This post is the beginning of an interview series with creative individuals in which we explore core ideas and practices of living creative lives. Through these conversations we hope to learn from and celebrate our own unique paths, methods, and stories.
I had the opportunity to sit down over coffee with Nathan Smith and have a casual conversation about what it is to be a professional creator. Nathan is a quiet and reserved man, so this opportunity is a rare one; I hope you enjoy it.
He began his journey into concrete by trying his hand at casting some countertops for his own house. The material, the process, the possibilities were too much to resist. Soon he was doing countertops for friends and friends of friends. I asked him if there was a particular “Aha” moment in which the clouds parted and his future was made clear. Of course this is the moment we all are wanting but rarely get. Having a moment like this makes us think that the risky decision to follow a very personal need to create is justified; a risk that does not guarantee success. Rather than an “aha” moment, Nathan described a process of small progressive steps that led from working for himself in general contracting and remodel work into the more creative and autonomous calling in decorative concrete. This process turned out to be very rewarding and unclear, one that he characterizes as a long slog. When I asked him what advice he would give his younger self or someone just starting out he half-seriously said to not do it. He went on to say that it has been a much harder and challenging road than he had expected and that if he was not passionate about what he was doing he would not have made it. He said, “Follow your passion.” in such a way that I felt that it was more of a warning than an encouragement. Isn’t this the way of all truly creative endeavors? No guarantees but that of hard work. A gut check yes, but not a deterrent.
We went on to talk about mentors along the way. One mentor in particular was his Grandfather, Paul Smith. He talked about crawling under houses and holding lights for his Grandfather as he worked. It was these formative times that kept him on a path that towards building and creative pursuits. Later along that road, Buddy Rhodes became a significant mentor. Buddy Rhodes is a long time concrete artisan who has developed techniques and materials that have completely changed the course of the decorative concrete industry. Originally, it was Buddy’s books and online videos that provided direction and technical understanding. Overtime this relationship developed from one of distance to the point that Buddy Rhodes and Set in Stone officially entered into a collaborative relationship. This was an incredible and encouraging opportunity for Nathan; the kind of opportunity that is validating and humbling at the same time.
I then asked him if he was creatively satisfied. This is intentionally a very opened ended question, one that can be taken any number of ways. Rather than give a simple concise answer, we began to talk about how satisfaction is fleeting. How it is like eating; you are satisfied immediately after you are done, but soon you need to eat again. So the answer very much depends on when you ask the question. Overall, it is this cycle that drives you forward, total satisfaction implies that the need to create no longer exists and that is a state the both Nathan and I have a hard time understanding. From the conversation of satisfaction we moved to discussing creative process and what serves to get the proverbial “creative juices” flowing. He feels most creatively on point when he is given a particular problem or project with an undefined solution or resolution. Constraints help. Anytime projects are completely open-ended, the result is never as good as when there are clear parameters. Being creative without constraints or a frame of reference is just too overwhelming. The most successful projects are those that have a clear reason and are for a particular specific person or reason. From here we moved on to what drives his personal creative process. Nathan likes to come into the shop early, before anyone else is there, especially when he has had some idea or notion that has been percolating in his head. Being alone in the shop is a great time to be totally present with the work without the distractions of the business or the tasks of the day. These are particular precious and valuable times. His process also very much operates around a love of the material itself. Trying to keep the work and process true to concrete and its innate qualities spawns and pushes forward a lot of ideas. Interestingly, Nathan is in the middle of writing a DIY Concrete book; and for the book he is finding that the process has been turned on its head. Rather than adapting a particular technique or process for an idea he has to develop an idea to illustrate a technique. He admits that this way of working was strange at first and has taken time to get used to. Another integral part of his creative process is community. There is a distinct and necessary need to have others to bounce ideas off of and explore other points of view. Here in lies maybe one of the most valuable assets of having a shop that makes a space so that there are always others around to compare notes and talk over things. Working in a shop with friends is a world apart from working in a garage by yourself.
We finished our conversation talking about a quote by Howard Thurman. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” So I asked him what makes him come alive. The big answer is his family and kids. They are central to everything he does; his anchor and motivation. Specifically for work, he finds time in the woods and actively helping others explore and develop their own creative process to be especially inspiring. Nathan’s passion and deep respect for the creative process is evident and even contagious as we spoke. It is an exciting and challenging time to be a maker and Nathan’s work and shop is testament to that.