The Psychology of Slowness

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By Kenneth F. BatesMore from this author

For many years the name of Kenneth F. Bates has graced the covers of books on design, enameling and a sensitive novel entitled Salome's Heritage. To the enamelist, this powerhouse of a person has created an aurora: a vision of a giant in his ivory tower at the Cleveland Art Institute, holding the mace of authority and orating forth his doctrine.

When I met Kenneth Bates in Washington, D.C., not quite a year ago, I met a man small in stature with a debonair air, a sense of humor to be reckoned with and a powerful philosophy that he calls "chicken coop."

It is my privilege to have become acquainted with this Gentleman from New England, who claims to be just a simple country boy, who feels just at home in his wonderful garden where perfumes abound, as in his studio where his artistic endeavors have been developed and brought to fruition. When I asked Kenneth if I could interview him for Metalsmith, he exclaimed in his delightful gravely voice "I don't want an article where it is written up as she asked and he said. I have more to offer."

There seems no better way to know Kenneth F. Bates, than to read his words spoken as the keynote address at the 1983 Society of North American Goldsmiths Conference at Asilomar, California. To understand him better it would take a slow guided tour through his garden (or a walk along the beach) to savor his personable personality. It is indeed an honor to introduce Kenneth F. Bates, artist extraordinaire, and his Psychology of Slowness.

—Glenice L. Matthews

My name should be followed by a long list of degrees and doctorates to justify my choosing the title "The Psychology of Slowness." However, my degrees are quite elementary (B.S. in education), and my premise is simple. I shall try to clarify an idea which has been running through my mind for some time. Although that is not to say that I have, or ever will, practice what I preach. I have found that most people who preach sermons and scold other people are usually admonishing themselves.

I have had time to think about this as I have recently undergone a coronary bypass operation which offered long hours of leisure in the hospital and even longer hours while convalescing. There were periods when one could do little else but contemplate the meaning of a long, and often perplexing, life. There is nothing like a hospital experience to make one realize the value of "slowing down." One's whole tempo changes.

Strange how my life span of nearly 80 years became unified into one simple block of time-my time, my dreams and fantasies, and my plans. I was able to see the whole picture clearly from beginning to end. The successes were as visible as the misfortunes. Solutions to where I had gone wrong were revealed to me now that it was too late to rectify my mistakes. Must all of you brilliant and talented young people live to be tour-score years before you find a meaningful direction to your life, or before you discover who you really are? I hope not.

I ask, why are you doing what you now find yourselves doing? How does it happen that you are so fortunate as to have chosen a career in art, regardless of its monetary returns? Why didn't you choose to be a carpenter, a plumber or a house painter? They also constitute craftsmen and receive much higher wages per hour. But how could anything be more valued than to find oneself in control of the use of one's own time? Are you doing this for yourself, or are you hoping that perhaps others will benefit by what you do? Are you an optimist? I have been told that an optimist believes that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that a pessimist fears this may be true.

If you, as a craftsman do not exchange your services with, let's say, an auto mechanic, a farmer or a truck driver, what good are you to our common welfare? If you merely create for the benefit of other artists who make an effort to understand you, how then is the world illuminated? Why do artists, writers and all other creative people gather in such curious defensive groups feeding on one another's approval, growing self-satisfied, reveling in each other's accomplishments, exhibiting techniques and results which no layman understands? Why do we find ourselves here in Asilomar blowing our own trumpets amongst our fellow-craftsmen instead of trying to make the auto mechanic, the farmer or the truck driver appreciate more of the joys which we experience? Shouldn't we explain how pleasant it is to look forward to a full day of creative work in the studio, all heated, lighted, fully equipped and, if we are lucky, mortgage free?

Some weeks ago I was disturbed by a lady's remark, who said, "Why don't you give more of what you have? Why don't you share with others how to do what you do?" I felt that that was an unfair and unwarranted accusation. After all, I have taught for 43 years at the Art Institute of Cleveland, giving, if I may say so, every drop of blood in this weary old frame. I feel that the publication of my books is also a form of sharing. It may be that the reason artists do not share more is because that which they have to give is not always sought by the layman who rather envies the look of satisfaction he sees in the artist's eye, but refuses to make the sacrifice it demands to acquire that look.

When Picasso was asked "What is art?" by a visitor to his studio, he answered, "Whatever the source of the emotion that drives me to create, I want to give it a form that has some connection with the visible world, even if it is only to wage war on that world. Otherwise," he continued, "a painting is just an old grab bag for everyone to reach into and pull out what he himself has put in. Everything I do," he said at 76, "is only one step on a long road. Therefore my works must be seen in relation to one another, keeping in mind what I have already done and what I will do." We creative artist-craftsmen find this statement of Picasso's entirely comprehensible, but I am not too sure the farmer or the auto mechanic would know, or even care to know, what he was talking about.

My lectures have been given to both receptive art groups and to hard-boiled businessmen whose usual question has been, "How many hours did it take you to make that, Mr. Bates, and how much do you charge per hour?" I won't honor that question by answering it here. Most of you have formulated your own answers, anyway, and probably have never thought of hourly wages.

At one of my lectures I proffered an opportunity for the audience to ask questions (a most unwise gesture, one which should be avoided at all cost). At this lecture a businessman in the back row arose and asked the same question of me which was asked of Picasso. "What is art anyway?" he said in a most sarcastic tone of voice. Fortunately my training at Massachusetts School of Art, academic as it was, gave me the answer I needed. I merely said, "Sir, art concerns that quality of the mental process known as imagination, without which life is not worth living." My businessman sat down with no hesitation and asked no further questions.

But how is that mental process called "getting an idea" best fostered and replenished. Of course, if l, as a producing artist, knew the correct answer to that question, I would have no trouble turning on or off that which is called "the creative urge." Unhappily, how and when a good idea comes to an artist is hardly predictable. Often the best idea comes, I have found, at the moment one has finished an ambitious piece. It is said in the best pedagogical circles that if, after one classroom problem has been finished, it does not supply an idea for another project, the lesson has been a failure.

I once saw below a picture of Benvenuto Cellini's 16th-century gold and enamel shell-shaped cup which rests on a turtle's back, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a statement which said, "Genius is an infinite capacity tor taking pains," but more pertinently it said, "The ignition of genius is an idea." An idea is what everyone in this audience is most concerned about, it is what every creative artist secretly prays for—an idea which will sell, or an idea which will bring acclaim, or an idea which will make him feel satisfied inside, even though it is an idea which may never be appreciated by anyone other than himself. Forgive me for rambling on so with my "chicken coop" philosophy. I promise you that now, I will get to the real meaning of my talk.

Many years ago I observed a personality device in one of my contemporaries. He, like most artists, had a few failures along life's path, but also an abundance of successes. His trick, however, was to relate to all who would listen, the story of his constant successes in life and never his failures. He gave the impression that he won in every contest and always came out "smelling like roses," even though I knew such was not the case. By "shouting from the rooftop" how infallible he was, and never mentioning anything negative about himself, he found it easy to convince the public of his superiority in all things.

This device, I will admit, is not unique. It is practiced every day by our politicians and as known as "creating an image." But sometimes such an image may prove to be false, and not the whole picture of the artist's life. Woe unto him when the true facts are revealed. Woe unto him when the negative is known.

You now find yourselves thinking, there's only one thing he will do. He will ramble on and on about his career, his childhood, how he became a craftsman and eventually he'll show examples of his work. You decide to doze off. Hoping to be awakened by the clapping of hands at the end of the lecture.

Bear with me, l shall not dwell on any of these things. It would be boring, I think tor me to go on revealing only my successes and never anything that may have gone wrong. Somehow, I feel that my friend who always made such an effort to create a positive image left out much of life's more fascinating episodes. I thought it might be more interesting, and, in fact, more meaningful and helpful to you, if I would be less concerned about establishing a positive image, and relate to you some of the unfortunate circumstances which have befallen me. I must admit that my career has not always been a bed of roses, and I wager some of the things which have happened to me may also have been experienced by many of you, whether you wish to acknowledge them publicly or not.

One of the most common disappointments to all of us, of course, is that of putting forth what we honestly thought was our best work and having it rejected by some juror whose opinion we almost respected. In my own case, sometimes that juror could be one of my former students. This actually happened to me. In fact, the student juror was one whom I had graded a low "B." I never knew whether it was revenge or his sincere judgment. I do remember that the piece he rejected was sold to the museum curator as I was removing it from the show.

But to return to the experience of having what we may have thought was our best endeavor kicked out of an exhibition. I have convinced myself that this can be a "blessing in disguise." The jury may have wished to steer my thinking in the direction of the pieces they accepted. Often this is a very helpful rationale. It, at least, gives us the pleasure of exploring a new technique or a new dimension. This attitude is more healthy than that of "falling in love with every piece one turns out." It often leads to a whole new train of thought which otherwise might have been by-passed. Also, when such an occasion arises we might well consider the theory of "slowness." Did we take enough time to really think about the piece, or was it another instance of where we pushed it through to meet the deadline of the show?

Another experience which was most upsetting to me, and one which cut to the bone, concerns only those who have tried their hand at writing books. I don't really know why artists struggle to write books. It is not a natural thing for a craftsman to do. His training guarantees that he will make better jewelry than books. It was my daughter, an English Literature professor, who informed me that, like other artists, I wrote books about my own work purely for glory and self aggrandizement. I thought she was too harsh, and I never believed her, but she may have been right. In fact, with my first book on enameling, I think I sincerely tried to impart information to others whom I thought wanted that information. It may be why that book has done we for over 30 years and is still selling in many countries.

After writing a book on basic design, I had the feeling that I should write another book about enameling, one which would carry the craft much further, treating each technique in depth.

Three years were spent on research, photography, writing and composing the book. It was difficult to come up with a new book on enameling, one which would not repeat what had already been written, and one with entirely new photographs. Finally, the book with its full-color plates, organized chapters, prepared index, tables and colorful jacket was presented to me by the publishers. The feeling of accomplishment when an artist finishes his book is somehow akin to the intense feeling he gets when he puts the final polish on a piece of silver or takes his enamel from the kiln for the last time. Perhaps he is trying to convince himself of talents he may not have but secretly covets.

In any case, my point in telling you about the satisfaction one has in publishing a book is that it can be short-lived and that I wish to make this story dramatic and create as many tears as possible. After autograph parties, television appearances, newspaper articles and well-wishes from friends, the book was launched. Five years went by. Royalty checks seemed like unexpected manna from heaven, and then it happened! One day the telephone rang, "Hello, this is your publisher. We just want to inform you that your second book on enameling is now out of print." "That's not possible, it's the best book on enameling ever written," I thought.

My enamels have been broken, stolen and lost. Such news seldom upsets me. I can replace an enamel. But to have my book go out of print, it was like three years of my life going down the drain. This kind of experience really cuts deep. It is most depressing for an artist whose writing is as much a creative act as his craftwork. I couldn't be more crushed if a dinner guest turned up his nose at one of my gourmet creations.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. After two years, and after many sales were lost, Funk and Wagnalls decided to buy the manuscript and publish the book in paperback. My book would exist again (hurray). My hard work was not entirely in vain, although it had caused some tense and heart-rending hours.

Another very sad experience nearly broke my spirit. Several years ago a job was offered to me which seemed so ideal and so natural that I accepted it without hesitation. Since boyhood I have grown and been acquainted with nearly every garden flower and plant. Besides this, my aunt, who was a botanist, had taught me about wild flowers, ferns, trees and insects, and their Latin nomenclature. I was delighted when World Publishing company asked me to illustrate a garden encyclopedia. This entailed making over 1500 black-and-white detailed botanical drawings. These drawings had to show every petal, veination and subdivision of leaf, as well as root system, exactly as it appeared in nature.

From memory, and from research, the drawings for the garden encyclopedia were finished in less than six months. The most flattering part of the commission to me, regardless of its being well paid, was the finished book jacket which, besides the title stated "over 1500 illustrations by Kenneth F. Bates."

The reason I mention this commission is that I believe there is little in this life which is definitive, and that instead of rushing ahead too emotionally, we would do better to slow down. I am afraid we often see the finished product and the possible glory that goes with it too soon, as I may have envisioned with the encyclopedia illustrations.

The tragedy of this story is that before the encyclopedia had gone to press, World Publishing sold out to Time Life, whose editors decided to discard my drawings and do the whole publication in full color kodachrome with no black-and-white illustrations. This was an episode of my life that hurt my pride beyond description. What good was the money received from the 1583 illustrations? Like any good New Englander, I did not spend the money, but invested tor my children and grandchildren. I am sure, as I think about this, that any monetary reward took second place to what recognition I might have received from illustrating such an important publication. The word is "glory." It is a vulgar word, but it lingers in many artists' subconscious. Artists thrive on "recognition," and when fate allows, "glory."

So now, having related these episodes which were unhappy ones, I hope I have at least held your attention more than if I had rambled on about the honors, prizes and accolades I have received in a long life. How boring that would have become, how superficial when we are all aware that life is not like that. We have no guarantee that we will be immune from tragedies, failures and the vicissitudes of life. But, by the same token, we have no guarantee that we will not be immune. We have no right to expect, or to pray for immunity. What we must seek is strength of character and peace of mind and, perhaps, slowness and contemplation when tragedy does strike.

What then is definitive? I think I am speaking for the majority of artist-craftsmen here when I say that the ego (the inner conviction) is that on which we are most likely to rely. There are other things which to me seem definitive, such as the fecundity of the earth, and the comraderie of fellow artists, but none is so important as our absolute sureness about what we are able to accomplish. Not that inspiration is easy to come by, nor that it flows in a steady stream, but we are somehow convinced it is there, that with concentration, and perhaps some slowness, we will be able to create that which begs to be ejected from within us. I believe that all of creativity is a matter of finding a means of expulsion for the accumulation of ideas which have been forming within our souls.

What may seem of little consequence to some of us is of commensurable importance to others. Allow me to mention an observation which to me had considerable significance and is pertinent to my premise of "slowness." It occurred in my small solarium which is attached to my house. In this fluorescent-lighted greenhouse during the winter months I raise, besides other plants, a flower known as gloxinia. Gloxinias have a rich velvety texture, deep coloring and, most important, rapid growth. One can almost see the plant grow overnight, as opposed to orchids which grow slowly. As I inspected a prize plant I was happy to see that several buds had appeared. My thoughts were immediately projected to the time when the buds would burst forth in all their amazing glory. What has this to do with the problem of slowness or tempo? It is a tangible example of how worthless one's impatience becomes. There is nothing that can make the buds on my gloxinia develop into full blooms until the allotted time, about two weeks. I must wait, I have no power over such things. In childish rationalization I decided that I was more excited about the expectation of the buds than the realization of the blooms. But l am so impatient.

Time becomes a factor in everything we hope to accomplish. Perhaps the farmer, or the one who works with growing things, is aware of this principle better than most people. He cannot force his sapling apple trees to bear fruit until they have had at least four years, if not six, to mature. He is certainly concerned with slowness. He realizes that the element of time must figure in planning the profits from his business.

The meaning of tempo, the seasons, the fact that all things in nature demand their allotted time-in the case of the seedling, the time from the splitting of the cotyledon to the maturity of the plant, all of this is what I have dubbed "chicken-coop philosophy." It is easy to see that I was brought up in the country and am a "child of the soil." Perhaps such bucolic wanderings are both foreign and meaningless to you with big-city backgrounds, but I contend that rather important truths can be formulated from the simple phenomena of nature.

When l first arrived in Cleveland, fresh from a small town in New England, l could not understand why everyone was in such a hurry. Where in hell were they all going? Hurrying to get to work in the morning, hurrying to get home at night, hurrying to get through every day. However, it was not long before I fell into the same pattern. Hurrying is a disease. There was impatience all around me. I would ask when a commission was due or a manuscript must be finished. The answer, especially if it came from New York City was always, "yesterday." This is supposed to be amusing, but after years of misuse of the expression, it ceases to be funny and merely reflects an attitude of our times. To me, this is very irritating.

In America things must happen in a hurry. People want to lose weight in a few easy sessions, they want to be successful in business overnight, they want to become popular artists or good craftsmen after four years in art school. Perhaps our troubles stem from our denial of slowness. We seem to abhor quiet and silence. They are disallowed—they are unpopular in our particular social structure. But slowness does have its virtues. We are more apt to find satisfaction in our search for the ultimate in design while experiencing slowness than when on a speeded-up course of production.

The great French philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, "I have often said that all the troubles of man come from his not knowing how to sit still, or how to combat obstacles in order to get repose, and when he gets it, the repose is intolerable. He either thinks of the troubles he has, or the ones he is going to get, and even if he feels entirely sale, boredom sets in and fills the mind with its venom." Many of us have never experienced such an abundance of slowness and silence that the "venom of ennui" has been a threat.

While writing this it occurred to me that my file has been speeding by at a too-rapid pace. I know I have been hurrying. I have pushed when I should have relaxed. You are all pushing when you should take it slower. I would have benefitted more if I had concentrated on the conception of the work rather than finishing it to meet a deadline. Why must our lives be so regulated by deadlines: deadlines for exhibitions, deadlines for the publisher and deadlines for living?

I challenge anyone of you to take some time out of every day to look and listen without any ulterior motive whatsoever. Forget that you are craftsmen, designers or producing artists-look and listen more the way you did when you were five years old. In First Corinthians we read: "When I was a child I thought as a child—l understood as a child." Remember, you just looked because everything seemed to interest you, and all the world seemed exciting. Then you accepted nature without the constant pressure of ambition, professional obligations and competition. You accepted as a child those sights and sounds which were the very source of your power and profession today.

We find ourselves having chosen the life of a craftsman- Life is a journey (never forget that) with its vicissitudes, its rewards and its disappointments, but let us always remember that the everlasting journey is happier than the impossible arrival could ever be.

By Kenneth F. Bates
Metalsmith Magazine – 1983 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Kenneth F. Bates

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