Stephen Hodder's Words of Wisdom
Statement Concerning "Beyond the Beautiful Swamp"
As an artist working in glass for the past twenty-five years, my over riding concern has been with content. What does your art mean? What are you trying to say and what is the relevance of that statement? In the argument over art versus craft, (which as a 'glass artist" is impossible to escape or ignore), meaning is often one of the criteria sited as a justification for placing most work in glass into the non art category and rightly so.
I have always chosen to work in both venues of art and craft with content being the dividing line between the two. When I make a wine glass or a sherbet bowl it must be beautiful as well as very functional. It must also take advantage of the innate physical and visual qualities of this wonderful material. Occasionally, such an object may even rise to a level that allows it to relate something universal about the human experience, which warrants its preservation for viewing by future generations. However, a wine glass does not carry the obligation of content. It is not required to tell a story beyond its own experience of having been made.
Art, for me, is about content and story telling. More directly it is about mediating the unknown reaches that lie between human experience and the understanding of that experience.
For most of my career my approach was to begin a journey not knowing where I was headed, to arrive not knowing where I was and then to analyze the resulting imagery to find out where I had been and what I had learned along the way. I believed that there was nothing about my experience that was any more significant than anyone else's and that in our other than conscious minds, we all possessed a body of knowledge common to all human experience and that was the content I was interested in expressing. It wasn't so much the creating of a story as it was about the releasing of a story, which already existed within.
I accomplished this by making many drawings on objects as well as on paper. Almost all of the images I used were abstract. Some had references, which were clearly visible, other were no more than trace references or residues of fleeting emotions and memories. Certain elements of these drawings would hold great power for and over me and I was compelled to draw them again and again, combining them in different ways and ultimately assigning meaning to them. The meanings, which I assigned to these images, became the signposts, which would direct the work, which would follow and would eventually allow me some understanding of my own rather troubled existence.
Somewhere in recent years my interest shifted. My life was a very different place. Along the way I had married a wonderful wife and had been blessed with two very wonderful sons. I had left the city for the suburbs and in turn the suburbs for the country where we are still living on a small piece of land in rural Minnesota, comprised of meadow, forest and swamp, rich in its diversity of plant and animal life. The goal of living a quiet, self-sufficient life, growing our own food, making our own entertainment, being fully in touch with the natural world and taking all the time we needed to love each other had become a reality.
During this time I had become very concerned with what I believe is the decline of our culture and these concerns were the dominant themes in my work. I felt a responsibility to express these concerns and did so. However I found this work to not be sufficiently connected to my own life to be really satisfying. I stopped making art about these issues and started actually working on issues of social justice within the small community in which I live. I had become involved with community based, restorative justice and "circles" This is a process where by a person who has committed a crime pleads guilty and instead of being sentenced by the court is sentenced by their community in a "talking circle". The notion is that the participants in the circle process would help both victims and offenders make their lives whole for the betterment of the whole community. Talking circles are based on First Nation aboriginal practices of council and are simply described as a "ritualized conversation in a spiritual setting". I don't want to go into too much detail but prayer and spiritual reflection have a great deal to do with this process and the people from the Yukon and from my own community who taught me about circles also greatly expanded the role of prayer and meditation in my life.
This voyage of becoming one with and drawing sustenance from the land on which I lived was completed, ironically by taking up hunting, an activity which I had viewed as brutish and crude for most of my life. However a combination of witnessing a close friends deep spiritual connection with hunting and coming to see this activity as a natural extension of growing a lot of my own food got me to give it a try. My response was immediate and profound. The first time I stepped into the woods to hunt I experienced a connection to every ancestor who had ever sought their living with a gun, a bow or a spear, all the way back to some semi up-right, hairy individual with a sharpened stick.
The swamp on my land had never really appealed to me before and in fact I avoided it as a remote and dangerous place where the ground could give way under your feet leaving you to drown in ten feet of muck beneath a cold November sky or where the thickets and undergrowth on a cloudy day could leave you so disoriented that you feared you would never find the road again. When I began bow hunting this view changed. I realized that the inaccessibility of this place made it perfect habitat for white tale deer and many of the other species that hunters pursue and I needed to learn how to be there and how to embrace its mysteries rather than to fear them.
At this point it was apparent to me that for the first time, the individual threads of my life were being woven into one seamless fabric and I wanted to express this experience in my work like never before.
This finally brings me to the story of "Beyond the Beautiful Swamp". The bird in the drawing is a pileated woodpecker. This particular woodpecker lives in my swamp and for the first three years that I was trying to learn how to hunt and how to be in the swamp this individual was often my nemesis. The hunting I do is called 'still hunting'. It is a combination of stalking and remaining motionless and silent for extended periods of time, trying to see and hear everything and be seen and heard by nothing. These skills did not come to me easily and often as I was settling in to good spot to wait, the woodpecker would find me a raise an incredible racket revealing me to any possible quarry. It didn't always happen but it happened often enough that this was the first real relationship I had with any occupant of the swamp. His behavior was the measure of my progress at learning the practices of silence and camouflage.
Last year, just prior to making this piece I had my first successful hunt but the piece is not about that success. It is rather about the countless hours spent in the swamp in silent prayer and meditation and the experience of becoming so perfectly invisible that a very wary animal can walk within just a few feet of you and not sense your presence. More importantly, the beauty that I tried to express in this object is about an overwhelming gratefulness in my heart for not just being allowed to go and witness such a wondrous place but for being allowed to actually be a part of that place, another tooth on the wheel of its clock work, another creature looking for sustenance, no higher or lower than any other. The word "Beyond" in the title refers to the fact that the physical presence of the swamp for me, has proven to be a doorway to a much more meaningful experience, which like other experiences I have had, I wish to share with others through my work.
W. Stephen Hodder