As both a leader and an artist, I often think about what art can teach us about leading. One of my favorite artists is Gerhard Richter, a brilliant German artist who has exhibited internationally since the early 1960's. Richter's genius is in his wide-ranging exploration of two-dimensional imagery and his deep analysis of his own thought processes about what he creates. His interviews are legend for their intellectualism and insight and should be read by everyone who is interested in creative thought.
Chance plays a huge role in Richter's abstractions. He states that he monitors and manages what happens to the materials with which he works, but he never fully controls the outcome nor entirely conceptualizes a work in advance. Instead, he takes advantage of the moment, allowing a painting to become what it will be. Richter also states that he learns from his paintings. He says that his paintings, as in his famous grey series, teach him, as long as he remains open to hearing their lessons.
When applied to leadership, Richter's perspective seems somewhat counter-intuitive. How can a leader not control the outcome? How can a leader listen to everyone, particularly the naysayers? Controlling outcomes and making decisions is what we have to do to get things done. Listening to what everyone says can be tedious at best and a complete waste of time at worst. However, applying Richter's thoughts to leadership this way misses the point. Of course he is in charge of his paintings. Of course his paintings aren't literally teaching him to be a painter.
I think the true lessons are in humility and respect. It is arrogant to think we know all the answers. It is arrogant and disrespectful to think that no one else's opinion matters. Humility is acknowledging our own human limitations and embracing that we need to listen, learn, grow, and collaborate to become the best leaders that we can be.
Respect for others is the canvas upon which we leaders should paint.
For most of my adult life, I have had a foot in two worlds: leadership and art. While I led organizations, I was also an artist. As a leader, I set agendas, managed groups, delegated responsibilities, and supervised personnel. Then, when I went home from work, I painted and sculpted in my studio.
Now that I have retired from running organizations and serve as a leadership coach and consultant, I have given much thought to the relationship between the two seemingly disparate worlds. I have come to believe that leadership and art actually have much in common. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing. Both are creative acts, and both utilize divergent thinking skills.
Artists and leaders operate within parameters, some of which are tightly proscribed. Leaders manage the parameters of budget and personnel constraints, for example, while artists wrestle with the restrictions of materials, space, and technique. Instead of seeing these parameters as limiting, however, great leaders and great artists use the challenges presented by parameters as opportunities.
Great artists and great leaders have highly developed divergent thinking skills. Divergent thinking doesn't just happen, however. It requires practice. If the divergent thinking muscle is not exercised, it atrophies, and the same-old, same-old solutions result.
All leaders would be wise to keep a foot in two worlds, one foot in the leadership practice of running their organization and the other in a serious creative activity such as painting, sculpting, music, acting, dancing, or writing. Practicing divergent thinking is one way to ensure that leaders think outside of the box, beyond the same-old, same-old.
Natural materials call to me; they beckon. I want to touch and understand them, see how they work, take them apart and explore their components. As a beachcomber and rock hunter, I collect, photograph, dissect and study nature’s wondrous structures. In my garden and on my hikes in the woods, I observe the cycles of life—birth, growth, death, decay, and rebirth. No human can achieve the perfection that already exists, so I do not copy nature. Instead, I evoke natural processes through visual metaphors and allusions. I am in partnership with the natural world, co-creating beauty.
Seaweed is found in every ocean on earth. Green seaweed fronds are photosynthetic and often only two to three cells thick. They wave diaphanously in the current, and they’re swept ashore by even the gentlest waves. One of my favorite seaweeds is Sea Lettuce, the botanical name for which is Ulva latuca. Sea lettuce is pale green and, as it name suggests, edible. The necklace pictured above is opera length. Its strand is made from nuggets of aquamarine, and the blossom is oxidized sterling silver. When I hold this piece, I can almost hear waves lapping at the shore and taste the salty air that is heavy with summer humidity. I imagine that if I bend over to touch the sand, I might find this necklace coming to life.
My jewelry often carries a green message because my art is inspired by the natural world. These earrings take their inspiration from the world’s tiniest flowering plant, which is known as water lens or duckweed. I love that its scientific importance belies its small size. Researchers are investigating the use of duckweed as a biofuel because it contains 5 to 6 times as much carbon as corn. Earring materials are Herkimer diamonds, sterling silver, pigments, and resin. I think of this pair as being a statement piece because the wearer makes a statement about the importance of protecting environment by choosing to wear them.
I have been an artist for as long as I remember. When I was a little girl, I loved to draw, color, and make clothes for my dolls. I didn’t, however, think of myself as an artist. In fact, I studied pre-med in college, intending to someday become a doctor. Feeling an irresistible urge, I switched my major to art at the end of my junior year, and I have never looked back. I started my career as an art teacher, and then I became interested in leadership, which has many similarities to art. Both require divergent thinking and problem solving skills. My life is defined by multiple interests. I decided several years ago to make art that could be held in my hand, and my art became jewelry. All told, art is art: some art is small, and some is larger. The process for deciding on the design and color composition in the painting (36 x 24″) on this page is no different from how I create compositions for a brooch or necklace. Both are art. One hangs on a wall; the other hangs on a person.
Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Before he discovered tungsten as the material that would light our world, he tried hundreds of thousands of other materials. He worked so long and hard that he didn’t even take a break to sleep at night. He took catnaps on his desk and got up in the wee hours to work out yet another idea. Certainly, Edison was a genius, and I am not, but I fully identify with the hard work that is required to realize creative projects.
Here is a picture of one of my experiments with form. I wanted to create a pendant that had a lot of volume but which was very light. In this example, I used plastic coated chicken wire as the form. Over that I glued tissue paper, colored it with alcohol inks, and then coated everything with resin. It’s not a final piece, but it has spawned other ideas that have set me on a new design road.
I have dozens of examples of other experiments with different materials that I’ve used to develop my jewelry designs – fabric, toys, rope, concrete, rocks, and seashells, to name a few. Some trials have been very successful and have resulted in pieces that are offered for sale. Other experiments sit on the shelves of my studio, waiting for a purpose. Always, past experiments stay in my mind and emerge to inspire current projects. It’s a very organic process, full of buckets of perspiration.
These are difficult times. As an artist whose work focuses on beauty, I often wonder, what is my role during such times? The image that brings me clarity is from the natural world. Struggling through a lava flow or the ashes of a mountainside devastated by fire, pioneer species take root and eventually allow the colonization of the landscape by myriad other plants and animals. The land renews itself, one organism at a time. It starts with the singular, extraordinary courage of the first pioneer plant and then, eventually, beauty and life triumph. Similarly, my role as an artist is to create beauty. I coax beauty from a lifeless hunk of metal or a tube of paint. Through my art, I put life into the lifeless, just like a pioneer species does on a mountainside. It’s a powerful, iterative process in which creating beauty creates hope. That is my role. How desperately we need a leader who can create hope.
Photo credit: gsvenustransit.blogspot.com
Art Jewelry Forum writes that the brooch is back in fashion. I’m so glad to be cutting edge! Actually, brooches are a huge part of my design aesthetic and always have been. Maybe fashion is catching up to me! See the article here.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by miniaturization. When I was a child, I loved doll houses. As a young adult, I collected antique birdcages that looked like tiny mansions. I have always loved architectural models and imagining myself as a miniature human walking through them. Bonsai intrigue me.
Additionally, I have also always been fascinated by Asian art. My art often combines the two concepts – miniaturization and Asian aesthetics. Zen Gardens, which offer a microcosm of the macrocosm, use miniaturization to invite contemplation.
Similarly, my pieces invite contemplation through miniaturization. They use many earth-referencing metaphors. If one looks carefully, one can see mountains in gemstones, rivers in sterling silver textures, and light sparkling on ocean waves in glass beads.
As I design, I consciously embark on miniature journeys through the terrain I have created. I invite the viewer to join me and engage in an intimate conversation about the natural world. Each piece is my interpretation of a Zen Garden that can be worn.
Another way I relate to miniaturization is through the words of William Blake, who said, “Infinity in the palm of your hand.”