Lessons from a Visual Artist
Launching a new venture is a creative act, and challenges faced bypassionate entrepreneurs run parallel in many ways to the work ofprofessional artists. Like entrepreneurs, artists give shape and life tonew ideas through processes of experimentation and discovery. Andlike most entrepreneurs, artists invest a great deal of passion andemotion in their work. Entrepreneurs can learn much from an ac-complished artist, someone who has grounded a career in the creativeprocess and who teaches creativity and innovation to business leaders.
I first met Shaun Cassidy as part of an entrepreneurial session atthe Innovation Institute, a program in Charlotte, North Carolina, thatbrings professional artists together with senior executives to help themunleash personal creativity and build more innovative workplaces.3Shaun is an artist leader with the Institute, a professor of sculpture atWinthrop University, and an internationally recognized sculptor and painter.
Much of his teaching centers on the theme that creativity isan iterative process, where one idea leads to the next, with each iter-ation building on a prior result toward an increasingly valuable pieceof work. His creative process echoes my own founding experience andthat of many successful entrepreneurs I have observed and studied.
Shaun tells the story of how his idea for an acclaimed public workstarted with a mistake. Working on a commissioned sculpture for abeer company during an art residency program in New York in 2005,he spilled wet concrete on an old sweater that had been a gift fromhis wife. In an effort to save the sweater, he let the concrete dry. “Thenext morning,” he says, “I pulled the concrete out and found that thefibers from the woolen sweater had become embedded in the con-crete.”
He set aside the concrete chunk for a day or two, and “beganto recognize that this chance happening revealed a really interestingpotential. And the potential was that if you cast concrete over woolenobjects or fabrics, a residue of the fabric is going to get embedded intothe concrete.” This led him to an entire series of works where he castconcrete over woolen gloves, hats, and socks, then pulled the objectsout, leaving a negative space in the concrete along with fibers fromthe clothing.
A year later, Shaun was awarded a commission to do a major pub-lic art project, a sculpture in a Charlotte park. The city sponsorswanted something highly durable and vandal proof to be built on alow budget. He and his assistant went around the community collect-ing clothing from the people who lived around the park. They thencast a long winding bench out of concrete, into which they embeddedand removed the community members’ clothing, leaving overlappingimpressions of the community’s personal belongings in the bench asit stretched through the park.
“The idea for that project,” Shaun says, “could never have comehad I not recognized the potential in that first mistake. And, to me, itis an example of how one thing can lead to another, and to another. Ifyou trust the process and you let the process play out long enough—sometimes over years—your solutions to problems will be more in-novative because you’ve got a richer pool from which to draw. Ifsomeone had sat me down and said, ‘Well, design me a public art proj-ect,’ and I hadn’t had that experience in New York, I don’t think thatthe solution would have been nearly as interesting.”
Of the many lessons from Shaun Cassidy’s work and teaching,here are some that are especially relevant for new venture founders:
Allow solutions to come through a process. Shaun says that hisconceiving is always the result of an iterative process. “It’snever just sitting down and thinking of a good idea or comingup with a way to solve a problem. It’s always the result of aprocess that might begin with something weird or accidentalbut then builds and improves over time.”
Look through the lens of potential instead of rejection. Shaunworks with leaders to help them “develop a lens that will allowthem to see the potential in almost anything instead of reject-ing it instantly.” Every iteration of an idea, he says, “contains anugget of potential that can lead you to another iteration ofthe idea. So in that sense, nothing you do is ever wasted.”
Don’t settle too soon.Shaun believes that too many people arecontent with early ideas, rather than pushing themselves tohigher standards. “I think people settle way too soon,” he says.“They’re hell bent on coming up with the answer right now,instead of allowing it to develop and reveal itself. So, this ideaof ‘not settling’ is very important to me. If you become static,you’re lost.”
Push for improvement until the very end. Early in his career,just before graduate school in England, Shaun worked for SirAnthony Caro, a legendary abstract sculptor, who wouldsometimes force radical changes at the last possible moment.“He would force us to weld these big sculptures.
They wouldtake six months, sometimes, and we would think we wereclosing in and finished. And if he thought there was a 1 per-cent chance that we could make these sculptures better, hewould have us drag out the torch and cut these things in half,and flip them upside down. He would force us to make in-credibly radical moves very, very late in the process. So thisnotion of laying it on the line all the way through the process,not just the beginning and the middle, but even at the end,in order to make something innovative and breathtaking, thatwas a real education.”
9 Use disruption as a positive force. One of Shaun’s manyartistic residencies was with the Djerassi Resident ArtistsProgram in California. “In my own studio I have a lot ofequipment welders, overhead crane, all this kind of stuff, ”he says. “I got to California and the director led me into thestudio where I would be working. There was absolutelynothing in the studio, just polished concrete floor. Of allthe residencies I have been on, that was the most disruptiveto my normal creative habit.
I had to spend the first weekof that residency walking and thinking and reflecting uponwhat I wanted to do and responding to the emotional andphysical characteristics of the site. I went to the hardwarestore with the facility guy’s truck and bought a whole lot ofwood, and bought a chop saw, and bought a cordless drill,and built this huge installation out in the landscape. And itnever would have occurred to me to do that had I not beenso disrupted from my normal flow. I think that I learnedmore about myself on that residency, and made probablythe best work of my life because of that disruption."
As both Modality’s change of direction and Shaun Cassidy’s cre-ative lessons illustrate, we can’t fully predict what opportunities willemerge as our ideas become real. Therefore, the ability to read andadapt along the ever-changing startup road is vital to early-phasesurvival and longer-term growth. And although agility is essential, itis not enough. Equally crucial is our ability to learn—to shine a lightthrough the fog of startup uncertainty and gather the relevant lessonsto be found there.