Paula Pfotenhauer is owner of Jeja Design Studios in Oakland, California. She's spend a large part of her 30 years of design and patternmaking experience overseas in quality control and sourcing and comes from a line of artists. Paula is the perfect person to begin our How to See series.
It's 10:23pm and the phone's on its fifth ring, I think I might need to call back.
What will Paula say when I ask her to do a deep dive on the simple word, "start"? She knows how creative and...unusual I can be so maybe she won't look at me sideways and just plunge in with me.
"Hi! It's been a while Paula!" We do the hows the family and covid and business and lockdown and go down the path of french nostalgia and design and writing and I tell her I need her designer brain. Paula knows the industry in and out - working in Asia, understanding how factories work, patternmaking for designers helping them create their collection, producing her own line, painting, drawing and making pieces from recycled materials, always practicing zero waste.
When I explain the concept of the 21 day blog series on "how to see" the word "start", paper shifts into the phone. I imagine she's looking up somewhere to a corner of her studio, in reflection. Maybe she's sitting on the stool in her studio, right in the middle of two sewing workstations and a huge 5ft cutting table. She's one of my mentors, I've been there more times I can count.
What does the word “start” mean to you?
“...it’s that type of effect that gets you to make a decision. If it feels like a pulling...(like you are being drawn to start), you are lucky. If it's a pushing effect, it's drive. She explains, you are driven to be successful, (maybe) to prove someone wrong. You are successful but not joyfully.”
"Hummm, it's like you just have to do it. (Doing ‘it’) takes focus, it’s pure action...without thinking of anything else. It’s a thoughtless thing.”
I begin thinking of thoughtless things - yoga, meditation, making something. I wonder if she meant that one must be so focused you don't think of anything else. She continued, “you have to suspend everything else. There is a shift that occurs when you step into it.”
"What else does it mean to you?" I pressed on.
“Giving up a freedom…” Is that why some people don’t 'start' - because it’s like they are giving up a freedom? I wondered to myself.
“A battle with authority”, she jets out, startling me. Thank goodness she can’t see my mouth gaped open, astonished at such an unusual response. "What do you mean?"
Dad said, “we rebel against our own inward (or internal) authority...that the only real authority is the one that resides within us. Everything else is a choice.”
Can you tell me what else the word authority means to you?
Obey...oppression...indentured...slave...obligation...something “over me”...authority...Dad taught me to question authority.
"Questioning authority?" I asked.
She sighed a reflective tone, "like, who is your authority?” “Who do you listen to?”
I was so curious this came up, I responded in turn with the question, “umm, how do you find out who that is...or what that is?”
“Well...how do you?” I’m done...now it’s your turn (to answer), she handed over.
Giving it a good “humph” with a lot of air, my eyes roll up the ceiling, then over to my ficus looking for the answer, a little frustrated now that I'm in the cat birds seat. Pensively, “I think... authority is someone you admire. Someone who can tell you what to do and who you don’t get mad at. It’s who you give power over you... in certain ways.”
I reflected more, “I admire certain jazz composers in their complex layering of sounds. Let’s see...I like authors like (Haruki) Murakami. I guess that’s why I aim to get up at 5am- because he said so! I mean it’s not like he called me up and told me if I want to get this book finished, to do it. But I saw a clip with him explaining his own process of writing: awake at 4am, write for 5-6 hours listening to jazz, run a 10k, eat, read, repeat. Something about him explaining his routine resonated with me but I gotta tell you it wasn’t the 4am bit nor the 10k! It’s not like other artists haven’t given “how to be a productive artist” advice like that. Youtube shows tons of people ready to tell you how to write better or be more productive, but you have to “see” the vision they are offering. I “see” Murakami’s. He shows me a way I can create in the quiet of the night at 5am.
I see how he plays within and around the boundaries of rules and freedom, in how he communicates. His writing takes place in very real settings, in present time, with very real problems characters experience. Then he weaves in mystical ways of sharing advice or philosophy, not shoving down the reader’s throat. I see his vision for the reader, his creativity displayed. He’s accessible, trustworthy. So yes, I guess I gave him authority over me.
After I hung up, I thought more about what Paula mentioned about freedom and authority. I never thought that if I had rules, I could have freedom...and if I had rules, I could “create.” I always wanted the time, space and money to express as I wished. While I was in design school, I couldn’t wait to graduate and “start!” Now, I fully appreciate those moments - creating in a protected, secure environment without time deadlines nor monetary goals.
As I look back, I see why some designers design a collection but choose to “never start” manufacturing. Perhaps for some, it’s good enough just to create and don’t have other expectations from the career of fashion. Maybe they take a job doing something else after. They want to simply, realize themselves, see their work manifest from a vision to reality and that is enough.