Collaboration is like carbonation for fresh ideas. Working together bubbles up ideas you would not have come up with solo, which gets you further faster.
Collaboration is like carbonation for fresh ideas. Working together bubbles up ideas you would not have come up with solo, which gets you further faster.
The more I draw and write, the more I realise that accidents are a necessary part of any creative act, much more so than logic or wisdom. Sometimes a mistake is the only way of arriving at an original concept, and the history of successful inventions is full of mishaps, serendipity and unintended results.
You may define ‘serendipity’ as the art of profiting from unexpected occurrences. When you do things in that way you get unexpected results. Then you do something else and you get unexpected results in another line, and you do that on a third line and then all of a sudden you see that one of these lines has something to do with the other. Then you make a discovery that you never could have made by going on a direct road.
Have you ever created something that made you feel more alive? Amazing things can happen when we follow our passion.
Mary Ann Toots Zynsky, known as Toots, decided as a pre-teen that she was meant to be an artist, beginning her creative life as a painter and sculptor. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which she had been told was the best of the best. And yet, nothing really sparked her interest; everything felt stilted and quiet. In fact, she planned to leave the school at the end of her Freshman year in order to pursue studies leading toward medical school. One day she grabbed a map and decided she would visit each department, perhaps hoping for a reason to stay. Everything changed as she walked down a hallway to a room that had been deliberately placed far from the main studios. Here, loud music played and hot glass swirled in the air, manipulated by artists that moved together to make colorful shapes that solidified into glass. I’m sure the music was loud and the atmosphere somewhat wild… it was 1970 after all…but the voice inside of her must have spoken with a voice to match. The next week, after classes ended, the glass studio, which had recently gained independence from the ceramics department, opened its doors to anyone who was interested. Toots Zynsky did not miss her opportunity.
It is fascinating to note that Toots was not drawn so much to the final product as she was mesmerized by the process. It was the music reverberating in the space, the concept of collaboration as a kind of dance, the roar of the furnace, the hot liquid glass in motion and the counterpoint of color that quickened her pulse. When art comes from this kind of place, the final form it takes is secondary. It also didn’t hurt that this was a new medium for art and there were few rules to be broken. It was an exciting time to work with glass. On top of that, she earned her BFA working under the guidance of Dale Chihuly, who remains one of the biggest names in glass art worldwide.
In the early 1970s, along with Chihuly and some fellow RISD graduates, Toots was part of the founding team of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state. Her work was groundbreaking: experimental installations featuring slumped plate glass and forays into video and performance art in collaboration with artist Buster Simpson. Finding new and interesting possibilities, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with glass. She returned to the east coast to pursue new projects in new media.
“I started wondering what I was doing with glass and why. There were other materials and ideas that fascinated me, and I started working with cloth, light, wire, and barbed wire. I was interested in barbed wire because it’s such a powerful symbol of the failure of humanity— that we had to come up with this material to keep each other apart.”
In 1980, Toots became assistant director and head of the hot shop at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, now UrbanGlass. Here she pioneered works that combined glass with barbed wire, pulling her interests together. She began to work with nets made from heavy glass threads which she dubbed filet de verre. These threads were fused and shaped inside of a kiln. Her first piece made entirely from filet de verre was Clipped Grass (1982). It is a beautiful, humble work of realism, glass fashioned into the image of a nest made from grass clippings. This simple piece was the precursor to the fanciful colored forms which would become Toots’ signature work.
In the early days, she had to employ teams of assistants to pull the glass into threads using an old Venetian method. This took time and resulted in unevenness. There was also a limit to the length of thread that could be produced. When Mathijs Van Manen, an inventor who had also worked with special effects for film and television, came to New York from Amsterdam to check out her work, he was amazed at what she was doing and dumbfounded at how she was doing it. Within 24 hours, he rigged a machine to turn rods of glass into threads. Toots took a trip to Europe to collaborate further on the design of this machine and stayed on the continent for 16 years. Together, she and Van Manen produced a series of kilns which she still uses in her work, although these instruments now incorporate cutting edge software and electronics. She also has special heat resistant gloves that allow her to reach into the kiln and twist the work into shape. These are the product of a desperate moment in Italy when, showing her technique to Italian craftsmen, she plunged her hands into a kiln to rescue a piece that was going awry.
“The architects were so curious and I was so nervous and the piece just wasn’t going right. All of a sudden, I reached into the kiln, grabbed the vessel, and gave it a big squeeze. Finally, I had the form that I wanted! And I thought, Why didn’t I think of this before? I was fed up with the piece, so I tried something different because I had nothing to lose.”
There is more to her work than technique, innovation and boldness. There is a great deal of sensitivity. As a synesthete, Toots relates sound to color. The rhythms of music are translated into patterns of colored glass that are like frozen portraits of sound.
After going through a period of loss in which she no longer felt like dancing, or even moving or listening to music, she began to create darker pieces with fewer colors and more shading, explorations not of music rhythms, but of the feelings she had for people she had lost. What an honor to be remembered in such a personal way by such a great artist!
Toots Zynsky continues to make beautiful things that fill a need in her life and delight others. She has collaborated on costume and scenic design for theatrical works and continues to explore what glass can express. Please check out more of her work on her website.
Among the many thousands of things that I have never been able to understand, one in particular stands out. That is the question of who was the first person who stood by a pile of sand and said, “You know, I bet if we took some of this and mixed it with a little potash and heated it, we could make a material that would be solid and yet transparent. We could call it glass.” Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows.
The shortcomings of economics are not original error but uncorrected obsolescence. The obsolescence has occurred because what is convenient has become sacrosanct. Anyone who attacks such ideas must seem to be a trifle self-confident and even aggressive. The man who makes his entry by leaning against an infirm door gets an unjustified reputation for violence. Something is to be attributed to the poor state of the door.
―J. K. Galbraith, The Affluent Society
Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.
Most people follow prescribed paths, trusting that life will be fulfilling. Sometimes an enterprising spirit and persistence have more success.
Born Robert Bruce Moser in Newark, Ohio in 1916, Bruce Mozert’s first job out of high school was that of a truck driver carrying coal to the northeast. Declaring himself “too sensitive” for that line of work, he soon moved to New York City to live with his sister, successful pin-up model and illustrator Zoë Mozert. She introduced him to Victor de Palma, a lead photographer for Life magazine, who recognized his enterprising spirit, hired him as a film developer and helped him get started in photography.
In 1938, Bruce was on assignment in Florida when he heard that Johnny Weissmuller was filming Tarzan in Silver Springs. The Florida Chamber of Commerce asked if he would visit the set and take some publicity photos. He jumped at the chance. At the time, underwater photos and film were taken from a inside a submerged barrel fitted with a glass window. This meant that there was only room for the film crew’s cameraman. Frustrated at not being able to shoot underwater, Bruce constructed the first known waterproof camera housing on the spot from scrap sheet metal and plexiglas, with a couple of nails for a viewfinder. His father and grandfather had been inventors. Bruce had been tinkering with machinery since he was a boy. As he would do over and over again in his life, he saw something he wanted to do and created the technology to do it.
“I went out in the backyard of Silver Springs one morning after I had made the camera case and I found an old inner tube. That was back when they were made out of real rubber. I fitted it on my arm and my arm fit tight. I attached it to the housing and took it down in the water. (“Tarzan” star) Johnny Weissmuller was there. They all laughed at me, but all 12 pictures came out clear. They ended up sending them to Hollywood.”— Ocala Star Banner, 2013
This was long before the Go Pro, folks. The photos were so good that MGM paid Bruce Mozert to use them in their promotions of Tarzan. He was encouraged to patent his invention, which allowed a photographer to get much closer to his subjects and make much better pictures, but he couldn’t afford the $900 it would have cost to do so.
In the midst of this, Bruce fell in love with Silver Springs, famous for crystal clear lakes, streams and artesian springs. He was to be the official photographer of Silver Springs for four and half decades, excepting for a few years in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Never a snob, Bruce even ran a concession business in the park, taking photos of patrons. His staged publicity photos were sent out across the country as advertisements for what was, at the time, the premiere tourist destination in Florida. These shots required planning and direction, and Bruce’s imagination and work ethic were ideal for the task. Most consisted of glamorous young women– and the occasional brawny male– doing everyday things underwater.
Images © Bruce Mozert
Mozert’s work is lovely and good natured, with just a dash of whimsy. Much of it, while delightfully kitschy, seems a little dated, meant as advertising and filled with pin-up models and a 1950s sense of glamour (and sexism), but some pieces, especially the work he did with model Ginger Stanley, who was a stunt double for Creature from the Black Lagoon, have an artistic quality and clarity that remains arresting, even when compared with photography done on modern equipment.
Bruce would remain a pioneer and innovator in the field for many years, creating new camera housings, high speed underwater cameras, and lighting devices. Television networks and film companies required his expertise and hired him for underwater projects as a photographer, a film cameraman and consultant. Gregory Peck, Lloyd Bridges, Jane Russell and Esther Williams were just a few of the celebrities with which he worked. His images graced the covers and pages of magazines such as Life, Look and National Geographic. Another passion he enjoyed was aerial photography, which he picked up while in the Air Corps. He was known to take a plane up for shooting when he was in his nineties.
Bruce Mozert passed away last October at the ripe old age of 98. He worked in his studio, digitizing old film, until near the end. His is a truly inspiring American success story.
Want to read more about underwater photography? You can read our introduction to the subject here. We’ll have more on the subject later this week.
All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.
―Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Scenery is more than mere background or decoration. It has power to determine our rejection or acceptance of a story.
Storytelling began with the human voice. No props, no set, just a trusting relationship between the speaker or singer and the audience, who used their imagination to envision what was being described. Over time, it became more exciting to have the characters acted out. As those characters became more vivid and found their own voices, the narrator was often relegated to a secondary role and even dispensed with entirely. The loss of the storyteller meant that descriptive information had to be communicated in new ways. Scenery, which has been evolving as a theatrical device for centuries, has become a primary vehicle for this information, giving important clues as to the time and place of the action as well as shaping the mood of the piece. It accomplishes this quickly and silently, saving words to communicate the physical and emotional journey of the protagonists rather than employing them in lengthy narrative descriptions. Here are a few production stills from four leading scenic designers of the world of opera, along with quotes from these artists. If you would like to know more about the folks who work closely with directors to design productions, please click on the set designer’s name or any other links included. Josef Svoboda (1920-2002)
Famous for his multimedia installations, Svoboda was a major technical innovator. He was among the first to combine live actors with film projections and a pioneer in the use of plastics, hydraulics and lasers. He invented lights that were both bright and soft at the same time (click here to see a version currently marketed by Chromlech) and this light became one of his signature effects, capable of remarkable elegance and dreaminess.
Many designers use dreamlike images in an attempt to speak directly to the subconscious mind of the viewer. Darkness, light, fog and all sorts of special effects are employed to convey the director’s vision. Even the shape of the deck, or floor, be it flat, sloped (raked), even or uneven, makes an impact. Details draw the eye and simplicity is powerful. Kokkos possesses a fine talent for surrealism partnered with a lovely sense of restraint, making good use of that paradox.
Bjornson is most famous for her flamboyant and iconic designs for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, but there is much more to this sensitive and powerful artist than can be seen in a single show. She sought to present complete realizations of dream images and the collective unconscious onstage, not as background or detail, but as drama. Her images were not static ones, but implied motion, illustrated in the stills from Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The cast is dwarfed by huge dynamic scenery just as the characters are dwarfed by their own fate.
Bjornson’s death at the age of 53, suffering an epileptic seizure in the bath after working a fifteen hour day while infected with Chicken Pox, was tragic for opera, ballet and theater alike. A month before she died, she delivered the designs for The Little Prince, a magical jewel of an opera by Rachel Portman, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The work premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003 to rave reviews and would later be filmed by the BBC. Houston Grand Opera will present this delightful production, full of childlike wonder, again next season (December 2015).
You may be the most brilliant designer in the world, but if you cannot communicate your ideas, you’re lost. –Johan Engels
Johan Engels grew up addicted to drawing and to movies, especially the Biblical epics which were so prominent in the 1950s. This influence is clearly present in his work, which is not afraid to take on religious imagery, although it does so with a degree of ambiguity and thoughtfulness that might alarm someone with a fundamentalist bent. Ecstasy, devotion and corruption are placed before the eyes and writ large. I am particularly moved by the images below, from a production of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The relationship of the tortured body of Christ to the characters is mind-blowing. We are given a new interpretation of what it means to be at the feet of Jesus and see Christ’s action mirrored by the cast. Finally, Christ’s agony is depicted as embracing and encompassing everyone onstage. Powerful, to say the least.
There is humor and laughter in Engels’ work as well, as you can see in this version of Die Zauberflöte from the Bregenz Festival. It is influenced by his childhood in Africa and makes excellent use of the lake, which Engels acknowledged as a difficult obstacle to overcome.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on Engels’ sets myself as a chorister at Houston Grand Opera in productions of Chorus! (2009), Don Carlos (2011), The Passenger (2014) and Otello (2014). If you would like to hear me rave about The Passenger set and talk about that impressive opera, click here. Without his stunning set design I doubt the piece would have worked.
It was always striking to me that a man with his talent for telling grand epics could have such a craftsmanly way about him. I was very saddened to hear of his death last November from a heart attack just as we opened his Otello. His sets are places for adventure, containing elements and imagery you never quite expect or can prepare for, even when performing with them every night. Performing feels riskier and the pay off is extremely exciting and rewarding. The great set designer is also a great storyteller, whose designs continue speaking to rapt audiences all over the globe after their creator has passed on. I hope it will be so for a very long time.