Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Riff on Reciprocity

Guys like to solve problems. It’s in our nature. And we especially like to solve other people’s problems.

Tell us what’s wrong and watch how fast we start trying to fix it for you. We’ll offer up all kinds of solutions to whatever situation you’re in. It took me many years before it sunk in that most people I knew (and especially women in my life) just wanted me to listen, be understanding, and not actually try to solve their problem.

Buckminster Fuller was a pretty good problem solver. I like his 
take on it too: "When I am working on a problem, 
I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is 
not beautiful, I know it is wrong"

But let’s say that you aren’t simply seeking a sympathetic ear but are actually asking for help. Whenever you do it’s a smart artist who gives a little something in return.  It doesn’t have to be much, just a genuine* token of appreciation. An acknowledgement that someone else took time out to give you a hand goes a long way. A simple thank you note will do. 

So if you interview someone for a favor, about their technique, business practices, how they wrote their successful grant, technical tips, and so on, maybe write them a note, take them out to lunch, buy them a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine, or some other small pleasure to express your appreciation.

Providing a little tangible token of thanks is a gesture that builds goodwill and positive energy.  Think of it as providing karmic balance if you like. All it takes is a little reciprocity.

*Intention is important here. Sincerity counts. People pick up on it pretty quick if you’re the type that comes across as a calculating mooch. No body likes a mooch, even less a calculating one.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More Useful Things

A few more useful things from my workbench to yours.

Hardware store reading glasses = cheap 2.50 power magnifying lens

Six inch square cork tile for pinning and drilling objects

Kneaded eraser for testing punches and stamps

 Hardware pruning shears will easily cut up to 18ga. metal

 My all-time Best Useful Thing =
Jeweler's saw blade to clean or enlarge
pre-drilled holes in freshwater pearls

Strange Attractors

I carry stuff around in my pockets. On any given day I’ll have at least a couple of small stones, a bright scrap of paper candy wrapper, an odd piece of colored plastic, or any number of other tiny odds and ends* that attract my attention. This, I might add, is in addition to a pocketknife, pen, and notepaper. No artist should be without pen and notepaper.

In The Poet’s Notebook, J.D. McClatchy wrote, “The bower bird in me is forever collecting colored threads and mirror shards to make a sort of world.” I love that quote. It perfectly describes my behavior.

Pocket stuff

What I carry in my pocket reminds me to stay awake to play and re-enchantment with the Ordinary and Everyday.  This  stuff awakens me to look at the world with fresh eyes, or acts as a trigger for a piece, or might actually wind up in a piece. 

 Small pendant in sterling, 23k gold leaf, 
and pocket stuff ~ candy wrappers
and a found piece of red plastic.

I think what attracts my attention, what I notice and surround myself with, what I collect and carry with me, are the things that help me make my sort of world.

* In old anglo-saxon “ord” or odd, was the beginning or point of something. So the phrase originally meant “points and ends” or scraps. "Odds and ends" may also have originated from lumberyards—odds were bits of board split irregularly by the sawmill from the point, ends were pieces trimmed from boards cut to specific lengths. Or so my research on the internet tells me.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Useful Things

Today, a few useful things from my bench to yours:

 Empty ball point pen tubes for sawblade holders

 Heat bent toothbrush for those hard to reach places

 Wine bottle corks for needle file handles

 Coat hanger wire = fancy soldering pick

Sawed-off clothes pin for small bench clamp

Mountain bike hand grip for the jeweler's sawframe

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


On walks, or morning runs, around Greenville it’s impossible not to notice something botanical. This is about as green a place as I’ve ever lived (and aptly named). Even in the middle of what passes for a Carolina Winter we have plants blooming, roses in December, camellias in February, and much of the foliage remains green. On first arriving here I was nearly overwhelmed by greenery. I am not alone in this. Many art students here find themselves collecting, drawing, painting, and/or forming seedpods and leaf shapes of every variety. It creeps into your visual vocabulary like Kudzu*.

Spring is coming. In North Carolina azaleas, rhododendron, crepe myrtle, and the ever magnificent magnolia will bloom along with countless other flowering plants, many of which look like they're downright out of Jurassic Park.  But it’s the leaves that fall I find fascinating.

In autumn the multitude of leaf shape, surface, and variegation leaves (ahem!) me breathless sometimes. Some are quite intense, if fleeting. I find that very appealing. While spring has its undeniable charms I am reminded in fall ** of both the temporal nature and individual beauty of each passing year. It heightens my appreciation for every other season ~ those in nature and in our own lives.

*Introduced in the US in 1876 from Japan it was promoted as soil erosion control in the 1930s and it’s been growing ever since. It can grow as much as one foot per day in summer months.

** The story goes that “fall” is an American colonial word for autumn because New England settlers were amazed at the sudden dropping of leaves from the brilliantly colored deciduous trees.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On Mentoring

My idea of mentoring may be somewhat skewed. Unlike the Homeric character and friend of Odysseus from whom we get the term, though experienced within my field, I don’t see myself as particularly wise. As for advising, it is at best a risky business. Who knows what results will arise from any particular choice in life? Random occurrences, serendipity, and quantum fluctuations in the universe (that whole butterfly effect thing) can lead to all kinds of unintended or unexpected results.

Telemachus and Mentor. Illustration from  
François Fénelon's, Les aventures de Télémaque, 1699

So the classic definition of mentor as “wise advisor” feels a bit unsettling to me. I am uncomfortable with the idea of appearing in the eyes of my students as someone notable or worth emulating. Epictetus, the teacher of future Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosopher, said to “ suspicious if you appear to others as someone special. Be on your guard against a false sense of self-importance.” In other words, don’t get a swelled head.

Mentorship is deeply important but it carries with it carefully defined boundaries, relationships, roles, and expectations. Consequently I tend to see my role as an educator more in the vein of a facilitator, coach, or collaborator, working with students rather than for them (or myself for that matter), to help them develop as rich and meaningful a response to their world as possible.  As an artist I believe it is my role to foster imagination, technical skill, and critical thinking in order to generate the most effective and rewarding communication of ideas from the student.

In general I tell my students “this is what I would do,” and remind them that ultimately the choices and consequences are theirs and theirs alone. I seem to follow a response stemming from the way I was guided in my own career. Little nudges here and there, referrals, suggestions, passing along opportunities, or subtly encouraging a particular and promising direction are my preferred methods.

But like Odysseus’ son and Mentor’s ward Telemachus, how and when they choose to become an adult (read professional) and what they seek in life, with all its rewards and responsibilities, is ultimately incumbent upon them

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Taking Notes

Scribe Jean Jean Miélot, circa 1400s.

Today we have amazing palm sized recording devices that allow us to photograph/take video/voice record at the drop of a hat*. But no one seems to take actual notes any more. There’s a connection between the physical activity of writing or drawing and memory that just doesn’t happen when you turn on a machine to capture information**.

Some might argue that recording with camera or video frees you to pay closer attention to the information at hand, preventing distraction caused by dealing with your note taking. I don’t see much evidence of that. What I see is that it fosters a kind of laziness along the lines of “I’m recording this so I don’t have to pay close attention to the lecture or demo. I can review it again later.”

I know, because I do it myself sometimes.

But there is something lost in note taking by proxy, and that’s being in the present moment. The pictures or videos reviewed later are echoes of the event. Subtlety and nuance are lost.

Marginalia in a circa 1520 herbal
Someone writing in a book around a picture of someone writing in a book.

Taking notes by hand slows you down, forces you to pay attention, and compels you to edit and select the most important bits. It hones your ability to recognize what’s useful and what’s superfluous.  You learn to focus and that in turn aids retention. Taking notes by hand exemplifies that old Chinese saying about learning: “I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.” Taking notes, writing down or drawing the information you are studying, is a way of doing and therefore understanding. 

My own notes on making stencils, from an enameling workshop.
I remember this.

By drawing out the arrangement I can much more easily
remember the construction of a fabricated prong.

 From Jennifer Walsh, a friend who graciously shared her excellent notes.

 My notes from a demo by Lisa Fidler
at the Penland School of Craft.

*At the drop of a hat:  Apparently a phrase from the old American west to signal the start of a fight or race. Also serviceable: In the wink of an eye; in a heartbeat; in a New York minute.

** Evidence suggests doodling helps memory retention. Have your pen and note pad ready while you read and you can check it out here

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bugged Out

Greenville has its fair share of bugs*.

I had mentioned in a previous post that I sometimes find it challenging to create course assignments that students will see as engaging and inspiring. I presented a few of the solutions that were completed for a project on bolo ties. In that same post was an enameling assignment for “making a bug.”

Since then I have had a few requests to see some of the solutions for that project.

So for those of you are a few more bugs from Greenville. 

Christina Green


Justin Paxton

 Kate Lambeth

 Britni Broda

 Mariah Ross

Mary Pettengill

 Meredith Parker

 Samantha Clarke

 Phil Ambrose

 *The most common, seemingly, is the cockroach also known around these parts as the Palmetto or water bug. Not native to North America they were believed to be introduced from Africa off slave ships in the 1600s. Fossil evidence suggests they've been around for about 300 million years. Get used to 'em.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Testing, Testing

When you’ve been working in a particular manner or with a material for many years you risk becoming comfortable and familiar with it and forget that there may be potential for new directions yet undiscovered.

Sketchbook studies for torch-fired enamel

One of the great pleasures of stumbling onto an exciting new material, process, or technique is the honeymoon period when you get to search* out everything about it. It’s a time of being a beginner again. With experience you get the advantage and awareness that there are possibilities and applications of the information you’re learning. Yet you don’t worry too much about what exactly it’s going to be or how to apply it, you’re just eager to be in that zone of possibility.

Jeweler and consummate metalsmith Andy Cooperman once said there were two fundamental approaches to the learning process ~ the dove and the bulldog. The dove reads the instructions, follows the guidelines, practices established principles, and gets predictable results. The bulldog grabs the material by the throat, shakes it up, ignores the rules, and often makes a mess of things, but learns limitations and new possibilities. Each has their advantages.

I confess that with my own work I’m a bit of a dove and I tend to approach a new material that way. But then I believe it’s a good idea to be the bulldog.

Right now I’m firing the hell out of white enamel and I’m hoping the honeymoon turns into a long fruitful relationship.

Studies for possible enamel pieces

Yes, these are only white enamel, torch-fired to develop the colors

The same piece fired three different times with only 
a red glass thread added in the last.

*Research: the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions. Search, then RE-search the thing.