why do I make art?
The realization that I needed or wanted to make art was slow in coming. I lived 50 years or more following other interests. When I was young, I loved the natural sciences and wanted to understand how things work. I also loved the logic of mathematics. My high school counselors added math and science together and steered me toward a career in engineering.. I enrolled undecided, but settled on chemical engineering because I liked my chemistry faculty and my growing understanding of the chemical basis for our world. I wanted to travel, and so took a job as a chemical engineer for a company with work around the globe. And for 27 years I worked for them, doing a variety of jobs, traveling for them and on my own, seeing the world and how other people lived.
Then I was laid off. Although I looked for a replacement chemical engineering position, it became a time of personal reflection. I considered career changes, starting fresh on something else, and generally tried to step back and look for what I might really want to do. One of the things I did in that frame of mind was a complete psychological profile. I took a number of different psychological tests to help me understand myself better. The key finding of that profile was that I was in the 98th percentile in the creativity assessment, and that my need to be creative was not being met! That was an eye opener to me, because I had done years of product and process development… the kind of work that is not repetative or routine. It was what most people would call an opportunity to be creative!
That lead me to reflect on the ways I had worked and the points of dissatisfaction that had been growing with my job. At the time I was laid off, I had reached a point of frustration with my work that part of me was relieved when it happened.
And after some unsettled and worried time immediately after the layoff, my wife and I discovered we were much happier with me not working. This was true even though our family suffered more than 50% loss of income.
So what led me to work so long in a career that left me unsatisfied, why did my displeasure with the job grow with the time I spent there, and what was it about not working that made me happier? It took a good bit of fumbling and soul-searching to understand and express my ‘lessons learned’ from my earlier life. In a way it is good that things came to a crisis as they did, because I emerged more grounded and self-aware than I was before. However, I hope that other people (like my kids!) come to their point of self-awareness by a better path. Or maybe this is wisdom that only a few people ever attain, and that after a school of hard knocks wakes them up.
With my 20/20 hindsight, I can now see that among my broad interests when I was young was a drive to express myself with art, but it was hidden among a wide number of interests. I did not get as much reinforcement or encouragement for it, but I put a lot of effort there. Whenever a drawing or a sketch was needed for class, I enjoyed making it and put in extra time and effort to make it colorful and easy to understand. This compulsion to add color and clarity to my work continued into my adult life as an engineer. I would always take extra time to make data visual and conclusions clear using graphing techniques and color groupings. I received some criticism from engineering supervisors that I was wasting time dressing up data beyond getting the facts. I see now that it was my need to show my conclusions visually that drove me to spend the extra time. None-the-less, I liked the idea of engineering in that it was about solving problems and making things better.
After many years of product and process development I was asked to become the quality manager. Quality is an intangible in many people’s minds, something they recognize, appreciate when they see it, but have trouble to describe when pressed. Even engineers and professional managers see it as something the manufacturing department and their people have to do before they ship. However, real quality happens when everyone who has a role in the design, development, production, sale and customer service for a product (everyone in the company!) understands their role and works toward improvement of their bit, contributing to a common goal.
Working in this field was shocking. What to me felt like common sense and best practice was to many intelligent, thoughtful managers a diversion from their main purpose. Each area had objectives; R&D to develop products, Manufacturing to make and ship product, Sales to sell product, Procurement to save money on purchases. So R&D might develop products that were not manufacturable, Procurement would buy raw material that would not make good product, Sales would sell the idea of a product before it was developed. There was lots of churning and shooting each other (read: ourselves, from the customer’s view) in the foot.
This becomes very personal when an individual’s evaluation and pay are determined by how well they meet their objectives. So with poorly designed goals, managers would fight for their own, even though in the end they weren’t the best for the whole company. You can see what a big, insidious problem quality can be… it is not just a detail of manufacturing.
If 6 blind men examine an elephant,
Who sees the whole beast?
After some years of implementing quality improvement initiatives in the company, we realized that something bigger was needed also. Companies are not concerned only with delivering a product or a service. They are also built on ‘business processes’ that support that delivery directly or indirectly. For example, handling a customer invoice and payment is a process that does not directly add value to a product or service, but is essential to both parties and a serious point of dissatisfaction to customers if done poorly. Another example; the internal strategic planning process is not concerned with today’s product or service, but is fundamental to our future as a supplier and to our customers, who need reliable sources. My last position at the company was business process improvement manager. We tried to take objective looks at our business processes, pick them apart, and seek out ways to streamline them. This involves changing the way people do things after years of routine, and is very difficult. It becomes impossible when management cannot lead the change or modify their personal behavior.
It is from this general blind spot that my pessimism about the future of the human race arises. We have built into us the survival instinct to fight for our patch and to protect our own. Our leaders are particularly adept and focused on this effort. Each one is focused on the part of the elephant that most directly affects them. Until we see the world as the whole elephant and develop our common objectives with the whole planet in mind, we will continue to foul our own nest.
To some extent, my company and management represent the very smart and ambitious people who are running the civilizations of the world. And if they all have the same blind spot, then it will take a ground swell of ordinary people to make meaningful change in the way we use and protect the resources of our planet. And if we wait until many people are suffering before we act, will it be too late for us all as the lag in impact reaches full strength? It appears all our coastal cities will be underwater before we recognize that the icepacks are melting because of us. Our fresh water will be rationed before we recognize that our usage cannot be sustained. Our food supplies will be limited before we admit we over-fish, over-graze and over-use the plenty we started with. Our environment will be poisoned before we face the fact that the poisons we emit to make money are killing us, and find a way to stop them.
When I first started making art, I saw an opportunity to use my voice with people to point out the beauty and elegance that exists in the scientific world.. for example the curves and figures of mathematics, the detail of botany in seeds and flowers, and the grandeur of space and astronomy. And that is still a possible avenue to pursue, though I have come to believe that the most likely people to hear that message are those who are scientists and already appreciate it. It would not have the opportunity to provoke deeper thought or to change perceptions that art might make possible.
The urgency and the irony of our predicament with the environment hold a much more compelling basis for artistic expression for me. If I can make work that is simple to understand and clear in message, then perhaps I can create dialog where there was none and provoke feelings in people to change the way we do things. At least I can lend my common sense to the voices of others who are saying we cannot continue in the way we have in the past. And with all my technical training and experience solving problems, if people see my fear for the future, perhaps it will trouble them more also.