The Exquisite Object

Nested Yin Form, Parker StaffordI’d like to take a moment and explain a little about this blog, what its about, what the thinking is that is behind it, and why yet another blog and why a blog about Stafford Art Glass.  First off, I am an artist, artisan, designer, and educator.  I write a good bit, having a 620 page manuscript in the works (which looks like if I can get a big enough crowbar could be turned into three books), have written some as-yet unpublished children stories and am working on a second book related to the first (this might be that crowbar I was looking for).  I also write two other blogs on other subjects related to nonduality and I run a studio in the Alleghany mountains of Virginia.  I am a father of two and my life has been turned around recently in such a way that I have begun to look at creativity very differently than I did before. Maybe I should say my thinking has blossomed a little more.  While my interests are broad, I am keeping the focus pretty tight on this blog.

We very much need good things to help reflect our values in life.  Everyone has different ideas, philosophies, and approaches.  All of them are valid, of course, all have merit, and even if by looking over our shoulder at our neighbor we have trouble understanding some of them.  The truth is, there is a tendency we as humans have that serves to lock out whole worlds of possibilities, and it doesn’t just happen in art and fashion.  Our brains are designed to see the patterns in the chaos, and because of that, we like to hold onto those patterns, and often deify them much to our limit.  We become biased and this bias closes us to the possibilities.  This has a broad application in life, and this principle is anathema to being innovative or creative in my opinion.  I very much love taking the most obvious idea or form and think how I can turn it on its head, turn it inside out, change it, reform and recreate it.  This is part of the very essence of the creative, and its necessary if you are going to attempt to think differently, and have a chance at creating something new.  By being able to innovate, we as creators and innovators can bring to market those products that matter and that tell the story in an entirely new way.  Sometimes new is very very good, but new often is built upon the old in such a way that it changes the conversation, the very content of the past so that it can speak to a new generation.  All great innovation is built upon this precept.

It might be a little silly for me to be titling this post “The Exquisite Object” because the truth is, one person’s exquisite is another person’s eeeew!  However, I think that the better we can innovate and create the New, the better we are able to insert something into the dialog of our lives that has some meaning.  Many strokes for many folks!

I am a glassblower, artist, as well as sculptor.  When I think of glass, though,  I tend to think of it as a sculptural medium, even though I often make very functional items.  Glass can be a material that we instantly have certain assumptions about.  Its a perfect example of how we can crowd out a world of possibility, as well as innovation and creativity by keeping our horizon limited.  The techniques I use to make my work set it apart from the usual run of the mill glass that you might think you know.   A lot of what I do, like most good designers and artists do, is seek ways to set myself apart from the pack.  I also do what matters to me.  If I did what sold, I’d still be making those god awful ornaments I took to New Jersey that one time that were, I thought, horrible color combinations and sold within the first hour of the Artfair!  What I know is that I am looking for the right person for my work, and this falls entirely outside the design process and becomes a marketing issue, but it is a basic philosophical precept to how I operate.  If I seek to please everyone, I wind up not pleasing myself, and asking just what on earth I am doing.  So I stick to what I believe and out of that comes something of consequence to me and my customers. I do not look at the materials I use in a limited light; they are just that, materials, and can become anything.  Sometimes the greatest ideas are waiting to be discovered and they are right in front of us.  I don’t bring to my glass work any of the same biases that I found once I got into the medium.

Perhaps as a result of this orientation, I don’t have much of a purist heart in me because it is that “purity” that I also know in another language also means “bias” and bias is also a way of limiting yourself. On the one hand, you need FOCUS when doing art or design, but I have always sought a range of different sensibilities that have all informed one another or told different parts of a much larger tale.   For sure, I am interested in certain kinds of design, don’t get me wrong, but I am restlessly creative, and this is evidenced in my enormous writing output over the last year as well as my going into teaching sculpture at the local university.  Its more like I can’t tell the whole story in English, and I need four more languages with which to explain everything!  This flies in the face of everything my teachers tried to convey to me early on, and yet, just like our need to find objects that are well designed and made that help  express our OWN sense of style and design, so too must I range across a multilingual landscape in order to tell my own story! Besides, who is living this life, me or my teachers from long ago?  Sometimes it also means sticking to your guns and not being afraid to believe in something.

Pino Signoretto at Eugene Glass School

I can remember a number of years ago when I attended a workshop by the well-known sculptural glass artist Pino Signoretto. That’s him at the bench with all the guys crowded around him.   It was a demonstration workshop, which meant we all watched.  I filmed the whole thing, hoping to learn as many tricks as I could from this great master.  As I sat with camera in hand an attendee and I began to chat.  He asked what I did in my work and we had a nice exchange that was pretty cordial until he found out that I also made these little sculptural pieces I call Andromeda Geodes and Inscape Geodes.  For lack of a better name, these would be referred to as paperweights. With a change in his body language and a roll of his eyes, he said to me that he REFUSED to do paperweights and quickly ceased any conversation with me.  He had, at that point, decided I was one of THOSE glass artists, and quite suddenly, I was beneath him.  I remember being a bit surprised by the arrogance that was being leveled at me, but also a little happy at the same time.  I thought that this was one less person to have to compete against, and how nice it was that I wasn’t so closed-minded about what glass could and could NOT be, or what was good or NOT good.

Since then, I have run across a number of glass artists who look at the subject of making sculptural glass the same way.  Its largely from a place of ignorance, and thus bias, and the fact that “paperweights” are thought of as easy to make by those who have dabbled in them, which they can be, the act of bias, a very subjective activity in itself, closes off any intellectual or creative curiosity for some people.  Its when we make assumptions about what we THINK we know that we can miss a world of possibility.  In fact, many of the great discoveries were accidents that forced people into thinking about a given phenomenon, technology, in a different way. So often, we just get STUCK in what we believe is possible, or not worthwhile.  Often, by turning something on its head, we can peel off entire layers of new material and possibility just by NOT assuming we know all there is to know.  Truth is, we really know very little, but that ego of ours sure doesn’t want us to believe or be mindful of that!

Here is what I mean:  paperweights are normally round, clear, and brilliantly colored.  They are a delicious slice of eye candy. For me, though, I never saw the paperweight as anything with a history.  I didn’t KNOW the history of these things.  I didn’t grow up owning paperweights.  I never saw them made. I didn’t know what you were SUPPOSED to do with them, or any of the traditionalist baggage that could have served to limit me.  I simply came innocently into their grove and like a child, looked anew at what they could become.  I had nothing that told me anything about any of this was bad, or more desirable than any other.  I was a sculptor getting my M.F.A. and I was just taking glass because it was such a cool medium.  I took a beginning glass class that covered the basics, but was so intimidated by the skill and knowledge of the other glassblowers in the program, that I wound up working alone much of the time.  In some ways, it may have been my own loss from a technical stand point, but the flip side was I remained a conceptual vacuum where I didn’t always know what should or could be done.  Normally, this way of working is not one I would even suggest as being productive for my students in sculpture, but I have to admit that it served me in a way that helped me to dream in a different way, in a more unlimited way.   I learned all of my techniques pertaining to solid work entirely on my own.  As a result, I did everything opposite from the way its normally done. Instead of making my “paperweights” clear on the outside, I made them opaque. The design on the outside wasn’t even a design, but a rock-like effect.  Light did not dance across their surfaces, but instead they had a shell that obscured their interiors.  I also didn’t make my pieces round.  They were  lumpy, bumpy, and organic.  I was more interested in real geodes and how their surfaces looked.  I wanted to make the glass NOT even LOOK like glass!  Then, by cutting them open, I  revealed their interiors, which were sparkling worlds and galaxies full of brilliance and crystalline beauty. Everything about these pieces has defied what the assumed definition of a “paperweight” is to the point that I often have trouble even calling them paperweights. People seem to need to have a way to peg them, so they get this categorization.  The truth is, these pieces are hard to make.

Already, have had two artist attempt my designs, one who sought to adapt it to his own color effects and design sense while another has not taken my design very far from the tree from which it was conceived (which bothers me the most since this feels like theft to me).  One of them gave up the work because of some technical problems that I faced in the work but worked through.  It was interesting looking at his derivative work and being able to see that the issues I had worked so hard on to fix were still remaining in his version.  A given type of work can be difficult to make technically, but the user doesn’t want to know about this, they want an object that they can use, and while part of their enjoyment is the “how’d they do that?” factor, it doesn’t matter much since its all just details.  When people go to see a movie very rarely do they want to see a film about HOW the film was made;  they just want to become absorbed in the art, in the story being woven.  Regardless of the level of difficulty (or lack thereof), the bottom line is:  is it exquisite?  Is it finely crafted, thought out, does it have good design, and does it say something in a way that hasn’t been said before? If the answer is yes to all of this, then its a “go for launch.”

In my teaching, I try to get this across to my students.  We talk about what art is, and while its a sticky wicket sometimes, part of what art is about is its ability to take an old conversation and turn it into a new one. Most great artists took what was assumed and turned it inside out.  Duchamp took ordinary objects and said they were art, underscoring how important INTENT was in art making, while at the same time also using everyday mundane objects  in an entirely new way. Sometimes it can also mean starting an entirely new conversation based on new concepts, new forms, and new ideas. Ultimately its about transforming the mundane into the profound, and this is no mean task.  It means thinking different, and it also means not allowing the mundane to trip you up, or to believe that there isn’t some new way to go about making something so that it breathes new life into the artform.  Its about not letting our biases rule the day because just beneath the bias runs the strongest and most powerful current we know; creativity.  It also means stopping before you begin your eye roll when you hear of something you think you already know everything about!  When we can learn to think different, we can also create different. When you can make different, you can come up with new forms, new product, new stories, new ways of seeing and feeling.  This is one of the powerful sides of the human spirit, and that is a great thing to embrace!

So much about design and art is taking established guidelines or forms and creating something new out of it.  Being able to break out of those old molds, modes, and ways of thinking is the essence of innovation, and that means design, too!  To that end, this is in large part what this blog is about; innovation.  As I write, I now have several new lines of work waiting for me to continue to tune and tinker with.  The concept is well fleshed out, but the form needs to follow the function, and the function is the concept.  How well do these two align?  How do I pull on the idea of utility and art to create something new?  What taboos can I break, or old notions can I leave by the wayside in the search for the next big thing?  This is where the rubber meets the roads, my friends, and this is the very meat of what interests me most about what I do. In the posts that follow I will be discussing the processes and ways that have led me to knew work.  The studio is a place of flux.  I am not a factory, although the studio sure looks like one.  It could be one, or it could be an entirely new model based upon a very old one, that of the individual studio artist and artisan creating new work just as they have for millenia.  I might even manage to comment on the state of design in our world, perhaps in small bite sized chunks!

Goodnight Sweet Readers…

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