by Sue Dawson

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in fall 2006

I am beginning to hate the word. It is an elusive quality that defies quantitative analysis. As an Academy Judge and a founder of The Exemplary I have been called on repeatedly to express an opinion. It is hoped that I can offer something that will fit into tidy guidelines that will free everyone from the haunting worry is my work “original”? I can’t. I can only leave that to each person’s own conscience.

Notice the definition of “original” in the The Exemplary 2007 rules. It is based on my work, long anguished hours with much consultation, and has changed little, if any, over the years. It places the responsibility directly on the entrant/creator. “The entrant has taken control of and responsibility for all aspects of the entry from the initial concept, through the development of the design, to its final execution and presentation.” It does not define original. It does not make a judgment on originality. It, for the purposes of the exhibit, does not require the entrant to believe their work is completely original. It simply expects the entrant to take responsibility for their work. (In this case, “original,” is a name of a category, chosen because of the ideal it represents, not because of any unrealistic expectation. Perhaps we need a better name. I never found it.) As an administrator, I relied on the integrity of the entrants and in turn trusted the entrants to rely faithfully on one another.

I did not believe then, and I do not believe now, anything a human being creates is created in isolation. Everything a person does, in concept or in execution, is built on experience, observation, imitation. Nothing is truly original: the beginning, the source.

If by odd circumstance something were to be truly original, according to my dictionaries it cannot be original until it is copied, imitated, it spawns off-spring or it inspires action. Notice that all those verbs are in the future tense. That tells me if something were truly original I could not know it in the present, it is only something that can be determined in retrospect from some time in the future.

Originality is a goal that we can strive for; it is not necessarily one we can achieve, and it is unlikely that we would ever know certainly if we were to succeed.

Well down in the list of dictionary definitions for original I see one useful phrase: “independent and creative in thought or action.” This describes action and possibly motivation by an individual. Others can judge the results but are not capable of knowing the internal workings of that individual as they proceeded. It is not unusual for circumstances, similar or different, to produce the same idea in several isolated, or not so isolated, people. It is incumbent on each of us to make sure that our judgments are fair, rather than worrying about the actions of others, something we cannot control or understand. It is useful and instructive, but not necessary, for the purposes of judging and exhibiting work to sort out the work of those who have attempted to reach beyond what they know from those who have attempted to develop what they know to the fullest. Each is a distinct, noble, and worthwhile goal that needs to be recognized for its value but in the end each person is simply trying to do their best.

Between what is original and what is non-original is a continuum of art, and particularly needlework, can generally be described as an adaptation.

I might use the commercial photo as the basis for my design and create an adaptation. An adaptation is a work where the original design has been altered in some way. For instance, it could be in a different medium (canvas work instead of oil painting, for example), or it could be in the same medium with colors changed, or perspective eye level altered, or with some elements of the design added or eliminated. As ANG states, a non-original becomes an adaptation depending on how much it has been “developed and improved.”

It is important that the stitcher who enters an adaptation in a needlework show submit a photo of the original source to accompany the entry. This way the judges can see the development and improvement and grade the piece accordingly. A needlework judge will evaluate a non-original piece based only on the skill of the stitching and the presentation of the item. With the original piece, the judge will consider these things as well as the elements of the design. In judging an adaptation, the judge will not consider the design itself, but will look for development and improvement by the adaptor.

The stitcher must carefully read the entry form of any needlework show to ascertain the criteria that particular show defines for each entry class. However, most shows will follow these rules: If it is your concept with no part copied from someone else, it is original. If it is someone else’s design concept that you have stitched, it is non-original. If it is someone else’s design concept, but you have changed it and improved it, it is an adaptation.