Art and Design

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.

Art and Design, glassblowing

The Gaia Lamp – Calling All Believers!

©Parker Stafford
©Parker Stafford

A few weeks ago I wrote a post detailing a project I was doing for a customer.  I was taking a vase and drilling it to allow for a light kit to be placed within.  It was the culmination of a dream I have had for my work that is years in the making.  The pics were shot from my phone camera, good enough for the freshness of the moment as I went along.  But what began so simply has grown legs and sprouted beams of light!  This job has become the genesis of something much larger and now I am crowd funding the production costs for this project to bring this much needed piece of beauty to the market place!

The effort has behind it a wonderful piece of artglass that uses a proprietary process that makes the glass look dimensional, like…well…earth….except this all happens within a layer of glass that is less than 1/16 of an inch thick.  This line of work was first made in 2003-4, so in a sense it is a seasoned performer for me in my glass studio business.  What’s new is how the glass looks when it lit.

First, the piece shoots a diffuse shaft of light up onto the ceiling.  The color of that light is white while the rest of the light radiates through the body of the lamp, turning the light also into a room centerpiece.  If you like the feeling of a warm fire at night, this light is just for you!  The feelings that have been used to describe this light is “calming,” “centering,” “warm,” and “great for meditation rooms!”  It is both artglass and light feature all in one.

Lamp 1

To read up on the beginning process you can read the post titled “Getting Lit” HERE.

The large lamp (shown) uses a 60 watt fluorescent bulb, is U.S. electrical code compliant, and is switched on and off from a handy switch on the cord. The cord is 9 feet in length.  Every piece is also signed and dated by the artist.  The design also makes changing the bulb a snap.  I am currently in the process of garnering support from bloggers, friends, and lovers of all things light and glass to help spread the word.  Raising money in the way that I am means a community.  Ready to change your concept of what community is all about?  Is community local?  Is an idea local?  How do we make an idea one whose time has come?  THAT is where you come in, dear reader!

In the days that follow check back here to this post to find new links to the campaign, more pictures, videos, as well as to find out what is in it for you (like glassblowing opportunities, custom made work, a special limited edition Christmas ornament or sun catcher!), there will be a bunch of juicy premiums I will be giving out for those who donate and who want to take this effort to the next level!

The first link is to the preview page for the campaign.  As of this writing, it is mostly text, but that will change as videos and pictures are added.  See the campaign on Indiegogo HERE.  My hope is to spread the word about this project and product and if you are a blogger with an interest in making American Made a priority, or if you love all things artisan or glass, or cool design, this is just the arena for you!  Fire up the engines!  Calling all believers!

You can also get updates via facebook by “liking” the business page for this campaign HERE!

©Parker Stafford
©Parker Stafford

This is a copy of the campaign poster in its current state….

Glass Lamp Small

Art and Design, glassblowing

The Mighty Tumbler – A Question of Design

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I teach sculpture and design at a local university in addition to my work as a glass artist in the studio.  If you know me, you will know that while I work daily with design in making good functional pieces as well as more higher end artglass, I am not a snob when it comes to design.  I have my opinions, yes, and they show up in the choices I make when designing new work, but I know that the day that we say there is only one way to go about design is the day I hang up my blow pipes and call it a life.  You see, while I know that many people in the design arena are very opinionated about what is and is not good design, I am aware that there is no right or wrong way to go about it.  The moment that someone says “You can’t do it that way” is just the same moment when someone comes along, bursts your rigid paradigmatic bubble, and shows that it can and does work “that” way.  There are lots of stories about people looking on in disgust at the likes of Degas and Van Gogh and Monet.  Brush strokes!  How dare they!  And then a hundred years later, the same thing is repeated during the Op and Pop eras on into the Post Modern age of art.  And the same goes for design movements as well.  If you are in the business of good design there are a lot of things to consider and nothing is absolute.  I’ll use the tumbler as a case in point.

When I was coming up in the glass field I noted that there were lots and lots of wedge-shaped tumblers where the foot was narrower than the top and the walls were a perfect straight edge line from tip to bottom.  Visually, this clues you in that the maker has control of his or her medium.  And yes, we may be used to seeing these basic shapes AS tumblers should be.  Or should they?  Visually, they might have a look that up-and-coming artisans then seek to emulate or copy.  And yet, the truth is, there is more than just how something looks that goes into the design equation.  A tumbler can look great but be miserable to hold in your hand.  I actually have some examples of these.  I made them. They sold pretty well, but why is that when they feel so unnatural in the hand?  I will be bold and tell you that they are that way and popular because people just don’t know any better.  They are pattern recognition machines and base so much of their choices on habit and following others, just like our emulating glassblowers with their straight-lined tumblers.  Truth be told, good design is a matrix or fusion of many considerations, not JUST visual.  A meal dressed up to look nice to the eye is nothing if it tastes bland; that’s because it really does need to LOOK good AND taste good, too.  It should delight as many of the senses as possible, and this goes for design as well. When it doesn’t, you get a poverty of SOMETHING somewhere along the line.  Someone buys the tumbler and then never really realizes how nice a different shape would feel, so they just never get to experience that eventuality.  They missed the boat.  And yet, it is we, the designers, who are involved in that boat leaving, or better; never even arriving in the first place.

I hate straight-walled tumblers for the very reason that I know the single best feeling tumbler to my hand and to many of my guests in my home and clients that I seek to impress with this one simple truth is that a tumbler needs a shape that is in harmony with the hand that is going to hold it.  As a result, this most often means that a tumbler needs to fit the hand in its girth.  A smaller hand wont feel as comfortable wrapping around a tumbler made for a Viking Goddess as it does a smaller version based on the physiology of the person grasping it.  The other side to this equation is that no one hand is going to be the same, so the question in design is how to find the happy medium where big and small hands will rejoice in the feel of your tumbler no matter who is grasping it that day.  And then there is the overall shape of the tumbler.  It is true that the top should be wider than the bottom in order for the hand to properly “catch” the vessel in a sound grip.  A simple tube is simply hard to hold onto.  Get a little salad dressing on your finger and sloop!  There it goes sliding out of your hand and onto the floor!

What I have found is most often the single best feeling tumbler to the hand is an hour-glass shape.  It allows the hand to grasp it closely whole also giving the hand a way to keep it from sliding up or down out of its grip for some-any-reason.  It is a result of this realization that I most often make tumblers with some form of curve in them while taking the overall size into consideration.  Overtop all of this, the surface decoration or color must play as well.  So what do you get?  You get a shape that you simply do not find very often in most stores. And I ask you; why?  I know the reason and it has to do with a lot of old regurgitated ideas about what makes a GOOD tumbler.  This is where we stagnate on many levels.  We stagnate-unknowingly- as users, and we most certainly stagnate as makers or designers.  And how do we change this?  We are brave.  We are willing to do just as I have done and sought to do what one of my last workers used to say when he saw something he thought was ridiculous.  He would say “I call bullshit!”  I had never heard that term before, but it really hit it on its head.  We have to be willing to question the status quo and ask the obvious question about that elephant in the room.  Of course there will be people who will look down their noses just as many have done in the past with anything new, but this is as it has always been with such dry and crusty pattern-recognition machines!  Eventually, though, a new idea takes hold and then suddenly everyone was the big supporter of it back when it really counted (winks).

So I know this is a lot to wrap around our humble tumbler, but its also important.  Its important for the chairs we must sit in, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the homes we live in and the ads that we have to view each day.  Most often, we THINK what we are seeing is something we like until something new comes along that shatters the old thinking.  But I say that all of this matters because it has to do with quality of life issues. Design should make life better, not uncomfortable.  It should function well while also looking….interesting. Clothes should wrap you and caress while also making you look great.  Cars should look sporty and stylish while also getting you there safely and comfortably.  We don’t need to compromise; we simply need to innovate!

I tell my students that they have to be willing to stand up and question everything, even me, if it comes to it.  I tell them that if they can explain why I am wrong and why another way is better or why how they did something was so great and should be considered, I am all over listening  in an honest and considered way.  After all, in a profession where the new ideas come from being bold and being willing to stick your neck out some, we all need to reward our new designers for being willing to try new things and to question what has come before, even if it does result in a tumbler my hand simply hates.  You gotta try.  You do.