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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The New

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Large companies can pour millions into new products each year, hiring experts called consultants to help direct them in their dream of new products and new directions for their businesses.  In the world of the artist, this too also happens, but on a mini-micro scale.  You wake up one morning and you say to yourself that an old idea that has been rolling around in your head and heart needs to be embarked on.  For an artist, this means hundreds of hours  of learning this new kind of work and who knows how much money poured into the effort.  When it comes to something like this, there is absolutely no guarantee of any sort of return.  You go by your instinct, your gut, and your wits.  And you want to know something?  My experience has been that many of my most compelling and interesting designs that I personally love often find only a luke-warm reception at least in the beginning.  I have actually shelved what would later become one of my most popular pieces for over a year before returning to it.  When it hit the shelves people looked at it like it was something from another world.  That is to say, they didn’t see it as the unique thing that it was; they saw it as unrecognizable.  This is sometimes the problem with the new.

Before a line of new work is even hot off the presses, it comes under no scrutiny, no flag waving crowds or lines of adoring fans.  Unless you can do something that often strikes most artists as utterly distasteful: you hype the living shit out of it.  You hype it so that normal people who have never bought art before sit up and take notice.  They take notice because, well, they are so tuned into the hype.  I am not talking about what an artist normally does to promote themselves. I am talking about what some people will do in order to bring in the crowds, people who might not have come in the first place.  These people are more drawn by the interest of others, the crowd, the feeding frenzy.  To do this on a large scale means celebrity or the feeling of possible celebrity.  And who doesn’t love a celebrity?  A quiet unknown who is rising through the ranks?  Still, its hype most often, anew form of hype that doesn’t look like hype but still…it is.

The truth is, there is a very small number of people who don’t see the hype, don’t care about the hype and buy with their heart.  And these people are actually the visionaries, the people there when the work was not hyped, was actually affordable, and are often of modest means.  the people who come rushing for the hype are the folks who will put down $40,000.00 for the “next big thing” because, well, it looks good on them or in their house.  What we are talking about is status.  It is also worlds away from authentic art making (unless you create artifice  in order to pander to the rich).

Artists are often caught in this odd cross-fire of authenticity meeting popularity when things take off for them.  The desire to hype can get the better of some art dealers and gallery owners, and artists too.  Look, we all want to prosper, but at what price does this happen?  For those who “make it” there are now funds that allow a person to do so much more than wonder if they will make the bills this month or the next, whether the six thousand poured into the new line of work will yield anything of substance. The number of artists who were obscure in their time is right up there with the fervency of hype.  Renoir would say how he bought his villa with a painting of an empty vase sold ten years previously.  Picasso would sign checks knowing they would never be cashed because, well, his signature. It is indeed a strange world.

But look, the lifeblood of an artist isn’t the money.  It is the excitement over the next new thing, the new idea, the new process, the new way of saying perennial messages that have been born into each generation and recur in slightly different ways from one century to the next.  Our dreams are those of the Romans, the Greeks, the Pelleponesians, the Shakespeares, the kings and queens of Ur, all told now in a recognizable dialect.  Before it is a “thing” we are there in the innocence of the moment in the studio, scribbling on napkins, sending notes to friends, or making the discovery that could change a lifetime.  We were the true believers before anyone dared to even dream it.  It is this piece of our lives that the beloved collector wants a piece of…the early work, albeit a little rough around the edges, but is work that suggests that there are more pieces that will follow, and if the artist is lucky enough to sell enough to fund the next round of work, they do, and the work evolves.  And hopefully, the work evolves fast enough that it stays ahead of the curve so that the artist can turn enough of a profit so that s/he can make more….and survive to make for another day.  This is not an easy proposition because artists have to be both lovers and shrew business people.  I can tell you that it is hard to do both equally well, and as history shows us, artists tend to be lovers over the shrewd type.  This is so because it takes a huge amount of passion just to get your through the 80 hour days, weeks, months, that are required to become good at something.  And for an artist, this can mean remaking yourself with new techniques and ways of working every once in a while.  You don’t get there with shrewdness.  You don’t calculate passion or love.  You simply have to have it in you as a lover.  And like all great lovers, you can’t be thinking about dollar signs when you are throwing yourself into the next big thing.  To do this requires a singular sense of authenticity, passion, and love.  Anything else simply robs the work of the life that animates the work, that gives it that presence that is often unnoticed by the great unwashed but that the lovers of art pick up on and see.  It takes a lover to know a lover, even if one does not make art and the other does.

So it is that yesterday I had this “congealing moment.”  I know how that sounds, but I cannot think of a better term that feels so equal to what actually happens….The moment involved an idea I have had in my head literally for decades that involved a type of work that I have considered doing in glass.  I just wasn’t completely sure how I would do it.  My mind had been putting these pieces together off and on for a long time, but I just didn’t know exactly what the end result would be.  It was a bit like staring at Monet’s paintings of haystacks early in the morning…..they were images that had some shapes, yes, a suggestion of form, but were largely vivid blurs in my mind.  That really is how these kinds of pieces can be in our minds.  I know that other artists do the same thing because I see it in my art students.  They draw a quick sketch and then say, “I will “art it up” Mr. Stafford….you know, I will make it awesome!”

So really what is happening is there is something that is not completely fleshed out for the artist in their mental conception of the work that they just know they will get worked out in the final work. They just know, right? So sometimes that golden moment happens, that bit of genius that flows out into the work, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes we kind of waive our hands in the air, explaining a new idea without really knowing what it will be like.

(“Insert some kind of colorful awesomeness here _____”)

It isn’t that we are fooling ourselves as artists.  In fact, this sense we often have, that it will be awesome, is quite simply derring-do.  It is born out of confidence in ourselves, and it is ballsy.  As a result, I am loathe to be too critical of it. I was in fact in just such a place, parked with my idea for over a decade (at least) while this idea, apparently, gestated very slowly in my mind or creative spirit.  And then it happened.  It happened very quickly, almost too rapidly for me to even notice.  If I had been too distracted, it would have been gone and I might not have even noticed it.  Look, I have hundreds, thousands, of ideas a lot like this fleeting through me.  It is just how it is.  And most often, this happens in a state that is different form ordinary consciousness.  As a result, unless you sit with the idea and hold it there, it can literally just evaporate in exactly the same way that a dream you had last night is  nearly impossible to recall.  Steve Jobs once described all the things he “knew” when he was on LSD that he completely forgot when he came back down to ordinary consciousness….but he knew that it was something and he wanted to add a little piece of that in his work, which he did.  So, yeah.

I didn’t need LSD to get to that moment.  It was all there, fleshed out in the moment clear as day.  It was so complicated that I knew that in order to work it out, I would have to possibly spend months developing enough elements just in order to develop the work.  These pieces depart completely from everything I have done and dip into art.  How they are done is through a series of layers of imagery that are literally carved out of layers of glass at room temperature and then layered into the glass.  On the one hand, I could wind up with a cheap Venetian looking “fish bowl” (you know those….they look like fish in a bowl and are made by layering all these elements in them) or I could on the other, push the idea so far that I come up with the level of complexity I am looking for, which is not unlike a multidimensional “trip” through a dream world that actually is beginning to look a lot like how complex our lives have gotten today.  The trick, I know, as I waive my hands in the air, is to invest the “landscape” of these glass pieces with the level of complexity that keeps them from being cute or quaint and pushes them into new territory altogether.  And that, dear reader, is the hard part of art.  It separates the girls from the women and the boys from the men.  Hopefully in the end it serves to unite us all in a new kind of vision.  😉

So that is what is on the plate for now.  Naturally, I can’t say too much about it right now, not until I develop the work because until I do that it is much too easy for people to take an idea and run with it.  And that is the other side of the coin, but I will spare you that dimension of our work as artists.

The new work will mean that I will do something unusual, which is I will need to create photographs, images, and drawings, all of which will be put down on paper to form the basis of the imagery that will be cast into place with these pieces.  And to do them well will mean that the imagery remain crisp. That will mean selecting certain colors over others.  There will be choices that will have to be made that will be exacting, like building a three-layered canvas made of glass that you will be able to see through.  Some will seem like dreams, some like memories.  Perhaps some will fill the space with a sense of life.  Will they?  That will be up to all of the efforts made in the studio and out of it.  For now, there is a lot that needs to be done in the moment that will lead up to determining whether this work will be worth the time and trouble.  These are the untold hours, the invisible hours, that go to make a new line of work what it is. And this is the life of the artist.  More than money, more than anything else, this is what gets my blood pumping.

The Role Of Art Education In Art

Over the last four years I have been teaching at the university level.  This hardly makes me a seasoned individual in academia.  I have, in various ways, lived in academia for years, either from a distance with a spouse who was a teacher, to having taught in graduate school, and teaching in my studio practice as well as at the university level. But here is the thing.  I knew about SOL’s and how there had been a bru-ha-ha over them.  It is clear now what the problem is with this type of testing as it relates to art…(at least TO ME).  There are a number of challenges that impact teachers and the students that they teach as it relates to the SOL’s.  But there is one issue that doesn’t seem to be addressed much, if at all…and I am going to bring it up here for the simple reason that it impacts me as a teacher.

For people who are used to linear processing and solving problems using rational predictive schemes, it may be difficult to see how something like art could be of benefit in and of itself without hanging a purpose or job or expected outcome on it.  It turns out that art has been very hard to quantify.  And I suspect I know why; like the right brain, seeking to stick a quantity on an experience with the creative or artistic is extremely slippery.  You can measure gravity, space, a rock, and how much rocks can be ground in a day at the gravel plant, or how many cars you can build in an hour in Detroit, or how many essays a student can write about the rise of the consumer culture in the U.S.   But there is an aspect to the creative that escapes this.  And I say that it should for the very reason that this aspect of the creative that is so slippery is also the very aspect that allows us to conceive of things that were a moment before, incomprehensible to us.  What I am saying is, how do you measure something that you do not yet know, but WILL be able to know in a moment’s time…..and yet, the thing that you know is merely a product of something larger…we can measure cars as they travel through a tunnel, but we are unable for some reason to measure the tunnel.  The tunnel, if you haven’t caught on yet, is creativity.  But unlike a tunnel, I don’t think you can measure creativity….only what it creates.  You know?  How do you measure something that has so many dimensions and is changing so fast and much?  How do you define it when everyone says “I know it when I see it.”  The very fact that we know it when we see it means that it cannot really be measured very well.

So those who would insert themselves into the creativity game by coming up with SOL’S  wind up creating art experiences based on a rational understanding for how problems are solved.  As if creativity itself is something that can be parsed and kneaded in order that it give up an expected result. Now don’t get me wrong, having a project where students learn about color theory or methods for composing a painting or drawing are all important.  In fact, I am actually all for artists copying the work of other artists not to try and pretend that the artists work is their own, but in order to try and learn what that artist was seeking to do.  This is why some artists can be seen copying the works of Vermeer, or Monet, or Degas.  They are not innovating, but learning something. At the end of the day, though, once you have learned all of this stuff, you are going to have to DO something with it.  And what you do with it is greater than the sum of its parts.  What results is not always necessarily a formula. At all. Paint by numbers if you must, but all that will ever do is to help you to comprehend why certain ways of painting will yield a given result.  It is a fact-finding mission. This is a far cry from the rarefied air one finds oneself in when you discover the big “Ah-ha!” of the inspired moment.

The result of the SOL generation is that we have students who want to know the rules for creating.  They want to know HOW they are supposed to arrive at their creative moment when what I am asking them to do is to arrive at that place themselves.  So I wind up explaining WHY my assignments are as vague as they are; I am asking them to follow certain very specific requirements all in the hopes that they learn the material I am asking them to work with but to also have enough room for their own innovation to shine. My teacher Tom Walsh used to say that the best beginner projects were the ones that had very specific requirements with the broadest range of interpretation.  That means that I might say “Create a wire-frame sculpture using wood dowels and some form of epoxy that is a minimum of 2 feet in one dimension and at least six inches in another dimension, with the third dimension being up to you.  At what point does a line begin to create a sense of volume when it crosses other lines in space?  How do you create the illusion of volume while using these lines in space? Choose two of the following Principles of Design to base your work on: movement, tension, harmony”

The challenge is that many students are used to much more specific projects and actually get anxious when given greater freedom.  Really?  I explain to them what I want them to learn and that beyond those few simple things, the rest really could be up to them. “Just make it cool, guy and gals!  You know what I mean, right? I am talking about being creative, innovative!” I am asking them to take responsibility for their educational experience.  And because I value freedom so much, I give them as much as I can because someday they will be faced with having to come up with ideas all on their own without the benefit of a project to push them forward.  I am aware that in the beginning students need the structure of an assignment in order to learn a given media or technique.  Sure, absolutely, but this can be done while giving the student the freedom that they will one day need to work within if they are ever to be self directed artists.  Out of this will flow discipline that is unlike the kind of discipline they know that is meted out by their teachers.  This is actually about what happens when you mature as an artist.  I actually believe that this is important to begin doing as soon as possible.  I believe that our children, even at age 18 to 22 have the means to begin to experience this freedom in their work.  The more they are able to experience it, the better off they will be.

There is a place for learning technique.  There is also a place for being inspired to create in such a way that we each grasp that creating is itself sometimes a mysterious process, an irrational one, but beautiful and rewarding. The FEELING that comes moving through you in such moments is actually something that is sustaining in and of itself and will, if we let it, change a life.  It can break up the rigidity of the belief-constrained self in order to break out into new ways of thinking and seeing. It is what the journey has been about in art except that this process has been something experienced by only the bravest of our kind.  it is something native to us all and the sooner we can experience it for its OWN sake, the better. Our creative spirit is less a thing that can be bounded by any one discipline, but encompasses our whole lives because it is what we are deeper down.  Impoverished is the life that does not know this the way one might know breath or ones heartbeat.  These ought not be special occasions, but ubiquitous ones.  Living a creative life is one of the most rewarding things a person can experience.  It fulfills, unifies, and even heals. It does not require a belief or dogma and cuts across all borderlands of belief, liberating and enlarging ones own self in selfless ways.

The problem is that you cannot measure joy, and so much of what art does is to bring joy.  You can’t measure it.  The problem, you see, is that when we are so busy wanting to measure everything, you miss those things that fall outside of the bias, which suggests that only what we can measure is worth anything to us.  But you see, the joy of creation is where it is at when it comes to art.  It is what we each lose as we grow up and is what we have to each rediscover as we make our ways back into art as artists.  Sometimes as artists we try to be the best we can on a technical level in order to make up for our lack of childlike wonder and joy that made us such natural artists as children.  You see, this is what is missing, and if we are to grow a better generation, it will mean that we did it with the arts as much as we did with math and science and all the rest.

New Discovery

parker staffordI work as a person who is always looking for new ways, new designs, new ideas.  This process has helped to engender a certain attitude and way of being that I think is of enormous benefit to people in all walks of life. The flash of the “a-ha!” moment is not one that is limited to artists, but is the essence of our own creative natures.  As a new discovery, my own “A-ha!” moment helps to till new ground in my own creative life, bringing me many benefits, so too can this same flash of realization serve to shift lives, attitudes, beliefs, and change how we feel, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in big ways with how we see the world.

This is the essence of inspiration.  Some might want to put a label on it, but the truth is, I have found, that whether it is a deep spiritual or religious epiphany or whether I have just discovered the next big thing, the feeling is precisely the same.  It is transportive, a word I just made up, and it opens us up and breaks us out of our old notions and feelings from just a moment prior.  This is the essence of new discovery within ourselves.  This effect is liberating and healing.  It also has a curious effect of dispelling fear, too.  With such an abundance of wonder and possibility, it is hard to see the world in such limiting ways that we did a moment prior.  And I don’t intend to try and crash the religious epiphany to the ground, but to point out that its root lies in all of the world; it lies in each of us and it is curious that when we do find it, the world does indeed change.  We are, in a word, renovated by just such a presence in our lives.  So whether you are a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian, or an artist who calls art or design his or her spiritual home, the effect and thrust of the experience is the same.  It is something that is quite literally beyond belief!

When I work with art students or with the public at my studio, I see the effect that this sense of discovery and wonder can do.  It is a liberating effect.  It is liberal in that is frees us.  No longer limited by being caught in old belief or notions of what is possible, we see the impossible emerge right in front of us.  I suppose that since glass itself is such a miraculous material that this helps engender this feeling in many who do workshops at the studio. When we erase fear, wonder remains.  I tell people who blow glass for the first time that even if they do drizzle glass on the floor of the studio, the material is so beautiful that picking up those drizzles becomes a moment of discovery and wonder.  And they do.  Just this past holiday season I had a child who drizzled glass and felt bad about it.  I patted her on the back and said not to worry.  After she had finished her piece, she went back to the drizzled glass and picked it up.  She took it home with her because, well, glass is just that beautiful.  So with a material like that, its not hard to help people to tap their own inner wonder.  Remove the fear or anxiety and what remains is wonder.  It is this way in every realm of our lives from religious, social, political and creative.

Just a thought for your lovely July morning…..

Creativity, The Brain, and Enlightenment

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I have been interested in the nature of creativity for a very long time.  As an artist, I have become a careful observer of its seeming motives, character, habits and nature.  I reasoned that by understanding creativity itself I could, as an artist and creative person, gain an edge for my work and my career.  I have observed that there were moments, short periods where something just opened up within me, like a mysterious iris and there would come a flood of inspiration.  When this happened, I considered what I had been eating, how I had been sleeping, what I was doing before, during, and after, these episodes would come on.  They didn’t come on of their own accord, this I knew, but I also knew that there was a symbiotic nature to how the creative state was tapped.  Some things worked while others did not.  Observing, I built a list of these things and began considering what those aspects, things, or elements were doing for me.  When I began to teach a few years ago at the university level in art, I extended my search to my students by observing them and listening very carefully to the things they were saying at all stages of their own creative process.  I wanted to be able to help them attain this often mysterious state we call inspiration.  I began doing activities with them each semester which I called “mind games” which were designed to help us each observe HOW we think and how it is we choose certain things over others in our thinking and creating process.  I had the help of a gifted teacher who was on to some of these ideas already who came for a couple of classes to do some exercises that were very illuminating.  It was loads of fun (I think it was fun for them), and I learned something in the process.

Concurrent with all of this interest in creativity was an “event” that came into my life which amounted to a kind of atom bomb going off.  Its outward signs were not visible to most people and for a long time no one every knew anything had happened.  If I had been any different from who I am, I might have thought I had a brain lesion or that there was something wrong with me.  I kept all of the symptoms of this phenomenon entirely to myself because I knew if I talked about them, most people would simply think I was sick or mentally unstable.  What I knew, though, was that what was taking place was not psychosis nor schizophrenia.  I knew enough about abnormal psychology from my own interest in creativity to know that whatever was going on, it wasn’t abnormal. But it was….different.  I learned that what had happened was I had stumbled across something that gurus and yogis seek for fervently through the use of meditation, breath work (pranayam it is called in India), and yoga.  I had triggered something that was called kundalini.  This is something that is not well understood by westerners and most of the information about it comes to us in the form of writings compiled over long periods of time by yogis and other teachers who have had experiences with it.  So rare, there are only a few people on the planet at any given time who have this thing.  Jiddu Krishnamurti was one such notable example.  What is interesting, though, is that for as rare as it has been, this is changing.  In fact, in just the last ten years alone, there has been a tide of “awakenings” in people who have not had meditation or yoga or any of the normal routes to this phenomenon that have been described as the way to cause this force to move in the body and awareness.  It is my sense that most of our new discoveries tend to come from places that we least expect them, or are not considering due to cultural or intellectual biases that we may have.  With something like awakening being so rare, we may tend to want to sweep it under the rug for the fact that we have so little experience with it.  There was, I will remind everyone, a time when we thought the world was flat, which was based on most everyone’s mistaken observations of the day.  Those who were making new observations were themselves not in the majority and were most often dismissed as cooks or worse (sorry Galileo!).

As we learn to open our minds a little more, more tends to come. With something so rare, there is naturally a lot of speculation about it and as a result there can be a lot of very unusual ideas that can surround such things.  By and large, though, once you are able o navigate the cultural implications inherent in the writings, we also know a lot.  While kundalini is thought of as a mystical force, a cosmic force that enters the body and changes those affected, its potential lies, for me, in how it seems to help rewire the brain in some important ways.  In its most essential way, I have observed that kundalini helps to balance the two hemispheres of the brain so that the more latent right brain comes into a fuller expression of itself.  Now this naturally has some important things to tell us about creativity since so much of creativity is often seen as not just a left brained activity but a right one as well.  Betty Edwards helped push this idea forward in her book Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, a book that detailed how the right brain helps artists to really see things as they are, and as a result, by following some of her exercises and methods, to also learn to draw better, or more effectively.

Now, I will be the first to admit that the right brain alone doe snot teach us much about inspiration any more than the left brain does.  It does open up a new cognitive field of awareness, though, and this is certainly important.  What most artists who are students (including myself) struggle with is how the operations of the left brain get in the way of the right brain doing its thing.  It’s as if you have this person in your left brain that wants to run the show and insists on trying to do what the right brain does better.  As a result what I find in my work and the work of my students, when we are locked in our left brains, is how we will tend to recreate something in the real world using the functions of the left brain.  This results in a reduction of visual information, a kind of abstracting effect which inhibits the artist from drawing what is there.  Instead of natural looking eyes, they will become more almond like.  Eyes then become an abstraction, an “idea” of what an eye really looks like.  The right brain, however, is able to take in all aspects of the eye in its totality all at once.  It has the ability to draw and create not in a linear fashion, which is the domain of the left, but can draw all over the place in the same way that a camera lens will bring an image into sharp focus.  What is interesting is that when I see students drawing from one corner of a drawing or a sculpture to another, I know they are locked in their left brains.  I also know to expect certain very specific results, which of course are all indicative of the left brain and how it works. Lines drawn tend to have a sharpness and angularity.  They lack a flowing sense of connection.  The world of the left brain is all about objects, individual aspects within the world that we see. Now take a jump and see how these cognitive effects or characteristics might affect how we feel or respond to the world around us.  When the right brain comes on-line more, there is a corresponding awareness of everything as interconnected.  This is compliments of the right brain.

In her well-known TED talk, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor tells the story of how she experienced a stroke in her left hemisphere one morning while getting ready to go to work.  Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist, and her experience helped her to observe how her left brain shutting down allowed her a peek into the operations of her less active right brain.  Her video is included at the end of this post.  What is so interesting is that she experienced a lot of the usual things that we have come to know as right brain activity.  She became more visual, she was unable to read numbers and letters as well (this is the domain of the left brain for most people) and she began to experience the interconnectedness of all things.  This was so powerful an experience, she cried on stage just retelling it.  For her, it was a moment that the yogis describe as Samadhi, a feeling of deep interconnected bliss that was life changing.  Instead of merely learning how to see as Betty Edwards observed in her work with artists, she was able to experience what this less active part of our brain can do for us.  And what is that, you ask? Inspiration. The right brain is able to bring us a sense of pure bliss that is simply amazing.  It is also what I was experiencing when I had this kundalini activation, or awakening.  It was as though some veil had been pulled back from my mind so that I could see a broader picture.  Instead of seeing with one mind, I was seeing with both minds.  The effect of this happening resulted in not just bursts of inspiration as had been the norm before, but what I came to call a “steady state” experience of remaining in an inspired moment all the time.  It is itself quite heady to experience, and sometimes, especially in the beginning, was actually hard to deal with.  What I learned, though, was that this was merely the result of what I was used to. As I came to learn more about this experience through others, I saw evidence of a difficulty in just dealing with the enormity of the experience.  Instead of seeing individual objects in the world suddenly the world was alive in a way where everything was interconnected, related, alive in an ambient environment where there was suddenly a LOT more information there.  And it wasn’t just visual or the result of observing.  It went way deeper than that.  It was akin to a cosmic rabbit hole.  For me, the result I experienced was that I was left unable to know where to go from there.  The whole world had changed and I was just catching up!  But new work did begin to trickle out as a result of this experience.  I realized that so much of what I had been doing had been very left-brained in how it leaned conceptually.  I was often left with a blank spot in my creative life where I felt a little at a loss.

What was that blank spot?  This awakening served to offer up the necessary awareness.  I was also gifted with someone who entered the scene in perfect timing who would help me along, a muse at the least, an inspired reminder for what I had been missing.  Through our interactions, I felt more free to begin to explore new ideas that were, not surprisingly, more connected to the right brain and how it sees things.  This itself led gradually into this steady state of inspiration where I learned how to keep this focus ongoing from day-to-day.  I noticed that it had an effect on my physiology, my mood, and even how I thought.  So radical were the changes that I actually felt fear that the old me was simply going away, that who and what I was might leak out into the night.  Instead of that happening, I remained the same old me, but with upgrades.  I learned to trust this experience, to even surrender to it.  It has resulted in new music being written, several children’s stories, a book about my awakening experience, two blogs on the topic, and now, research into the nature of creativity.  The last book is only in its most formative stages, and I am still trying to decipher whether or not what I have to offer is anything new.

The field of creativity research is itself is quite broad and there is a lot out there in the are of research into this subject.  I suspect, though, that my sense that we do not know how to teach how to be more inspired, might play into some effort in the future because this seems to be the missing link in all of this.  It may be so for the very reason that inspiration is itself, I say, not found in either of our two brains, but the result of something far more synergistic than we might have imagined.  It lies in a holistic understanding of who we are, which is greater than the sum of its parts.  Smack dab in the middle of mystery, and smack dab in the middle of what makes life so interesting to so many.  Here the questions of who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, begin to take on illumination.  The benefits to us are huge.  We have now, I feel, a unprecendented opportunity to leverage ourselves into being all that we can be at a time when the world seems to be throwing up a lot of hurdles in regards to our freedom to be all that we can be (which is more than just an old catchy Army phrase from the 1980’s). Like Taylor, there have been many other researchers who have observed how the brain works as a result of injury, and it has been these injuries that have helped to explain better than any other method to date how the brain works by a process of elimination.  This is an area of research that cannot be induced (although there has been a method that inhibits certain areas of the brain in their function that has been created recently) but when it does, it has given researchers a peek into the window of our brain function.  What I have observed is that an experience such as an awakening does the same thing too, since before I had seen Taylors video, I had come to the same conclusion simply based on my own experiences.  Her video, though, provides tangible proof for people who need this kind of thing and also helps to bolster what we have known all along.

What the ancients described as an elusive cosmic experience may well be what I sense  it to be; an experience within consciousness that is supported by our physiology (our brain and nervous system as well as the entire body).  My observation is that we are each hardwired for this, we simply have not managed in our left-leaning world to trip the switch that would turn on all of the lights.  There is concrete evidence that something very interesting is happening, though, as people by the thousands are now awakening in exactly the wrong way than the Hindus have said you can, which is spontaneously, without a teacher, without a method or technique.  These are what is known as “spontaneous awakenings” and they buck what we seem to know about the phenomenon.  I suspect, though, that there is a very good reason for this.  It may be something about how our world is so much more interconnected that it has force us to use our right brains as we text and call and email and read about a far more vast range of stories and information than we have done before.  The internet may have helped, itself a vast interconnected web work that is the same vast sense of interconnectivity that those who awaken experience.  It could also be for other reasons, too.  The answer, though, is out there, and it need not be mythologized into being merely a cosmic effect.  I sense that when we resist doing this, we are more free to understand a given phenomenon.  For those who are less interested in the mechanics of all of this, it is simply an amazing awe-inspiring experience that need not be explained described, but simply experienced.

 

 

In the days to come I will be offering up some observations about how we each can maximize our potential creatively for a richer and happier life.

A New Creative Paradigm?

As you may have noticed, I am doing work on the nature of creativity.  While this has been studied for some time, there is still a good bit that we need to work through in order to understand the potential that exists within creativity.  And what it means for us neurologically and physically.  With new tools and an ever-broadening perspective based on more research, and more experience, I have very recently found a way where creativity can be tied into a neuro-anatomists version of the physics’ “field theory.”

Right now, the work is in its early stages, but I am seeking to create a way to put this together for creative types, be they artists or scientists/innovators to help us all to appreciate and also potentiate the creative state in a more effective manner. I will draw on eastern knowledge about the sensoral changes during peak experiences such as sammadhi, our understanding or right and left brain operations, and how the two hemispheres often get in the way of each other much like an arguing couple might (the Shakti and Shiva of the Hindu, which, interestingly, sought to explain this phenomenon in older-world methods  using old vocabulary).  I think that what I have is something that will prove very useful for students and educators of art, although it is unusual in how it taps concepts such as the quantum field, the electromagnetic nature of thought, and the idea that we live within a vast hologram of conscious energy.  These ideas, actually, are NOT new, but what is new is how I am synthesizing all of this for a creative audience.  What I have is itself simple, no more difficult than meditation, and can pay rich dividends.

I have gotten some great feedback from some of you about your own insights about your creative state, and I would urge you to keep the comments coming!  The form in the post below this post sends an email directly to me and the comment does not get posted for those who do not wish to comment publically (otherwise you can just use the “comment” option).  If I use your comment in any future writing, I will ask your permission before doing so, and will honor your preferences for how you wish attribution handled (your name or anonymous?).

The only thing I am a little stumped on is finding a good title for the book I am working on!

The Creative Recipe

I am currently doing work on a project about creativity.  The work is not intended to be about creativity in the arts but creativity in general, to help make it accessible to anyone who wants to know how to boost their own creative potential.  I am beginning by asking my friends and colleagues, and you, what your own personal observations are about what sparks your creativity.  While I do not have questions that I am asking, I hope that by keeping it open, I will not influence anyone’s reply. Sometimes when we ask leading questions, we can limit the information that we wind up getting.  So anything that you observe about creativity is welcome and if you do need a question to spark your response it would be:  what does it for you?  What things serve to spark your creativity?  Is it something inward or outward?  What things serve to get you in a creative mood?  Do you observe  certain things that you do to get into a creative mood or space?

This information will serve to form one part of the foundation of this work (I assume at this early stage).  Comments and contributions, if used, will be used with permission and attribution unless you want your observation to remain anonymous.  So if talking about your own creative process is something that interests you, I would love to hear from you!  You can simply make a comment connected to this post or you can email me directly at parker@staffordartglass.com.  Any and all observations are greatly appreciated!

Also a  form is included for those who want to add their thoughts but do not want them to show up in the comments section.  This will come to me via email.

 

~Parker Stafford