Copying vs Stealing
I was reading Luann Udell's blog recently. Luann makes lovely faux ivory and bone figures inspired by her love of the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings, which she incorporates into intricate and very beautiful wall-hangings. In her blog, Luann is talking about how she feels when she sees her work copied. Her musings are full of insight and her journey of understanding is interesting, and I recommend you read it for yourself. It made me think about this question as well, and it is a thorny and controversial subject. In my own artistic journey, I am still at the stage of learning new techniques and discovering for myself the seemingly unending ways it is possible to use polymer clay. My primary source of learning is still working through projects devised by other artists. I am naturally drawn to those projects that have the finished item I covet. I want that item. I want to see how to make that item, learning as I go.
So I am sometimes baffled when the artist whose project is ‘out there' becomes antsy when people post images of their work they have created following that project on the Internet, or are selling items they've made based on the project. Luann uses polymer clay to imitate old ivory and creates skillful interpretations of the Lascaux animals, and she is very good at this. Her work is instantly recognisable --it has her signature style.
Yet she is distressed when she comes across copies of her work. Luann has had a project describing the process in detail published in one of the Somerset Studio books, which I have. In this she details how to achieve the faux ivory effect, detailed images of her little horses and fish, bones and buttons, and how to make them. Why, then, does she feel so strongly about others making her idea?
It is a lovely project. I want to have some of these items, and as a polymer artist want to learn a new technique, and can see they would make wonderful pieces of art. What is wrong with making saleable items from this project? The potential buyers of my work are, most likely, never going to know who Luann Udell is, or have any interest in her work, but would be drawn to my work for its own intrinsic beauty. So what is the problem here?
I think the distinction is subtle, and depends on the motive of the person taking the idea. If I were to create faithful reproductions, so they looked exactly like Luann's (if that is possible) and sold them as my own, then that could be seen as stealing an idea. If I made similar ones, and attributed the idea as inspiration based on Luann's work, I would feel I had a clear conscience. But would Luann agree? I wonder.
Of course, the best way of all is to enjoy the project, make loads of pieces having fun attempting to reproduce Luann's lovely little animals, all the while developing my own style and items, then putting my own twist on them, so that finally, my signature style begins to show through. Then I can put that body of work out there as my own.
I rarely, if ever, publish images of my work. I feel that other polymer artists do it so much better than I. I've yet to find my signature look, and still enjoy following a project. I wouldn't necessarily post it anywhere but maybe on my blog, to show what I've been working on, but not as my own work. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this issue--at the moment I'm feeling deeply inspired by Laurie Mika's work, and will be working on some projects from her Mosaic book, but I am concerned that my work will be similar to hers and be identifiable as her signature. Is that wrong? If I don't slavishly copy every colour, every shape, use the stamps she uses, it will still look as if it's influenced by her work, which it is.
Perhaps I should stop worrying, just do it, then see how I can put my own signature in there. Somewhere, somehow. Perhaps one day I'll spot someone doing my ‘thing', then I'll come to a deeper understanding of Luann's, and others', angst about being copied. But until then, I'm working from projects. Finishing them. Photographing and putting them on my website and blog, and wearing them and enjoying them. Because that‘s what it's all about.
Kerrie is the the IPCA Vice President of Education and Outreach