My students at the university aren’t always happy with me. The ones who are independent self starters seem to have no trouble, but the students who want to be led and “taught” how to make a piece of sculpture most often wind up pouting a lot. I understand why this is, and I am there to teach processes and methods and tool usage and all the rest. However, most of what I offer is basic information that has to be brought together into a synthesis that is the creative moment. This means that the student has to go beyond mere tools and methods in order to realize something of consequence, and to do this winds up feeling like a lonely place. This is not where the teacher can go. As a teacher I can nudge and encourage and give my own ideas about how to kick start the moment that lead to inspiration, but its very much leading the horse to the water. This is the fact of art. Process, method and technique wedded to something that has nothing at all to do with such concrete things and is instead the deep waters of our own insides, our own creative selves. It takes a bit of courage to bare ones soul in such a way. There is a lot of very careful work that happens in schools, I think, as a result. I mean, really, who wants to bare their souls for all to see and poke and prod? This is what all of those dreams we have all likely had where we discover that we forgot to put on clothes after taking off to school or work and wind up feeling panicked to find ourselves in such a position. So discovered, so vulnerable. Meshing bravery with vulnerability isn’t the most comfortable place in town, but it is most often the very place where innovation begins, where all new ideas start – be they in science or art.
The rational and practical fact-based world is brought into the wildly creative and imaginative in order to drive a process that leads to creating art. I realize more and more that what I seek to teach above all is a self-reliant attitude that oozes with confidence; a confidence that comes by way of experience. Doing. Making. It is a curious conundrum; confidence most often comes by way of learning and then doing. However, in great art, not knowing how one will accomplish a piece is most often what leads to a far greater work than if you follow the more obvious steps.
Confidence allows the creative to flow. I try to teach my students that some of art is a leap of faith. they say, “But I don’t know how I am going to DO this!” and I say in return, “It is like you are standing on the side of a cliff before a river. All of your friends have all just jumped into the river and you are now standing with your arms crossed, shivering, afraid that the water might be too cold, or the water too fast. You just have to jump in, and when you do, you will realize all of this was really just about your fear. You just have to jump in and do it.” When I began telling my students this, they began just jumping in and the result has been some pretty remarkable work.
I try to apply the same things to myself. It is easy to stay in ones comfort zone, but the remarkable in life emerges when we go out on a limb. Even just a little. So it was several weeks ago that I was asked if I could do a tree of life design in glass as a gift for someone. I had never made anything like this before. It would require me to work in a way I had not done previously.
I said yes right away. I ordered the glass which was a glass I had not worked with for over fifteen years. I work with a glass called soda-lime. It is a composition that has been relatively unchanged for millenia. It is the basis for all of our container glasses from beer bottles to champaign flutes. It is in our plate glass, windows, and automotive glass. Its working characteristics are pretty specific. It is a known to me. Borosilicate, which is the glass I had to order for this project, is a very different kind of glass. It contains boron which imparts a great deal of thermal shock resistance to the material. It is what all labware is made out of and is also used in cookware. I connected my torch because the glass is worked with this appliance and I simply began to make the tree.
Being able to do this piece was a kind of blessing in disguise. It allowed me to work at the torch with a material I had pretty much avoided for years. Just this past year I purchased eight torches to make up a new addition to the studio which will enable students to come work glass at the torch as well as the “big glass” that is part of furnace work which is what most people normally think of when they hear the term “glass blowing.” But torch work is also glass working and it is every bit as much fun as its “bigger” counterpart. Being commissioned to do this piece helped push me along in getting some things worked out technically and it also showed me just how much fun it is to work at the torch. If I am going to offer glass of this type in the studio, I really need to be the best proponent for it. And I am sold.
In the coming months I will be building a special work table that will house all of these torches. Each torch will be hooked up to lines for gas and oxygen. I will make small kilns for preheating glass bits and for annealing beads and small glass elements. The studio will unfold one more page in its capacity to bring the gospel of glass to the masses here in the New River Valley (NRV).
I am now done with the piece. I wont say I am Gods gift to makers of trees, but this project showed me a rich bed of potential that I had not known before had I simply passed on it. Packed and now on its way, I am glad for the gentle prod, the perfect nudge. Sometimes it just takes a gentle nudge to make the jump into the water….which perhaps is a big part of the essence of inspiration.
(I will post a pic of the piece as soon as I am able)