Monday, March 26, 2012

Getting out of yourself

Molly gave me "The Hunger Games" a few weeks ago to read. She pronounced two caveats. First, that the trilogy was meant for junior high kids. And second, that she couldn't put it down.

I've written in these posts that your brain changes to accommodate what you do. I'm a college professor but still, my brain is close enough to junior high kids. I seem to remember that time very well. Junior high aside, I also couldn't put down the book.

So not to make this lecture too long, what makes Katniss so cool? I think that one answer lies in the fact that she functions outside of herself. From the moment Katniss volunteers in place of her sister until the end of the book, Katniss, highly self-aware, is nevertheless almost always on the outside looking in.

I remember one of our yoga teachers used to talk about that. "Float out of yourself and look at the person with all those plans, anxieties, pressures, feelings, deadlines, goals, strivings (yourself) with amusement."

For me, handbuilding clay sculpture is very much this kind of an experience. Feeling, molding, struggling, pushing, pulling, grabbing, gouging. All of it happens fast and furious and very much led by the unconscious.

Wish I could be as cool as Katniss.

Overdoing It?

I learned the most interesting thing the other day while pounding on a piece of clay. Most of my recent work has been made with clay that comes straight out of the bag. I struggle with the lumpy block of material, ripping, pulling, and quickly, shaping.

Last week I was working on a new project that I hope will include tall pieces. I needed a long piece of clay that was relatively thin, maybe an inch or so (instead of the 4-8 inch thick pieces I've been using recently). I threw the clay down onto the floor and worked it until it was about the length I wanted. Then I stepped on it. Or rather, walked all over it.

Stepping on the clay was fun and easy and I got cool prints from the bottom of my shoes. But when I picked the clay up I was a little disheartened. Why? Instead of the sassy hunk of clay I'm used to, full of fight, the long strip on the floor was flaccid. Instead of the nearly solid feel I usually get from the clay it felt like an overcooked noodle.

Clay is made from crystals suspended in water. When it comes out of the pug mill (the way we get it bagged up) most of the crystals are lined up one way, because the clay body has been squeezed through a process that encourages uniformity. I think this is what gives clay just out of the bag all the "fight." When I started manipulating the clay (which is what you're supposed to do traditionally), the lineup of the crystals was lost and the resulting material reflected this. Instead of behaving as a solid it kind of splayed and flapped and instead of putting up a fight it needed coddling.

We'll see how the finished pieces end up. They are long and I'm sure delicate and they may not make it to the kiln.

But I learned an important lesson in the physical nature of the clay body, well worth whatever the outcome is. I think the bottom line is a throwback to the almost trite idea that working with clay is a "zen" process. You have to know when enough is enough and back off, letting the clay body act for itself.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Brain on Art

I just read an amazing piece in the New York Times by the Author Diane Ackerman titled "Your Brain on Love."

Unexpected Flower

I was amazed by the connections she made with a lot of the things I've been writing about in these posts. One of the most amazing things, which is pretty well known now by neuroscientists, is that the brain actually changes with varying activities, emotions, and feelings.


In my posts here I've written a lot about the connection between heart, mind, and hand, and the way they act in strangely concerted fashion while making art. I have surprised myself several times as I trace my unconscious and the way it expresses itself (or something) in sculpted form.


Ackerman's NYT piece speaks to a part of the human experience that we know very little about. Yet the mind-body connection, the role of action on brain function and vice-versa, are very much the things that drive us. I think in the future as we continue to study the human experience in this realm there will be a lot more to learn.

Meanwhile, gotta keep making art!

The Gate

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finding Problems: Solving Problems

Scientists and artists share in common an important activity. They both focus on finding and solving problems. Often these problems seem to appear out of nowhere.

Flowering Plum

As a scientist I look at nature and see questions that need answering. Non-scientists are not likely to see nature in the same way. Where I see dimension, others may see only surface. Where I observe patterns other people may see disorganization or more likely, nothing at all. This is not because I have special powers of observation but because I've trained myself to look at nature this way. I try to get my students to observe in the same way.

Elm flowers

In the patterns of nature I find properties, characteristics that circumscribe natural systems. These characteristics are often universal in nature. Sometimes they are unique. Properties are facts about nature. The structure of wood, the behavior of a flower, the activities of a leaf. These are properties.


By analyzing properties, or rather, while I am coming to understand properties, processes unfold. Processes are to me the way nature puts itself together. How does something branch? How do substances move? Why does one system affect another in this particular way?


This is how I go about life as a scientist. It's exciting because it's impossible to get bored. Problems emerge from patterns. Problems get fleshed out and dimension is added to them as properties are discerned. I start to solve the problems by studying process.


The bottom line I think is that I have perceived something in nature, something that's right in front of us all the time, something that "normal" people have not perceived.

Composite Composites

So how does this connect to art? As I engage in making art I see in front of me a piece of clay. Or a blank canvas. I "see" or perceive something in that clay, I'm not sure how or why. It's not that I see or work toward the "finished product." Instead, I start to arrange the clay in patterns that make sense to me. These patterns reflect and are subject to the properties of the clay. It seems to me that if I fight the properties I lose the patterns, which get muddled in my own "design."

Clay Mud

To me the process of making art is the solution to the problem. The problem is always abstract, something that may be meaningful only to me, but something that reflects the universal properties and patterns of the clay.


As I write this it seems that the activity of finding and solving problems is something frustrating. But frustration is not the key. I think it's the "happy-making" of delving into the material world, imbuing it with meaning, and finding the shape and dimensions of that meaning.

Me and My Tower

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rejection: What To Do With It?

Today I experienced my fifth or sixth rejection from residencies I've been applying to since September. Naturally it's a bummer. Rejections are a part of life. Colleges reject us. Potential mates reject us. We're rejected from jobs, from grants, from proposals to clients. Where do we go with all this rejection?

Amoebic rust

One of the most successful scientists I ever met told me he had been rejected from about 90% of the grants he ever applied to. It was the 10% that counted. In my own experience, I find that I've grown a sort of carapace against rejection. Bummer? Yes. Game changer? No. On the flip side of the coin, "acceptances" aren't the sweet thing they once were.

Rust residue

Psychologically rejection is difficult. You may not have thought you were the best candidate but maybe you were in the top three. The top five? The top eight? Ouch.

Marine Fossils in the Mountains

So is there an antidote to this sore spot? We can take a clue from natural ecosystems. Evidence has shown that the more diverse the ecosystem the more likely it is to survive perturbations. This includes pathogens, which generally attack one species, as well as overwhelming physical crises like tsunamis, floods, droughts, etc. The more species there are in the ecosystem the more likelihood there is that some will survive. Can we translate this to say that the more applications we send out the more likely we are to get an affirmative?

Wall detail, San Cristobal

In part, yes. But quantity isn't the same thing and not half as good as diversity. What do I mean by diversity? Simply, a diversity of activities. Here's the story. At the same time as I got my negative email today (they did offer me a half-off scholarship to an undersubscribed summer session...I smell a scam), I noted that I had gotten more hits on my two blogs, this one and

"Botany Without Borders"...

than ever before. Having lots of engaged, interested readers is not the same as a trip to a studio space in Brazil or the Rockies. It's actually a lot cooler. But are our goals so monolithic? I think not. Keeping a lot of goals in front of us, enjoying the small successes, and figuring out how to connect the dots of our activities, our goals, and our "affirmatives" is the best vaccine against failure. Keep on keeping on!

Yoho Sunset

Why Aren't Scientists "Creatives"?

A couple of interesting articles this morning, one in the Harvard Business Review, "Keeping Your Options Open Could be Hurting Your Career," and another in "99%," the excellent blog by Behance, "Take Back Creative Control, Introducing the New Behance." They both got me thinking.

Pink Oyster Mushrooms

The HBR article reflected a focused vision of "self" that supposedly results in a high-paying, rewarding career trajectory. The article made some good points. There's nothing wrong with focus. And it's good to determine one's niche in order to maximize that focus. But can intense focus and niche marketing of oneself develop at the detriment of being well-rounded?

Curve of the Hand

In the liberal arts where I have taught my whole life we challenge students to be well-rounded critical thinkers. We encourage young people to take intellectual risks, open their minds to all sorts of ideas, and appreciate a range of cultural, historical, and scientific contributions that are part of the patrimony of our species. This is not an easy job, because most of our non-major students are driven to what they perceive will be a high-paying career in finance. They are not intrinsically interested in broadening their pursuits.

Tree Rings

So why are we teaching in the liberal arts? Why not just encourage our students to ease into a career on Wall Street? As a broadly-trained person I am convinced that that best way to appreciate life, whether you are making a lot of money or a little money, is to take interest in everything around you. I would argue that keeping your intellectual options open is the most effective way to live a rewarding life. And a person's intellectual pursuits often overlap with their work. Perhaps more quality of life is worth more than a higher quantity of money?

Columns, Santa Domingo Church

As I clicked my way through the Behance article I came upon a list of showcased "creative" fields. I was disappointed not to find science included. Scientists have to be creative. We have to think outside the box. We have to interact with a natural world that is hard to describe, and we have to interact with humans who benefit from having it described to them. I've written a lot about this issue in these posts and I think it all comes back to having an open mind.

Keeping your options open as a scientist leads to so many rewarding possibilities. It allows you to keep discovering way beyond your initial research. It provides opportunities to synthesize ideas from disparate sources. Keeping your options open may in fact, be the best way to be a high-achieving scientist. Without an open mind you are prone to looking no further than your own ideas and falling into a rut.

Zygadenus elegans

So what's my bottom line? Whether you are a scientist or an artist or anything in between, do keep your options open. Continue to explore. Allow new ideas to flow in. Do your best work. But don't do your work in a vacuum. Take in the world in your thoughts and actions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Going Super Simple: Evolution and the Unconscious

I've been experimenting with spare, lean, simple shapes. I would like to continue working on these and try to create them in larger iterations. I think there's surprising strength to the thin linear forms.

Study for the First Billion Years

This idea is a bit of a departure for me because I've been struggling for about a year to express space in three dimensions. As I look more at these pieces it occurs to me that they are still strongly dimensional, but that the space-filling characteristic is more refined, somehow understated.

Study for the First Billion Years

I still like the idea of making these modular, including at least two pieces in each sculpture. There always seems to be an unexpected conversation between the pieces that I think adds to the strangeness of the sculpture.

Study for the First Billion Years

In studying and teaching plant evolution for a long time I've come to learn that plants evolve by simplifying, streamlining, and fusing their parts together. Maybe this is an expression of that realization.

Miniature Tulips

If that's the case then it's saying something pretty amazing for the unconscious mind of a scientist-artist. It suggests that I've observed plants doing a physical thing (simplifying), modeled that activity intellectually "plants evolve by simplifying..." and then in my unconscious-driven sculpture started to re-enact plant evolution by creating physical objects that are simplified, streamlined, and fused.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Do you ever get the feeling you're expressing something that's been said before? I try not to take it personally.

Ceramic Paper

My statements about "feeling" ideas. My ideas about exploring problems from inside and out. My platitudes about exploring issues from various angles. Body awareness. Haptic learning. Universal curves. "A Biology of Sculpture." You get the idea.

Twist and Shout

Yesterday I was poking around in my friend Mark Smalley's flickr site. He has some great stuff there that you might enjoy:

Anyway, someone commented on a great piece of his a couple of years ago. To her it recalled a new theory (circa 2002) of neuroesthetics (minus the "a"), a new discipline introduced by neurologists at Johns Hopkins University.

Celadon Glaze

Cool stuff. Interesting to know there are people out there looking at similar ideas.

When Things Shatter: Capturing Motion and Rebuilding a Team

Yesterday I was drawn back to the late Renaissance Room at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. What drew me back was the overwhelming feeling of motion captured. Each of the paintings in that room is filled with motion, from clouds and angels to the little finger on the smallest figure. The feeling of turbulence, movement, and drama, is something I had never experienced before in that room. Yet I think it is one characteristic that unites all the paintings there.

Many of the paintings depict themes that are less than pleasant. The artists seem to have captured a world where change is fast upon us and everything is in motion, sometimes catastrophic. But they have captured that motion in an extraordinarily effective way.

Things shatter. Especially clay things like I work on in my free time. Things break on the way to the kiln. Things break in the kiln. And things break when you drop them.

Radioactive Flower

Usually objects and sometimes situations shatter uncontrollably and unexpectedly. Can we capture the motion and harness it?

Several years ago my department was cut in half. It happened rather suddenly in academic terms, over a period of several months. There were various reasons given but the bottom line is that our dean didn't value the natural sciences in a liberal arts environment. It sounds as strange now as it did then.

Our group was shattered and it took some time until we got our bearings. We worked very hard to reconfigure our curriculum to better engage our students. We went from a longstanding, entrenched set of core courses to general education courses we each taught from our own perspective. We fought uphill to find meaning, value, and engagement in an environment that was hostile. Hostility came from the administration but also from students. Few of our students are interested in learning science. All of them want to major in something else. Most of them are sitting through a set of required courses on their way to what they expect will be a major in Finance.

Not the most inviting setting. But one in which we needed to function and repurpose ourselves in order to thrive. Recently we held a routine weekly meeting. It occurred to me that we had re-formed ourselves into a diverse, effective, and strong team. I proposed this to the group and we built a conversation around it.

Leaves on the Water

Where had we come in the past several years? For one thing, we were all teaching courses that were more or less close to our interests, if not in subject matter, very much in the spirit of our particular inquiries. For another, we had all taken the opportunity to hone our own teaching practices. We focused on inquiry-based, active learning, utilizing group projects. Most important, all of us had re-purposed our focus to use Boston as a living laboratory. Our students get out and engage intellectually and physically with our unique urban environment.

I think what we did might be compared to the artists I studied at the MFA the other day. We took an explosive, shattering moment, rode it out, harnessed its energy, and formed a new set of activities based on the momentum we shaped for ourselves.

Capturing motion. An artistic goal and a social goal.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Aesthetics and Action: Being Instrumental in the World

Someone asked me the other day, "what goals would you like to set for yourself?" It was easy for me to say "I want to see the good in things, see beauty, hear nice sounds, and smell nice smells. I want the bad things I see to seem more trivial and I want to focus on the good."


"That's nice," she answered. "Anything else?"


I had to think about that one for awhile. I have to admit I was in a bad mood that day and just seeing, hearing, and smelling nice things seemed to be adequate. But it wasn't.


Because when I woke up the next morning I had my first inkling of clay sculpture work as a problem-solving tool. I realized, maybe for the first time, that what I've been doing with clay is more than an exercise in aesthetics (though that seems to be a perfectly good goal in itself!). I guess I awoke to the realization that the work I'm doing is "real" work, that is, instrumental work. Instrumental work in terms of my own development and perhaps instrumental in its effect toward others. And for a goal, perhaps a lifelong goal, being instrumental in the world is important.

Pink begonia

So what is instrumental work? Long ago when I studied Russian (and later spoke it for many years), I had to learn to use the instrumental case. The short explanation: changing word endings of nouns to indicate that they were the instrument of an activity.

Study  Shape for "The First Billion Years"

So for example I sculpt by means of my hands. The hands are the instrument.

Study Shape for  "The First Billion Years"

But I think it goes deeper than that. It's obvious that you can shape a piece of clay with your hands. And in some ways, it's perfectly appropriate and desirable to exert instrumentality in this way. Do you influence anything further? Is it important?

Study Surface for "The First Billion Years"

Good questions that I think are worth exploring. For example in my project "The First Billion Years" I do hope to influence viewers to think about the extremely long period of evolutionary history. By making a thousand pieces (or about 5000 to represent the span of life on Earth--each piece as a million years), I hope to engage people in an exploration of deep time.

Study for "The First Billion Years."

Is that instrumental? At one level, yes.

What about my day job?

As a professor, I'm in the position to influence peoples' thinking and at the same time, I find myself (I think we all do, as teachers), in the frustrating role of being patently unable to influence others, especially the undergraduates I engage in thoughtful scientific discourse every day. There's a frustration for you!

So it comes back to the self. How to be instrumental there? In previous posts I've talked about how clay sculpture leads to certain problems and solves others. It provides a riposte for challenges that occur outside of the clay, challenges that can consume us on a day-to-day basis.

Study for "The First Billion Years."

So, what is to be done? Stick with it I think, go for the ride as far as it will go, enjoy the scenery, keep making art, engage the challenges, and be as light and unsinkable as a ping pong ball floating on the ocean, but an instrumental one.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


One of my sabbatical goals is to bridge the gap between science and the humanities. I am finding my sculptural work to be a great way to link various disciplines together. Yesterday I saw my friend and colleague Ian Taberner at the Boston Architectural College. I asked him a couple of random questions about how architecture connects with some of the sculpture ideas that have emerged for me in the past few weeks.

Dancing Piece

It was kind of scary to hear him say many of the things I've been writing about "letting go" in the creative realm of things. Certainly while architecture depends on a highly controlled process there are many junctures at which its creative process shows universal connections with the things I've been writing about.

 Dancing Piece

Ian is a great teacher and it was a good conversation because it got us both to reflect on teaching and learning, creating and contemplating, and the question of process and control in both our work. Having a chance to communicate with someone else on these topics was a nice end to the day.

Home Made Glaze Moment

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Extending the Body

The other day Batu asked me why I hadn't been around the claylab recently. Actually our paths have just crossed because I've been doing a bit of work around there, just not when he's around.

I told him I've had a lot of interesting thoughts about sculpture and he laughed in his characteristic way, "Yes, that's an existential question!" I've posted here before about the existential connection to clay...

...but to my amazement the question keeps growing. Here's the latest iteration. It goes back to the realization that clay sculpture is an extension of my heart, hands, and brain. Fair enough.

Also fair game is that I've written that I work in a "consciously unconscious" way, which is not necessarily within the "normal" boundaries of making art.

But the new twist is that pieces have been coming out of the kiln looking like body parts! I've had a couple of years of dental problems and I put in a night guard every night to keep me from grinding my teeth. I won't show you a picture of the night guard here (it's kind of gross) but have a look at this piece I just brought home. It's uncanny how much it looks like the night guard or alternatively, the jaw.

Sculpture from Above

My project "The First Billion Years" involves preparing a thousand pieces, each of which represents a million years of evolutionary time. I didn't make these to look like anything but the one pictured below bears an uncanny resemblance to a hand!

Lineup for the First Billion Years

All this ties in I think with questions of problem solving--feeling your way through a problem in the kinesthetic environment of the claylab. So maybe it's a good thing I didn't run into Batu or anyone else. Time to think deeply about existential nature of clay sculpture.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Interpreting Movement in Art and Life: Reflections on Universal Themes

Movement can be anything. Flow, growth, development. It can be non-physical or minimally physical like the forward movement of time or musical notes that slide from one to the next.

Poking around the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this morning I spent some time with the Renaissance paintings. Looking closely at them inspired me focus on flow and reflect on flow in my clay sculpture.


So many of the paintings depict flow, whether it's flowing clouds, flowing movement of human bodies, or in a more abstract sense flowing lines, textures, and shades. I had just come from clay lab (it's my spring break and 70 degrees so I decided to treat myself to the luxury of doing and looking at art) and looking at all this "flow" gave me pause. Hadn't I just been working on a couple of clay sculptures, trying to emphasize a sense of movement in each one?

Prairie Storm Clouds

This wasn't any kind of an attempt to copy the Renaissance masters! Far from it. In clay lab I was just trying to keep the pieces "alive" by accentuating flow. Really I was just helping the clay do one of the things it does best.

Part of my Show

All this thinking got me hungry. But it also got me to thinking. In addition to literal "flow" that we can observe or measure, isn't there also a "flow" of aesthetic sensibility both inside and outside the arts? In a narrow sense I could be talking about "art history" and in a broader sense, maybe this is a discussion about cultural trends that move along through the generations.

Mexico Rocks

I wish I had an answer. As a cultural anthropologist I assume maybe there are certain "universal" aesthetic appeals. For example a line or a shape that persists in an 11th century statue of a Buddah, a Renaissance painting, or a wooden bow of Northeast woodland native Americans.

Chichen Itza Roundel

It would be interesting to follow this idea more to see where it leads. Can it help us take apart problems that look specific but carry universal themes?

Strange fish