Art & Religion

I have never been a joiner. I have joined metal, wood, and glass and a host of other materials.  I know the great benefit in doing things like that, but when it comes to clubs, associations, and religions, these things kind of leave me cold. For some time I thought of myself as a lone wolf of sorts, but I realize that really isn’t it at all.  I just don’t fit, and never have.  I have never felt comfortable within the confines of a dogma that required me to put faith in tenets that I couldn’t agree with.  Somehow, we managed to split our natures into two halves; one rested within what amounted to a strictly rational “prove it” paradigm based on empirical evidence and another that required you to simply have faith.  The one with faith sounds good, but along with it came a terrible inability to question the tradition and what it contained.  Somehow, science has lacked what religions contained and religions lacked what science contained.  We managed to partition ourselves off, creating institutions that mirror the great cleft in our souls.  Look at how big it is; science dominates a part of the world while religions dominates the other.  One is feeling, the other does not require you to feel ANYTHING.  One, though feeling, has taken us into terrible places like Crusades, Inquisitions, suspicions, righteousness while the other has taken us to the brink of total nuclear annihilation.  True, this is all the result of tools in the hands of frail humans, but look, we have this great divide that is perfectly expressed in these two institutions and “schools” of thought and being.

I am not here to bash any of them.  Just pointing out the problem I have had since I was young.  Science left me thirsty, dry, even, and religions left me awash in waters that felt…..well…..less than good.  Like we gave it our shot but as we hold up the great cloth of the shroud of religion, there were all these holes in it.  Bits of truth clung to it here and there, gold glimmering so beautifully, yet not enough to truly satisfy.  And the same was so with science.  It seemed that science lacked the very thing that we need to make that quantum leap into the next sphere of knowing and being.  I am not suggesting we merge them.  I think we need to simply merge our own fractured awareness and build something anew.

For me, the way through this was art.  Sure, for some, art may seem like its a convenient place to find shelter, but the sheltering of art has proven to be every bit as much science as religion.  For every piece that is made, I must work through all kinds of engineering issues.  I have to present the concept in a way that I feel good about.  I have no rules to guide me, only the prompting of my own soul.   One of the few things in my life that I NEVER sought any approval of or for was my sculptural works.  Few pieces that I have ever made were ever subject to financial pressure to MAKE and produce something strictly for survival of some kind.  I never really cared to sell any of my fine art, my sculpture.  For me, these pieces were part of a reflecting process that was as much science as religion, of a sort.  In being both, they were neither.  I don’t really want to call them either.  They are something else.  They are ART.  Art comes by way of discipline but is not fully complete until grace enters.  Luckily, grace can be achieved through discipline, for this is the true heart of art.  Artists speak of art less as a product as a way of being.  Serving tea is art; walking down the sidewalk is art.  Life is art.  Breathing becomes art.  How?  Once discipline invades your life fully enough, everything you do is guided by it.  This is not some discipline pressed on you from the outside, although your teachers may seek to impress you of the need for it, it does not and cannot come about except by way of your own inner resources.  Either you have it or not.  It is passionate engagement in something that brings you fulfillment.  That, though, is as wide as the sky.  What fulfills the sky is different from the earth, the physicist, Sufi, pilgrim, or artist.  It is awakening the artist within, and this artist is in many ways much like the priest or priestess, or scientific researcher.  There is a dedication to something larger than ones self in all of this.  Even as you remain incredibly individual.  Like the artist.

It isn’t that I feel that selling my sculptural works somehow undermines their production or makes them less pure.  I simply have never had a desire to push them.  they were very personal, my journey, a deep plumbing of the depths.  I suppose I just never got over the feeling of being so close to the work.  Like aesthetic distance helps many artists stand back to observe their work in order to look at it with fresh eyes, I simply never felt like stepping back enough like that was the point.

Somewhere along the line I fell in love with glass.  For someone who worked in opaque materials like stone, concrete, bronze, iron, aluminum and wood, glass was revolutionary.  And yet, the entry of glass into my life was perfectly timed.  At the time I was making these translucent pods that were hybrid forms of seeds and wings.  they looked like airfoils, seeds, and leathery objects.  I had developed an interesting reaction with a certain type of glue that I discovered upon heating the glue in order to dry it quickly.  What began as a model using a modified form of paper maché turned into a three year investigation into a new way of working.  Once I got into glass, it was a sensible next step because the pieces I was making had gone from bounded to unbounded, cracking open, revealing something within.

The sculptor Richard Surls paid a visit to my studio while I was a grad student.  Richard is an intense kind of guy, and as he came into the studio it was clear that he wanted to give me some help, some insight, to leave with something substantive.  Richard is a guy who feels deeply and doesn’t want to feel as though he has copped out.  At least, that was my take about him.  He sat there, looking at my work, many drawings on the walls of the studio, some work in mid process on the tables.  I had one drawing lying on the table that was unusual.  It was an altar piece I made that opened up to reveal a floating plate with fork and knife as if they were elevated to supernatural status.  The side panels had motifs related to food.  the idea was that our spiritual traditions should feed us in the same way that food does.  So, I thought, why not just have food?  It was in truth, unlike anything I had done.  It was more a scribble than anything else, an offhand thing.  Unimportant to the stuff I was doing, which seemed so serious, bound up in this sense of being held within, begging for release.  Somewhere in my folders of old drawings that piece is surely tucked away in boxes in my loft.

Richard sat there, he looked around and said “You know, I don’t even know you, I don’t know your work and here I am hoping to give you something worthwhile in these few minutes….”  He picked up the drawing on the table and said “When I look around, I see that all of these forms are closed, bound, wrapped, encased…..Why?  I look at this drawing you have here, and its open.  I say; open the door!  Whatever you do, you have GOT to open that door!”

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear, really.  I had invested so much energy in this body of work.  I was in an M.F.A. program, and I had to come up with work that would reflect well on me.  My space was littered with all of these shells, airfoils, seed pods.  What on earth did this man mean by telling me this?  It upset the apple cart, and it made me feel uneasy.  Richard Surls is himself a well known artist.  He has done numerous public commissions.  He is kind of a big deal in the art world, and for as big as his standing is in that world, he made himself a welcome visitor in the studio due to the care and passion he brought into that rather brief meeting. I had to admit that he was right; the energy in the work was bound up.  Up until that time, I felt like that was what gave the work its power.  But I know now that when we seek to empower weakness or blockages of perception, we enable them in ourselves, and the gods we choose only serve to reinforce themselves.

The following year, moving towards my thesis work, I made the realization; I was done with everything I had up to that point done in school.  All of that work, all of that research, I was just done.  And I was scared shitless because I had a committee that was bearing down on me expecting to see great work.  This gnawed at me for a few weeks.  I knew I could not go on the way I had the past two years.  Something had to give.  And then something DID give.  Crash.  The floor fell through inside of me and an entirely new body of work entered.  Within a few hours an entire exhibition stood ready in my mind.  All of it.  This is how it has been in my life.  I don’t seem to do work one piece at a time but gather large clusters of them in a big explosion of creative output. And there they all were in my mind.  Some required casting, some required fabrication of glass and metal and silk.  I wondered if I was crazy.  I had five months before the show.  How on earth was I going to accomplish this in time?  As I drove to school through a drizzling rain, I decided that I  HAD to do this.  I had to let the past go and open the door to this work.  I wasn’t even thinking of the conversation that Surls and I had had in my studio in the Glove Factory (so called because it was a converted glove factory).  Just as I made up mind mind, I turned to see this old dead oak tree sitting out in the field to my left.  In it sat bald eagle.  My whole life I had never seen an eagle in nature before.  There it was, so carefully positioned out in nature as if it were some sign.  The eagle just looked at me, sitting there with its head showing the wet.  I was like that eagle, ready to soar but caught in the branches of this old dead tree.  It was time to soar.  It was time to OPEN that door.  It was a very fitting image.  From that moment, I began working on an entirely new body or work.  One would be a temple or tower of stones with wings that emerged out of the rubble.  Another was a boat filled with a spirit.  One was a puzzle piece that looked like it might fit together.  It consisted of over 600 lbs of bronze and was the largest casting I had done up until that time.  You never know what will happen when you open yourself up to new things.

I finished the work days before the show.  I took the last show slot available because I knew I’d need it.  I sweated bullets and I was a man on a mission.  I filled the gallery with bronzes, mixed media pieces, and drawing of my work.  All of these pieces represented a swift turn away from the old ways of working and opened a door of sorts.  that door opened up into my work in glass.  Upon exiting graduate school I would take another year of post graduate study in glass in order to make up for all the work in sculpture I had done.  I had begun to feel that glass would be the next step.  It would be the means for me to continue doing sculpture as an independent artist.

Since that time, life has taken a lot of turns.  One of them has involved a divorce, another  left me unable to work, a shoulder injury that landed me in a bad spot at a critical time when I needed to continue working in order to make an important transition both economically and artistically.  Sometimes life has a way of intervening as if by some grander scheme. Eagles and shoulders.  For as hard as all of that was, I also know it has forged a different person in its wake.  The work in the glass studio is one that is fluid, in the moment, and full of energy.  It HAS to be,  you cannot set aside molten glass like you do a piece of stone.  It demands attention IN THE MOMENT.  It is like a living prayer, this glass.  Some call it a “dance” for how coordinated the steps have to be in order to spin glass into light.

For far to long I have not made the pieces that I enjoy the most.  They are the hardest to do, but also are, to me, the most beautiful.  They incorporate a series of extremely thin layers of colored glass to create a painterly patterned surface.  While this is a technique that many glassblowers use, the way I use it is decidedly  different.  I took it on as a challenge to something my professor Bill Boysen once said while I was at Carbondale at grad school.  He said in a critique that you couldn’t make work of any significant size that employed colored powders.  They were just too thin.  Once he said that, I decided that I had to see if there was a way to prove this idea wrong.  Not to disrespect Bill.  Bill was a wonderfully generous man and allowed me, a kind of stepchild from the sculpture department, to be a part of his program.  The result of that challenge has resulted in a 15 year odyssey in glass and has led to my Nautilus Series.  But I will tell you that there is some religion in the making of these pieces.  The religion, though, is hard to catch when watching or casually observing.  It exists between the movements, carefully tucked.  Its the FEELING in the moment.  How can I even explain this?  It is so simple.  Now, though, this body of work exists like a blank slate which seems now to be pulling me along in an entirely new way to rework that slate into something entirely new, to continue reopening that door.  What is difficult becomes seemingly easy, like the gymnast that MAKES it look so effortless.  It only looks that way.  Here, though, inspiration can bloom in the previously difficult moment as you develop skill and open yourself to still new horizons.  This prayer then becomes something that you no longer concentrate on, you are now able to exist in a state of grace.  And isn’t this what inspiration offers us?  I don’t even think that inspiration is something that is just in art.  It is woven all through life.  It is what we are.

But today, as I made the first Nautilus in perhaps a year, I felt all of flood back.  It wasn’t that it was the feel of the familiar, but that there is something that happens when making these pieces.  There is a lot of care, a lot of exacting movement.  A lot of it is done entirely blind.  You cannot see the results until they are done.  You see, the pieces are made from the inside out.  As a result, the color paid down first is covered by successive layers.  This means that as you do this, you have to get it right.  You have to lay down the right amount of color and then you have to blow the piece out to the right volume.  If you blow it too much, the color goes pale and weak.  If you do not blow it out enough, it is too dark and it looked muddled.  But in order to do this, you have to have a good handle on what you are doing as you do it.  You have to be very present.  Like a prayer or meditation.  Like a Buddhist, perhaps.  Get any of it off, and its just…OFF.  As you blow the glass, now entirely encased in color that hides the inner bubble, you go by what experience says to you.  You work from an invisible template, here.  It is like painting in a darkened room.  People often ask me if the pieces are a surprise when I make them.  Only when they do not work out as the template I have been working from does not mirror the piece. To work in this way, every piece a complete surprise, would defeat the purpose of production glass, and yet it is true that when you allow the accidental to move into the moment, some amazing things can happen.  How do you make a living doing that?  You have to bring the ship into the harbor, you have to follow a form that goes from amorphous glass to certain form.  Something from nothing. There is a balance between creative production and the mind numbing make a hundred of the same pieces all in a row kind of work.  All of it is important, but for different reasons.  To stay sane and creatively vital, I think you have to keep both balanced and balance does not mean static, but dynamically balanced.  You know this balance when you are experiencing it, and a lack one way or the other winds up sneaking up on you.

In truth, the best works happen when I let go of controlling the outcome but flow.  After fifteen years of professional practice, this sounds to me a little crazy to say, but I think that after a while the need for discipline lessens as it becomes like an instinct.  Skill has been fully integrated to the degree that it has been developed.  It becomes more a dance, a cooperative rhythm that is less a challenge as it is something more, something that can verge on religion because you are no longer concentrating on the practice or discipline and now on something far more expansive.  Mystical, even..  It is worshiping at the feet of nature, the great template, the masterwork that is creation, which is for me, the one evidence of an intelligence that has brought this all into being even if that sounds a tad simplistic.  I know it is not simple……for science has uncovered the incredible complexity that takes place in order for light to be translated into impulses int he brain.  And for those who do not know, vision is one of THE most amazing processes you could imagine.  Look into the chemical reactions that must take place at the pico level of time (pico is an extremely fast measure of time).  Anyway, marvelous, yes.

So today I was able to go back into this work and remember what it was to do these pieces.  As I ponder the next direction for them, I fell how lucky I have been to be involved in such a sheltered place as art.  For some, it can be fraught with troubles and challenges, and it certainly is that.  But it is also the one place where I can look out and within all at once to find the sublime.  Here, I do not have to submit my findings for peer review, nor do I have to fear pointing out the obvious in church.  Here, my temple is the glass house.

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