Why Art

Note: In late October I began to dig out my studio after having sold my home and moved onto the studio property. While renovating a mobile home on the property originally intended for an employee to live in, I decided the best way to do it was if I lived in it during this period of transition. The studio was packed with belongings and I began to move out the things I wanted to keep and toss what I don’t need anymore.

The glass furnace was in the process of being rebuilt when I had a furnace block fall on my hand, nearly pinning me under the block. Watching it all as it happened, I was able to move quickly out of the way. Still, it snapped one finger and fractured another. My hand had bruising and after a visit to the E.R., the finger was reset and put in a splint. X-rays revealed the damage, though, and surgery was required to fix my smallest finger. In many ways, the surgery created even more damage in order to reconstruct the finger so I might still be able to use it. It’s amazing how losing use of one finger can affect your grip and dexterity!

As a result, progress has been slowed at the studio and the pace has suddenly changed. I have had to rely on the help of others when my cast has kept my hand largely immobilized for a month and a half. That said, I’m very close to having the studio operational again. A large order of glass was made a month ago and I now have colors in that I haven’t used before. I look forward to using colors for iridizing as well as colors for making pumpkins when we are ready. It has also given me pause recently to bring in a technician to assess my furnace doors and suggests ways to automate opening and closing them (he comes tomorrow).  This will come in very handy in the years to come. While things have been busy, I am now having downtime imposed by the injury. It seems a good time to do some writing on a blog I have neglected now for months.

For more information about the studio, classes, as well as the designs that I make, go to my Facebook page HERE and look through the feed to see work by students in the past. Until then, some writing on creativity, glass, and other things…

If the link doesn’t work for your device, copy and paste this link into your browser:

https://www.facebook.com/Stafford-Art-Glass-273860936858/

 


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We create to express and communicate ideas, feelings, and experiences. The arc of art is so broad and takes in such broad swaths of considerations and mindsets. It’s been used to express religious fervor and religious ideas, political propaganda, social justice (speaking truth to power) as well as recreating the beauty of nature. Art accepts all comers. The only rule is that there are no rules. You get to make your own. How that winds up turning out is really up to the artist, and if you are a professional artist, your ideas need to hit a nerve in order to gain acceptance most often. If, however, you create art as a hobby, you are the freest of the free; you can create just as you wish to create. I have, as I have gotten older, sought a path through both of these polarities because I have found that my greatest discoveries came when I wasn’t worried about the bottom line. It has also served to inform my teaching at the university level as well as in my own studio.

This has led me to treat my studio as something akin to a temple of sorts. I wouldn’t call it a dogmatic temple, but one that seeks to serve the one great pole that everything in the studio turns around, which is the North Star I call creativity. It turns out, that while you can be very creative while under pressure and under fire, there is another mode where creativity works even better, which is in an environment completely free from fear or any outside concerns. This is part of my “temple” idea and is why I treat it as a place where I do my best to lay aside all outside concerns of life in order to be truly free to create.

I have spent decades studying the mind/body connection to creativity in the hope of building my own creative potential as a maker and creator. Along the way I found much more than I bargained for, and I found it not by taking up a discipline like psychology or some other science, but by going to a place few go. It has led me to a new understanding of how creativity works and how our own brain and mind are involved. It’s revolutionary. But because I don’t have peer reviewed articles or a degree in the field, I speak from the authority of my own heart and my own experience….backed up through my years of careful observation and creative practice. Now it’s not my intention to go into what all of this entails. That seems too weighty a thing for this time of year as we are stepping out of the darkness of winter while anticipating the light of Spring. I note that for the next few months, we have probably some of the coldest weather ahead of us.

I’m a glass blower whose background is in sculpture. I came late to glass and spent a decade working full time in the field. I did a lot of catching up in that time in order to build a stable of designs that would sustain me in my chosen profession. I learned a lot on my own that I was not taught directly. The truth is, I had one graduate level introductory glass course. The rest, I did on my own, even while studying for my MFA at the University Of Southern Illinois at Carbondale in the early 90’s. I worked alone once my own studio was built in 1997, and my studio was never open to the public for the first seven years of operation. My studio space was small and unsafe for people to be in except for experienced glass blowers. When I had an assistant for the first time, we had to find a way to move in that cramped space so we didn’t slap each other with molten glass. It also got unbelievably hot, which is itself quite dangerous for anyone who might be sensitive to heat. Slowly, I began to have open studio events where the public could come see glassblowing from the safety of a small area in the studio. When I had the opportunity to move to Southwest Virginia, which is where I grew up, the only building for sale during my move turned out to be perfect for glass. I have found that there is this curious thing that happens when you are doing things right for yourself. It’s a form of serendipity that we call synchronicity. Serendipity is like a happy accident that works out, but synchronicity involves your having already thought about something that then happens I a rather interesting, but personally significant way. When these happen, it’s as though some larger force is involved in making the perfect events fall into place. These have happened to me personally for years, but were largely limited to those singular big moves in life. Read in and you will see how this synchronicity played out in my move…

A year before I made my move, I sat down and sketched out my dream studio. I was careful to calculate the square footage of the space in my studio notebook. I quickly forgot about that sketch from 2005, a year before I even knew I would be making the move, and didn’t find it again until 2011 when I was looking for something, maybe a glass recipe. When I found my sketch from 2005, it seemed that my drawing was eerily similar in size to the new studio (which I had no control,over finding….it was the only commercial building on the market so I took what I could get at the time) I realized upon doing the calculations of the new building that my new studio was 150 square feet larger than the square footage of my drawing. It seemed like a wish had come through loud and clear. This was significant as it related to offering glass classes because one of the calculations in my drawing from 2005 was to have the kind of space where I could offer classes, which wasn’t possible in the space I was in at the time.

What this new studio offered, with its greatly expanded space and vaulted ceilings, was the opportunity to offer glassblowing to the public. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to do this at first, but then something happened that began to change all of that. This has to do with the nature of creativity and the discovery I made about the workings of the mind and the brain (which isn’t important for my purposes here, except that something was the trigger that got this effort moving). What I found was that by thinking about how best to make glass accessible to the public, I was able to develop a method of teaching glass that can take someone who has never done glass before and allowed them to begin realizing designs straight out of the gate.

Glassblowing has for centuries been known as a team effort. While I worked alone and bucked the trend, I had worked on teams in graduate school and understood how they worked pretty well. I folded this aspect into my thoughts on how to teach glass to beginners. We would work as a team. By doing this, I could perform the steps that take years to master while giving the student over 80% of the actual work in making their pieces. Some people just want some level of involvement but don’t want to spend weeks or months learning a few important glass techniques. Others are interested in glass in a more involved way. For them, they are willing to plough through the piles of lost pieces in order to develop technique or skill.

The thing is that creativity is not dependent on skill. Creativity is what we are deeper down. No matter the area of human endeavor, creativity is everywhere. It doesn’t need to be art. How we build houses, the ideas that go to make for a new invention….all of this and more are the traces left by creativity. But for me, the question was how to teach glass so that I can excite, then inspire my students, which is where creativity emerges most readily. This is not a teachable thing, and things that you cannot teach are part of who we are. This is experiential. So the way began to unfold for me.

By not getting caught up In technique, I came at teaching art or craft from a unlikely direction. Students were encouraged to think wildly, without the constraints that technique tends to impose and I became the technician and my students became the designer. Yes, in some cases, I did the technical work myself, but the student was there gathering the glass, shaping or “marvering” as I guided them along on what step to do next. By doing the heats, the stretches, blowing into the optic mold to get ribs in the glass, I was able to let students realize as much of their creative energy without frustrating them with the technical issues. The result?

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A suncatcher made by a first-time student

People, by and large, have a great time and do amazing work. They love it. I suspect that letting people feel wildly free in a supportive “anything-goes” environment has something to do with it. This also has everything to do with how creativity operates. Think about it. When you are in the inspired moment, how do you feel? One element of the creative moment is the feeling as though anything is possible. It’s a feeling of expansiveness, Of excitement, and we most often are moved to make something. The reality, though, is that once the inspired moment passes, the new idea often has many hours of work involved in order to develop the inspired concept or idea. And this takes time.  This is where the technical or the craft comes into the picture. How best to not get students tangled up in technique lest their creativity gets frustrated in the details? Hmmmm…

 

When I was an undergraduate art student, I realized a years worth of work over the course of a four hour intensive moment of sheer inspiration. I was alone, thinking of what I needed to do, wanted to do, for my thesis exhibition while studying at Berea College in Berea Kentucky. I’m a sculptor, so I couldn’t very well just make my ideas on the spot. I had no idea how my pieces were going to be constructed. I didn’t have the technical details worked out. But I had ideas. So I just let them out by drawing very quickly and then grabbing pieces of foam-cor, wax, paint, and a few small tools like a sharp butter knife and a razor blade, and began making models. All of this was amazingly fast and I realized ideas that kept up with the blazing speed of my creativity. When I was done, I had my whole year laid out in front of me. I would have gotten mired in the technical details if I had tried to think about how I was actually going to build these things. I have since used the same type of method for visualizing new work ever since.

In graduate school eight years later,  with five months to go before my thesis show, I realized I didn’t want to make the pieces I was doing at the time, and decided to make an abrupt change. With only five months remaining, this might have sounded like insanity, but I felt like I needed to do something more.  And then came the synchronicity that helped solidify my feeling into resolve. The same day as I was thinking about this and wondering if I could pull it off, I saw an old wet eagle perched in a dead tree along the road to town. For me, this was a sign. My creativity was like that eagle, and it was cold, wet, and stuck to that dead tree, which was the old work. My own eagle (my creativity) really wanted to soar. So I got to work immediately and re-visioned a whole new body of work in a weeks time. It all worked out, actually, even if I was working right up until the day before the show was installed.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this would help me later when trying to teach people how to tap their own creative juices in the glass hot shop.

Wait. What? Hang on, let me explain.

I think that the biggest thing that I hope people can take-away who come to the studio is realizing the power of their own creativity. What most often stymies people is their fear. Fear of failure, fear of not being able to “do it right” or some other fear-based thinking. It might not be the same kind of fear as when facing a bear in the woods, say, but it’s something that is nonetheless real to most people. And glass comes to the rescue because you can dribble glass on the floor and it will look beautiful. It seems for as intensive as Glass is as a material in the technical realm, it starts off from a very beautiful place. By letting the glass be what it is, designs can be realized very quickly and if students are willing to let their work be a kind of adventure, a lot of really amazing stuff gets made. Glass is a material that seems to me to naturally want to flow when it’s hot. To do that, you have to push glass to the edge of your ability to control it. To do this means you just have to trust the glass sometimes to become fluid or to begin to be at that place where it could all just spin out of control. This is a bit like the self as it tries to relate to creativity, is it not? Your reasoned self has to let go of trying to control your wild creativity if anything amazing is ever going to come through. Most people wind up being so controlled, unknowingly, and glass helps them to let their hair down a little, to loosen up, to relax, and to be a little more free-thinking at the creative level.

Not long ago, I had a local artist who wanted to make some pieces in the shop for some sculpture she was making. She had very definite ideas about one of the pieces and we went about making that piece. It didn’t quite reach the level that either of us had envisioned. Then I turned to her and asked her what her thoughts were on the next piece. She had ideas, but then stopped herself and said that she was interested in my just going with the flow. That’s speak for collaboration. Years ago I tried to make some work for another sculptor based on her ideas but I was really keeping my own ideas out of the mix because I wanted this to be her work not mine. I actually had an idea that I held back on bringing out for her project because I felt like she might feel like it wouldn’t wind up being “hers.” In the end, after working through several iterations that weren’t working out, I said that I had this idea I had been wanting to try in my own work for years. She said that this was what she wanted me to do, to do my end of it bringing whatever it was I was interested in. She wanted to collaborate! I was late to the party! The result was “perfect” in a certain sense, and everything began falling into place in this odd serendipitous way. Once I began, I found that I had piping that I considered using in the glass that just so happened to sleeve perfectly over metal rods that she had already built into her sculpture months before. We didn’t have to source any materials from outside the studio. It was, in a word, easy.

 

In the same way, then, my artist friend recently was able to get a piece that was over-the-top amazing. What made it so great was a mishap with the piece that resulted in its dropping off the pipe and onto the floor. This meant picking the piece up “off-axis” and applying a colored wrap of glass off the original axis as the bubble of glass is oriented to the pipe. What I have found is that my greatest discoveries come when things like this happen. They happen because they force me out of my comfort zone and my old way of thinking. This is just what creativity asks of us if we are to make truly ground-breaking work. When you are faced with losing a piece, something interesting happens, at least with me….which is, with nothing more to lose, the magic comes racing out of the bag because you have nothing left to lose. Here, I’m working at the “edge” of what might be possible or likely…..and the unlikely emerges most often. I tend to feel as though creativity has conspired to break me out of my familiar in order to create the new. It’s not merely an accident, it’s what accidents can do to you mentally and emotionally in that split second when you realize if you don’t act quick, you could lose the piece you have been working so hard on. Her, the accident has become my unlikely conspirator in breaking out of old modes of working, being, thinking, and making. I know that this might sound like insanity to some of you, and honestly, had it not happened a slew of times, I might have not caught on to its raw potential.  Bear in mind though, I’m not talking about going into the studio with the thought of having work crashing to the floor in mid-make. Nope. Read on….

I know that in my field this is something that most artisans group into accidents and sloppy work. As a result, events like these often tend to go unproved for their potential. I’m not suggesting that I go into the studio hoping for accidents, but to learn how to be more and more free in what it is I think I can make. And this is very much what a newbie faces when they come into the studio. Maybe they have seen beautiful glass vases or other forms in their life and they have no idea how to make them, but their ideas can be limited by what they have seen from that past.  Sometimes it’s fun to copy in order to learn, but when it comes to feeling creative and letting it off the leash, a different approach is often the best one. You need a way to match the wild and fast energy that is the natural velocity that creativity needs to travel at. You never know about this “velocity” unless you get into an experience where you are forced to make decisions very quickly. Luckily, glass is made very quickly, all things considered. It is the perfect material for being able to move with the restless energy of creativity to create a series of work within hours or days instead of months or years. Instantaneous gratification? Maybe so, in a way.

What I’m saying here is that I take all comers. I can work in a very controlled technical way and I can support the creativity that is lurking half-realized. I can’t begin to tell you what might come through our collective hands at the studio, but by giving a tap of the hat to the very nature of our creativity while working within the confines of the glass world, some pretty amazing things can be made.

In the months to come, I will be finally getting back to the studio to work full time again. It’s been years since I have been able to do this. With an injury when I moved that sidelined me for a year, a divorce the following year, and a studio but no funds to fuel its start-up, I took to teaching at the university. But in a synchronistic way, events have fallen into place at a favorable time to go back to blowing glass. And I can’t be happier, hopefully I can keep from breaking any more bones and can settle into an exciting and challenging schedule of glass glass glass!

 

If you are interested in classes, or just to come watch glass being blown, announcements will be made publicly on my Facebook page. Classes will include offhand glassblowing, and torch worked glass (bead making). Glassblowing will be available first while the bead making studio has to be built around the torches I already have in-house and will take some time to build the tables, venting, and small kilns, tools, etc., in place before classes can be offered. My hope is that I will be offering both by next Fall. Please “like” my Facebook page as well as to remain more up to date on events and classes there.

https://www.facebook.com/Stafford-Art-Glass-273860936858/

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Writing Your Educational Philosophy

This article is written for my graduate students in ART702 Studio Management at Radford University.

 

Increasingly, schools that advertise for positions in higher education ask for a teaching philosophy.  It seems simple at first blush, but putting together a teaching philosophy can be daunting, especially at first.

If you are minting your first version of your teaching philosophy, there are some things that you will want to consider.  First, the document should be broad so that it can encompass a world of issues.  In many ways less is more, but perhaps even more importantly, efficient is best.  But are there really any rules?  If there are any, no one gives them up. Like that helps on your first go-round, right?

You might feel like you have no idea what your teaching philosophy is about, but you in fact do, even if you don’t know it.  For example, you do know how bad teachers have impacted your learning over the years, right?  So given a negative, you might be able to work from that in order to begin thinking about what it was that you didn’t like in their teaching and correct for that.  The corrected version, then, is you.

Now think about the things that all the best teachers you have had embodied.  Think about all the things they did and said, or maybe didn’t bother to do (which could be just as important) and think about what those things meant from a teaching perspective.  Let’s say you had a teacher that always listened to you and always encouraged you to talk about your work without interrupting you or inserting hard critical advice at a time when it wasn’t needed or wanted.  Maybe that.  Or it could be that no matter what, you know they had your back.  Or how they conveyed technical information.  And you know, you might find that some of the characteristics come down to character, to personality.  And you know, how about that? How might personality play into it?  Truth is, you can’t teach personality, right?  So what might that have to do with teaching and a philosophy?  Now I hope its obvious that I am not saying that you try and address personality, I am of course using it as an example.  A what if.  You, you have to deal with what is.  and I hope I can help you see a little clearer when we are done.

I will give you some examples that I know were operative in my life.  I had a great high school art teacher.  I was increasingly showing interest in 3-D work and this meant that I was veering off the beaten path since most kids in high school were 2-D and thus often did projects together as a group.  But me, I was suddenly hungry for 3-D.  So when I asked about what was possible, my teacher told me how I could throw clay and fire it using the kiln and pottery wheel.  We had a few glazes.  I could do stained glass, small projects.  I could do a kind of jewelry work cutting copper sheet and polishing it.  So I took off on all three of these things.  She gave me the barest of demo’s with each.  She kind of showed me the way and I took off on my own pretty much.  I liked that.  And for me, it was a perfect approach.  In time what I learned was that as a teacher was that we learn by doing, and art is certainly “doing” for sure.  It led me to examine the fine line between needing to know when to convey information and when to stand out of the way and let the student do it.  So this experience was huge for me.  It was all the bigger because this teacher was highly esteemed by nearly every student who darkened her door.  Catherine Pauley.  She was, and is, the best.

I also had a number of very good teachers in college, and each of them form the basis of the things that I try to do with students.

But just as a teacher can give, another can take away, and I had a teacher in graduate school who did this.  He took away by having favorites.  I saw what this did to all of us.  It made us hyper-competitive.  This teacher chose students for opportunities because he liked them.  Now, 20 years out, I can look back at the people I went to school with and see who is using their degree and who is not.  Its interesting because I am one of the few who is still using his degree, and I was never one of the golden children who would be approached with an opportunity to do a public commission. This experience taught me a lot about what NOT to do with my students, which is NEVER to set up a pecking order of favorites.  It’s probably  hard enough as it is to not create the appearance of favorites just in regular conversation in class with students.

I believe there is a better way.  I know there is because the art world is competitive enough as it is without my adding the kind of thing my teacher did to the mix.  Don’t get me wrong; I really admire my old teacher, I just didn’t agree that his way of operating in this regard was helpful in the  short or long run for any of us.

So there you have it; two of my most intimate takes on how my educational philosophy was, and continues to be formed. Me, I had to find a way to express this simply and directly.  And for me, my educational philosophy is a series of important notions that I bring to teaching in the arts.  What I had to do was to put it together into a narrative or work that reads well and also expresses who I am. This is not an easy document to put together!  But by starting, you have the document, and as I have told you before, it is a living document and it will naturally change over time.  I can tell you that five years after graduating with my M.F.A. my teaching philosophy changed a lot (I had digested a lot of new experiences) and it also changed a lot when I did more teaching as an adjunct at Radford University.

While you may not have done much in the way of teaching, you do know what makes a good teacher.  If you are committed to teaching the way you believe makes a good teacher, then by golly, THAT is a teaching philosophy!  this is your guiding light, a statement of principles that you find important in your career in education.  Oh, and you know, that philosophy can change from one year to the next.  I know mine has.  What has changed mine has been my own experience in education.  Like instances when I saw a teacher being unfair to students, like me and others, and was able to see what the fall-out was from that.  I bet you didn’t think your teachers might be teaching you how to teach based on a negative model, right?

I am loathe to mention this next part, but I am going to put it out there not because I feel I would personally do it, but because it is relevant for some people, which has to do with the type of school that you are going to teach at.  Yes, context can matter.  So I ask you, what is the context? Would there be a difference between teaching at a community college, an all-women’s school, a baptist-based small liberal-arts college?  think about that one for a minute.  Would your teaching be different for a school with a strong ethnic population? Fact is, these kinds of things are relevant.  It might be that yes, you do teach differently in an environment where the first language is not English.  How would you deal with this?

What I am saying here is that context could well change how you teach.  How I teach beginners is different from how I would teach graduate students.  I write about this in my education philosophy because I think it is important.  I expect certain things from graduate students that I do not expect from undergraduates.  I want the school that is considering hiring me know where I stand.  To avoid any misunderstandings, but also to be clear about how I would run a program, for example, were I to be hired.

The bottom line here is that a good teaching philosophy will clue people into who you are as a teacher.  So to begin, especially if you are having trouble getting started, I suggest that you make a list of all the characteristics that you can think of that you esteem, and even the ones you don’t, and begin from there. Think broadly and generally and let those general principles be your guiding lights. Oh, and one detail; keep the document within a page to two pages.  Say what you need to say, so if it has to run longer, then the reason is a good one, right?  There are a lot of suggestions about how to go about this important document, and there are some very good advice out there.

To learn more about this important document I am including some links to a variety of blogs and pages that discuss this in some greater depth that will help you even more in your quest for the perfect education/teaching philosophy.

http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/students/graduate/six-tips-for-writing-an-effective-teaching-statement.html

http://theprofessorisin.com/2011/09/16/thedreadedteachingstatement/

http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133/

http://www.fctl.ucf.edu/facultysuccess/professionalportfolios/philosophies.php

http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/writtenmaterials/teachingphilosophy.php