did I learn from them? Small art is intimate--not for the inhibited, visually powerful when it is concise, and ultimately, precious.