How To Effectively Sell Your Work

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Selling your work is one of the most critical aspects of making it as an artist, and yet it is also the one element in many artist’s professional lives  that is the most fraught with challenges and frustration.  Even when you have an agent or galleries that do the selling for you, you still have to be able to be the person who presents the face for the product, and that means selling.  While this may seem distasteful to some artists, it is a reality.  The trouble I often have seen both in myself and in other artists is that there is a cognitive bias about what selling ones self is all about.  It doesn’t automatically mean that you are somehow compromising your principles, or selling out.  Selling is a multifaceted activity that achieves many goals, the last of which is selling your work so that you may support yourself so that you can go on to make still more work.  When someone wants to buy your work, most often, they aren’t JUST buying the object, they are buying YOU.  They are buying your skills, your effort, your love and grace.  they are buying the idea that there is someone who is brave enough to step out into and put their work out there so that it can be shared.  I learned this when I began selling my work at art shows and craft fairs all across the country when I began my business in 1997.  People wanted to know how it was made, how I got into the field, and anything else I cared to share.  Were my pieces a big surprise when I got done?  How did I achieve those layers of color and how DO you get something suspended in the center of the glass like that?  Many liked to put their work on show in their homes and it was a point of pride and conversation for them to be in the know about this artist instead of it being a faceless name whose work they found online.  Many of my customers are buying more than just a piece of art glass, they are buying a story as well as a way of life.  They are also participating in an effort that is more than the artist alone but makes up galleries and customers who all take part in an effort that makes it possible for an artist to do what she or he does.  It is not so unusual for art afficianados to actually care about more than JUST the work, but the spirit and the human touch of the person who laid paint to canvas, or sculpted a delicate figure out of porcelain.  At its best, the industry is about love. When I go into a craft gallery who sells nothing but handmade, it is very rare that I ever come across sales staff and owners who seem aloof.  they are all excited to be living this kind of life and selling work that they feels makes the world a better place.  They get to see people coming into their gallery on a daily basis who are amazed at all the things that are on display that were made by hand.  Sure, those in the industry are shrewd business people, but they have learned that you have to be in order to survive and thrive in the world of art and craft.  That goes for the artist as well, at least in some measure.

How you present yourself is crucial to creating a look and a feel that will help support your business. You will attract different kinds of people as customers and clients based on how you present yourself. If you can convey your own sense of style and taste in how you dress, how you design your booth or studio gallery, these things all help to convey who you are in little and big ways (and this is not always easy for everyone).  This is a fine art in presentation and communication. It all works best when it makes intuitive sense to the public that you are attracting. This is why being yourself is so important. You don’t have to pretend to be anything that you are not, but you certainly have to come across as comfortable and confident. This does not mean that you do the hard sell.  In fact, most selling of yourself is best done when you are simply you. Its in understanding the psychology of selling that makes all the difference, and you do not have to be a great salesperson in order to find your way.  you just need to understand what goes through everyone’s head when they go into a retail outlet, a store, mall, or gallery, or booth at an art or craft fair.

Artists can be horrible at selling their work. I say this because I was in this camp. I was always curious about the psychology of selling as I was growing up as an artist  because this is one aspect that we were simply never taught about.  Most of the material on the bookshelves about selling had to do with  mainstream forms of merchandising like selling cars or clothing.  So how was I going to make a story about selling a shirt apply to selling a sculpture or a piece of decorative blown glass?  When I graduated from college I decided I didn’t want to do any art for a while.  Instead, I decided to do something I had never done; I took a job selling  water treatment equipment!  What this experience did was it revealed one side of the sales industry with its own ideas about how things are bought and sold.  I quickly grew jaded because it was a formulaic approach;  there is an average number of times that a person will say no, make sure you make eye contact during a certain part of the presentation, you need to make sure that you emphasize certain words at the right time, etc.  After a certain number of no’s,  they will tend to give up and start saying yes. The strategy was to get them to say no even if it wasn’t even a resistance to what you were trying to sell them. There were certain presentation methods that were based on making assumptions in the hopes of selling some option or service in order to increase the bottom line for the company. It all felt like so much manipulation!  It just didn’t feel honest to me.  The only problem, though, was this was how so many in the sales field sold things from vacuum cleaners to siding. Remember the movie Tin Men with Richard Dreyfus and Danny DeVito?  If you do, you have a pretty good idea what kind of environment I had walked into.  Don’t get me wrong, it did teach me some things, but after a while I found I just could no longer sell,  and I moved on to other things.  Its not surprising that we all could be soured on the idea of selling when we only think about unscrupulous tin men…..but as it turned out, there was a whole other world to selling, and none of it had anything at ALL to do with sneaky tricks, manipulation, or pressure in the least!

The big a-ha moment came for me when I bought a very unlikely book while attending the Buyers Market In Philadelphia.  Outside the exhibit hall there were vendors for things like boxes and bags, as well as books on how to promote and make yourself into a more effective business person. The artisans were located in the hall adjacent to these vendors, so I would walk past them as I came into and out of the conference hall each day.  The book I picked up was entitled No Thanks, I’m Just Looking!  by Harry J. Friedman (ISBN 0-7872-5350-2).  It was when I read this book that I was able to draw comparisons between the world of merchandising and the world of my own form of merchandising.  I forgot that the author was talking about a shirt, or furniture and started to consider the psychology of buying itself, which of course was what the book was all about. I found that instead of picking up tricks or techniques, all I had to do was to think about what it is like for me whenever I walk into a store. that really was the very crux of the book, and my reactions in a store turn out to be just like everyone else’s!  It became a simple way to simply put myself in my customers shoes as they browsed my booth or gallery.  This wasn’t selling; this was empathy!  Big light bulb moment.

What the book was so effective at underlining was the psychology of buying.  What was so interesting to me was how it did not provide tricks or formulas;  this book was about stepping back and thinking what its like when you first enter a store and the phases that most people go through when shopping.  To understand this, you need only to think about how you feel when you go into a store.  What happens?  Most people don’t pause to reflect that there are very definite states that they enter when just browsing and when they are ready to BUY.  You might be a lot like I was when I first started reading the book, which was that I never paused to consider what those different phases or states of mind were whenever I went into a store.  The book was presenting the idea that if you understand these clues as they are being presented in store guests, you could become a more effective sales person  not because you are going in for the kill or that you are using pressure tactics but that you can then become a facilitator for what the person may need or want.  Its interesting how this all happens, and it makes all the difference between your buying and not buying. I put myself in those shoes and only then did it make sense why I was doing all the wrong things when I was trying to sell my work.

First of all, when you enter a store or a booth or gallery, its an adventure.  You might go in for a shirt, but you really don’t know what you will find. The world is open to you, and your mind is in that wide open kind of space.  I just went shopping for clothes and all I knew was that I needed shirts and some jeans and some slacks and socks.  I just had no idea what I would find, but if I found what I LIKED, I was going to buy it most likely if the price and look was right for me.  You MIGHT wind up buying a different shirt than the one you originally had in mind, but you have to see what there is to see just to make a decision.  At this early stage, you are excited with all the new sights and sounds.  You have to get oriented, you have to look around some.  You are in browsing mode.  You need to be left alone.  For a little while.

You are not in buying mode yet, and if someone walks up to you and starts peppering you right away with questions about what it is you need or want to buy, it will simply turn you off.  The desire to buy simply has not been aroused just yet, and all of this helpfulness so soon can often wind up being a turn off or irritation.  this is where you allow your imagination freer rein.  “Hmmm….that shirt sure looks nice…I wonder how I would look in it….it doesn’t really match anything I have…..maybe I will keep that one in mind as I go look at those other shirts…”  You see what I mean?

The first lesson  is to let people walk around and look, and dream. Give them the room to do this because it will only be as a result of seeing all the possibilities that the desire will arise to buy anything.  You have to see thirty polo shirts all on a wall in thirty different colors in order to buy just one.  Being able to sit back and imagine how that shirt will look on you, or how that piece of glass or sculpture or painting will look in your home is critical to entering the next phase.  Most people simply have to be let alone in order to do this.  By approaching people too soon, you make them more self conscious and being self conscious is a killer for desire.  People have to want or desire your work.   People need the room to be seduced by what they see and then to get excited enough to buy.  When you are sufficiently aware of how this all works and plays out in the real world, you can quite literally feel the shift from dream mode to buying mode. Something heats up and the energy changes in a noticeable way. People move from a very passive activity and body language to much more “aggressive” behavior.  All of this is very subtle and you need to know what to look for. I have never been able to discern if it was just a “vibe” or if I was picking up on a stream of small body language signals, but I have learned to be tuned in to it. Knowing when this is happening is crucial because this step can wane without support from the clerk or artist in the booth or gallery. Everyone is different, though and I can tell you  that I have also  had people who walk right into the booth and pick up a piece, present it to me for buying and leave quickly and quietly.  Others need to browse, daydream, chat, and talk with their friends.

Its true. But just as important is having a good sense of timing as the seller of your work.  You can’t simply leave someone to drift through the store or booth or gallery. This is where your own instincts for knowing when to walk up to the person for the next phase of the process.  If you come on too strong, you can scare them away or just turn them off. People may have questions but they may not want to ask you these questions.  They want to be served, and this is where you have to be ready to answer their questions and help them with knowing the many options available so they can make an informed decision.  So instead of going for the hard sell, you ask questions which also help steer them in the right direction.  This often began, for me, in asking how they are doing first.  Sometimes its as simple as saying hello, a signal that you know they are there, and that you do are not acting in a presumptuous way, but that you are simply there for them. Your body language can help when you stand off to the side, ready, but not too ready. You let them know in a very simple way that whenever THEY are ready, so are you. You are there to serve them.

This is why I was able to see that there were certain things I said would always be a sale killer in my work.  I had this tendency to say “Let me know if you have any questions” because I thought this was the best way. No sales EVER resulted form this approach. Why?  I was in a very subtle way letting them know I was ready to sell them work. It was a very very subtle form of trying to make the sale.  I changed all of this when I observed people looking at my work and would ask “Which is your favorite?”  Sometimes I would pick up a piece that they were looking at and I would say in an off hand way the different ways it could be lighted.  I had pieces that looked great even in low light, something people had a hard time believing.  One of the problems people had was that they KNEW I was displaying the work to its fullest potential.  Of course it would look worse in their home.  This is the first kind of refusal for buying the work.  I often would take work out of the booth to show just how well the work would look in less than ideal situations.  This was a major hurdle for them without their realizing I was in truth beginning to sell the work.  I learned to do it in such a casual way that it didn’t read as any form of pressure.  I totally understood how you wanted the work to look as good as it did in the booth.  People will not buy in a perception of remorse.  By removing that and showing unequivocally that this isn’t a big concern, one less hurdle existed for them.

In the end, all buying comes down to how relaxed someone feels during buying and how excited they are about buying it.  Part of this is how you present yourself.  People aren’t just buying a product, they are also buying into the fact that it is hand made and made by someone they met.  Many of my buyers will tell stories to their guests who see my work about the conversation they had with the artist. Most often I know someone is closer to buying when they ask how its made. This is not a guarantee, but its a sign.  Sometimes people with the most questions also do the least buying.  I have seen the same person come to my booth over several years only to chat with me to find out how the work is made. The less someone knows about a medium, the more they will tend to ask. They cannot appreciate what goes into the making of a piece until they reach this understanding or level of education. it is corny and very true that the gateway to appreciation is through education. So I knew that I had to educate all the time.  It was like an investment, and I did this with no expectation of ever selling a single piece.  Those would would reach the requisite level of appreciation would buy and some would not.  I gave of my time freely and without expectation.  It was hands off. But I was in the process friendly affable, and easy to talk to. I did not bludgeon my guests with information, but would always given them a positive experience in our talking together.  They had to feel comfortable with me.  They had to know I was the real deal.  They had to feel into all of this to know it was right for them. I managed to go from being quite inept at selling my work to selling my work not through pressure or gimmicks but by simply understanding how people wanted to be treated.  it wasn’t foolproof, but it worked far better than any other method I had tried.

All of this culminated in one of the single best shows I had ever had.  I was simply doing what I did best, which was to engage my guests and potential customers without seeming the least bit desperate to sell.  In fact, I was completely relaxed and at ease.  I felt confident.  I had stopped worrying about having a good show and this let my own uniqueness shine through. A veteran of these shows whose booth was across from me came over the second to last day of the show and said “You know, I have been watching you with your customers and I have to tell you that you are so good with them!  You seem so natural.  I know so many exhibitors who allow themselves to get frustrated when they don’t make a sale and it winds up effecting the rest of their day….”  This was perhaps the single best compliment I could have gotten from a colleague.  I considered myself something of an amateur at all of this in so many ways and here someone who had been at it for over 20 years was so kind enough to point out what she thought was effective in how I did what I did.

The thing about this is that selling yourself in ANY situation is a lot like this, whether you are selling directly to the public or to a gallery.  I have always been the most effective when I let all of my anxiety about whatever it was I was doing go and let myself be me. I found that my promotional materials like web site, letter head and work itself all needed to have a sense like they all came from me.  This is what many in the industry call branding, and the problem with most branding is that the WAY in which you present your work and your business can be at odds with who you really are.  If a logo or design was made by someone else who has a poor ability to fit your own style with the branding, something will simply read as being a little off. Here, there are no hard and fast rules because all of this tends to be very intuitive and somewhat under the radar. You have to make sure that branding, however it is done, fits who you are.  If you do not have an investment in it, how can you expect others to plug into it?

If you make work that is abstract, spare, and quiet in its visual impact, it doesn’t make much sense to splash your web site with wild colors and forms when your own work does not do this. Somehow it all has to make sense.  It all expresses worlds of things that some people do not immediately pick up on but that all play a part in creating an overall impression.  This impression can make the difference between attracting a certain customer or client or not. Are you a quiet retiring type, or are you gregarious and really out there?  Are you loud and edgy?  Are you a nuanced renaissance person with many different qualities?  How you present yourself in print and on-line will help to support this. If it doesn’t, it could be a small glitch in the road to your door where something just doesn’t seem or feel right.  Again, this is all pretty subtle, but everything is important.  The font is important, the color and feel of the paper your catalog is printed on, the images used on your business card, and how your web site is designed to tell the story of who you are.

One very important part of selling is pricing your work, and this is where you send a strong message to the buying public.  It also determines how you sell your work.  If you sell inexpensive work below $300.00, for example, you will naturally have to position yourself in a market where you can sell a lot of work and often.  If you sell work that is in the $10,000.00 range, then what you do to make the sale will be very different from what you do to sell one print.  I once stopped selling Christmas ornaments at shows because there was a glassblower who sold almost nothing BUT ornaments.  He also sold them cheaper than anybody else.  When I stopped trying to compete with this guy and stopped selling ornaments, I found an interesting thing had happened.  I found that there was no discernible difference in my bottom line by dropping the ornaments.  Every year I always made a different figure for my income for that year, but there was nothing that suggested to me that I had somehow suffered from dropping the bottom end of my market.  in fact, this gave me more time to focus on selling pieces that were $75.00 and up instead of $15.00 or less.  If you price your work too high, you will suffer from slow sales.  However, you can suffer in different ways if you under price your work.  In an effort to make sure their work sells, many artists tend to devalue the potential of their work to support them by keeping prices low so that they will have plenty of sales.  The only problem is that if you do not value your work enough to give it a fair price, then how is anyone else going to value your work as well?

In 2006 me and my siblings sold land to a local government that had been in our family through two generations.  We formed a corporation in order to manage a large farm that was big enough to warrant forming the corporation. For years, we knew that the value of this land was significant, but the market just wasn’t there.  It was a farm, but it was a farm in an area of the market that was near D.C., so near in fact that to sell it as farmland would have meant that we would have to sell it cheap.  We weren’t ready to do that.  We knew the value was much higher.  The local government had not assessed property yet, but when they did, they placed it more in the area of value where we felt it should be.  Before that, offers from the customer, or this government body, were all low-ball.  Once the assessment was made, it helped to support our feeling that this was a valuable piece of land.  It had location, it had development potential.  Once the assessment came through, the government acted.  they realized that the only place for the value of this property now was up.  Developers could easily come along and offer us more than assessed value.  Houses were going up, malls and supermarkets were being built.  It was only a matter of time.  We knew the value and we held fast and did not sell until our market was there.  Once this happened, we were in a very good position to negotiate a very good price and we did.  On behalf of this corporation, I had to make sure that in each negotiation with the government, with attorneys, with CPA’s and with real estate agents, that we preserved the value for ourselves.  Everyone had their own interests, which was to either get the property as cheaply as they could, or to get a piece of the pie that was as big as they could get.  What this experience taught me is that you have to realize what the value is of whatever it is you have to offer snd believe in what that value is and then find your market.  This sometimes means waiting until you find that market.  Sometimes it means sticking to your guns.  Eventually, if your sense is on the mark, others will see the same.  The lesson is you have to believe in what it is you are doing or else no one else is going to.  You have to find your buyers and market the property correctly, and you also have to have something that other people want.  If you create value and demand, this is the very force that will draw customers and will hep support the right prices.  If market issues change, so will the price, which means you also have to be realistic, but not hasty.  You need to be shrewd.

if you price your work too high, you can have trouble moving work quickly enough.  If you price it too low, you can starve yourself of the resources that you need.  there are plenty of businesses that are busy making work hand over fist and making a very thin margin by the end of the year.  it may all look good from the outside, but it is like someone climbing a great mountain while breathing air that is so thin that they are about to pass out.  the trick is in finding the right balance.  This is always a judgement call and it is why judgement is so important.  it is true that some things may only take a small amount of money to make, but the value of that object made is so high that the price has to be adjusted to match the value involved.  If you are the only person making something completely unique, who is to say what price should be set?  If no one is making anything like your own and you can develop a market and create demand, the price that is involved in creating the object is often besides the point.  I can probably learn to pain like Monet and yet, what I make wont BE a Monet.  What is the difference?  The difference is the fact that the people are buying into the PERSON.  They want more than just a picture of a Monet.  If that were the case, they could buy a calendar with Monet reproductions and they’d be happy.  for those buying art, the reasons are very different.  Knowing how to first pricing your work where you get paid AND so the price reflects the value that you bring in your work is the combination of elements that need to go into pricing work.  Price it too low and you may never attract the better galleries and buyers because a low price often signals your need to sell at whatever cost.  Price it too high, and you could outstrip the perception of value that does exist and sales slow or stop.  Knowing how to do this requires some experimentation and observation.  When I doubled my prices, I found I no longer had people wanting to haggle with me over prices.  My price point was still fair but it eliminated those people who could only afford a small amount, thus the haggling. But what I did not realize was that most people who were looking for quality didn’t believe they saw quality with my prices so low. It is a little funny, but it is true.  If something look like a Mercedes, then the price tag should match, otherwise there is a lingering doubt.  The truth is, you are not just selling work, you are selling an idea.  And unlike paint and canvas, an idea is immaterial and thus does not adhere to plain black and white figures.

You may not like the idea that YOU are a product, but the truth is, you cannot fully disentangle yourself from this reality because you will always be the person who created that installation, that sculpture, the pot, the weaving or print.  Because of this, people will naturally be interested in you and show their friends “This is my painting by Richardson,” while beaming with pride.  Perhaps the problem is only in how you are choosing to relate to this.  If you are yourself, then what is there to worry about?  People want to know who you are and they wont get this unless you are.  If you are comfortable in how all of this happens, it isn’t like you are some object, you are an experience that many people seem to need to help fill in the cracks in their perception of you.  The more confident you are in yourself, the more natural and the more comfortable people will be around you, its just that simple. People buy the product, but they also buy the sizzle because there is real excitement in finally reaching the decision to splurge and buy something like art.

If you can bear these things in mind, you will become a much more effective and natural promoter of your work.  Its hard enough as it is sometimes to put yourself “out there” so being able to know what is good about your work is an important aspect in being able to present yourself in your best light.


The Soul Of Glass

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I wanted to start talking about glass, to explain what interests me as an artist, and why I have stuck with it for so long.  What is it about glass that makes it so seductive?  In a series of posts, I am going to explain the art of glass to you, not too laden  with technical jargon, but just enough to give you a feel for the stuff.  Maybe a few videos thrown in, and a lot of work.  Perhaps in there somewhere, what I do will begin to make a little sense to you if it hasn’t already.  For some folks, glass is still a bit of a mystery.  We, artists from all walks  of life, are involved in changing that, and bringing this material forward as an expressive medium.

Consider this….glass can be cut and polished at room temperature in order to shape it.  It can be put in a kiln and gently draped over a mold, or in a mold, or poured HOT into molds.  It can be blown, it can be shaped  solid. It can be rolled.  It can be ground up fine and packed into molds for a real nice effect called Pate De Verre. There are now dichroics, thanks to the space age and the lunar rover (this stuff was designed for the camera on board that craft) It can probably be other things we haven’t even dreamed of yet. We are working on that part.  And I am here telling you about it.

Its ancient technology resting on the edge of cutting edge tech.  Some tools have remained unchanged for thousands of years.  Some change yearly.  Perhaps its the same with other things, other media.  Perhaps I am biased; glass always seemed like a miracle to me.  That it was even discovered is a miracle in and of itself.  And its story is an interesting one since glass was not taken up as a breakthrough that covered the globe.  No, it was discovered in ONE place by ONE people and then spread from there (in highly secretive fashion lest anyone uncover the secret to making glass from the raw ingredients!).  But that is a story that I will save for another post, a little later.

There’s no doubt about it.  Glass is a terribly seductive material.  Having worked in a variety of media, I can say unequivocably that there is no other material quite like it.  Glass must be kept molten in order to work it, so it “exists” as a plastic material only in those higher ranges. This means the studio is an engine of heat.  Furnaces blast using specially designed equipment capable of achieving, and then maintaining about twenty-five hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

When I first began blowing glass, I was a grad student at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  I was there studying sculpture and had just completed my first semester when I discovered that there was a glass program there.  The guy who was hoping to find a replacement for his job at the University Museum told me about the job as well as the class.  I wound up taking his job at the Museum so he could move to teaching glass.  And that is how I started blowing glass first at Carbondale under Marshal Hyde, and then Prof. Bill Boysen.  I wound up falling in love with it.  It was instantaneous.  From the moment the bubble emerged from the blow pipe, I was hooked.  It was that simple.  I continued my studies in sculpture and completed my M.F.A in sculpture, but when I left Carbondale, I was also a glassblower.  Impatient with getting a job in academia, I chose to go full bore in the studio biz and did, designing and building all my own equipment in a bare little space of a studio which I turned into a humming world of molten lava until I moved to SW Va and to a very different studio space (you gotta promise to come visit the gallery and the studio–its a great sandbox!).

In order to work glass with any degree of speed or facility, you have to keep the material within a fairly narrow temperature range.  If you work the glass too cool, it takes forever to get a piece done since its plasticity is limited.  If you work too hot, you could lose the piece as it careen out of control by becoming TOO plastic.  Everything with glass happens within a pretty narrow window, and as a glass worker, you are able to gauge what this window is both by look as well as feel.  I can remember working alone and realizing I could gauge temperature strictly by how the glass resisted my turning it on the pipe.  When glass is hot, it will “lag” behind the turning of the pipe.  This is because it is semi-fluid.  its like getting a small pool of water to turn in one direction using your hands.  It doesn’t all start the same way a solid object would start to turn; it is more like getting MOST of it to turn and then the really hot soft stuff that is “lagging” catches up through sheer peer pressure.  Well okay, not peer pressure. Its just not an exact thing.  Its a coaxing thing, a cajoling thing.  This is what makes glass so hard to master.  It seems to have a life and a mind of its own.  It is what also makes glass frustratingly difficult.  And rewarding when you get it.  Its a miracle that the material can even be shaped, or kept that hot, let alone transformed into objects of great beauty.

Each time I blow at the bench I think about this small miracle.  It keeps everything fresh for me as I refuse to stay entrenched in what I think the material is capable of.  Its capable of more than I can even conceive.  I just have to learn how to tease those new secrets out of it!  And so you get an idea of what I go through when making my stuff.  Or new stuff.  New stuff is interesting for how, even now, I go partly by instinct and partly by something that is entirely mysterious to me and I am sorry that its like this, but that is what it is.  This is the miracle side of the thing.  Its how I come up with the coolest ideas.  They can even seem or appear as accidental. Some are flat out accidents.  You heard me.  I discover the most when I relinquish the greatest control.  Then the glass shows me, and I follow.  Its accidental like that.  I know it probably sounds like mumbo jumbo, but its very significant mumbo jumbo and that’s just how it is.  Its a mystery,  And you and I have to deal with that while we sit back and enjoy the fruits of the days’ labors.  Don’t get me wrong; I couldn’t do any of this if I didn’t know how to blow glass.  The blowing part I have down.  Its what allows me to do what I do with minimal effort, the part that frees my mind and spirit to soar.  You can’t always do that if your mind is burdened or you are still working on getting technique or form.  It actually has to be set free.   I haven’t figured out a way to do this while constantly having to figure out if I am doing the technique right or if I am having trouble keeping everything centered.  Its why artists create.  Its a touchstone to something still larger.  And deeply rewarding.

This is what is called the glory hole.  It’s also called a reheating furnace. Some people snicker at the term which is now used for a very different meaning.  I could give you the history of where glory hole came from (gold rush actually) but I will just let you stare into the intense heat of the furnace for now.  Its so hot that the flame from the burner isn’t discernible.  Everything becomes incandescent at these elevated temperatures.  In just the right place within the glory lies a swath of insulative material that isn’t just yellow, but white.  I aim for that spot, knowing by its color to be the hottest spot in the entire place.  Here is where the glass will quickly melt and become soft and pliable.

There is little more capable of capturing the sense of flow and liquid the way glass does.  Having said that, glass is also expert at turning into just about anything, and that includes things that don’t flow.  There is nothing contradictory in what I just said!  Right?

For me, I enjoy the fusion of hot with cool, the water and fire all at once.  I enjoy watching the material go through a transformation from hot to cool.  And truly, it transforms.  Colors change, some colors seem to radiate light while they become opaque and dark once cooled.  Sometimes it feels as though you are looking into the secret life of glass.  Like the hot side is its undercover identity, and few ever see it.  In this state, in this phase of its expression, things are VERY different.  And as quickly as it began, its over.  The piece is quickly broken off the punty and dispatched to the annealing oven so that it can go through a special heat treatment that is absolutely necessary.

I think annealing is like a big mystery to most people, a kind of invisible process that you can’t see or touch or taste or watch as it happens.  This all happens inside the safe confines of the kiln or oven.

The speed at which glass exits its plastic phase into its solid phase can result in considerable stress being built up in the body of the glass, a type of thermal stress that is never seen by the eye, yet is lurking there, ready to strike at any moment.  If the glass is taken through the liquid to solid phase and below to quickly the glass will register this stress invisibly, and it will also break if it continues its march much below 750° F in too rapid a fashion.  Instead, the oven or kiln is used to slow that descent so that everything cools just right.  Too fast, and stress can be reintroduced, and too slow and the glass could slump at the higher ranges (deform slightly from the high-end heat).  There are ways to calculate all of this and in general a note is made of what is the thickest piece in the kiln because that batch’s annealing cycle will be determined by the thickest cross-section of glass in the kiln.  the thicker it is, the longer it takes for the annealing cycle to work.  Glass is, you see, a very poor conductor of heat, so it takes time to get heat INTO the ware or work, and it is slow to take it out of the pieces.  Again, this is why if you cool too fast, you can actually cause work to break (everybody make a sad face now).

Inside of glass is a world where nothing is real, where light bends, where solids register as etherial sprites.  Nothing is as it should be and yet, it all feels perfect.  Looking through glass is somehow like looking through a womb, a world made of water and muffled sounds.  There is nothing about it that suggest cold hard reality, although I am sure there are people who are whipping their glass into such submissions of shape and form.  But not me….at least not now…

The expressive potential of glass is huge.  It can be made to be soft edged and water.  It can be turned into angular rock-like forms and made to fool the eye.  it flows and yet it is solid.  May describe the medium as a super cooled liquid, and to this I would agree, but absent the thought that the material keeps moving (that is an old romantic tale that some seek to back up with various inaccurate “evidence” which just isn’t so, sadly, but I wont go into here….maybe later…if you are interested…)

Most often, my work with glass is in letting the material speak its own language of molten fluidity. I add my own contrasts to highlight my own preferences and turn of mind, but homage is given in my work each moment to the amazing fluidity of this material.  I have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential this material has…

When glass exits the furnace where it is “gathered” or twirled onto the end of a blowpipe, the molten shapeless gob of glass (yes, “gob” is actually a technical term in the glass forming industry; so appropriate!) is allowed to cool and be shaped.  A bubble is inserted through the long blow pipe in order for the glass to be inflated and have a hollow inner core.  If this is going to be sculpture that isn’t hollow, the glass isn’t blown in the traditional way, but is instead “solid formed” which means that no air is blown into the center of the molten material.  Instead of blowing up like a balloon, its more like dipping hand dipped candles; layer and layer, the wax or glass builds up on the outer-most layers until the achieved size is realized.  Through a series of as many as fifty different moves, a relatively modest vessel can be formed, such as the perfumer to the left.  For larger more elaborate objects, the number of steps can treble and the need for assistance from others in on the team effort can sometimes be required.

All blown glass, or hollow vessel forms always begin the same way on the blow pipe.  They are blown and then the vessel has to be cracked off the pipe and a new tool, called a punty, a solid rod with a dab of glass on its end is used to temporarily stick to the bottom of the vessel so that the broken ends can be heated, trimmed, and then heated until it is either spun out (for a bowl) or it gains enough plasticity so that it s top section can be formed into a long graceful neck for a vase or some similar kind of form, depending on what the artist has in mind.

Glass has remarkable expressive potential.  It can be blown, it can be formed in a kiln (fused glass) it can be worked on the end of a small metal rod in the making of beads, and the glass can be ladled molten into molds while hot for cast glass.  It’s an amazingly versatile material that makes glass containers, windows, windshields, beakers for chemistry experiments, platters of Pyrex for cooking the roast beef, and beautiful objects of art adorning the home the same way jewelry would adorn a woman’s body, helping to add that special visual accent or looks that helps to make the dress, or evening.  This is how we adorn our lives through intelligent designs that help shift how we look and how we respond to a space.  We can add any number of looks or sense of taste to a space depending on what we choose.  Good design matters, and handmade matters most!  Okay, so now  its the next big thing….is it history?  or do I delve into the forms themselves?  Good museums for glass to go to?  Other artists?   A blog on the renovations going on at the studio?  A few videos?  Hmmm….there is a lot to consider.

(All images are my own, and if you would like to use them, you have to ask permission)

©Parker Stafford, Stafford Art Glass


Designing Control

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Update – 3/4/2014 In light of the Snowden revelations, this old post becomes remarkably prescient.

Update  –  6/27/2013     Note:  with the recent “discoveries” of how the government  is spying on the U.S. public using communication companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Google, Yahoo, Apple and others, this post becomes even more important for people to read and consider.  Today I am adding new information to help you understand the issue which will show up at the end of this post.  I tend to feel that truth is often found in unusual places.  I teach my students in college about how cognitive bias serves to narrow our vision and helps to cement a false belief system that is not based on anything real necessarily.  Being able to see beyond our own biases and consider new ideas without necessarily buying into them immediately just because they appeal to us personally, is an important trait in being able to get to the truth I have found. the preposterous idea one day can become mainstream truth the next.  So please read through to the end for the newly added material!

Disclosure:  this article was written first to investigate what was happening with surveillance in the USA and secondly to see if there was a presidential candidate who was addressing issues related to right to privacy as granted in the Constitution.  This was written during a presidential campaign and part of the article points to a candidate who did address these issues. However, the information herein is timely and as recent events have shown with the issue of Snowden releasing information on how the govt has been spying on all Americans has made this piece written a year ago interestingly prescient. 


Everything that is made is designed.  Design makes an object useful, perhaps more purposeful.  Normally we think of design as something that is for products like chairs and airplanes, shoes, guns, shirts, houses, communities, and computer systems.  Things that help us live more fulfilled lives.  But what about a surveillance state, a system for control or surveillance?  This is a different kind of animal and I think that when it comes to these things our minds tend to switch into a mode of thinking that ceases being critical and questioning a lot of the time.  It’s up to those in power to figure that out.  They deal with secret information and after all, loose lips sinks ships, right?  But all of these notions are themselves fed into us.  We do not come out of the womb believing that we ought not question how a system for surveiling the public ought not be questioned.  But this IS something that is designed.  With purpose.  For certain results.  What exactly would go into a surveillance state, and why would anyone want to infringe on someone’s right to privacy in the United States? And really, to what end?  It might help to understand what forms of surveillance there are and how information is supposed to be gathered.  Its gone from people listening in over phone networks to much more sophisticated methods as well as means that you might not have even considered is part of the eavesdropping game in these United States.  But first, a little history.

The History of Surveillance

It used to be the eyes on the ground was the neighborhood policeman who walked a beat.  Police were still used to direct traffic, and things were simpler then. The world of electronics was just beginning to come into use.  As with all technology, things were very expensive and bulky at first, which meant that having this form of technology around us was limited to things like computers, some radios, and specialty equipment.  But fueled by an explosion in technology, the types of devices that could communicate wirelessly and increasingly higher wavelengths began to proliferate.  The C.I.A. is created after the second world war and the N.S.A. was created in May of 1949  under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to support intelligence efforts (1)

Since then, along with parallel developments in signal technology and the development of a digital method for encoding and reading information over a broad range of electronic equipment, the technology used for surveillance has broadened. In the mid 80’s the rise of the internet served to be yet another platform for surveillance. By this time, though, much of the  “listening” had become automated with keywords being picked through the vast chaff of signal communications via phone, internet, and even fax transmissions (via image recognition). The world of surveillance has become incredibly sophisticated, costly, and invasive.  It’s an example of something that has been allowed to grow way beyond any reasonable bounds.  Many ignore it since it’s just out of their notice while others are deeply concerned how this infrastructure is going to affect our rights to privacy.  Fed by a wholesale liquidation of many privacy rights and standard procedures such as warrants for wiretapping as well as gathering records on suspects, the surveillance state in the U.S. has grown based on one event that happened on September eleventh in the year two thousand.

Currently the surveillance state in the United States costs about 75 billion dollars a year.  This figure is expected to grow as our government continues to  upgrade emergency medical response equipment, install surveillance cameras, set up sophisticated radio networks, and outfit  airport screeners to detect an evolving list of mobile explosives.  Currently the security industry is a growth sector of our economy, and states have benefited from a sudden influx of revenue resulting from business being created in this sector of the economy.  After Columbine, some 10 billion was spent just to outfit schools with security cameras (2).  The business of watching is expensive, and for some a financial boon.  It involves makers, installers and monitors for the equipment or technology being used.  A long list of benefits occur as a result of a security system being put into place in a courthouse, for example, benefits that involve people monitoring equipment, people employed to install as well as manufacture the equipment.  The benefit to a cash strapped local government is that it results in much-needed revenue.  All of that and we have not yet touched on the technology our government (the NSA in particular) is most likely using to tap into video cameras mounted on traffic lights as well as in businesses where they are tied to the internet. Many security cameras now have this as a standard feature, along with motion detection to alert you, from, say, your home, whether anything is moving around your business location or second home, for example.  If it goes over the phone lines, the government can eaves drop on it!  Sound paranoid?  You should read on….

The L.A. Times explains the situation as it stands right now very well in its article about the rise of surveillance and domestic monitoring of its citizenry:

Thanks to new laws and technologies, authorities track and eavesdrop on Americans as they never could before, hauling in billions of bank records, travel receipts and other information. In several cases, they have wiretapped conversations between lawyers and defendants, challenging the legal principle that attorney-client communication is inviolate.

Advocates say the expanded surveillance has helped eliminate vulnerabilities identified after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some critics, unconvinced, say the snooping undermines privacy and civil liberties and leads inevitably to abuse. They argue that the new systems have weakened security by burying investigators in irrelevant information.

“We are caught in the middle of a perfect storm in which every thought we communicate, every step we take, every transaction we enter into is captured in digital data and is subject to government collection,” said Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law who has written extensively on privacy and security.

A robust debate on the intelligence gathering has been impossible, for the simple reason that most of the activity is officially secret. In lawsuits alleging improper eavesdropping, the Justice Department has invoked state secrecy to prevent disclosure of classified information and systems.

In May, two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that Americans would be disturbed if they knew about some of the government’s data-gathering procedures. But Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said they were prohibited from revealing the facts.

“When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted” surveillance law, “they will be stunned and they will be angry,” Wyden said.

The National Security Agency, which eavesdrop on foreign targets, once had to get a court-approved warrant to monitor a U.S. citizen’s communications over wires that traverse the United States. Now the agency is free to vacuum up communications by Americans and foreigners alike, as long as the target of the surveillance is a foreigner. (3)

A Question of Finances

At a time when our nation is stretched to its limit fiscally, there is some question about all of these expenditures.  Some lawmakers don’t worry about WHERE the money comes from as long as their own districts get a piece of the pie, or pork.  The problem, though, is there is no free lunch, and the money comes from somewhere.  If its not being covered by a budget with actual tax revenues, its a form of spending that is called deficit spending and the effect this spending has is the same effect that someone with an unlimited credit card has in their own spending.  Eventually, debt can be raised so high that it erodes the economy and the value of the dollar being used as the vehicle for exchange.  Economists are pointing to this having happened in the face of uncontrolled spending both on the Iraq, Afghanistan, and now (it looks like)  Iranian conflicts.  The country, which has been through a major bursting of its economic bubble (in housing originally), now is slipping not just into recession but what many economists call a recession.  Spending continues, though, all in the name of keeping America safe.

When you look at a peeler in the store, you want to know how well designed it is, how effective its going to be, right?  Its one reason why we test drive cars, why we visit houses and why we try on clothes. We want to make sure that how their designed is for the use intended.  If something doesn’t fit, we don’t buy it.  In the case of government spending, there is a larger lobby going on. Imagine seven people standing outside your dressing room explaining to you WHY you should buy those jeans.  One person walks up to you and slips you a brochure that explains all of the benefits of the jeans you are looking at.  Someone else walks up and explains why buying those jeans isn’t a good idea.  This is the process for how things can be purchased at the government level.  Its all about influence and the art of the sell.  We have been sold on our need to be kept secure by technology.  The problem, however, is that what is meant to keep us secure is actually invading our privacy.

So what are the actual numbers on the National Security letters, which are those unconstitutional methods for getting information without a warrant?  There have been 192,500 National Security Letters issued between 2003 and 2006, according to an audit by the Justice Department inspector general. The numbers have dropped sharply since then, but the FBI issued 24,287 National Security Letters last year for data on 14,212 Americans. That’s up from a few thousand letters a year before 2001(4).

What is happening in the U.S. is the government now can get information about ordinary citizens from public sources such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other online sources.  Facebook simply provided the intelligence community carte blanch access to their network after getting tired of responding to thousands of requests a day to provide them with user logs and user input on their network.  Effectively, they gave them a backdoor access without ever telling anyone about it.  Your viewing habits on Netflix can be known with ease as these records are available to “third-party affiliates” which means in their disclosure agreement in their Terms of Use as meaning anyone who the company chooses to sell your information to.  Facebook, which uses a sophisticated form of biometric tracking can now recognize your face in all of the photos of you on their network where you are and are not tagged.  The government doesn’t NEED to spy on you since you have agreed to their “Terms of Use” and because this is considered public domain information.  This is one reason why Google requires that you upload a photograph of you.  Not an image of your home or the product you are selling or a cartoon character.  It’s because they are using biometrics, a means of turning your facial features into datapoints that make it possible to recognize you in other pictures in the future.  In a number of States this technology is being used for driver licenses.  Your data is out there!

In this new take on how privacy is being eroded as fast as you can imagine, our own government doesn’t NEED to keep extensive networks tracking people.  As more and more people grow  dependent on the internet, its easier to simply track people.  When you blog the software may ask you where you are.  On Facebook, there is the same option. While on the one hand this is to help companies get a sense of the habits of their public and what they want and need in an effort to anticipate future buying behavior, it is also a weird Big Brother activity that pushes technology way beyond anything that we are used to or even want.  I am asked what my phone number is when I buy lumber.  I get a club card at my local grocery which teams my buying up with who I am, my age, my sex and my address.  On the one hand it provides information to the company in exchange for specials to me, but it also is an intelligence gathering device that can be used by other entities such as the government.  Did you read a book on terrorism last month?  Did you watch the movie “Spare Change” which questions the official story of 9/11 or do you support a presidential candidate such as Ron Paul who is calling for dismantling all of these intrusions into our privacy?  For some, it doesn’t matter. for others, though, its seen as a gross misuse of the public funds for a spectrum of activity that has not caught a single terrorist seeking to board a plane to blow it up since 9/11.  in fact, it seems that the best our government can do is to encourage would-be terrorists to build bombs and then arrest them later for doing so (yes this has happened)

So is all of this surveillance paying off?  Are we safer as the rise of this surveillance state?  Now that its such big business, will we be able to wean ourselves off of it?  To read more about what’s happening, go here.

Have we stopped any planes?  Have we been able to stop domestic terror like Columbine, or Virginia Tech? If all of this technology is supposed to make us safer, could it be that we simply conceived the priorities all wrong?

If you think that the Obama administration is the champion of freedom, materially, nothing has changed from one administration to the next.

Bush gave the NSA the authority to eavesdrop on Americans communicating with foreigners abroad without first obtaining a FISA warrant, deeming the process too slow. As a U.S. senator, Obama condemned the so-called wireless wiretapping after the New York Times made it public in 2005. But when he ran for president in 2008, Obama voted for legislation that granted retroactive legal immunity to telecommunications companies that had secretly helped the government eavesdrop.The law also retroactively legalized other forms of surveillance, former intelligence officials say, including “bulk” monitoring that allows the government to intercept all email traffic between America and a range of suspect email addresses in, say,Pakistan.

Privacy advocates say the government should acknowledge how many Americans have had their communications intercepted in recent years. But after Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee requested that information, the Obama administration responded in July that it was “not reasonably possible to identify the number.” (5)

The question is, is this new car in our drive way making life better for us, or is it infringing on our freedom, our right to privacy?  On new years’ day Obama signed the NDAA (the National Defense Authorization Act)  a piece of legislation providing our government the carte blanche it needs (and wants apparently) to call any citizen a terrorist, arrest them and execute them all without any observation of the writ of Habius Corpus, or due process.  Such individuals do not have a right to an attorney and can be held indefinitely.  The problem is that abuses will happen as individuals who are inconvenient to a political party are “rendered” in this unconstitutional way by those individuals who have the power to say so.  At this point it’s no longer up to a judge to serve a warrant for police to look in your apartment.  Abuse can and will happen as the past has shown.  It’s very much the very same thing that happened in Salem Massachusetts when someone called another a witch.  They were drowned for a perceived or feared evil (when all along it might just have been that one woman was jealous of another woman and how all the men take notice of her, for example).  Or, perhaps, in the same way that Senator Joseph McCarthy did back during his tenure in office, he sought to spread fear where there was no real reason for being fearful.  Perhaps what is happening is the same thing, a means to change and erode our freedoms on such a massive scale that its mind-boggling.  Most people do not seem to care or notice.  And its true, as long as it doesn’t affect them, or as long as they don’t notice, it just isn’t a big deal, right?  And yet, the problem is, it affects all of us.

Has there been abuse as a result of all of this?  There has. To read more about the problems go here. There have been huge abuses of the money spent.  One such instance involved over 500,000 dollars in funding going to a North Pole outfit for search and rescue equipment (a creative way to get much-needed equipment probably) as well as lapel pins and phone cards in the state legislature of West Virginia.  There are areas that are given equipment that they aren’t even sure they need.  There hasn’t even been a threat assessment done, just what appears to be a guess based on what some feel could be a threat. One state legislator describes the spending as being as random and out of control as his mother headed out the door with the charge card.  The ACLU has a good series of articles outlining their biggest concerns about the Patriot Act and how it should be reformed here.  Do you know where your Congressional leaders stand on the issue of the Patriot Act, the surveillance state and the flow of your information across networks without your knowledge or even consent?  There is only one presidential hopeful running today who even brings up the issue of privacy rights, and liberty.  It seems that for as much concern as there has been over this issue, there are precious few who are bucking the establishment trend and fighting for freedom from such intrusions.  I include some links to this candidate and some of what he says and is about.

Because all of this is public, we all bear responsibility to change something if we do not feel its working.  The purpose was to make us safe, and yet the numbers involved in this entire enterprise is specious at best.  In the March issue, 2011, Harper’s Index expressed the point this way: “Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8 — Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning: 29.”  

As a final note, as mentioned in the article “The rise and cost of American Surveillance” the author includes these points to consider about abuse and how the Patriot Act has been used to abuse and rewrite the Bill of Rights:

  • The FBI admitted in a recent report to the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board that it violated the law at least 800 times on national security letters, going well beyond even the loose safeguards in the original provision. According to the report the FBI “may have violated the law or government policy as many as 3,000 times” between 2003 and 2007, according to the Justice Department Inspector General, while collecting bank, phone and credit card records using NSLs.
  • As Adam Sewer of the American Prospect notes: “It’s no secret that the FBI’s use of NSLs – a surveillance tool that allows the FBI to gather reams of information on Americans from third-party entities (like your bank) without a warrant or without suspecting you of a crime – have resulted in widespread abuses. All that the FBI needs to demand your private information from a third-party entity is an assertion that such information is “relevant” to a national security investigation — and the NSLs come with an accompanying gag order that’s almost impossible to challenge in court.”
  • NSLs were used by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to demand that libraries turn over the names of books that people had checked out. In fact, there were at least 545 libraries that received such demands in the year following passage of the Patriot Act alone.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) uncovered “indications that the FBI may have committed upwards of 40,000 possible intelligence violations in the 9 years since 9/11.” It said it could find no records of whether anyone was disciplined for the infractions.
  • Under the Bush Administration, the FBI used the Patriot Act to target liberal groups, particularly anti-war, environment, and anti-globalization, during the years between 2001 and 2006 in particular.
  • According to a recent report by the ACLU, there have been 111 incidents of illegal domestic political surveillance since 9/11 in 33 states and the District of Columbia. The report shows that law enforcement and federal officials work closely to monitor the political activity of individuals deemed suspicious, an activity common during the Cold War – including protests, religious activities and other rights protected by the first amendment. The report also noted how the FBI monitors peaceful protest groups and in some cases attempted to prevent protest activities.
  • According to a July 2009 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, only three of the 763 “sneak-and-peek” requests in fiscal year 2008 involved terrorism cases. Sixty-five percent were drug related.

We need things that make our lives better. Good design is about that.  This, however, is a gross waste of much-needed resources and also serves to destroy America as we know it.  The coup isn’t that someone flew planes into buildings, it’s that it allowed the powerful an entrée into our lives, all of our lives, in a wholesale erosion of basic rights that were fought for and paid for in the blood of Patriots (such as the Revolutionary War).

We are in an election year and as I look more closely at what the Democrats end Republicans are saying about the challenges we face with a debt crisis, multiple wars and a swiftly growing surveillance state, I do not see anyone who is championing this cause, except for one candidate.  I do note that this one candidate predicted the housing bubble, as well as our current debt crisis.  Increasingly popular, he has been ignored by most media except that he continues to show growing popularity in his run for the nomination.  I think given how he has been ignored by the mainstream, its worthwhile for people to have a more honest and clear-eyed view at a man who has had twelve terms  in Congress and whose record has been consistently on the side of the Constitution.  It just might be that we need more people who will respect the rule of the Constitution rather than eroding basic human rights and freedoms granted by our Constitution.  This is Congressman Ron Paul.  Here are a few links to him and what his philosophy is:

Video Of Ron Paul In Congress

Ron Paul Campaign Site

Myth VS Fact

On a personal note, I am all for freedom.  As an artist, freedom of speech and liberty is incredibly important to the most basic of activities.  I am not wanting to see my country reduced to a police state, which is actively happening right now.  As people are distracted and waving away any suggestion that there is anything untoward happening, I know that threats to our liberty can happen right here, at home.  The war on Terror has turned out to be a war on our rights and liberties as well as a reason to go into other countries to steal oil wealth (I presume) or line the pockets of the military industrial complex.  There is no one else in the field who is standing up against this wholesale sell off of our rights except Ron Paul, so yes, I support him, and yes, I think you should take a look at him aside from all the press that has sought to demonize and make him seem like a kook (lets admit it; its worked) and yet when I look at the facts on the ground, I do not find freedom kooky at all.  Gold standard?  That requires doing some research into monetary policy and how currencies tend to be destroyed through overspending (look at the you tube video Money Masters which explains the history of money as a form of exchange and why having a Central Bank may not be a good way to have the show run).  Sometimes we have to go looking for the facts absent others’ conflations or spin.  While I offer up a man in a brazen and obvious way, I am not telling you what to think.  Ultimately you must come to your own conclusions. We are all in this together!

6/27/2013 UPDATE:  included is some additional information to help readers have more information and make a more informed decision about how they participate in the datagathering efforts now underway by companies and governments.  Alex Jones is a real trip and I don’t buy into all of the fear that comes up on his site but he does have an important interview with the founders of Startpage, one of the few, perhaps only truly private search engine on the internet.  Getting past the fear mongering that Jones gets into, though, you can gain a clearer picture of what efforts there are out there in helping people maintain their privacy online.   Once you watch the interview I think you will come away with a better understanding of how your information can be used without your consent or knowledge for a host of purposes, some of which may be in “customizing” your internet experience (which the founders of Startpage have found may not be the case entirely, but also an effort at molding your own sense of what your choices really are….).  Watch the video and decide for yourself:

This is the link on youtube.  The link beneath it will open a new window for you to view the interview.  The meat of the interview  begins about 4 minutes into the program for those who would like to skip the introductory material.

Jones with Startpage Founders

©Parker Stafford


(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Security_Agency

(2)http://www.community-matters.org/news/press-releases/  (see the article “Ten Years after Columbine” available as a pdf)

(3) http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/29/nation/la-na-911-homeland-security-surveillance-20110830



Art and Design, Uncategorized

The Exquisite Object

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Nested Yin Form, Parker StaffordI’d like to take a moment and explain a little about this blog, what its about, what the thinking is that is behind it, and why yet another blog and why a blog about Stafford Art Glass.  First off, I am an artist, artisan, designer, and educator.  I write a good bit, having a 620 page manuscript in the works (which looks like if I can get a big enough crowbar could be turned into three books), have written some as-yet unpublished children stories and am working on a second book related to the first (this might be that crowbar I was looking for).  I also write two other blogs on other subjects related to nonduality and I run a studio in the Alleghany mountains of Virginia.  I am a father of two and my life has been turned around recently in such a way that I have begun to look at creativity very differently than I did before. Maybe I should say my thinking has blossomed a little more.  While my interests are broad, I am keeping the focus pretty tight on this blog.

We very much need good things to help reflect our values in life.  Everyone has different ideas, philosophies, and approaches.  All of them are valid, of course, all have merit, and even if by looking over our shoulder at our neighbor we have trouble understanding some of them.  The truth is, there is a tendency we as humans have that serves to lock out whole worlds of possibilities, and it doesn’t just happen in art and fashion.  Our brains are designed to see the patterns in the chaos, and because of that, we like to hold onto those patterns, and often deify them much to our limit.  We become biased and this bias closes us to the possibilities.  This has a broad application in life, and this principle is anathema to being innovative or creative in my opinion.  I very much love taking the most obvious idea or form and think how I can turn it on its head, turn it inside out, change it, reform and recreate it.  This is part of the very essence of the creative, and its necessary if you are going to attempt to think differently, and have a chance at creating something new.  By being able to innovate, we as creators and innovators can bring to market those products that matter and that tell the story in an entirely new way.  Sometimes new is very very good, but new often is built upon the old in such a way that it changes the conversation, the very content of the past so that it can speak to a new generation.  All great innovation is built upon this precept.

It might be a little silly for me to be titling this post “The Exquisite Object” because the truth is, one person’s exquisite is another person’s eeeew!  However, I think that the better we can innovate and create the New, the better we are able to insert something into the dialog of our lives that has some meaning.  Many strokes for many folks!

I am a glassblower, artist, as well as sculptor.  When I think of glass, though,  I tend to think of it as a sculptural medium, even though I often make very functional items.  Glass can be a material that we instantly have certain assumptions about.  Its a perfect example of how we can crowd out a world of possibility, as well as innovation and creativity by keeping our horizon limited.  The techniques I use to make my work set it apart from the usual run of the mill glass that you might think you know.   A lot of what I do, like most good designers and artists do, is seek ways to set myself apart from the pack.  I also do what matters to me.  If I did what sold, I’d still be making those god awful ornaments I took to New Jersey that one time that were, I thought, horrible color combinations and sold within the first hour of the Artfair!  What I know is that I am looking for the right person for my work, and this falls entirely outside the design process and becomes a marketing issue, but it is a basic philosophical precept to how I operate.  If I seek to please everyone, I wind up not pleasing myself, and asking just what on earth I am doing.  So I stick to what I believe and out of that comes something of consequence to me and my customers. I do not look at the materials I use in a limited light; they are just that, materials, and can become anything.  Sometimes the greatest ideas are waiting to be discovered and they are right in front of us.  I don’t bring to my glass work any of the same biases that I found once I got into the medium.

Perhaps as a result of this orientation, I don’t have much of a purist heart in me because it is that “purity” that I also know in another language also means “bias” and bias is also a way of limiting yourself. On the one hand, you need FOCUS when doing art or design, but I have always sought a range of different sensibilities that have all informed one another or told different parts of a much larger tale.   For sure, I am interested in certain kinds of design, don’t get me wrong, but I am restlessly creative, and this is evidenced in my enormous writing output over the last year as well as my going into teaching sculpture at the local university.  Its more like I can’t tell the whole story in English, and I need four more languages with which to explain everything!  This flies in the face of everything my teachers tried to convey to me early on, and yet, just like our need to find objects that are well designed and made that help  express our OWN sense of style and design, so too must I range across a multilingual landscape in order to tell my own story! Besides, who is living this life, me or my teachers from long ago?  Sometimes it also means sticking to your guns and not being afraid to believe in something.

Pino Signoretto at Eugene Glass School

I can remember a number of years ago when I attended a workshop by the well-known sculptural glass artist Pino Signoretto. That’s him at the bench with all the guys crowded around him.   It was a demonstration workshop, which meant we all watched.  I filmed the whole thing, hoping to learn as many tricks as I could from this great master.  As I sat with camera in hand an attendee and I began to chat.  He asked what I did in my work and we had a nice exchange that was pretty cordial until he found out that I also made these little sculptural pieces I call Andromeda Geodes and Inscape Geodes.  For lack of a better name, these would be referred to as paperweights. With a change in his body language and a roll of his eyes, he said to me that he REFUSED to do paperweights and quickly ceased any conversation with me.  He had, at that point, decided I was one of THOSE glass artists, and quite suddenly, I was beneath him.  I remember being a bit surprised by the arrogance that was being leveled at me, but also a little happy at the same time.  I thought that this was one less person to have to compete against, and how nice it was that I wasn’t so closed-minded about what glass could and could NOT be, or what was good or NOT good.

Since then, I have run across a number of glass artists who look at the subject of making sculptural glass the same way.  Its largely from a place of ignorance, and thus bias, and the fact that “paperweights” are thought of as easy to make by those who have dabbled in them, which they can be, the act of bias, a very subjective activity in itself, closes off any intellectual or creative curiosity for some people.  Its when we make assumptions about what we THINK we know that we can miss a world of possibility.  In fact, many of the great discoveries were accidents that forced people into thinking about a given phenomenon, technology, in a different way. So often, we just get STUCK in what we believe is possible, or not worthwhile.  Often, by turning something on its head, we can peel off entire layers of new material and possibility just by NOT assuming we know all there is to know.  Truth is, we really know very little, but that ego of ours sure doesn’t want us to believe or be mindful of that!

Here is what I mean:  paperweights are normally round, clear, and brilliantly colored.  They are a delicious slice of eye candy. For me, though, I never saw the paperweight as anything with a history.  I didn’t KNOW the history of these things.  I didn’t grow up owning paperweights.  I never saw them made. I didn’t know what you were SUPPOSED to do with them, or any of the traditionalist baggage that could have served to limit me.  I simply came innocently into their grove and like a child, looked anew at what they could become.  I had nothing that told me anything about any of this was bad, or more desirable than any other.  I was a sculptor getting my M.F.A. and I was just taking glass because it was such a cool medium.  I took a beginning glass class that covered the basics, but was so intimidated by the skill and knowledge of the other glassblowers in the program, that I wound up working alone much of the time.  In some ways, it may have been my own loss from a technical stand point, but the flip side was I remained a conceptual vacuum where I didn’t always know what should or could be done.  Normally, this way of working is not one I would even suggest as being productive for my students in sculpture, but I have to admit that it served me in a way that helped me to dream in a different way, in a more unlimited way.   I learned all of my techniques pertaining to solid work entirely on my own.  As a result, I did everything opposite from the way its normally done. Instead of making my “paperweights” clear on the outside, I made them opaque. The design on the outside wasn’t even a design, but a rock-like effect.  Light did not dance across their surfaces, but instead they had a shell that obscured their interiors.  I also didn’t make my pieces round.  They were  lumpy, bumpy, and organic.  I was more interested in real geodes and how their surfaces looked.  I wanted to make the glass NOT even LOOK like glass!  Then, by cutting them open, I  revealed their interiors, which were sparkling worlds and galaxies full of brilliance and crystalline beauty. Everything about these pieces has defied what the assumed definition of a “paperweight” is to the point that I often have trouble even calling them paperweights. People seem to need to have a way to peg them, so they get this categorization.  The truth is, these pieces are hard to make.

Already, have had two artist attempt my designs, one who sought to adapt it to his own color effects and design sense while another has not taken my design very far from the tree from which it was conceived (which bothers me the most since this feels like theft to me).  One of them gave up the work because of some technical problems that I faced in the work but worked through.  It was interesting looking at his derivative work and being able to see that the issues I had worked so hard on to fix were still remaining in his version.  A given type of work can be difficult to make technically, but the user doesn’t want to know about this, they want an object that they can use, and while part of their enjoyment is the “how’d they do that?” factor, it doesn’t matter much since its all just details.  When people go to see a movie very rarely do they want to see a film about HOW the film was made;  they just want to become absorbed in the art, in the story being woven.  Regardless of the level of difficulty (or lack thereof), the bottom line is:  is it exquisite?  Is it finely crafted, thought out, does it have good design, and does it say something in a way that hasn’t been said before? If the answer is yes to all of this, then its a “go for launch.”

In my teaching, I try to get this across to my students.  We talk about what art is, and while its a sticky wicket sometimes, part of what art is about is its ability to take an old conversation and turn it into a new one. Most great artists took what was assumed and turned it inside out.  Duchamp took ordinary objects and said they were art, underscoring how important INTENT was in art making, while at the same time also using everyday mundane objects  in an entirely new way. Sometimes it can also mean starting an entirely new conversation based on new concepts, new forms, and new ideas. Ultimately its about transforming the mundane into the profound, and this is no mean task.  It means thinking different, and it also means not allowing the mundane to trip you up, or to believe that there isn’t some new way to go about making something so that it breathes new life into the artform.  Its about not letting our biases rule the day because just beneath the bias runs the strongest and most powerful current we know; creativity.  It also means stopping before you begin your eye roll when you hear of something you think you already know everything about!  When we can learn to think different, we can also create different. When you can make different, you can come up with new forms, new product, new stories, new ways of seeing and feeling.  This is one of the powerful sides of the human spirit, and that is a great thing to embrace!

So much about design and art is taking established guidelines or forms and creating something new out of it.  Being able to break out of those old molds, modes, and ways of thinking is the essence of innovation, and that means design, too!  To that end, this is in large part what this blog is about; innovation.  As I write, I now have several new lines of work waiting for me to continue to tune and tinker with.  The concept is well fleshed out, but the form needs to follow the function, and the function is the concept.  How well do these two align?  How do I pull on the idea of utility and art to create something new?  What taboos can I break, or old notions can I leave by the wayside in the search for the next big thing?  This is where the rubber meets the roads, my friends, and this is the very meat of what interests me most about what I do. In the posts that follow I will be discussing the processes and ways that have led me to knew work.  The studio is a place of flux.  I am not a factory, although the studio sure looks like one.  It could be one, or it could be an entirely new model based upon a very old one, that of the individual studio artist and artisan creating new work just as they have for millenia.  I might even manage to comment on the state of design in our world, perhaps in small bite sized chunks!

Goodnight Sweet Readers…