Thursday, August 27, 2015

Supporting the Arts: Small Gestures, Big Impacts.

     That first sale as an artist is one you don't forget. For me it was the ultimate affirmation that my work was more than just a self indulgent hobby. In the beginning I was pleased just to pay for my supplies. Soon I began selling at shows and through galleries, and my hobby had become a job. Eventually the hope is that it takes over as my primary source of income; every artists' dream, right? Yet it all began with that first sale.

     Recently I gave an old workbench to my neighbor, who is also an artist. We were discussing an upcoming show when her daughter approached and wanted to give me a gift! Her mother had set up a special "studio" space so she could explore her own creativity. What I received was the beautiful, sparkly flower encrusted Popsicle stick you see above; only her uninhibited five year old brain had come up with some far more fantastical name than that. I told her I absolutely LOVED it, but would feel much better if I could buy it from her. I proceeded to pull out a crisp new dollar bill and presented it; her first sale. The sparkle in her eyes rivaled that of the flower stick I held in my other hand. She thanked me, held the bill by both edges, and slowly retreated back to her "studio". Her mother and I resumed talking, only to notice her leaping about the garage, proudly holding her dollar with outstretched arms directly in front of her. I quietly commented that the real test would be how long before she was on my front porch trying to sell me more. Well, I didn't even make it off of HER front porch before she presented me with a lovely pair to go with the first one...for sale of course! I was so proud of her!  I have to admit that I still do the happy-leapy thing when I make a sale, only I do it on the inside.....usually......

     I have no doubt been fortunate in my artistic adventures, and I try to repay the art world through advocacy, education, and the occasional purchase. I feel it's in our best interest as artists to support one another, and our industry as a whole. Mother Theresa said, "I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples." The tiniest actions can have tremendous impacts, so make them good actions. It's the least we can do as artists and patrons to pay back the art world for letting us come and play.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Roll of Fine Craftsmanship in Today's World

Tanasi bow made entirely by hand
 using all traditional materials

 "Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind."  Johannes Brahms

    Craftsmanship seems to be a word that conjures images of grizzled, bearded men in dusty workshops, donning leather aprons and scraped knuckles. We tend to think of craftsmen as those who use their finely honed skills to make functional items we use in our every day lives. But are they artists? By all means! I know most of us wouldn't even question the artistry of a craftsman's trade, but there are still holdouts in the fine art world that deem anything other than a painting or sculpture as "just a craft". I believe the time has come when fine craft takes it's place directly alongside fine art.

The riser of my Tenasi bow by
Joe Darnell
was hand carved to precisely
fit my grip.

 Our world is chock full mass produced, boring but functional items. They serve their purpose and that's about it. This doesn't mean that the items are necessarily lacking good design. Have you seen a ball point pen lately? A razor? A tooth brush? Ergonomics, color, exotic materials; most of our daily use items make the exotic space age designs of the 50's look like stone age cast offs. But no matter how revolutionary a new product is, if it began life as a glob of plastic that was purged, colored, stamped and shipped by the thousands, it just doesn't have the 'life' of a hand made object.

The Maker's mark.

    Handmade items have a mystique about them. The slight imperfections, a fingerprint here, an eccentric curve there. They tend to be made of natural materials, or at the very least materials that don't have nine syllables in their name. Most importantly, they are made buy someone who puts their heart and soul in every item they make. A piece of pottery, a quilt, a turned bowl or handcrafted furniture; all represent the artists' time, imagination, and countless years of experience and hard work. And you thought you were just buying a cool item to add to your collection! The artistry in craftsmanship is obvious in items like pottery or woodworking because we associate them with the arts. But what about other things that we don't normally associate with art. A hand made musical instrument, customized automobile, or even a traditional bow can invoke the same emotional response as a beautiful oil painting on the wall. The difference is you get to actually use the piece of art. That's right, usable art! Artisan crafted jewelry and hand made scarves are like art that you wear for all to see. Your favorite blend of coffee or tea is far more satisfying in a one of a kind mug.

Handmade in Michigan by Black Swamp; signed by the artisans on the inside.
 One of only 25 to be made,
 but sounds like one in a million in my wife's hands.

The underside of each key shows the gouge marks left behind
as the carvers slowly removed material turning blocks of rosewood into 
a finely tuned musical instrument.

Craftsmanship on full display. Not only has this marimba survived nearly sixty years
 of heavy practice and concert use, but it also survived the two Newfoundlands 
featured in the hand colored photos above!

     We live in the age of mega stores, cheap 'living room in a box' furniture outlets, and cold, impersonal electronic devices that occupy every waking moment in our daily routine. I believe now more than ever we need to infuse our lives with the joy that only comes from meaningful, quality handmade items.  If you're a maker, teach. If you're a buyer, advocate. Look for the extraordinary among the ordinary.  

Monday, March 31, 2014

Made by an American

O.K., it's a seat. Not just any seat, but my beloved seat that resides at my pottery wheel. A few years ago my wife, who is a percussionist, introduced me to the wonderful world of drummer's thrones. I must have sat on 50 of them before I found "The One", but my oh my, how worth it! The thing is, as great as the throne has been for my working comfort, there is another attribute that is just as important to me; that "Made by an American" stamp on the back. Not just the generic "In America" we are so accustom to seeing, but "BY an American"!
     Such an authoritative and proud statement. I'm not talking the normal flag waving, in your face, my junk is better than your junk kind of pride. I have plenty of stuff created by the hands of people from all around this fine planet. I'm looking at that word 'American' for what it is; a friend, a neighbor, a relative... right here- in America. This morning my wife and I had a very interesting conversation about the concept of a career and it's importance in today's America. Up to this point in an industrialized society the name of the game has been to pick a vocation, focus on it, and collect your cheap gold watch at the finish line called retirement. To break protocol and deviate from this formula has always been met with suspicion, and certainly didn't put you in the good graces of your family or future in-laws! But the rules were changed on us in the past couple decades. While careers are certainly still an option for many entering the work force, that option has been ripped away from many who thought they were safely navigating the road to retirement. Modern mechanization, outsourcing to less expensive labor markets, even simple changes in our lifestyles has led to the reduction or complete elimination of many "career" jobs. Our discussion led to "What would we do if we had to or wanted to choose a new career path?". The blank stares and shoulder shrugs spoke volumes. Too old for this. Too much competition for that. This one doesn't exist anymore! Now what? Cindy said she would do something with her music, but not sure what. I have my art, but where am I going with it. I will admit, not exactly the happiest Sunday morning chat, but I think an enlightening one none the less.
     As we went about our day I needed a dose of accomplishment, so I decided to finish building my new raku kiln I started last Fall. I carefully admired the improvements over the old kiln. The domed top. a hinged door for the peep hole, new hanging and lifting handles. Taking a break from patting myself on the back, I stood on the porch and extended a "Good afternoon!" to both neighbors who were out enjoying the beautiful day. That's when it hit me. like a brick! That seat emblazoned with a message for the times; "Made by an American"! I had just spent the afternoon making a tool that in turn helps me complete the pottery, that is then sold as income. The neighbor on my left has created a fancy new Dance Dance Revolution type pad that is selling so fast they are often up past 3 A.M. building, prepping, and packing for shipping. I had never heard of such a thing and here they are cranking them out and still struggling to keep up! The young lady on our right has started a photography business and is a very accomplished artist, while her husband is in two bands that are burning up the local circuit. I thought of my wife, my artist cousin, my wood working brother, the plethora of amazing sculptors, potters,and painters I have met through the local art center and the gallery I work at.  Americans, all making something, and getting paid to do it. Some for a few bucks on the side to pay for a hobby, some as a living, others somewhere in between. One thing's for sure, all of them are doing what they do because they love to do it.
     Is this the new face of  "careers" in America? Is it possible that we may actually be forced by modern economics to do something we love for a living? At the very least we can supplement our incomes with something other than a mind numbing second job. From a consumer point of view, sure it's patriotic to support these artist and craftsmen. Money spent here stays here, and your local and national tax agencies LIKE that! But even more important to me is my duty as a friend, a neighbor, a duty to support them, be it a hobby or a living, just like the hundreds of people who have supported me through the years by purchasing my work. Making a little money is important, often necessary. Making money doing something you love is a huge bonus. Now imagine a career doing something you absolutely love. We should all be so lucky! "Made by an American" has a much more personal meaning to me now, both as a consumer and a producer. Who will you choose to support today?    

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Time To Grow Up and Be A Kid Again!

     "I'm not artistic". "I couldn't draw a stick figure." "I can't......". What a terrible word; can't. Especially when it pertains to someone's creative abilities. As kids, a fist full of crayons and any ol' paper was soon to be a masterpiece with blue trees, "W" shaped birds, three legged dogs, and perpetual sunny skies. And heaven forbid if your Mom called your brilliantly rendered giraffe a kitty! What?! Didn't the purple polka dots and green antlers make it obvious that it was the rare Rocky Mountain Giraffe?  What's wrong with adults anyway?!? No, seriously... when do we beat that uninhibited creativity out of our heads and become so constrained in "reality"? Are we too embarrassed to be wrong? Fear of failure? What does it take to get adults to wake up and see the world through a child's creative eye?

     This past weekend I saw a glimmer of hope during a glass blowing event hosted by our gallery. This event was not only a rare opportunity for the general public to come see very talented glass blowers perform their craft, but also a chance to actually participate and help create their very own piece of blown glass. This brought an amazing number of people out to try their hand at something they never thought they would have a chance to do. It was almost as if they were handed a script to follow.
   1) Get a little nervous and ask yourself, "What am I about to do !".
   2) Step into the "Hot Shop" with a very serious, focused look of your face.
   3) Perform each step as if you're defusing a nuclear bomb.
   4) When done, break into a huge smile; part relief, part pride, all joy!
This last part was a sign to me that there IS hope for adults. They personally took blobs of molten glass, added stunning colors, and with the same breath that gives them life, they blew that melted ball of goo into a fantastic piece of art! Those smiles... I will never forget those smiles. At that moment, they knew they had done something that minutes before had the word "can't" before it.

     Many thanks go out to the fantastic glass artists that made this happen. Daniel Miller for his amazing talents not only in forming beautiful glass works such as ornate wine flutes, but also his technical abilities in building an incredible traveling hot shop! Build the tools to build the art... a true craftsman! Caleb Mroczka specializes not only in forming glass into stunning botanicals, but as an educator he is able to explain the process in an entertaining and informative way. Thus people felt not just comfortable, but adventurous when it was their time to participate.  And Cody nicely has the ability to turn the most uncommon item into a breathtaking thing of beauty. We're talking squids here people! His playful aquatic life had people imagining what they may possibly be able to do some day! These three artists were able to change "can't" into "DID"! Makes me smile just typing it.

Daniel, Cody, and Caleb playing with a "Flying Fish". See it just above Caleb's glove?  It was very hot, very fragile, and yes, it flew all the way across the room into the gloves and thankfully not Caleb's chest! The crowd's reaction was explosive, AFTER the shock subsided! Thank you Courtney Tinder for capturing the moment!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pablo Picasso To The Rescue

"Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working." Pablo Picasso

     I guess here is where I remind myself  "Better late than never"!  I have been cursed with a creative rut since well before Christmas.  I'm not talking about no new ideas or the next greatest thing here. I mean a full blown, brain cramping, couldn't draw a stick figure to save my life kind of rut. To burn off the energy normally reserved for the studio, I have had to resort to crazy, off the wall activities like scrubbing the kitchen and bathrooms from top to bottom.  While my wife has expressed great appreciation for these new found talents, I think even she is creeped out a little bit at this point.

     My normal activity to pull out of a creative tail spin is to hit the sketch books. Draw, draw, draw... exorcise those demons; nothing. Get inspiration from the masters by thumbing through my art history books; nothing. Clean the studio? (insert laugh track here...) Nothing has worked, until now.  I came across the above quote by Pablo Picasso. It struck me like a proverbial freight train. I keep a large collection of quotes in books, on sticky notes, white boards, about anything that will stand still long enough to write on.  Some are famous, some obscure, but all meaningful to me. This particular quote was so painfully obvious. Inspirations for new projects have ALWAYS come to me while I'm too busy with another project to do anything about them! If I'm not working, I'm not thinking. Or even worse, I'm thinking too much. Then my brain gets overloaded and starts speaking in tongues.

     The photos with this article are of a stained glass window I did for a client about ten years ago. They wanted a reminder of their Alaska property in their Tennessee home. Using photos from the property and of their plane, I designed a 40" round mahogany framed window. They were pleased with the design and I began work on what was supposed to be about a 300 piece window. Once I began work on it, there was no stopping the flood of ideas. I wanted the mountains to be illuminated from one direction. The texture in the glass had to follow the contour of the hills. The sky had to be dimensional and "soft", while the flora needed correct texture and variegation. I was buying huge sheets of hand made glass to get one or two small pieces out of the middle of the sheet. I needed more and more detail.  Three hundred pieces became four, then five, and so on. When finally complete, it had over 700 pieces of glass and had consumed 14 months of studio time. It was my masterpiece, and also the last one I ever did. When the dust settled, I not only had what I consider one of my greatest artistic accomplishments, but also notebooks and sketchbooks LOADED with new projects and ideas that I couldn't get to because I was so busy with the window.  I'm talking years worth of material. The ideas wouldn't stop. I would do a quick drawing of a sculpture, cut some glass, then BAM, a couple paintings would need to be sketched. It was a double edged sword. While possibly being the most creative and inspiring year of my artistic career, the obsession over the one single piece prevented me from taking any action on those new ideas. But, inspiration found me... while I was working.

     I will wake in the morning a relieved man.  I have the solution I have searched for. 
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, "A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind".
I shall try my best to remember this in the future. With hard work and an open, free mind, creative block doesn't have a chance against me!  That is unless his ugly cousin Procrastination comes along for the ride!!!  May this new year be filled with many new discoveries for all of us.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Embrace The Future Without Strangling The Past

     So the Christmas shopping frenzy is coming to a peak and one thing is painfully obvious... society's addiction to technology has far surpassed the tipping point.  There is no going back now.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those misguided romantics who actually think that torchlight and outhouses were the "good ol' times".  Indoor lighting, heat and air, automobiles, television and computers, toilet paper... the list of items we rely on daily could go on forever.  But you have to admit that every now and then it feels sooo good to open the blinds and windows for natural light and fresh air.  Jumping on a bicycle instead of driving the car for a short trip.  A television can never replace the feeling of a live concert or walk in the woods.  And honestly, who doesn't like a hand written letter?  Instead of toilet paper one could.... well, never mind.  That's one advancement I'll never hold a grudge against!  Fact is, we actually see doing something "the old way" as a treat.  Homemade cooking, camping, riding a horse, a bike ride, making functional pottery, a garden; all things that were once part of daily life for previous generations.  And we consider them recreation?  A reprieve from our daily lives?  I thought technology made our lives easier, less hectic.  Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate.

     I realize I'm using a computer to write this as well as a complicated network to pass it along, but at one time a wood club was a huge advancement over a bare fist in warfare and courting a mate.  What concerns me is how we have a tendency to shun common sense in the pursuit of anything new.  I know every one of you believe you are the only person actually capable of driving while on the phone or texting; sure, keep convincing yourself of that.  But what did you do ten, fifteen years ago?  Pull over and send an emergency smoke signal to your spouse about how you think pizza would be good for dinner?  Remember life without navigation in the car, and we had to read those pesky road signs?  Oh the horrors!  Bet you can't hold a five minute conversation with a friend without one of you having to answer a call or check a page at least once.  What a strange coincidence that blood pressure and anxiety prescriptions are at an all time high! 

     Time to relax, read a book, or a Nook, or tablet, or your phone, or your..... really?!?  I realize how popular all these devices are and many of you have them.  But do you seriously want to abandon the written word?  Sure you can store hundreds of "books" on a tablet.  Then someone steals it, or you drop it, dog pees on it, or surprise, a glitch! (That NEVER happens with electronics!)  A friend recently dropped his phone off the table and lost EVERYTHING.  It automatically rebooted and erased every last bit of information stored in there.  Now imagine the Dead Sea scrolls being deleted.  "What Bible, Ahab?  Oh, that thing.  It didn't translate well onto our new version of papyrus V.2, so we scrapped it."  Rosetta Stone? Old news.  "Thomas, we don't need to write the Constitution down on paper, we won't forget what it says."  The known history of mankind only exist because someone took the time to WRITE IT DOWN!  It's been chiseled in stone, written on hide and paper, documented and cataloged for all future generations.  And we want to trust the same device that pocket dials Tokyo during peak rate hours with all our vital information?    

     It's too late to go back now.  Heck, I can carry my entire CD collection in my pocket, and that's pretty cool.  But I still have the CD collection!  Take THAT, information cloud!  All I ask is that this Christmas, after you wire up the new flat screen, load up your mp3 player, isolate yourself from society by playing that new video game, or download the "You with a mustache" app on your new phone, that you step back and take a breath.  Think of how you actually did survive without all this stuff in the not so distant past.  Open the blinds, take a walk, eat some cookies out of your oven, not a bag.  Better yet, go to the library and check out a book.  An honest to goodness book with pages and everything!  Cozy up to it.  Book mark the page when you put it down.  Appreciate the importance of the written word.  A defining invention in man's history that we are in danger of forgetting. 

     Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year to all! 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Community Christmas Trees and the Spirit of Rock-and-Roll

     Cindy and I chose a smaller town to live in because we felt the city lacked a sense of  "community".  We wanted to be part of the town, not just living in the town.  What a small town lacks in storefronts and ammenities, it more than makes up for in character and personality.  Seldom is this more on display than during Christmas time.

     One of the biggest draws for us to move to Oak Ridge was the art and culture that permeates throughout the town.  I'm not talking endless galleries and theaters like you might find in Santa Fe or Ashville.  No, the arts in Oak Ridge are more "by the people" than "for the people".  The Art Center is a public facility where you can learn how to do just about any fine art or craft in a weekly class or weekend workshop.  Generations of artists come there to teach and learn from one another.  We have a fantastic group of actors that perform in tiny historic theaters year round .  There are dance groups, choirs, orchestra, and a community band second to none!   Cindy lends her percussion expertees to the band, while I am involved with activities at the Art Center.  We are once again proud to be part of a community, I believe, because we are truely part of the community.  This brings us to Friday night.

       This past Friday was the annual lighting of the community Christams tree.  It sits on a prominent corner in town at the edge of the main city park.  The property also contains our library, civic center, recreation center, and outdoor performance pavilion.  So after the tree was to be lit, everyone was to gather for music and cookies in the rec center.  Hundreds of people gathered around the tree buzzing with anticipation.  Well, actually the buzzing may have been the sound of chattering teeth, for it was quite chilly out.  The microphone didn't work, eliminating the need for the handful of local dignitaries to drag out the cerimony any longer than neccesary.  Finally the croud counted down... TEN...NINE...EIGHT...(I wonder if anyone did a test run?) SEVEN...SIX...FIVE...(Just saying, it would be kinda' funny if after all this...)FOUR...THREE...TWO...(LIGHT!  LIGHT!!)ONE!!!  Nothing.  I jinxed it!  Oh crud, hope nobody can read minds.  Wait, seriously?  Nobody tried this out before the croud gathered?  Nobody was assigned to stand guard over the plug? Had we elected Chevy Chase as our Mayor while I wasn't looking? As overdressed dignitaries held cell phones toward the ground  searching for the power cord, and members of the crowd shouted helpful tips like, "Try the cord!",  the children had figured out that you simply had to continue counting down from ten, over and over again, to trigger the display to life.    Finally, the tree came to life, followed by a rousing cheer.  It was time for some music!

     The music for the evening was provided by a local grade school choir, a Junior High orchestra ensamble, and the community band.  All three groups did quite well, but I was intrigued the most by the singing grade school kids.  There were about sixty of them and the song selection was anything but simple.  The directer did a fantastic job keeping them focused and professional.  Yet I couldn't ignore that a few of the kids just had the spirit in them.  One girl was positioned in the back row on the very edge, most likely because she moved four feet in any direction while dancing;  be there music or not!  Another little fellow had a new facial expression for each and every word out of his mouth.  But the highlight of the evening came at the very last note, of the very last song, called " Peace! ".  The smallest boy in the back row, who had behaved perfectly all night, THRUST his fists and arms up in the air, fanned slightly to the side, and held them there like a rock and roll icon!  "YES"  He had done it! "YES...YES!!!"  It was the most authentic display of self gratification I have ever witnessed in my life.  he didn't look for accolades, praise, or a cheap laugh from the crowd.  He had done it.  And dang-it, he was celabrating!  Eyes closed, chin down, and fists up!   Rock on little buddy, rock on!

    In the coming year I encourage you to become a part of your community.  Join a community band, teach a class, become a volunteer firefighter, help clean up a stream or roadway.  And when you're done?  Hands up, head down, and soak it all in.    Enjoy!