My creative work is personally concerned with seeing, perception, constructive sensation, serendipity, complexity, reflection, randomness, improvisation, consciousness, intuition, assembly, patterns, pattern-making, symbols, cognition, archetypes, mystery, ad hoc narratives, self-awareness, pure experience, epiphany, spontaneous apprehension, alchemy, underdetermination, pareidolia, abduction, 2nd order cybernetics, mandalas, enantiodromia, learning, unlearning, meditation, yin/yang, enaction, cave art, africa, mysticism, jazz, neurophenomenology, and other stuff.
Over four decades, my passion for music as a listener and player has deeply informed my outlook, personal culture, and each of my creative practices. Over two decades, my research and studies have come to be primarily organized around experiential learning, adult development, 2nd order social cybernetics, serendipity, enactivism, and, Analytical Psychology. All of these concerns either inflect or are woven deeply into my creative process.
At the same time, my art practice and art works are not expressly about any of this background. If you circle back to me you may be missing the only intended point of my art work.
[Artists] love to immerse themselves in chaos in order to put it into form, just as God created form out of chaos in Genesis. Forever unsatisfied with the mundane, the apathetic, the conventional, they always push on to newer worlds. — Rollo May
Art-making has an alchemical effect on the imagination. It awakens the senses and sharpens insights, teaching us to think in symbols, metaphors, and to de-code complexity, so we can perceive the world in new ways.— Linda Naiman
Several associates of mine (in the field of adult and organizational development) were invited to submit questions to the artist.
Mai: What kind of message would you like to communicate to your audience through your art projects?
Holly: What message are you hoping to deliver through your art?
Stephen: My art works present opportunities rather than messages. So, most individual art works aim to set up the possibility of an encounter between the viewer’s engaged awareness and its—in my terms—field. My hope is for the viewer to stop, look, then see into the art work’s territory. I design to a partial degree this territory and create to a partial degree some of its visual relations.
Since 2012, the main organizing principal of all my art practice, whether it is based in photographs, generative procedures, or a combination of both, has been the mirror symmetry and the way the symmetry comes to shape and define forms and patterns and coherent relations within this territory. My original hypothesis was that a viewer would be compelled to attend to, via their experience, the exploration of the field and the territory of the image. The viewer would be inspired by the mysterious and vibrant relations to seek and discover relations and meaningfulness on entirely their own terms.
“Delivery” is perhaps a better term than communicate, yet, the viewer is also left to their own devices so as to also allow for communication to unfold from ‘up and out of’ their engaged exploration. However, I do not create and produce art pieces for the sake of sending explicit messages that I have authored. There is no intentional encoding of such messages. There are no opportunities for the viewer to annunciate that he or she has successfully uncovered or discovered any such authored messages of this explicit kind.
At the same time viewers can circle back to contexts and references, and in doing so, circle back to my concerns. This is fine but isn’t the point of my art work; nor does it improve the experience. My concerns are not what my art is about.
In supposing that the viewer engages the field of the art work and learns something on their own and does so without needing to gather up, also, lots of related context and referenced content, I am adhering to a well-known default held by some artists. Yuko Mizobuchi puts it well.
Yuko Mizobuchi: My works are means to rediscover and awaken the memory of your DNA that has been dormant since the ancient time, the senses any living beings can have, and to regain the power of imagination. Art does not require explanations: It is to feel and imagine with your ‘mind brain’, instead of your ‘logical brain’. It opens up the eye of your ‘mind brain’ – I believe that is the power of art. It has become a lengthy message, but actually this explanation of mine itself is meaningless. I just want you to see, feel and imagine my actual paintings with your mind brain. No logic has a place there.
Holly: As you view a photo for the first time and before you work your magic, do you have an intention in mind?
Stephen: Yes. My concrete intention is to generate choices from which a final choice will be made. My artistic intention is that the possible choices each capture a sufficient conjunction of chaos and complexity. My intentions throughout the creative procedures I use to build out a still life all aim to coordinate processes for the sake of generating a ripe confluence of potential relations with small gestural forms. There can be secondary intentions that refers to symbolic or pattern language or specific cultural forms that are part of the set-up for the photograph.
For example, in Four Observers, there is a metal sculpture from Thailand. My secondary intention never is precisely articulated, yet, in the example of Four Observers, I am well aware that my secondary intentions have something to do with choosing the small asian sculpture and setting it into the still life that will be photographed. This choice will be enlivened by the viewer’s own experience and the context he or she bring to bear on this experience.
Kay: Do you get specific inspiration about content, color, etc, to make a plan or is it more like improv? How do you choose all the elements included in a work?
Stephen: There are two basic states of my ‘feel’ for an element. First, is that I discover an element out in the wild, say at a garage sale or a leaf lying on the ground, and I immediately feel this element will really play an important role. or be the element around which a piece is centered. In this first kind of feel, I go about collecting elements and archiving these for future use.
The second kind of feel has to do with pursuing trial and error for the sake of trying new approaches or combining approaches, or, guiding—I term this conducting—a complex assembly through various preliminary iterations. This is especially true for generative pieces for which various combinations arise as a matter of course.
(The generator presents to me a dashboard through which I can adjust in real time the parameters of the underlying algorithms. These formulas direct a repainting of the field. With generative art, the choices are all about predetermining to some extent what content and colors will likely work their way into successful iterations.)
When I am working both types of feel at the same time, I am largely intuiting and feeling and recursing via trial and error through arrangements of various elements. When I am putting together a still life I am very much conducting materials and placement in a jazzy act of feel and trying stuff out and deciding.
Mai: How do you usually get inspiration for your artwork?
Stephen: The most usual means for coming to inspiration is simply diving into experimenting and messing around and trying out stuff and pushing into and through little miniature tests. I’ve developed routine, simple, operative ways to cause an iteration. An example would be inverting an object or swapping two objects.
Kay: How long does it take you to produce a piece like the ones in your show?
Stephen: It varies. If one takes into account the discovery and marshaling of resources, then most photographic pieces would encompass the time spent collecting and managing elements in the source still life. This time also gets sunk into the photos which underlie generative pieces. I have no idea what this number is in general but have a good idea what goes into individual art works. Most art works take from one to thirty hours, not counting the inventory management piece and other elements of housekeeping, so-to-speak.
Mai: Could you share a story about a time something unexpected and/or interesting happening amidst a piece’s creation, which then changed the piece?
Stephen: There are so many such stories. Very small unexpected events may have very large consequences. This is something I always knew as a systems theorist and cyberneticist, but it has really been thoroughly hammered home as a learning given by my experiencing my own creative process and growth as an artist. Much of what I manage in my creative process has to do with narrowing and reducing possibilities without also erasing the opportunity the unexpected presents. The singular tonic in noting this is that the actual field of possibility is infinite. This is the principal context for my being open to the unexpected.
Stories abound. When I shot set-ups contained in the antique green glass I call Shiva, I had no idea the chaotic surface of the deteriorating asphalt driveway–upon which Shiva was placed–would so enthusiastically be integrated into the photographs. The result is tens of works that include patterns and forms derived from the crumbling surface texture of the driveway.
For over a year I would simply iterate symmetries given the given orientation of the photograph by dropping the dividing cut line to a small number of options given by the center of photographs. I accidentally warped a photo and realized instantly that this opened up a large field of new symmetries. This discovery led me to significantly expand the options for creating the cut line of the symmetry. This finding also underlies related technical innovations too. This led at the end of 2016 to creating circular works for which the cut iterates around a radial geometry. Fruitful errors build into substantial learning and technical innovations.
Kay: What was the biggest surprise you experienced with the work at the one person exhibit in 2016?
Stephen: Pieces are proofed in my studio at a size no larger than 19×13 inches. It is the common practice of fine art image makers working from digital files to proof at full size and do so using the medium the final edition will use. I couldn’t afford to do this. When I pulled the trigger on production of the fifteen pieces in the show, I knew going into it that when these were delivered to the gallery I would be seeing the full size, final, pieces for the very first time. When I helped unwrap the pieces and flipped them over and saw the faces for the first time I realized my untutored post-production skills had been mostly up to the task of enlarging 14×9” original files up to the size of the large installed pieces. At that point I knew I would get a chance to test the founding hypothesis, that my large scale art work would engage the viewer and inspire he or she to explore and discover meaningful patterns and forms and relations in the image. The gallerists and their assistants were blown away too. This helped!
Holly: Is there a particular audience you are hoping to connect with through your art?
Stephen: Anybody willing to stop and really engage the art work, and next spend the requisite time to journey into the territory of the art work and seek their own discoveries. My art work is about the viewer’s experience, just as my art practice is about my own experiential learning. This is different than the transactional alignment between a person able to decode on their own the specific semiotic message intentionally encoded into the piece by its author, the artist. All such coding is unintentional in my work. It is both a common fact and a remarkable fact of my own intent that I discover such coded elements in my art long after the piece has been completed.
On both my part and the part of the engaged viewer there is, operatively, a psychology of the unconscious and a psychology of experience operating in the background of these phenomenal facts. There is a great deal implied by my “intending not to intend.” Still, no viewer is privileged by being able to circle back to me for context or explanation because my art is about the viewer’s experience, not my own experience. My art speaks for itself so I count on the viewer’s receptivity and desire to grasp and work through and complete the art piece with their own unique, and contingent, and novel, and correct-by-definition, embodied experience. This kind of experience is accessible by anyone.
This makes possible a person telling me what is located in the territory of the image; and this is best for me when I learn of a discovery I had zero idea was there all along in the territory!
Holly: Will you share a story about what people have seen or felt in one of your pieces?
Stephen: I wish I could record the experiences of the viewer! This would be to be taken on a tour of my own art work. Sure, I have learned about what literally popped into somebody’s mind. Someone’s teenage sons wanted to touch the pieces. If it were up to me, the experience would include touching. One friend remarked how meditative was their experience of a few of the pieces. Another person found their experience was of being disturbed, yet, being drawn closer. People have been moved to tears, telling me,
“I wasn’t prepared for the working being so beautiful.”
People have told me they spotted faces, portals, archetypal symbols, shapes, rooms, doorways, animals, and all sorts of other discoveries.
By far the most pointed comment about my work was provided by a friend’s ten year old grand daughter:
“I had to re-adjust my brain so i could look farther into the picture.”
This comment is not likely to be surpassed.
Kay: Do you have daily practices that support your creativity?
Stephen: Paying attention. Being open to novelty. I’ve been a daily, spot, meditator for 28 years, and a contemplative for much longer. These two practices are linked. I also keep my eye out. Much of what fascinates me and concerns me reverberates in my living and creating. Music is part of this; the language of your questions has already lit upon improvisation, intuition, inspiration. My art work is a visionary art and is an aspect of my spiritual practice.
Rumi! A slender bright reed song. If it should fade, we fade!
Alice: What is there before the image?
Stephen: What a great question! Lila? Play. My daemon expresses itself as playful experimentation.
As it happens, and this is true for the mirror symmetry when it is happening on a heavy metal album cover, in a Rorsach blot, or, in a centuries old decorative tessellation, there is its way of striking an order. The appeal is ancient. The sensitive viewer grasps this! The child does too.
Before the image is emergence. The image reflects this prior. Symmetrical order reflects an unusual reduction. The outward physical order given in symmetry is nothing like the creative order of thinking, feeling, willing, being. Certainly, there are for me key ongoing investigations about serendipity, pragmatist embodied aesthetics, enactive psyche, archetypal processing, and, dig this, the commingling of abduction and reflection in the form of the reflection inherent in the symmetry. In this latter move the first order of the mirrored and reflected visual forms echo and, yes, reflect, the second and third orders of playful experimentation.
In this way I am playfully inventing a new art practice. This is all I know how to do, and I do not know any better.
Less abstruse would be to note my art practice is forged by the creative conduction of being, that is seemingly practicing me, and overflowing into my creativity! There are classificatory systems able to conceptually encompass conceptual structures which are notable, for our purposes, for their two-ness, four-ness, fourfoldness, etc. Systems express these simple mirrored ratios, systems such as mandalas of every other sort, the four humors, my colleague David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, flowers, C.G. Jung’s theory of enantiodromia, trees and trees of knowledge,i ching, medicine wheel, differential abduction, antimony, zodiac, negative capability, each and every theorization of paradox, polarity, dialectic, dichotomy, association. etc.
What of the powerful impulse provided by my desire to see the transformation of chaotic togetherness into coherent togetherness? There is in the transition between the first order and the second order a simple way to transform this creative action into a fourfold experience and instance a deeply symmetric enaction: be it / create it / experience it / see it.
The directive fourfold here mirrors the context of an embodied, reflective ‘ninefold into tenfold’ given by:
The growing together of a many into the unity of a one. It is “the real constitution of a particular existent.” (A.N. Whitehead)
This is for me a powerful heuristic that I capture alliteratively like this:
Concrescence. Yet, my art practice and art work is not about any of this!