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Art, Innovation & Sound with Mark Dixon

Mark Dixon’s art can be challenging to describe or categorize.

Many of his creations incorporate movement, sound or music. Sometimes the pieces appear complex. But get into his head, and you start to understand that the concepts behind his art aren’t that complex.

He’s driven by the very act of taking things apart, then recreating something new. He’s a creator, a collaborator and a teacher.

An associate professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, he teaches sculpture and design courses. He’s also chairman of the Experience Design program and co-chair of the Art program.

In 2007 he co-founded Invisible with Bart Trotman, Jonathan Henderson and Daniel Kaufman. Invisible is an intermedia sound performance ensemble performing experimental compositions on invented and conventional instrumentation and incorporating video, sculptural and theatrical elements.

He also helped found Cakalak Thunder, the now-defunct street percussion band established to bring noise to support movements for justice.

Mark is passionate about art and strongly believes that we all have the capacity to be creative. Read more about his creative journey, how art heals by making him happy and how we all are capable of creating art.

Follow him on Instagram @soundsinvisible

His website is the best way to keep up with him:

Art and Teaching

Were you always creative?

“Yes, but only because of being a person. What may be distinctive is that my creativity was encouraged, so it survived and thrived into adulthood. Both of my parents are designers and artists, so the spaces I grew up in were full of ideas and technical knowledge for making things as well as positive examples of people living that life.”

What were your earliest creative outlets?

"I always liked stacking things, building things and taking things apart. I made a pretty ambitious treehouse with a friend starting at age 9 and continuing on for many years. That was definitely a major early project! Also, my butt was saved by art classes in elementary school on up.”

Who were some of your earliest creative influences?

“I was into anything that romanticized science and invention. Folks like Edison, Tesla and later R. Buckminster Fuller had at least as much early influence on me as artists. But I must name Paul Hirsouski, my elementary school art teacher, as well. I was so little, but somehow I got it that he was a real artist and that seemed magical. Mr. H played no small part in getting me through to 6th grade in one piece.”

Why was elementary school so tough?

“I guess it’s fair to say that I felt pretty alienated by a lot of school, but in my art classes I felt seen. The things that I could do that didn’t really count in most of my classes really counted in art class. So that art education just really helped me feel like I had something to offer the world.”

When did you realize that's what you wanted to do for a career?

“Being an artist never really had an ‘a-ha’ moment. I’ve always made art and I’ve never tried to make it a career per se, although it is certainly a professional practice for me. Teaching at Guilford found me about 13 years ago, but it was a good fit from the start.”

How has your art evolved through the years?

“As a younger person with lots to prove, I had a very intense 'more is more’ approach to practice. Lately I go a lot slower and quieter. I have been using the studio practice as a training ground for my head by leaning into points of process that mostly are invisible to my audience. I’m not working quite as hard to entertain the audience with my latest work.”

How do you describe your art to non-artists? Say if you are describing what you do or create to someone you've just met at a party:

“That is a funny question because I tend to go to what is easiest to describe in broad strokes. That is my sound and performance work. I talk about the Selectric Piano – a typewriter that controls an acoustic piano.

It makes a solid conversation with its intersection of music and language. We continue to compose for the Selectric Piano, so technically it is current work, but it is far from my latest direction.

My sculptural work dipping wood into layers of paint is so sensory that it doesn’t make it into language as well, so I tend to let people discover that on their own, after the party.”

When and how did you start incorporating sound into your art?

“That is origin story stuff! In college, while pursuing a sculpture BFA, I started playing bass guitar for a 10-piece band with horns, keys, etc. It was life-changing because I got to experience real time artist-audience dynamics.

That really moved me because when you make objects, you miss the great majority of the interactions people have with it. It’s just hard to ever know what your sculpture does to people. Not so with rock. You feel the audience as they feel your performance in an almost spooky reciprocity.

Rock and roll continued post college and became a major thread in my creative life, but you can imagine the crisis brewing for our protagonist. Art and music started battling each other for my time. To make a long complicated story really simple, the practice of instrument invention and sound performance was my synthesis. It allowed me to keep my favorite threads from music and sculpture.”

When and how did you start incorporating found objects into your art?

“Found objects were my first material. I’ve always gathered and stacked and taken things apart. Using found stuff just makes sense to me. I don’t like buying stuff. I think there is enough stuff already.

I appreciate the poetry of form and the narrative associations that found bits bring to a piece. I also like when my work embodies the idea that nothing need be stuck with its intended or original role.”

How is it satisfying (to create art using found objects)?

“When I find my materials that means no factory has to fire up its smokestacks just so I can make art. Of course, I do use first-use materials too, but there is so much magic to the process of recasting an old object in its new role.”

How is it challenging?

“You have to stockpile! Or I think the technical term might be hoard? There is an undeniable convenience to retail materials. If you need it, you go buy it. With scrounged materials, there is no guarantee I will be able to put my hands on what I need at a moment’s notice. Storage and organization of a vast collection of materials is the solution and it is a big effort.”

Did you always pursue collaborative projects with other artists?

"I’ve always been a collaborator at heart, but artistic collaboration was specifically inspired by my experience playing in bands. I love the experience of playing a smaller part within a whole. I love the push and pull of deliberation and the many roles to play in a group project.”

How did that evolve?

“I have a few highly developed technical skillsets, but my hard skills will never keep up with my ideas. It’s just too easy to imagine things I can’t actually make. This is where collaboration has meant everything. You can accomplish anything with just two skills as long as one of them is the ability to collaborate with others. And collaboration is certainly a skill. Like any other skill it’s difficult and rewarding. Collaboration is also fun.

I’m a social primate. Most of human life forever has been a collaboration of some sort.

Getting better at it is the same as getting better at being a human. The collaborative skills I’ve learned in music and art also apply in the classroom, in relationships, in getting along across differences.”

What's challenging about creating art that way?

“Its challenging to be older with a more complicated and busy life. Many of my would-be collaborators are in the same boat. It was once easy enough to schedule regular and generous chunks of time. The sort of collaboration I like to do doesn’t work well in small bites. I like to settle in, form the hive mind, and go long! So, the challenge? Reinventing collaboration so I can still do it in my current reality.”

Did you always know you wanted to teach art?

“Not really. Teaching art kind of found me. But it makes sense, because I have always loved people, leadership and communication. It’s perfect for me, but I didn’t exactly set out for it.

My first formal teaching gig reached out to me. That was at NC Governor’s School West. I taught three summers there, and it was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. GSW was free of grades, testing, and other structural barriers to learning. We lived on site, so the learning never really stopped. We also got a lot of time with students.

Time is so critical. When you feel you have plenty of time, then you can take risks with it. You can ‘waste’ time, which is critical to learning. When I was teaching at GSW, I was fresh out of undergrad, but my colleagues were older and held masters and doctorates (degrees). They were a kind of collective role model for brilliant and creative adult lives organized around teaching and learning."

What do you find rewarding about it?

“I love watching students get smarter and more capable right before my eyes. It is amazing what can happen in a single semester. I also love creating and refining assignments. Prompting an art project is an art in and of itself. I often think of Joseph Beuys’ notion of social sculpture and how it can play out in the creative space of a studio art class.”

What do you find challenging about it, and how do you work through it?

“Good education hits the whole human and creates deep change, so it is just fundamentally challenging, scary even. That challenge its why I do what I do. I keep going by iterating and tweaking assignments and approaches. Every semester and every day are experiments.

I try to stay awake to the results and make changes to improve outcomes. The challenge I hate relates to the finances. I have students trying to balance the budget by holding down a heavy work schedules on top of a full course load. Those students are here to do the right thing, to get smarter, to get prepared for a meaningful life, and they are willing to sacrifice for it. Also, our society needs them to get smart and capable so we can progress as a people.

It is crazy and tragic that our country doesn’t make it easy for people to go to college and—more specifically—to have the time and attention to invest in their education.

From my point of view, the best education is less about a student’s intelligence, talent and drive. The more important metric is who can afford to give it all their time and attention and that points to privilege. Every person who wants to get their education should have the opportunity to give it the time and attention it needs.”

Healing and Innovation

Do you find art or practicing art to be healing? If so, how?

“Sure. I think happiness is healthy, and when I am in my creative practice, I am generally pretty happy. I have also increasingly tried to intentionally design my practice around processes that are good for me.”

Can you share how you have personally found healing through art or creating art?

“I have this process of making sculptures through dipping pieces of wood in layers of paint. The pieces in this series are an accretion of thousands of layers of paint and hundreds of hours of time. One could call it tedium, as if that is a bad thing, but it’s a powerful experience. I struggle with formal meditation, but the dipping procedure really holds me in that sort of space. It requires just the right amount of attention.

One mistake on one dip could ruin a hundred hours of work. That means my mind must stay focused on the intimate sensory details of each movement. If I stay attentive, there really is no ‘higher level’ thinking needed. The process is a sweet spot of consciousness for me and a source of centering and presence that has made it into other aspects of my life.”

The theme of this issue is innovation. It's clear that there's a lot of innovation in the art you create—can you talk about what it means to you to be innovative through art?

“In some ways I think innovation in art is overrated. It seems misguided to gin up newness for the sake of newness. I feel happy to be making art in the aftermath of the sometimes-tedious territory grabbing practices of the 20th century.

Countless artists of that time gave themselves to innovation, to boundary pushing, and it really worked. The result, in my view, is that the old 20th century question, ‘but is it art?’ has been replaced by richer questions about what work a piece of art is doing within the artist, the audience and the world.

Art seems settled and mature to me in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely an idea person in general. Ideas are important in my art, but I feel less inclined towards an innovative or novel goal than to an idea with a durable sense of meaning or beauty.”

How do you teach innovation? (Can it be taught)?

“Don’t get me up on my soap box! Yes, creativity can be taught and learned. We have some bizarre cultural myths that completely mystify creativity and ideas. Apparently, lightning strikes, head injuries, sudden unaccountable inspiration or self-destructive lifestyles are key. Or perhaps there is some sub-species of humans who are naturally creative people. It’s all baloney. I’ve never met a child who wasn’t wildly creative and curious. We beat it out of them and then mystify anyone who manages to retain it. We have to stop doing that, but the good news is that getting it back is straightforward.

I teach a workshop called ‘How to Have an Idea.’ In it, I guide participants through a process where they create their own methods for generating unique ideas. Some of the teaching I do takes the whole semester, or maybe even years, to unfold, but the idea workshop lands quick.

In a few hours, it reliably shifts the room from generating highly predictable ideas to reliably novel ones. It’s fun to watch and the tools are portable to problem-solving or innovation in any area.”

How does one continue to be innovative? What is required or what must you develop within yourself to continue to be innovative?

“Ideas are just things. They can be born and propagate successfully without meaning or beauty. It’s not the same for people. To thrive, we require a sense of meaning and beauty in what we do. That means a creative person needs an ethical framework in order to keep going.

We have to hold standards concerning what ideas we bring into the world. We need this because ideas aren’t neutral. They do work. More often than not, ideas have unanticipated results. This is hard stuff. We may not always make the right call ethically, but to practice creativity or innovation without meaning and beauty is destructive and unsustainable for the creative person and for the world.

Here is an answer that is more palatable. A lot of creativity is about creative lifeways. To sustain our creativity, we can make sure that we expose ourselves to unfamiliar and, even, scary things. We can identify patterns and tinker with them. Little boring moves like brushing your teeth can become fascinating with a simple tweak. Use the wrong hand for a mini-morning adventure. Throw a dart at a map and walk to where it lands for a picnic. It isn’t obvious how this kind of stuff leads to a specific original ideas, but it is clear to me that seeding our patterns with little disruptions and inversions brightens the mind and opens possibilities that are often hidden in plain view.”

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