Sonny King, The City, 2005, detail

Steal like an Artist

Filed under: Critical Commentary, Publications

Austin Kleon’s new book, Steal Like an Artist, offers lots of insights into the work and process of art making but how does it specifically relate to polymer?   Kleon, who is both a writer and an artist, nails the crucial issue in his title.   What is it to “steal like an artist”?  Isn’t our cultural ideal to be original in all ways, so why

is he advocating stealing to make something novel?  Historically, the concept of originality is relatively new.  The well used cliché, “there is nothing new under the sun” can be traced to a biblical origin.   Throughout time, artists have learned by copying, imitating, and observing.  It is the basis for apprenticeships and much of traditional art education.   But according to Kleon and many others, it is what someone does with all this input that matters.

Within the short history of polymer art, so much art work and innovation has been driven by technique.  Artists have found another way to do this, imitate that, or even invented novel uses of the material.  Artists working in polymer have benefited from the on-going technical evolution and many of the resulting skills have spread globally via the internet, workshops and other forms of media.

What Kleon’s book explains is that technique is only one portion of the ever changing recipe for individuals who make art.  Artists are urged to look at others’ art, in fact, to look at everything of visual interest so that they can absorb what is meaningful to them and add it to their personal file of ingredients for creating art.  This is the “stealing” part.  Kleon writes about the process of accumulating what you like for your own cupboard of ideas as well as the need to discard what is no longer of use.  Then you have to mix it all up so that what emerges from the oven of your creativity is something that represents your take on whatever.  He proposes artists start making work even if they do not quite know exactly what it is they want to make since you never know how any blend of ideas might congeal.  Your influences can be wide and deep but the art you make should be yours.

Sonny King, The City, 2005, 24"x15"x15" polymer, wood, acrylic paint, LED & filament lighting

Sonny King, The City, 2005, 24″x15″x15″
polymer, wood, acrylic paint, LED & filament lighting


Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932, oil on canvas

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932, oil on canvas
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden,
Univ of Nebraska-Lincoln

Sometimes these influences are quite straightforward.  For example, Sonny King acknowledges that at times his work has been directly inspired by the painter, Edward Hopper.  The moods evoked by Hopper’s paintings tend to be more starkly sober than King’s, but the sense of architecture, place and lighting are related.  Yet, by moving beyond Hopper’s paintings into a 3D interpretation of Hopper’s style and infusing his own sensibilities, King created work that is his alone.

Karin Noyes, Untitled Bowl, 2008

Karin Noyes, Untitled Bowl, 2008
17″diameter, polymer

Fair Isle knit sample (via

Fair Isle knit sample (via

Other times the source of inspiration is less obvious.  Over the years, Karin Noyes has spent lots of time knitting complicated patterns which involve graphic repeats and stylized bits of flora and fauna.   A casual observer would be unlikely to make the connection between this experience and her intricate assemblage caned bowls. However, looking at samples of Fair Isle knitting enables one to see the potential influence of multiple small motifs arranged in endless variations.

Kleon’s short and graphic text brings together many ideas from the vast body of writings on creativity and the process of art making.  He recommends as well habits and tools that work for him.  By the end of the book, he has created a good compilation of what matters when making art and has done so in a way that is accessible and fun.   Kleon has stolen from many and gone on to create something uniquely his.