Breaking New Ground

Long neck copyMuch of what I do in glass has been an effort not to do anything that is like anything others have done.  This is hard to do well. There seems to be very little that is new under the sun.  We say a vase is a vase.  Sometimes we can make our work different by the shapes, the colors, the design we develop within the piece.  I developed a way to make my glass look like rock and this made them very different and sought after. It created the art of the double-take that leads one to think that you see something that you do not, and in realizing it is not as it appears, leads one to wonder how on earth the artist or artisan accomplished it.  I probably don’t need to tell you that this is also where art begins, that place where the ordinary gets transmuted into the extraordinary in some way.  Doing this kind of work  also spawned people making copies, people who I saw walk up to my work, observe it carefully, and then begin making a derivative of it in one years’ time.  I am told that this is a form of congratulations, but for me it does not feel like that.

For years I have zigged when others have zagged.  I did not follow conventions of tradition. As a result I developed techniques in glass that I have yet to see anyone work in the same way.  They are round vase sizeddifferent for the reason that no one has been crazy enough to do what it is I have done.  Even my teacher once said that the techniques I would later use were not something that would yield significant enough results to be practical. That was eighteen years ago and many of those pieces later.  They have somehow gone from impracticality to total practicality…..and new ground being unearthed, or blazed. I have long been amazed at the effects that fuming has had on glass.  This was a technique that Louise Comfort Tiffany developed that became a signature mark of his design work in glass.  Needless to say it has been wildly popular ever since with plenty of paths being cut into that territory. It has been enough to keep me from going down that road even though I have used analogs of irridizing for years, such as dichroics.  Dichroic is a term for a development made during the early NASA days that was developed to create a thin metallic but translucent film on glass lenses to make it possible for photo film aboard the Lunar Rover to be exposed in full daylight on the moon without being cooked (which it did when exposed under normal full light conditions on the lunar surface).  In a way, irridizing and dichroics aren’t that different from one another in that they both involve very small particles of metal that build up slowly on the surface of glass.

I always said I would not fume or irridize glass.  I always considered it a well-worn path.  And it is. The lure, though, of the lustrous surface in glass is powerful.

closeupfumed2

A few days ago I ordered some supplies for irridizing glass to give it a try. At first the results were entirely unremarkable.  I began to think that the people telling me how they did it were not actually giving me the whole scoop.  It took a little trial and error to work it out.  The colors were okay, but not great. The information was incomplete, and some things like the type of alcohol used for the spray was wrong.  These small things matter and can make big differences. I changed a few things and switched the order of some things around and found much to my pleasure and surprise that I had some pretty amazing results taking place.

upclose1 copy

Today was interesting since the ovens were still empty by noon.  There was no work that had been made. By five o’clock, though, one oven was full and a second one was sent up.  Work was being made at a pretty fast pace and everything was pretty amazing. For a first try.

At some point in my art education I discovered that there was an entry into the sublime that didn’t have to do with the usual concerns of art.  In art content is king, which is to say its supposed to BE about something. I found increasingly that my focus began to settle on simpler things, less complicated things.  While art does create an experience, so too does the glint of light off a brushed metal surface.  Just HOW that impacts us or affects us, or me, is huge.  How the look of polished bronze impacts me is hard for me to explain.  It is just such a basic thing…because it is so direct, so immediate and uncomplicated.  This is the same uncomplicated thing that leads so many on this planet to esteem a rather soft metal not very useful for much of anything except electronic connections and jewelry, a metal we  call gold.  What does it mean? Nothing.  It isn’t about THAT.  Its about the EXPERIENCE.  It is the same thing that Monet did in his paintings to simulate the effect of looking through an early morning foggy haze.  The haze itself means nothing, really, but is itself an effect.  We might say that these things are without coincidence or unimportant, but for the they are not.  I think that the rational mind NEEDS for things to MEAN something. If something does not MEAN something, it simply grows disinterested.  The irrational part of the mind, though, is entirely comfortable with this lack of meaning and instead seeks the EXPERIENCE.  All of this is very much tied up in how our two brain lobes function together as well as separately.  But that is for another blog entry.

If the purpose of art is to help us to see a new way or to impact us deeply, I would argue that just how a color glints off a surface or a texture is rendered can also impact us in a similar way. Nature is the source for all art.  HOW light impacts an environment has become fodder for at down through the ages.  The Vermeer paintings of the wan northern light filtering in through the windows and illuminating the soft light complexions of his subjects creates a simulation or recreation of an original event experience that reaches the sublime.  None of it would have half the impact were it not for something so simple as how light strikes an object, such as the skin of a human in the painting.  Yes, these things matter so much, yet are so often yoked in the service of a larger work that we very often don’t recognize them for what they are, or WHY they are.  I think for me, looking at a simple effect and KNOWING why it affects me fills me with something that just looking at a painting or landscape (whether painted or not) may not do since I might be so caught up in the details that I miss the simpler things, the foundational things that serve to hold the whole circus tend up on its rods and ropes.  The ground  holds the very canopy of heaven up.

detail of a fumed surface

detail of a fumed surface ©Parker Stafford

I can remember sitting with my infant son  who was all of seven months old in my arms in my backyard as the sun set slowly. The entire landscape was washed in a rich gold color. This was the “golden hour” as photographers like to call it, a time when the vibration of light changes to an increasingly warmer tone and is very kind to people being photographed.   The air seemed to heat up but this had nothing at all to do with temperature. The world was bathed in this light that made everything glow.  It was merely the effect of light as it glinted at its fallen angle in the sky. Within minutes the effect passed.  What it conjured, or was conjured in my own mind as a result of its presence, was nothing short of mystical.  It felt transcendent and entirely difficult to even put into words. Perhaps it was because I had had several dreams in my life when I noticed a golden light filtering into my dreamworld and felt as though the light of heaven was infiltrating in.  The experience, though, was entirely simple and uncomplicated, just as with the sunlight.   It went beyond content, it went beyond meaning.  It was an experience of something so simple that it had the power to be a potent force in transporting me to another place…..but a place that was so incredibly present that it had nothing about being swept away, but steadied in the moment as all of the lights seemed to come on and light up life in a moment that felt like an epiphany. My son lay uncommonly quiet and still in my arms as though he was aware that something was taking place.  No squirming; a willingness to take part in this moment, however it was he took part in it for himself.  So in the same way, I find the simple direct nature of making decorative objects to carry, at least potentially, the same experiential “oomph”  as some of these stolen moments that rise like highlights in life.  Curiously, more and more of them are singular, simple, and entirely direct.  Like how the glint of gold is direct, perhaps.

bowl copyThe challenge now is to take this method of working and push the shapes into territory not normally thought of as part of the fumed world.  There are actually very few people who fume glass who make unusual shapes.  For some reason a lot of fumed work tends to be pretty traditional.  Maybe its time to shift things around.

I have been drawn to a rather amazing piece made by Tiffany’s studio that uses a type of fume that is very different from what has become mainstream.  There is a giant punchbowl that he made that is really quite amazing.  The surface on the glass, though, is buttery, soft, and sensual. It lacks the glitz of the tin chlorides and the shifting color palette.  The effect of this punch bowl is far more subtle and this type of surface does not show up often in fumed work.  Currently, I don’t yet know why.  I suspect that it is because it is either very expensive a fume mixture or it is harder to accomplish.  I suspect that it is the latter.  And if this is so, I would like very much to find the particular metals used for the effect and see how I can bring a 21st century sensibility to it in the creation of new work.  This is to say: stay tuned – there will be more!

golden vase resized

I hope you are liking looking at the pieces as much as I have enjoyed making them. It was a real surprise to be honest.

Tumbler. ©Parker Stafford

Tumbler. ©Parker Stafford

I didn’t think I’d like them as much as I do. It has lit a new fire underneath me. Sure, it’s just another line of work, but its more than that.  It gets me down the road a little more with all of this and moves me to the next thing…..and there is a lot of these next things to fill a lifetime it seems.

I swore I’d never irridize…..

fume group copy

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Welcome To The Swamp

When I first began my business I discovered that my production created or required a pace that was unlike anything I had experienced up until that time.  I had come from a graduate program where I blew glass four hours a week.  I was able to stretch that time because I had the last blow slot of the day which went from eight until midnight.  I had access to ovens that were what are called long cycle which did not get used very much.  The scheduling of these ovens always made it possible for me to continue working on until two or three into the morning….which I often did.   Every object I made was special.  Each one marked a transiting from one level of ability to another.  When I began working 10 to twelve hours a day in my own studio, I would blow as many pieces in a couple of days as I would have blown in an entire semester when I was at school.  The arc of development is very rapid in the beginning and often has a tendency to slow as skills are accumulated.  After that, the leaps or strides made are often from moments of pure inspiration.  It sends things in a new direction and the skill set may be enlarged, stretched, grown, even unexpectedly.  Hopefully as an artist, we all get that new growth added to our old growth.

When you make things like I do, I find that the way I look at objects, especially the ones I make, is very different from anything I knew before.  In a week I might have a hundred of one thing move through various stages of grinding packaging, shipping, or blowing or conceiving. It can be very easy for these objects to be just that; objects.  I can’t live in such a place where everything is debased in this way.  For me what I make wont EVER be just another object.  I might as well be selling T-shirts or tires.  To do what I do I realized I had to love what I do, love the designs I make (a good design might mean making that work thousands of times), and love the lifestyle the work affords me.  By that I mean that it gives me flexibility to not have to work a nine to five cubicle job.  In fact, the time people have off from their nine to five is most often when I need to be available.  That is nice because it means that I can be off when others are working which makes going to the store or driving down the highway very easy. It also meant I could attend my children’s performances as children in school, art exhibits, talent shows, and other things with my family that were valuable to me.  In truth, I worked 70 to 90 hour weeks in my work, so the time I had to do these things was very important.

To create, to produce in this way requires a level of love for the job, the life, the work and way of life that it elevates it or vaults it beyond anything that I have experienced before.  Work and worker wind their way into one another.  Everything I make I have to make with love. Glass is funny like that; when I am in the groove, I am also feeling the love.  When I am not, it does not flow and the work most often becomes difficult.  Weird things happen.  I lose pieces.  Taking a break, I can often return to the glass soon to continue working.  This is no ordinary kind of job.  I could not do this work if what I needed or wanted was a nine to five job. I can easily work twelve hours a day seven days a week.  I have worked much more at other times.  The only way I could do that was because I loved what I do.  And this is important.  If you come to the swamp, as I tell my students, you really ought to go  ahead and wrestle  some alligators.  This means to me that if you are going to go to the trouble of doing art -or in my case craft- you might as well do it up.  Make something remarkable.  Cool.  Awesome.  Make it worthwhile.  Don’t just mark time.  You never know when you wont have that time anymore.

Many people look at my way of life with a mixture of envy and admiration.  They see the work all finished and clean in a gallery  environment and can’t help but admire.  The truth is, though, it takes wrestling some gators.  Sure enough.  So in order to do this kind of thing, you really do have to love it otherwise it will grow old fast and wither on the vine. I am lucky since I have managed to keep my interest, a love, all these years and continue developing new work instead of stagnating.  It is easy to burn out, wither, blow away.  I have gone through burn out several times in fifteen years of business.  The last one had me wondering whether I even had love for this anymore. My priorities were askew, I found, that the hardness of art and craft is such that if you do not love it, truly love what you are doing, it can be a hard ride.  Love makes it worthwhile.  Maybe in the corporate world that just sounds like silly fluff, weak pasty talk.  Some of us believe that it matters what you do, what you make, design, create, and even leave behind.  Those who care aren’t the strange ones.  There is a whole lot lost in the world if that isn’t the case.

In a day when industrial giants seek to produce at ever larger scales, it is really nice to see studios producing handmade in the way they are today; high quality and with lots of good design and a whole lotta love.

I esteem objects that are made well.

I love objects that have great design.

I like design that makes using an object more fun. As humans we like to decorate EVERYTHING, so its nice to see well designed chairs and clothes and brushes and rugs and cups and a zillion other things big enough to have something different about them beyond mere utility.  I even don’t mind poor design when I know the artist is trying to make the world a better place.  We all have our own tastes.  When an object is made with love, it emits an energy, a sense of aliveness and presence that you can FEEL.  This turns a simple tumbler into a holy grail experience.  It can. You just might be surprised what a little love can do to your day and the objects that share that day with you.

I came to wrestle alligators.  Its not easy always.  Sometimes you doubt yourself, why you are even here doing this.  No one else is there backing you up; you MAKE all of this happen.  By hook or crook.  But that is just it; it is like giving birth….you have to WANT to make things and to see them from beginning to end.  And get them done.  On time.  I actually like to improve the quality of life by making great objects.  I believe that by imbuing my work with unusual, unique and powerful design concepts that I am actually dispersing mediocrity one object at a time.  i do not pause to think that perhaps we have enough stuff.  It is ALL just stuff.  And since it ALL just stuff and things, we have a duty as artists and artisans, I believe, to make those objects worth the while by being interesting, creative, excellent, usable, amazing, remarkable.  And even if it is just ONE of these things, it passes.  It is good.  It is good because it does not let through the door anything less than something that says clearly that we don’t have to be slaves to the mediocre world of the mass produced and unremarkable cheap object (that likely pollutes a country beyond sustainability just for having the industries that make the things they do that are so cheap—there is always a price even if you are not paying for it at the store).  I don’t think I ever wanted this to be easy.  I wanted it to be satisfying.  And today was satisfying.  Hard work, long day, lots made.  If it were easy maybe everyone would be doing it.  Maybe that leaves me a little more elbow room for wrestling that alligator.

What we make says a lot about us.  As a culture.  As a person.  A business.  As an artisan.  As a world. I esteem this and bring to it quality and uniqueness.  We should all live life like its worth living and that today could be well be the last day we get to spend on the planet. By bringing that level of engagement, we also bring our heart and spirit in a much more tangible way.  Call me old-fashioned, but I actually believe that these things matter.  Welcome to the swamp.