Why Art

The Preamble

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. This catalyzed an effort to do what I had not done in years past, which was to add automation in the form of pneumatic cylinders controlled by foot pedals to open and close furnace doors.  Sounds like a simple thing, and it is, but the implementation wound up being more complicated and drawn out than expected.  But then, this can often be the case when engineering “one-off’s”.

The result has been a subtle but important transformation taking place at the studio.  The vent hood,which controls the ventilation was also updated in a significant way, essentially enclosing the vent hood completely in order to help make evacuating hot air from the studio more effective.  It will result in a more comfortable experience for me, my assistants, and for those taking classes there in the future.

The injury to my hand slowed me way down from where I planned on being, but it also opened up a new avenue that I am glad is now largely completed.  Despite delays from the engineering firm, I have managed to get all of the automation done that I have wanted to do for years but never did.  As a result, I am looking to the Fall of 2018 as a time when I will begin holding workshops again while also beginning production work again after a long hiatus teaching at the university.

I will be baking into my design of my website the ability to see the schedule and register for any and all classes from the convenience of your computer or mobile phone.  I am working with a web designer who will be including commerce solutions for purchasing work and for making the process of connecting with the studio more streamlined.  Those changes will be rolled out in the Fall, but for updates and important announcements, follow the studio on Facebook HERE.

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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The “Why” (and How)

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.

Glass takes years to learn. It is gymnastic in the sense that there is a lot of muscle memory involved, and all of this takes time and patience.  The best glass workers have been at this for their whole lives and they make what they do look easy when it is anything but that.  When I began introducing people to glass I realized that there is this considerable gap that exists with people and their skill level in glass that disrupted their ability to enjoy the material as an expressive medium. As a result of this, I developed a way of working with students in the studio to help fill the technical gap for the time being and working on what they can do on a technical level straight out of the gate in producing glass objects.  This method has resulted in being able to give people from all walks the fullest experience in glass possible without having to spend years developing the requisite skills necessary.  Since glass is a very expensive medium, it makes learning very expensive also.  Not everyone wants to be a maestro, some are content with running around the block to see what glass blowing is all about.

This process is effectively 75% student work with 25% hand-holding by the teacher.  This 25% consists of techniques critical to the successful creation of glass objects and represent a technical level that can take weeks or months to master just one of them.  Instead of taking weeks worth of repetition, I pick up that part and we work together to ferry objects like ornaments, suncatchers, vases, bowls, and paperweights to their completion on a first-go. This is also why the workshops have been so popular.  Most studios do not provide this level of access to the glass for beginners. I have found that by teaching in this way, I can help provide a closeup introduction to glass without years of preparation and work. For those who are serious about learning glass, they will grab the bull by the horns and do what needs to be done to accomplish that level of mastery.  For everyone else, it seems my method as developed works very well for the beginner.

 

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A suncatcher made by a first-time student

 

My process is to encourage the student to follow the glass and what it wants to do.  This may not sound like the kind of control that is necessary for a medium like glass, but over years of experience, glass has a quality that when you allow it to be itself, can and does do some really amazing things.  Instead of working in a precisely controlled way, I suggest more room for surprises to occur for students so they can witness the expressive potential of glass.  As a result there are creations that are far more complex and interesting than if they had been carefully controlled. Don’t get me wrong, control is necessary in being able to reproduce results in a production environment, but this is not what we are doing in a class.  In a class we are trying to get the biggest bang for our buck here: we seek to explore as broadly as possible in a very limited time frame.  The student, then, gets a snapshot of the potential that glass has. The results are nothing short of amazing, though, and is one reason why even when I am not offering classes, I tend on average to field three to four inquiries a month about classes even though I have not offered them now for a number of years.

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Closeup of a student suncatcher

Some folks are content sitting and watching glass being made in the studio. The ability to sit and watch glass being blown is free here at the studio.  We encourage everyone who wants to to sit in and learn a thing or two. For those who are not content to sit on their hands and watch, there are the classes.

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  to remain up to date on events and classes there. For those who want to know when a class is being offered, I recommend also that you email me at info@staffordartglass.com and include “classes” in the subject heading.  This will enable me to bring up all of the inquiries over a period of time and respond to them very quickly and easily.  And no, we wont spam you.  If you want off the list, you will be removed promptly.  For the rest, there is the Facebook page below:

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

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…..