A Conversation With an Artist, Part Two

Photo: Sharon WalshBy B. Kim Barnes, Barnes & Conti CEO

This is the continuation of the conversation I had with Sharon Walsh, a jewelry artist from the area around Donegal in Ireland. With the unique challenges we face, artists like Sharon Walsh can help us find own creative and innovative spirit to navigate these difficult times.

In part one, we discussed the link between creativity and curiosity and how they foster both resilience and tenacity in the workplace. We also discussed the use of myth in art, and how myth fosters personal growth as “tools for guidance, for modeling behaviour and for giving meaning to life.”

As most of you know, Barnes & Conti has programs to facilitate creativity and innovation, we are transforming two of them, Applied Creativity and Managing Innovation programs into webinars to meet the moment. Sharon Walsh offers yet more insights, below, in how we can meet the moment, by focusing on the end-user, embracing technology, and confronting often uncomfortable truths.

BKB: How does the nature of your work inform the way you want to conduct your business?

SW: Each piece requires much time and thought…my aim is to design pieces that are beyond fashion or trends, to have jewellery pieces that are timeless and will last forever. An artist does not necessarily need to consider the audience while making an artwork, but a designer must consider the end-user. My…pieces are a combination of art and design processes. The ideas for the jewellery come from my work as an artist, yet the jewellery is designed for people to wear. This emphasis on concept and design takes time, so I am researching various methods of production. Working with social enterprise groups is one option, as are new technologies that complement the hand-made process. A combination of these approaches will allow the business to grow while careful guidance will keep it sustainable. [By selling directly to the customer, I want to allow] space for a conversation between customer and maker.

BKB: What options do you see for creative people whose work is costly? (historic examples; William Morris, Guild of Handicrafts, etc.) to support the social enterprises they want to see succeed?

SW: Creative people can provide community support by working with businesses and social enterprise groups, both locally and further afield.  Contributing to local economies by ensuring that skilled craftspeople are fairly treated is important to me. Any engagement with a social enterprise must be of benefit to the community. The Arts & Crafts Movement was set up to ensure that skilled artisans were paid a fair wage for their work.  However, the reluctance of the founders to embrace modern methods of production led to the movement’s demise. Being open to technology and how it can be beneficial for business, allowing for growth in a sustainable way, is a valuable consideration.

BKB: What place or function do creativity, artistry, and aesthetics have in times of turmoil and fear?

SW: Art sheds light on our humanity, it is a connection to the past, to the present, to each other. It invites reciprocity: asking us to think, to feel and to grow.  Art has the power to change the willing observer, to induce an altered state, often without the use of language. Great art confronts us with truths about ourselves and the world if we are willing to engage in the act of looking – to engage in the challenge laid down by a work of art.

Photo: One of Sharon Walsh's creations…Art deals with these issues in a unique way, confronting us with uncomfortable truths that stimulate our senses and our thinking.  An artwork [such as the work of Kara Walker or Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” or Picasso’s “Guernica” can reveal the horror perpetrated by mankind and engage us in a visceral experience, yet we are removed from the theatre of conflict.  If we open up to this exposition, then we can begin to examine the prevailing conventions of our society and to develop a greater understanding of the effects of our actions on others and of what is being done in our name.

Powerful works of art do not shy away from showing us what a difficult place the world can be. If we engage sincerely with a great work of art, we come away enriched by the experience, with a greater sensitivity to the world and a readiness to reject brutality in any form.

Editor’s note: The photo above is of another one of Sharon Walsh’s creations. You can see more on her website.

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A Conversation With an Artist, Part One

By B. Kim Barnes, Barnes & Conti CEO

Photo: Jewelry by Sharon WalshIn these challenging times, we need to call upon our creativity more than ever. We are currently in the process of transforming our Applied Creativity and Managing Innovation programs into webinars to meet the moment. In appreciation of this most precious and important human capacity, I would like to share a conversation I recently had with someone who epitomizes the spirit of creativity in her work and her life.

Sharon Walsh is a jewelry artist from the area around Donegal in Ireland. I met her in a serendipitous way, through a Flickr connection with her brother, a photographer. I was enchanted with her work as seen on her website and how she combined Irish history, mythology, and their tradition of strong women in her designs. She is in the process of launching her business, ST Rose Jewellery. (Spelling is an  example of how our cultures differ and yet are similar.) I thought it would be interesting to interview her as both an artist and an entrepreneur. Below is the first part of our conversation, slightly edited.

BKB: How do you see curiosity linked to creativity?

SW: The drive to see ‘what happens if’ pushes us to pursue possibilities and permits fresh perspectives to emerge. Childhood play is our initiation into creativity. Play allows for fluidity, for failure, for success; it nurtures resilience and tenacity.  Play is curiosity in action and curiosity is a corollary of creativity. Artists retain the desire to play, developing it into a form acceptable for adult engagement, whereupon it is described as creativity. In domains such as science or engineering we talk about invention or innovation – creativity by another name.

Engaging in the artistic process has allowed me to follow my curiosity into the limitless space that is the contemporary art world – an engagement both intellectually rewarding and life- affirming. The only rule in the art discourse is that there are no rules.  My work is an exploration of the threshold between representation and abstraction.  The results of this undertaking manifest in drawings and three-dimensional objects.  A synthesis of many ideas and processes, driven by curiosity, led to the first ST Rose Jewellery collection.
The job of the artist is to embrace curiosity, to connect seemingly disparate ideas and concepts, to play with ambiguity, to explore the endless possibilities for deconstructing meaning and re-arranging reality.

BKB: How do you ensure that your work aligns with your personal values?

SW: It is important that ST Rose Jewellery is conducted along ethical lines. I am keen to ensure that the business is sustainable by making informed, conscious – and conscientious – choices. I want to grow the business organically, with careful management.  I am aware that extensive choices about how to live are not freely available to everyone, so I want to include less privileged people in the business in ways that are beneficial both for them and their community.  This characterizes the ethos of the business and will inform decisions around methods of production.  Any future outsourcing of work needs careful monitoring to make sure that it is carried out in a responsible way.  It is also important to me that my business is as environmentally friendly as possible.

BKB: In what ways can ancient wisdom inform our current reality? How can myths and legends help us to solve problems creatively?

SW: “The friend of wisdom is also a friend of myth.” – Aristotle.  Much academic literature exists that examines the significance of myth and legend in human society.  Child Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and Psychiatrist Nossrat Peseschkian, amongst others, have looked at how ancient tales endure worldwide as tools for guidance, for modelling behaviour and for giving meaning to life.

Irish myths and legends hold a special interest for me, in particular The Táin, the principal tale of the Ulster cycle. Much of the action takes place in the area where I was brought up. The poet Thomas Kinsella tells us in his translation of The Táin that it is “the oldest vernacular epic in Western literature.”  Women are central to the ancient tales of Ireland, and are portrayed in the Táin as strong, vital characters that drive the narrative forward. Whether as deities or as warriors, the female figures of ancient Ireland had agency and power, a power that reaches out to us and urges us to exert influence on the contemporary world, to fight for what we believe in.

Narrative helps us to construct our reality and to create our own personal myth.  We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and our place in the world.  We hone and refine these stories all our lives.  Inspired by Irish myths and legends, I wanted to create jewellery that contains an implied narrative – not defined by any particular text. I wanted to make pieces that hold space for our own story… a tangible connection to the human need for myth, but also an invitation to re-work our individual myth in ways that bring us joy.  I [want my work to provide a] physical connection to our own story, reminding us to tap into our inner resources, giving us freedom to play with fantasy and fable…never slavishly mimicking the past, but honouring it and adapting it to suit our own particular needs, using it as a source of inspiration. This is not to promote magical thinking, but to challenge it, pushing us to break the constraints of superstition and allow for real growth through playfulness. We need to relish what makes us different and to acknowledge and encourage difference in others as a way to enrich our world.

Note: The photo above is of one of Sharon Walsh’s creations. You can see more on her website

The Rationale of Irrational Decisions: Considering Emotional Needs

By B. Kim Barnes, Barnes & Conti CEO

Artwork: Carnival of Harelquin by Joan MiroLife would be so much easier for leaders, managers, parents, friends, politicians, if only human beings behaved in predictable ways based on facts, logic, rational thought processes, or even fulfillment of practical needs. Sadly, for those of us who are required or inclined to influence others to act in ways that are good for them, for the team, for the organization, the community, the nation, or the world, it’s just not so simple. Whether you’re trying to get your children to brush their teeth, your spouse or partner to exercise, your team members to collaborate, your company to focus on greater diversity, or your peers to vote in what you consider their best interests, you are bound to be disappointed if you focus only on their intellect or even on vested interests — what you believe they have to gain or to lose.

We continue to learn that people are often moved toward seemingly irrational decisions by values they hold dear and, perhaps even more strongly, by the pull of emotional needs. As influencers, we can’t afford to ignore them and can benefit by considering how to align with them. Something that doesn’t make rational sense to us may meet a deep need or fulfill an important desire for someone else. Read more ›

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The Fire This Time: A Remembrance and a Reminder

by B. Kim Barnes, Barnes & Conti CEO

Fire storm 1991In 1991, my house burned, along with 3000 others, in a huge firestorm that struck the hills of Oakland and Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was unexpected – though, in hindsight, it could have been anticipated. It was an event over which I had no control. It changed everything about my life and those of my neighbors. Being a writer and an educator, of course I felt driven to draw lessons from the way all of us responded to this event – to begin to understand how to deal productively with sudden, imposed change. I wrote an article with some ideas about how we were able to get through the difficult days and months that followed the firestorm and published it as part of a manual on change leadership.

Ten years later, after the awful events of 9/11, I revisited and revised the article in response to a client’s request for something to offer the people in her company who were so deeply shaken, as we all were, by the experience of watching and living through the terror attacks.

Today, we are all dealing with the shock of a pandemic. I reread the article and I believe the lessons I learned during that long-ago event are still relevant.

So today, I thought I would once again share those lessons. Here they are, slightly revised.

Let go of any illusions of control or “magical thinking.” I believe that consciously letting go shortened the “neutral zone” time for me. Friends who did not do this later reported that they stayed in a suspended state for many days and delayed taking practical actions to recreate their lives. Visualization of a positive future; one which you can help bring about, is productive; imagining that you can control the forces of nature, of the economy, of human nature or global politics, of a rampaging virus, is not. Letting go is a conscious choice of “mental action.” I found it helpful to use a mental image of letting go, such as opening my hand. Until you are able to do this, you will remain fixed in the past.

Take time to grieve, but not more than you need. Two days later, after the fire was out, we were allowed to walk in to see what was left. Although we really knew what we would find, it was a shock to see our neighborhood looking as if it had been bombed out, in a war zone. Our home was gone; in its place a strangely beautiful ruin. We cried and hugged. Then we got out the shovels we had brought and began to dig for remnants of our lives. There was more grieving to do, of course, but it happened from time to time as a natural part of the work of remembrance, healing, and rebuilding and never after that day was the central focus of our lives.

Read more ›

Leading Through Pain: Reflection, Dialogue, Discomfort, Commitment, and Growth

By B. Kim Barnes, Barnes & Conti CEO

Judgement Day, painting by Aaron Douglas, 1927
In recent days, I have read several messages from CEOs of a variety of companies, large and small. The common theme is that we all need to examine our own behavior, decisions, and biases. The vivid and horrifying images we have watched in recent days have made it impossible to look away from the truth of racism and lack of respect for the lives of those who are different from us in race, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, political beliefs, or status.

We have been through difficult times before, where our values, beliefs, norms, practices, policies and laws have required intense scrutiny and change. There have been reforms, but too soon we lose focus and return to the status quo – or else feel as if we have stated our position, taken action, solved the problem, and it’s time to move on. But change does not happen because we make statements or form commissions or assign responsibility. It happens only when we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves and our organizations and go through the excruciating, uncomfortable, cold-eyed process of honest re-evaluation of both what we say and what we actually do – and then take action as a result.

Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, put it this way:

“…As a leader who really cares, I feel the responsibility to not just talk about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, but to make meaningful changes and contributions through my own actions and how we operate at 23andMe. Our management team, Board and employee base must have greater diversity. I am ashamed to say I do not have a single black employee who is at Director level or above. Our product is euro-centric but must expand to be inclusive and equitable. We absolutely have the potential to be better. Despite our efforts, I have to honestly say that we are also part of the problem.

I’m holding myself accountable. I’m holding 23andMe accountable. And I’m asking that our customers hold us accountable. This will include making sure that we change our hiring practices, that we make sure we give greater promotional opportunities within the company, that we dedicate resources to evolve our product to better represent all communities and that my management team and Board have more inclusive representation…”

Stu Landesberg, CEO of the Grove Collaborative, a natural products company, said:

“At Grove, we’re starting at home. We are having hard conversations, listening to our employees and our customers, and finding ways to use our corporate platform to chip away at systemic injustice. We made our first ever internal grant, to our Diversity & Inclusion squad, for more initiatives that can help us drive more equity and thoughtfulness within our company and our industry. We are engaging our employees to participate and guide our financial contribution; based on their votes, we will donate at least $10,000 to charities and organizations fighting racism.

And, while we are a small company, we do see ourselves as a leading values-driven business in the natural products industry. We want to use that position to make our sector more equitable. We support minority owned businesses, and commit to increasing our purchases from them by at least $250,000 through 2021.”

We owe it to our employees, customers, communities, and to ourselves as leaders to ask that we be held to account for our actions. That we pay attention to our own assumptions about others. That we question why we retreat to our comfort zone of people like ourselves when we could be learning, growing, and creating new solutions by reaching beyond our bubble. We should be seeking our discomfort zone – that place where we challenge our beliefs, listen to those with whom we think we will disagree, entertain seemingly impossible ideas, expose our vulnerabilities.

My team and I have asked ourselves what we, as a small company, can do to contribute in a meaningful way at this time. There are a few things that occur to us, in addition to being conscious and careful in our practices for hiring, choosing partners and vendors, and making monetary contributions that support organizations that promote justice. We will welcome requests from minority – especially Black-owned – small businesses – for pro bono seats in our public leadership programs, or to arrange such a program for an organization of Black entrepreneurs, local or national. We are open to providing pro bono leadership coaching sessions to leaders of minority-owned businesses. We are happy to donate copies of my book on influence (Exercising Influence: Making Things happen at Work, at Home, and In Your Community. Wiley, 2015) to these entrepreneurs and organizations. Please let us know of leaders and organizations that could benefit.

Self-satisfaction has no place in these troubled and troubling times. Openness, outreach, risk-taking, courage, determination to change, asking for feedback, honest self-examination, invitation to others to criticize our actions and, yes, accountability – these are the behaviors we need to model if positive change is to be the result of this crisis. Welcome to the Discomfort Zone.

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