Wendell Castle's “A Leap of Faith”
I am a man of questions. I ask questions of my work, I question myself, i.e. how is it that I am standing up in front of you this morning? When I graduated from high school I might well have been considered to be the least likely to succeed. I was not the best student in my art classes at The University of Kansas. I did very well, but there were others who seemed more talented. Yet, I am the only art student from KU to ever be given an Honorary Doctorate by KU. How does something like that happen? Where are all the others who were more talented than I? I’m not sure I really know. I do, however, have some thoughts on the subject.
Recently, my Paris gallery asked me to suggest a name for my upcoming exhibition. After some thought, I decided on “A Leap of Faith”, which I realized was exactly what I have been doing throughout my whole career. I must have been crazy to think furniture could take me so far. So, this morning’s presentation is entitled “A Leap of Faith”.
I have often thought about the randomness of the cosmos. My life has been a series of random events. Chance events play a much larger role in life than most of us think. Randomness often plays out in subtle ways. In the world of art, most career paths entail a complex sequence of steps, each of which depends on those preceding it. If any of those earlier steps had been different, the entire career path would almost surely have been different, too. Some of those initial steps will have been influenced by seemingly trivial, random events. But randomness will, at times, place us in some very fortunate space/time convergence, which is clearly important, but more important still is to recognize that importance, and even more important yet is to know what to do when the realization hits you. Somehow, I had the realization that by combining furniture with sculpture, a new art form could be created.
There are four things I would like to talk about this morning: art, creativity, critical thinking, and technology. First of all, let me definite creativity. I believe creativity can be simply defined as: doing something for the first time that is valued by others. A true artist or designer is someone who does something for the first time, something human, something that touches others. It’s not art if the world (or at least a small portion of it) is not transformed in some way. Most of all, it’s not art if there is no risk. It’s not the risk of financial ruin (it could be); it’s the risk of rejection and failure. Art requires the artist to care, and to care enough to do something even when we suspect that it might not work. Art, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.
I had to lay one brick on another, set thousands of ideas on paper, before getting an authentic one dragged up from my guts. I haven’t the slightest idea what my future work will look like. My drawings and models are the slenderest of help. I may scrap them all. I invent, distort, deform, inflate, exaggerate, compound and confuse as I see fit. I obey only my own instincts, which often I do not understand, myself. I often draw things I do not understand, but secure in the knowledge that they may at some point become clear and meaningful. I have faith in myself. I have had to learn to think, feel, and see in my own way, which can feel like the hardest thing in the world. Whatever progress there is in art, comes not from adaptation, but through daring.
Having grown up in Kansas, I was profoundly affected by the dustbowl and the great depression. But more worrisome was the fact that I’m dyslexic, so my early school years were terribly difficult for me. As no one had yet recognized the condition, I received no help. I think everyone just thought I was stupid. I was not good at anything. I was a failed academic, a failed musician and a failed athletic. I was, however, good at daydreaming and drawing, neither of which were valued. I believe it was Einstein who said, “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid.” Being dyslexic may be helpful in thinking in ways that are different from how everyone else thinks about things. Picasso was likely dyslexic; he had no trouble thinking about things in a different way. When asked by a gentleman at an opening of his work why he didn’t paint women the way they really looked, Picasso replied, “How do they look?” The questioning gentleman took out his wallet and showed Picasso a picture of his wife. “This is how a woman looks,” he said. Picasso replied, “She’s very small, isn’t she? And flat, too!”
I now know that artists are much more likely than the general public to have dyslexia. Many artists credit their dyslexia with giving them an edge. It’s not like there is a secret code that only dyslexics can read. No, it’s because as outlier tendencies make it clear, at some point that we would be less likely to be chosen for most jobs. Precisely because we do not fit in, we have little choice but to choose ourselves. However, it’s impossible to choose yourself, if you don’t know how the system works. It’s not possible to choose yourself if you don’t speak the language. It’s not possible to choose yourself if you’re in a game you cannot win. We are also less likely to make safe and practical decisions.
There is a big problem with making sensible decisions. It’s that so is everyone else. I find no reason to be sensible, particularly, or reasonable. In fact, my work of the last ten years might be considered anti-design; it does not adhere to any of the design norms. I like impractical things; things don’t have to be sensible. I live an impractical life. I dress impractically, drive impractical cars, and make impractical furniture. I have no interest in being practical. I believe this kind of lifestyle is conducive to creativity.
And one more thing about living a creative life, have a hidden passion, something outside your work that you are passionate about. Play a musical instrument, ballroom dance, play a sport, whatever. It will increase your creative abilities. I believe in going where there is no path and leaving a trail. Everything we know we must leave for others. We should have no secrets; share everything you know. If you think for a moment your secret finish, your secret shaping, etc., sets you apart, then you don’t have much going for you.
For me, the reason creativity is so exciting is that when I am involved in it, I feel I am living more fully than during other parts of my life. The excitement of the work in the studio comes close to the ideal fulfillment we all hope to get from life. Creativity also leaves an outcome that adds to the richness and complexity of our universal experience.
I believe it’s best to be an outsider. We can continue to innovate for our entire lives as long as we work to maintain the perspective of an outsider. We need to be willing to leave behind the safety of our expertise. The outsider problem affects everyone. Although we live in a world that worships insiders, it turns out that gaining such experience takes a toll on creativity. To spend a great deal of time at anything is to become too familiar with it.
I must constantly try to forget what I already know. I had to learn to think in new ways, in an uneducated way, my own way, which is not easy. I had to throw myself into the current, knowing I may well sink. The great majority of artists are throwing themselves in with life preservers around their necks and more often than not, it’s the life preserver that sinks them. Whatever progress there is to be in life, comes not through adaptation, but through daring.
It’s easy to become numb to the possibilities of something new. The only way to remain creative over time is to not be undone by our expertise and to experiment with ignorance. We tend to see the most when we are on the outside looking in. There is always more than one way to look at any given thing. “Idea” thinking may simply mean the realization that there is no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done. The greatest danger is becoming a prisoner of familiarity. The more often we do anything in the same way, the more difficult it is to think in any other way. Remember, what things look like is a convention, not a truth. Which reminds me of a story: There was this little girl in drawing class. The teacher looked over her shoulder and asked what she was drawing. The little girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The little girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
Art has always been a form of redemption, a transfiguration of the commonplace. The very act of turning something into an image, whether it is a painting or a chair, alters and aggrandizes it. Great art can be made out of ordinary ideas that have been transfigured into something quite extraordinary. Art is omnivorous. It appropriates all forms and assimilates all materials. The result should be a kind of paradox; that ability to hold the tension of opposites, embrace uncertainty and ambiguity. These are critical characteristics of contemporary art, and remember it is important to trust your intuition. Intuition is the unpredictable human element that saves us from the expected and helps to produce ideas that are surprises as well as solutions.
Nothing in life is fool proof. The Titanic was supposed to be an unsinkable ship. Every 100% sure thing has an iceberg out there with your name on it. I believe the difference between being successful and unsuccessful creatively may simply be our ability to alternate between our emotional and rational thoughts, which force us to always consider how we are actually thinking.
The author Malcolm Gladwell has reminded us of an ancient Greek expression, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. “ A hedgehog is a small mammal covered with spines. When attacked it rolls itself into a ball, such that its spines point outward. This is the hedgehog’s only defense. A fox, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on a single strategy when threatened. Instead, it adjusts its strategy to fit the particulars of the situation. A person who thinks like a hedgehog is prone to bouts of certainty, so he just keeps doing the same thing over and over again. People, who think like a fox, accept ambiguity and take an ad hoc approach when coming up with ideas. The fox gathers data from a wide variety of sources, and ultimately makes better decisions. After all, almost everything is about making good decisions.
Getting ideas is not the hard part, it’s making good decisions about which idea to go with. The fox thinker is more likely to study his own decision-making process. In other words, he thinks about how he thinks. Critical thinking is an important component of the creative process. I think it’s important to be able to evaluate evidence, tell fact from opinion, see holes in an argument, determine whether or not cause and effect have been established, and to spot illogic.
Ideas are not precious, they are everywhere, which suggests that the extraordinary process which we think of as creativity, really does not necessarily depend on genius, serendipity, epiphany, or whatever. Hard work and determination are in the end the major ingredient
My background has taught me that sculpture is not a commodity or a product. I am not designing for anyone but myself. All of the motivation is intrinsic, which is clearly conducive to creativity. Lucky for me, there was no extrinsic motivation, as my early work did not sell, anyway. If you have read anything on the subject of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, you know that being offered a reward clobbers creativity. I try to make work that speaks to the authentic me, rather than to what is currently popular in the art world, or what might be more saleable.
In the Broadway play “Red”, by John Hogan, there are only two characters, Mark Rothko, the painter (I hope some of you have seen the play), and Ken, his assistant. At one point in the play Ken asks Rothko if he ever got tired of telling people what art is? Rothko answered, “No, not ever. Until they listen.
KEN: “You’re just mad because the Barbarians are at the gate. And, whattaya know, people seem to like the Barbarians.”
ROTHKO: “OF course they like them. That’s the goddamn point? You know what people like? Happy, bright colors. They want things to be pretty. They want things to be beautiful - Jesus Christ, when someone tells me one of my pictures is ‘beautiful’ I want to vomit!”
KEN: “What’s wrong with –“ Rothko interrupts
ROTHKO: (explodes) ‘Pretty.’ ‘Beautiful.’ ‘Nice.’ ‘Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine.’ We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s al so goddamn funny, it’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation, living under the tyranny of ‘fine.’ How are you? Fine. How was you day? Fine. How are you feeling? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine…Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!”
He spins to his paintings.
ROTHKO: “HOW ARE YOU?!...HOW WAS YOUR DAY?!...HOW ARE YOU FEELING? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine. We are anything but fine….Look at these pictures. Look at them! You see the dark rectangle, like a doorway, an aperture, yes, but it’s also a gaping mouth letting out a silent howl of something feral and foul and primal and REAL. Not nice. Not fine. Real. A moan of rapture. Something divine or damned. Something immortal, not comic books or soup cans, something beyond me and beyond now. And whatever it is, it’s not pretty and it’s not fine….I AM HERE TO STOP YOUR HEART, YOU UNDERSTAND?!– I AM HERE TO MAKE YOU THINK!.... I AM NOT HERE TO MAKE PRETTY PICTURES!”
I wish I had the capacity for such powerful language. I don’t know if furniture (or whatever it should be called,) can ever have the power of a painting, but I would like to think it possible. I certainly don’t want my work to be thought of as pretty, beautiful or nice. In fact, there should be a dark side, a questioning side, and most of all, the work must make the viewer think. I question everything I do, I make no assumptions, I take nothing for granted, and I fully embrace ambiguity.
Nothing good is easy, and that is because we see so little at first glance. It’s only by really thinking about something that we are able to move ourselves into perceptions that we never knew we were capable of. Think until you can think no more. Think until the necessary thoughts intersect.
I also believe it’s important to make work that is collectible. A work is not going to be truly collectible if the design is influenced by the original client. By collectible, I mean taking into consideration that wherever a work goes, it’s not where it will stay. People move, they get divorced, they die, and at some point the house or the business will be sold. Will the work then look attractive on the second market? Will Sotheby’s want to sell it? This is how a work gains provenance. I want to give value to those who collect my work. I don’t believe anyone should buy an artwork for investment. Buy it because you love it, and you will be its caretaker for a while. Don’t pay any attention to the market. I don’t make what someone wants, I make what I feel is the right thing to do. It’s the only way to move forward. No one would ask me to make the things I make. That’s my responsibility as an artist, and that means I must always be taking a risk.
My studio joined the digital age about nine years ago, at first with scanning. I still do all my idea searching with pencil on paper. Designing on the computer is not for me. A computer has a mind of its own, it wants to fix what it perceives as mistakes, it wants to, for example, smooth out a curve with a blip. Computer designs look like computer designs. I want blips or other inconsistencies to remain. My solution is to make scale models, which are scanned and then entered into the computer, inconsistencies and all. This is a terrific help, as the computer-generated patterns are very accurate. It was soon painfully clear we needed a CNC machine of some sort to be able to translate the models into full-size pieces. After a good deal of research we decided on a 6-Axis ABB 6400 robot with very large capacity. We are now in the process of adding a 7th Axis. It has been fantastic in more ways than I can mention. We are able to do things that would be impossible with standard woodworking equipment. Now, some may think this is just not right; it’s no longer handmade. That same conversation took place about power equipment at the beginning of the 20th Century. Even with the robot my work still requires a lot of handwork. I love the machine, which we affectionately refer to as “Mr. Chips”. If anyone is interested in more information there is a book entitled Wendell Castle Remastered, available through Amazon and bookstores.
As I pointed out earlier, random events have greatly affected my life. Here are three random events that significantly impacted my way of working. When I was 12 or 13 years old, my father subscribed to a magazine called “Deltacraft.” As you might expect, it was a how-to-do-it magazine. Each month it would show articles about how to build things. I remember just one thing from those articles, “How to build a duck decoy.” The duck was made by laminating ¾” pine to the cross-sections that the magazine provided. After rasping of the stairsteps, you had a duck. Sadly, I never made the duck.
Random Event #2: At that time I never suspected I had artistic talent. My grade school, middle school and high school had no art program. I had no idea what I might become. Frankly, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t good at anything. The first semester of my sophomore year in college I had the opportunity to take an elective, I took art. It changed my life; in fact, it saved my life. For the first time in my life I was the best in my class. The teacher, Dr. Somi, advised me to leave that college and go to a school with a great art program. I did.
Random Event #3: As an art student, I would, or course, read the latest art magazines. One article caught my eye, an article on Leonard Baskin, a sculptor and woodcut artist. The article explained how he went about doing his sculpture. He carved large figures. He would go to a millwork shop and have them glue-up a huge block of wood, something in the order of 36 x 36 x 80” tall. He would then proceed to carve the figure; this was a common practice. I thought if only Leonard had read the article on the duck he could have saved a great deal of wood and an enormous amount of time. I decided this is what I would do, and I did. What’s important about random events is what you do about them.
I told this story in an interview recently. The interviewer suggested another point about the duck decoy. He focused on the word decoy and what that might mean in connection to my work, and there is a connection. A decoy is not what it seems to be. I very much like the idea that my work is not what it seems to be, at least at first glance. My work may look like it’s sculpture, it is not, it’s furniture. There are other misleading points about the construction and the content, which is ambiguous. The word duck has two meanings. As in this old joke: “The first guy walks into a bar, the second guy ducks………”
Working memory is an essential tool of the imagination. Sometimes, all we need to do is to pay attention, to think until the necessary thoughts intercede. The process is slow, but the answer or insight will gradually reveal itself. As Nietzsche observed in his 1878 book, Human, All-too-Human, “Artists have vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration…shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects……………All great artists and thinkers are great workers, tireless not only in inventing, but also, in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”
Nobody accomplishes anything of importance without the help of others, not rock stars, not geniuses, or movie stars. Many have given me a “leg up”; my parents, my professors, my staff, my dealers in New York City, London and Paris, and of course my loving wife of more than 40 years, the sculptor, Nancy Jurs.
A random event, my discovering art, gave my life purpose. I’m blessed to have the three things that make work meaningful and satisfying: autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward. It’s not about how much money we make; it’s about whether the work fulfills us.
I believe the best way to move forward is to study your thought process and be willing to take a “leap of faith”.
I have a tradition of ending my remarks by sharing some of my adopted Rules of Thumb:
1. If you are in love with an idea, you are no judge of its beauty or value.
2. The dog that stays on the porch will find no bones.
3. If it’s offbeat or surprising, it’s probably useful.
4. Distrust what comes easily.
5. There are three kinds of people. Those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened.
6. Always listen to the voice of eccentricity.
7. If your mind is not baffled, your mind is not fully employed.
8. If you don’t make mistakes, you are not working on a hard enough problem, and that’s a mistake.
9. Bring conflicting ideas to bear on the same idea.
10. Celebrate uncertainty.
11. When you are through changing you are through.
12. Don’t weigh things with your fingers on the scale.
13. You miss 100% of the shots you do not take, which reminds me…
14. If you hit the bull’s-eye every time, the target is too near.
Here lie the bones of Nancy Jones, whose life held no terrors. She lived a maid; she died a maid, no hits, no runs, no errors.