Chapter 12: Art-Making is Competitive – With the Present and the Past


How to Make Your Creative Dreams a Reality:
Strategies to Cultivate Your Talent

Chapter 12
Art-Making is Competitive – With the Present and the Past 

As an artist, most likely you are competing for attention with contemporary creative people, and using the past as a way to calibrate the depth of feeling you bring to your work. 

Art making is about competing with yourself, and labor from the past. 

I had my first major encounter with the past in the mid 1960s, even though I did not realize it at the time. I had been interested in moving from scientific glass to the creative side, with a focus on nature. I wanted to see the glass flower collection at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, which was considered a monumental accomplishment in glass-making. 

Pat and I, with the children in tow, went to New Hampshire on vacation and detoured to Cambridge to see the glass flower models. Because the plants were flameworked, I believed that I could understand what made them so exceptional. 

The trip was inspiring but also intimidating. When I observed the fidelity of the floral models I was perplexed and a little discouraged. This was over my head, I told Pat. 

“Paul,” she said, “you have two hands just like they do.”
Looking back, her simple comment put things in perspective, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. 

The more familiar I became with the collection, I understood that my initial response was wrong. I didn’t fully grasp the glass working process of the Blaschkasses, a father and son glass-working team. I thought the models were all glass, when in fact they incorporated other techniques using mixed materials that were undetectable because they were so skillfully integrated. 

The glass plants incorporated wire reinforcement, gluing, and painting that were masterfully and invisibly crafted into a believable plant model. 

I had initially related to the accomplishment through the limited perspective of my experience as a contemporary glassworker. 

My next sojourn into the intersection of the past and present came five years later, when I visited the Corning Museum of Glass. The museum displayed a major collection of antique French paperweights. This connected with my interest in the South Jersey glass tradition, the crown jewel of which was the Millville Rose paperweight. 

I began to realize that competing with the past motivated me and at times was a catalyst for innovation. 

My challenge from the past and present evolved and changed as I became more mature as an artist. Challenges and inspirations along my journey included the 15th- and 16th- century small-scale Gothic wood carvings from Northwestern Europe, the poetry of Walt Whitman, the floral paintings of Morris Graves, and the Landscape art of Andy Goldsworthy. 

What separates the amateurs from the professionals is this respect for the past, coupled with a need to understand the nuances of the artwork that has stood the test of time. 

As a professional, you want to advance work from the past that interests and inspires you. They key word is “advance.” You don’t want to replicate what’s been done: You want to make it personal in ways that speak to our present time period. 

This is not an easy process. It takes dedication, commitment, and passion. You are competing with the masters from the past whose work speaks to you, the masters you have chosen after your research, your explorations to discover your authentic interests. 

One strategy, if you accept it, is to be challenged by the timeless beauty of the work, make it personal, and interpret the accomplishment in ways that will advance your vision. 

It’s all about building blocks. Art history is the visual documentation of man’s joys and fears. You want your work to articulate the joys and fears of your time period.

Your work will be your gift to the future. 

Study the past if you would define the future.


What is past is prologue.
— William Shakespeare