Staj Olson of Set in Stone sat down with me a week or so ago to discuss his personal views on creativity and his struggles with being a creative person. Staj is an incredibly pragmatic person; a self described “right-brain” thinker. This often implies that it is logic that rules the day rather than creativity, but Staj is proof that pragmatism and creativity are far from mutually exclusive. Much of his initial struggles came from a commonly held idea that to be creative is synonymous with being an artist, or self-expression. Staj has never considered himself an artist and actually harbors a bit of frustration and exasperation with what is commonly referred to as “conceptual fine art”. His personal breakthrough came as he began to understand that creativity is as much about problem solving as it is about self expression; maybe even more so. This is exactly why these conversations can be so valuable; everyone has their own unique idea, approach and relationship with creativity. It is an awesome thing to see how it fits into our individual lives. To understand another’s point of view hopefully will give us a better understanding of our own.
We began the interview talking about his path to Set in Stone; a path that was influenced by a plethora of factors including family, friends and the changing economy. By way of training, he was a tile setter for a decade before coming to Set in Stone; a background that surprisingly compliments and dovetails well with his work in concrete. I asked him about his creativity as a child and he said that he never felt artistic in terms of creating for the sake of creating, but he would lose himself in legos and other creative endeavors that served some sort of functional purpose other than personal expression. Form followed function and without function there was no reason to create. Spoken like a true designer. Is this point of motivation the distinguishing mark between an “artist” and a “designer”?
From here our conversation turned to what it means to be creative and original. These are two ideas that are intimately intertwined and have been a source of frustration for Staj. There was a time that he felt that he was not creative because he felt that nothing he did was “new”, “original”, or created “ex nihilo”. This thinking led him to view creativity or artistry through a bit of a mythical lens in which you were either endowed with creativity or not. Austin Kleon wrote a book entitled “Steal Like an Artist” in which he pulls back the curtain on artistic/creative endeavors and claims that nothing is produced in a vacuum. That everything is, in some sense, derived from something else. Creative success is really hinged how well you can reapply or reinterpret these influences into new circumstances or at least hide them so well they are not be seen as derivative. As the conversation took this turn, you could see the spark enliven Staj’s eyes. A recognition of the truth in his own process. He went on to admit that he has always relished “stealing” ideas and “misapplying” or rearranging them in such a way that they become unrecognizable. The pressure to be completely original can be paralyzing, but recognizing that reinterpretation or “misapplication” is a legitimate creative process can open up new freedom and excitement to create.
Staj’s personal moment of creative revelation came as he was working on a piece called “Absolution”. Even this project was borne from the practical need of covering up some unsightly pipes in front of the Set in Stone showroom. “Absolution” is an organic freeform concrete piece that was made without any sort of traditional form or mold. This process of direct tactile creating was new to Staj and was a moment of revelation. He began to realize that making and creating could be so much more than just problem solving. This revelation brought to light all the emotional and practical risk that is involved in being a professional creative. Up until this point Staj had found a certain amount of solace and security in the value of craftsmanship. So much so that he saw very little value in creative exploits apart from craft. Even saying that to be an “artist” is so subjective that you had better be a craftsman first and foremost. I believe this idea has been tempered a bit now, but craftsmanship remains a huge part of Staj’s process. This negotiation between the definitive nature of craftsmanship and the less tactile experience of art can be a difficult road; especially for the more empirical thinkers among us. As Staj explored these new aspects of creative making he discovered a truth we all come to at some point. Obstacles and limitations are the catalyst for true creative thinking. All too often to work without parameters yields mediocre results at best. Full freedom is overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing. Staj says that he does not have the time or motivation to make things for himself, purely out of himself; this is too much naval gazing. He would much rather spend that time with his family. But give him a problem with firm restrictions and his wheels start turning. As his skill has increased his clients have given him more and more freedom. This is a double edged sword. On one hand it is a huge compliment and vote of confidence, but on the other it requires more creative risk. When you are given this amount of freedom, the possible chasm between your vision and that of your client’s becomes very evident. And as much as he tries to diminish the margin of misunderstanding during the creative process, it is not until all is finished and delivered there is relief. Like all creatives, it is more than just about making the client happy, he is also putting a little of himself out there to be judged, and that is always challenging. He admits to being a bit insecure in his own creativity; always waiting to be found out as a fraud or fake. This is a fear shared by most of us that endeavor to live authentically in our professional lives.
This conversation turned to discussing the distinctions between the craftsman and the artist. This has always been a nebulous and uncomfortably obscure topic for me personally. But one that Staj seemed to have a keen handle on. He distinguishes the two by defining the craftsman as one that executes with knowledge and understanding, working in absolutes and experience. While the artist attempts to bring the intangible into being; to life. This is not to belittle the craftsman. We love craftsmanship and hold it in highest regard.;we both consider ourselves craftsmen. But after a lengthy conversation we both agreed that the artist takes the greatest risk. Risk in the sense that they are putting an emotional piece of themselves on display in a generally unkind and subjective space. The craftsman is also putting a part of themselves out for public scrutiny, but it is with some basis of objective appreciation of skill and quality. Arguably, it could be said that craftsmanship requires investment while art requires risk.
So then I asked Staj what he needed most to be most creative, particularly in the artistic sense. His answer was margin; margin in life was a necessity and having clear parameters coming in a close second. He needs margin in his life to justify and relax enough to get into the creative “open” zone. Margin comes in many forms, but the most influential is time and money. Though making and living creatively are acutely important for Staj, if there is not latitude in time and money his family takes precedence; no questions asked. I personally found this reassuring, because I have fought with the selfish devils of creativity myself. (I do think there are times to take that time, money, and energy for creative endeavors and then there are times to give them up.) So I asked Staj what advice he would give to someone starting out in some creative endeavor and he said to take as many apprenticeships as you can stand. This can save you years of struggle and mistake making; this in turn gives you more margin to stay dedicated to your craft. This is good advice; future proof your creative career by laying a solid foundation of experience rather “education”. Through apprenticeships you are able to build upon generations of experience rather than just developing your own.
I really enjoyed my conversation with Staj and found him to be full of well thought out insights and experiences concerning what it is to live a creative life. The truth is that our conversation/interview was quite long and not all of it can be included here. However, I expect more than a couple of future blog posts will be spawned from our time together. Thanks for reading.