S . D . F
Since around the age of 17 I’ve had the a dog tag engraved with “S . D . F” on my keychain. My high school art teacher, Stephen Rueckert, who had a great influence on me, gave this and identical tags to me and several other students. The letters SDF are an acronym for the French term sans domicile fixe which translates to ‘without a fixed place.’ Mr. Rueckert, as I knew him then and know him now, came across this term roaming amongst Parisian gypsies while learning French and wandering the world. He always glowed about his experience living amongst them; his time with the gypsies was one of the formative of his life, and by extension and osmosis, has been formative upon mine.
Though this term most literally translates to homeless, Mr. Rueckert saw it not as a depravation, but a badge of honor. That’s why he gave us the tags; they were badges of honors, sources of inspiration. I have always believed in these letters, because I always believed in what Mr. Rueckert taught me, but have always also found them a bit confusing.
The obvious surface metaphor in SDF is the idea of never being tied down and always being free. Mr. Rueckert always encourages freedom in our thinking as he believed that inspired our creativity. Indeed, some of the most valuable lessons I remember, from drawing with my eyes closed and letting my hands talk on paper to spending an entire class period strumming a guitar and thinking about the universe, were rooted in this concept. Lest one think we were unserious students killing time with a kooky teacher, many of my classmates excelled at the finest art schools in the world and attribute the greatest nurturing of their talents to these same lessons. But the lesson was imperfect.
I was always a weary of following this advice too literally. I believed in it but felt I didn’t quite understand it. Taken to its seeming extent, one would be forever a vagabond with no roots or comforts. That’s clearly not what he was trying to say. Mr. Rueckert himself did not live that way and surely wouldn’t have been encouraging us to. But, what did he want to take away? Though I didn’t fully understand the lesson at the time I also remember the distinct and unusual feeling that one day I would. I think I’m finally getting there.
I’ll confess. For years, I’ve barely thought about this tag. Its presence on my keychain has been a nod to someone very important to me and symbol of being a member of a tribe: Mr. Rueckert’s rag-tag group of 3-D art students from the mid-2000s, who were at the time little appreciated when contrasted to their prim and polished 2-D art peers, but went on to be far more successful. I don’t know if anyone else still has their tag on their keychain, but if I’m last man standing, then even better. Recently, the letters have come back to the forefront of my mind.
I took Mr. Rueckert’s lesson too literally. He always said we were one. Our mind, our body, the universe: all was one. He wasn’t referring to our bodies being constantly on the move, but our minds. As of late, another teacher in my life has been emphasizing, as his most important single teacher, the fluidity of mind. It’s the same damn lesson. Funny how these sorts of things can come full circle.
The fluidity, or plasticity, of our brains is empirical scientific fact. But to make best use of the knowledge that our minds are constantly changing and capable of doing what they haven’t before, one most believe in it. One must make a point to learn to new skills and think in different ways. Anyone can solve a problem in the ways that everyone else know how to but real innovation and creativity comes from solving a problem in a different way. Now I see more clearly why Mr. Rueckert’s most valuable lessons were the most ambiguous.
For years I have regretted not pursuing art more seriously. I could have, but didn’t take it seriously or believe the world would let me. Or so I thought. Ironically I was thinking about this so narrowly.
I didn’t go to art or design school so I wasn’t an artist. Even on the surface, this is absurd. In some ways it’s more surprising that art school exists than it doesn’t. School implies rigidity and structure which seems antithetical to the creative mind. Art school teaches foundations, cultivates skills and crafts, and trains critique. Don’t get me wrong; this is all tremendously valuable. But having the mindset of a creative doesn’t require any of that.
In my mind I drew a distinction between creative tasks and problem solving was greatly exaggerated. It’s true, some tasks are more procedural than others. But I would contend, though some would fight me on it, that problem solving at its limit is essentially art. What I’ve been doing, and more importantly what my peers have been doing, is not as different from what I used to do in the art studio as I have long thought.
The art studio is a context. In moving to New York and declaring to make art I was too fixed on idea that changing my context would redefine my activity. Now I recognize that making is art is not about context, but mindset. It is my mindset that must change to the notion that I am making art and being creative. And, I’ve realized, a key to achieving this is freeing my mind and embracing its fluidity; believing that my mind can do more and be different tomorrow from today. How beautiful to realize so many aims may converge to one.
Another important lesson I learned from Mr. Rueckert is that nothing is ever finished but you go on to the next piece. Every piece can be the masterpiece that tops the one before it, or not. It was also Mr. Rueckert who taught my that quantity begets quality. I can’t remember if I had forgotten whether he was the one who taught me that, but I now remember clearly, down to the frenzied moment in his little glass box office when he told me that. That idea, in that form, made perfect sense to me and I knew instantly that it was true.
It was that idea that has been the underlying inspiration for every essay I’ve written this year. I now see that that idea is an application of the principle of SDF. The free oneself from an ideal of perfection and completeness and instead let those concepts themself is what leads to the heights of creativity which lead to differentiation and recognition. I am beginning to see how this all pieces to together, and it’s nice to realize that I’ve been practicing elements of the mantra in my pocket all along.