by Michelle Sharp
There are key differences between being in control and being in charge. Control is being able to dictate actions and itinerary, able to create choices for others, anticipating changes and having contingency plans. Being in charge is about handling whatever comes your way, regardless of if you are able to control it. Being in charge is about making decisions rather than creating decisions to be made, leading a group through uncertainties and delegating to keep tasks from piling up. You can never be in control of a herd of cats, but you can certainly be in charge of them.
I would argue that in much art making, the artist must choose between these two roles. Truly meaningful and successful pieces are forged at the intersection of, or by examining the cross-section of, these states of being.
Being in control is typically bound by the process. Many processes, especially those involving photography, have specific steps in order to be technically well done. You must be in control of the cyanotype chemistry, the type of paper, the exposure time, how the negative is handled. You become the administrator of the outcome rather than the parent of it. It is easy to predict and intentionally go on or off the rails. The piece is built by its faithful servant and constructed with a plan.
Media like collage or found object assemblage are about being in charge of the piece. Yes, there are some choices the artist controls in regard to sourcing materials, scale, and craftspersonship, but ultimately the artist is problem-solving: what fits where in a way that makes sense, making decisions that support or hurt the intention of the piece, how to attach part A to part B. In some regards, the artist is along for the ride when they are in charge; the piece may not know what it will or needs to be, but the artist is the investigator teasing out the answers.
The penultimate experience is being both in charge and in control of the piece. It is the feeling when something ‘just works’. For some artists, this is achieved by setting parameters in their process. Perhaps an artist is working in assemblage, but all pieces must be found wood and painted monochromatically1. Or perhaps an artist is creating medium format photo portraits, but they can only make images of subjects they meet while traveling in a specific city, inspired by a specific book from their childhood2. The artist may not feel both in charge and in control while they are pursuing a piece; many painters are familiar with ‘the ugly phase’ or having to ‘trust the process’ through uncertainty. In completion though, they are able to look back and identify times of collaboration between themselves and the process or the piece, a push and pull reciprocation.
Identifying one’s preference to being in control or in charge allows one to challenge or help themselves; perhaps someone who thrives with control tries a media known for its unpredictability, or those who enjoy being in charge try a process with very structured decision paths. Removing ourselves from comfort zones is a surefire way to new ideas and reaching that penultimate experience.
- DiBenedetto, Erica. “Louise Nevelson: Moma.” The Museum of Modern Art, 2022, www.moma.org/artists/4278.
- Fox, Killian. “Reflections on Mortality: Alessandra Sanguinetti on Her Eerie Images of the Midwest.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 18 Sept. 2022, www. theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/sep/18/some-say-ice-alessandra-sanguinetti-photography-midwest.
Michelle Sharp (b. 1992) is an artist currently working in the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin. She works primarily in bookmaking media, photography, and writing. Michelle is inspired by the mundane, acts of sharing & discovery, literature, and structured systems