Tuesday, February 7, 2023

My Time on the Ranch

Every artist has a moment in their life when they feel that spark that starts a fire inside of them. That moment seems to be the beginning of everything. For me, that moment happened during the summer of 2022 when I spent a week at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, CO. 2022 was a weird year, to say the least. I reach a low point in my physical and mental health, starting the year recovering from surgery and COVID at the same time. I quit my job and found myself on a sabbatical from work of all kinds. An opportunity to attend Joshua Davis’s Processing workshop at Anderson Ranch presented itself while I was trying to figure out my next step. I had always wanted to attend one of these but I was either too busy or couldn’t afford it at the time. I found myself having a lot of extra time, you know being jobless and all, and a scholarship presented itself. I couldn’t pass this up.

We figured out the logistics and I was off to Colorado before I knew it.

The week goes by fast, but there is so much to learn that time seems irrelevant. The ranch is an experience on its own. Anderson Ranch is located on ancestral territory belonging to the Ute people for over 800 years. Its mission is to promote a wide range of arts, cultures, and voices while honoring the land upon which it resides. It is a beautiful place tucked away in the trees with an artistic energy I had never experienced.

Photo of my home coffee bar.

The week kicked off quickly with dinner at the ranch cafe Sunday night. Getting the chance to meet with some of the other people attending the workshop, the staff that will help us throughout the week, and chat with Josh about what we would be doing while we were there. Of all the years to go, this one was probably the one that would push my comfort zone the most. Josh has been teaching there for over a decade, mostly on Processing and his HYPE framework. The workshops range from using Processing to paint with sound, using LIDAR cameras to generate visuals, and other techniques. This year we were going to generate designs and use a laser cutter to bring them into a physical medium. I am pretty sure I was the only non-designer there (I’ve since learned to accept the fact that I am a designer), immediately making me a fish out of water.

I feel confident about holding conversations about design in the web world, but when it comes to the art world I feel desperately uninformed. In the past, I would shy away from this, but I decided to do my best to absorb everything I could knowing this was a unique experience. I learned about artists like Frank Stella and Sol LeWitt. I saw work from artists working at the ranch which was eye-opening. In my workshop, I was surrounded by designers, illustrators, and 3D artists who were all masters of their craft. And there I was, a burned-out web dev.

Sculptures on the campus

We started the week getting to learn Josh’s workflow and briefly getting everyone on the same page working in Processing. This was followed by getting deep into working with HYPE. Once we got comfortable with all this, we needed to work on building our design system to feed into the software we were writing to generate the pieces we would be producing. The goal was to get us far enough to move our work over to the laser cutter by Wednesday at the latest. For the next few hours, I struggled through generating assets. Not really knowing where I would end, I started generating some complex shapes. After a couple of hours of tweaking nothing really felt right. I generated a few pieces that were kind of cool but nothing I loved.

I took a step back and started working with simple shapes. Squares, octagons, triangles, etc. It started to click. I got a few words of encouragement from some of my fellow classmates and moved forward. It felt like I was starting to find my voice. It was a great feeling.

By Wednesday morning I found myself ready to cut paper with lasers. If you’ve never played with one of these large laser printers it is a pretty cool experience. You upload your designs to the machine, place paper onto the cutting deck, and press a giant play button to start the laser. It whips back and forth choosing random spots to cut and a few minutes later you have a physical rendering of your design.

By Wednesday afternoon I had a few pieces produced working with elements in my design system that were randomly placed on a grid with different scale and rotation values. The pieces were cool but nothing that felt like I had poured myself into. Josh gave us the idea of not only using the software we had written to generate full pieces but also taking different renders and stitching them together. This felt like something I could dig into.

I worked on an idea for a few hours, struggling to find the connective tissue between all the renders. I asked Josh if he would critique my progress and he gave me the push I needed. He took a look at the work and said, “yeah this is cool, you could keep going with this or scrap the whole thing and start over.” I know that sounds harsh, but it gave me a sense of freedom that I needed. It encouraged me to keep going and work on it until I found something I was happy with instead of being afraid to abandon what I had done. I didn’t need to treat it so precious, I needed to keep picking it apart until I found my destination. I took another crack at it, and after a few hours ended up with a piece that I am really happy with. I present it proudly in my living room to this day.

Three pieces of generative art.

The week blew by so fast, but I got to spend time with artists that I now consider friends. Meeting and working with Josh was a huge highlight. I had convinced him to grab lunch with me a few years back when he was doing work in Houston for the Super Bowl, but if I am being honest I was a bit starstruck. He only had a short window of time and I was just trying to ask all the questions I could think of and soak it in. Getting to work alongside one of your art heroes is a whole new experience. Cracking jokes, sharing stories, and getting to pick their brain is a memorable experience. On top of that, I got to work along side others like Steve Bowden, Sarah Kuehnle, Sara Wade, Chanelle Hartwig, and Nina Hays. They all encouraged me to stop calling myself a non-designer. I am truly grateful for that.

This one week at Anderson Ranch helped break through some mental barriers that were holding me back. I never felt like I had anything inside of me worth creating or sharing with anyone. It gave me a push I needed and I have been working towards new work since. I hope to go back to the ranch, but this week will always feel like the start of something bigger.