“Evolution of an Idea: Reaching for the Stars”

“Evolution of an Idea: Reaching for the Stars”

“Evolution of an Idea: Reaching for the Stars”

By Doug Czor

Several years ago, an art gallery owner asked me to write the story of my public art sculpture, “Reaching for the Stars,” and describe how it came into being.  The sculpture’s birth took place in the desert through the uncommon marriage of art, technology, and a spiritual quest.  Although the sculpture was physically completed in 2003, many questions have since emerged that are central to the Philosophy of Mind within the field of Cognitive Science.  If Art has come to symbolize the nature of human knowledge, how might we utilize art to design technology and infrastructure that will gently take us into a better future?  The integration of Cognitive Science – the combination of psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, neuroscience, anthropology, and philosophy – into the design of art may well produce the tools we need to improve the understanding of human thinking, and, thus, improve the world to come.  By way of Conceptual Art, we have a means to more deeply examine these ideas and find our pathway up the mountain.  Please contribute your perspective and experience in the following blog.

Reaching for the stars; Doug Czor
Reaching for the Stars

“Reaching for the Stars”

Design Philosophy:  I feel that the idea of “Reaching for the Stars” spiritually preexisted in the universe before I was ever born.  I wanted to build a large outdoor steel sculpture that expressed my feelings for the future of humanity, and then this design idea chose me to bring it forward.  As a retired scientist, I knew that historically from the beginning, humanity all over the planet has been beaten down many times by catastrophic geologic and cosmic events.  Just as we rose to some state of civilization, a comet strike, mega-volcanic event, or some mistaken philosophy devastated us back into the Stone Age.  I think that if our planet and Solar System were not located in such a dangerous celestial alley, we would, by this time, already have ventured into space and erected orbital cities around the Sun.  We would have conquered cancer and most other diseases.  We would have rescued the great whales and elephants.  Concerned about how far back we have fallen, I thought to design and build a monument to the spirit of humanity.  My feeling is that we still reside in the Dark Ages and have not yet emerged into the Age of Enlightenment.  I hoped that the sculpture might also encourage young people to search for a philosophy of mind that will save our home among the stars.

When one considers the idea that the universe probably has many unseen dimensions, is it really so radical to contemplate that “Reaching for the Stars” possibly already existed in some parallel universe?  I needed to listen down that long hallway and bring the impression of “Reaching for the Stars” into our neural way of thinking.  At times, I wonder where our creative designs come from and why we invent.  Whatever mysterious mechanisms are in action, I know that we exist among other things because we create.

Spiritual Design Methods:  In the creation of a new design, a good starting place for me is meditation or prayer; going inward to that infinite place within the mind.  Some ideas are always percolating up out of the unconscious upon waking in the morning.  I am not sure how this works; it just does.  However, sometimes during the transition up from a deep sleep into a natural wakefulness, there exists for me a semiconscious or meditative state where I feel the overlap of the subconscious with consciousness.  This meditative state has proven to be a valuable problem-solving tool because more difficult questions can be deeply examined.  Sometimes the answer comes directly; some questions take days and a few times it has taken years.  I have read that the subconscious mind has a greater problem-solving capacity than our consciousness.  Consciousness is a quick reaction component of our mind, and, for most people, it usually does not take time to think long and deep.  The subconscious, however, includes our entire neural network from the tips of our fingers and toes all the way into our nerve-rich thoracic interior.  It is possible that not just the brain, but our entire neural network, senses, processes, remembers, and reasons.

Consider for the moment, our entire subconscious neural network being a much larger computational network than the small array we call the conscious mind.  When we sleep, consciousness shuts down, but the subconscious remains awake to listen and process information.  It does much more than just dream.  While we sleep, the subconscious listens through the same ears, yet to a much higher degree, processes the incoming neural impulses with signal recognition programs, noise filters, and data-enhancing software of all kinds.  It is theorized that we have inherited this ability from our ancient ancestors for surviving our main predator – the nocturnal Jaguar.  If we are able to tap into this same subconscious neural network to solve sculpture design problems, what revelations might we find?  Would they be more unique to our heart and soul or, perhaps, come from some higher intelligence?  What message from the universe might our inquiry reveal?

During the construction of “Reaching for the Stars,” the problem-solving subconscious worked well for me.  One case in point:  I was having great difficulty deciding between two companies, one in Minnesota and another in New Zealand, both of which fabricate stainless steel spheres.  Using completely different methods, each company’s approach was sufficient and about the same cost.  However, I suspected something important was missing.  Nothing on the conscious level helped, so I slept on the problem.  Several days later, upon waking on that dreamshore, the answer came that I should choose the company that used the spun metal hemisphere method.  The Minnesota company was spinning stainless steel sheets on a large metal lathe where tools stretched the metal over a convex mold into hemispherical shape.  Two hemispheres, thus produced, are then welded into a sphere, ground, and polished.  I had no idea why this was important until well after the sculpture was installed and painted.

Reaching for the stars; Doug Czor The Sphere

The answer from the subconscious and its importance revealed itself during the first photographic documentation session at the end of the project.  It turned out that the surface of the sphere was slightly rippled from tools unevenly pressing the spinning metal into shape.  This human signature of ripples reflected sunlight as mysterious rings of light onto the two support towers, adding an entirely new and beautiful metaphor.  If I had used the other company’s perfectly smooth sphere, the light rings would never have appeared.  The maquette did not show the rings because the 1.5 inch stainless steel ball was ground and polished perfectly smooth.  So, where did the subconscious obtain the information for me to make the correct decision?  Was I just lucky?  Consciousness is possibly an emergent property of the various parts of our neural network; however, is this synergy sophisticated enough to predict what action to take when we have no previous experience, or, does the subconscious obtain information from a higher place to help us decide which pathway to take upon encounter with an unknown fork in the road?

Scientific Design Methods:  The brain has many components, each being used at different times, depending on the task.  I try to use as many parts of the mind as possible to obtain a type of end result synergism or emergent state that hopefully propels the artwork to a higher level.  One method is to write about the design to engage part of the mind.  By then adding a chat with friends or making a presentation before an audience, the auditory side comes into play.  Several times over the years, while describing final plans to the client, some small flaw in the design became apparent, one I missed in the quiet of the studio.  The intuitive, symbolic, and fantasy-oriented side can be accessed visually through sketching and model building. For me, the visual center is the larger part; however, I pay close attention to the verbal and writing components as well.

Computer-Aided Design (CAD) greatly streamlined the conversion of the sketch into steel plate cutouts.  During the engineering phase, a skilled draftsman collected points along the curves of my sketch and applied various CAD functions to straighten out the lines and curves.  Once the design was transferred into the computer data base, the engineer could apply further functions to determine the thickness of steel sheet that would safely stand up to the elements of weather and earth movement.  However, the attachment means for the sphere required a unique and creative approach.  One serious safety concern was how to keep the sphere from breaking loose and falling on a bystander.  Both of the two towers not only flex and move with the wind, they also unevenly expand and contract due to heating as the Sun moves across the sky.  I first fabricated and tested a wood and plastic scale model of the attachment means and presented it to the engineer for study.  In this case, one cannot just weld the sphere to the towers because even the best steel alloys after flexing thousands of times over 60 years will develop fatigue cracks and allow the sphere to break loose.  I thought about how Eskimo dog sleds can stand up to the constant flexing of moving over uneven snow and ice.  If one were to mistakenly fabricate a dog sled with joints fixed solid by screws, tongue and grove, epoxy, or whatever, the sled would never survive ten miles of travel before it broke apart.  Authentic dog sled member joints are flexible and held together with raw hide bindings.  The trick to holding the sphere in place was to design a flexible joint similar to the ball and socket of the human hip or shoulder joint.

It is interesting how architects and engineers design from nature.  Perhaps one day neuroscientists will achieve computational models that simulate our neural networks and reach an era where we develop intelligent systems that in turn enhance our design ability far beyond what is available today.

In Defense of the Notebook:  Sketching and assembling mixed media montages helps me focus on the design process.  I started with sketches of simple overlapping triangles, rectangles, and circles.  By stretching and pulling the objects different ways, I was able to maneuver them into a design that also fit engineering and cost constraints of an idea that would become “Reaching for the Stars.”  Here we are in the beginning of the Digital Age, and I still resist the transition to full computer mode.  I believe I am able to problem solve and create by sketching on paper far better than by way of the computer monitor screen.  Even the printout of text, for instance, a complicated business letter is more easily understood when I edit from actual paper as opposed to the monitor.  I suspect the problem is with the monitor being very two dimensional, whereas paper is actually quite three dimensional with texture, wrinkles, and curvature.  So, if paper stimulates a great deal more of our mental representations and procedures of mind to read, thus producing better understanding of the written work, might this approach be extended to other forms of creativity and comprehension?

Another argument for the paper notebook is that as great and advanced we think our civilization to be in this beginning of the Digital Age, there is no guarantee our history will be preserved when some natural or man-made disaster brings civilization down.  If we do not have paper books, how prolonged the setback before we rebuild?  Might it be the scribe and the artist once again who speed the recovery of civilization?

Notebook Sections:

Reaching for the stars; Doug CzorReaching for the stars; Doug Czor

Reaching for the stars; Doug CzorReaching for the stars; Doug Czor

Marketing:  The design of “Reaching for the Stars” was inspired and brought into being for its own existence and without a thought toward sales.  After the steel maquette was finished, photographed, and analyzed, I gradually started the search for a buyer.  I made presentations to Albuquerque’s Explora Science Center and applications for public art commissions in New Mexico.  During the late 1990s, it required about 12 or more applications by an artist to obtain one public art commission.  The New Mexico Military Institute, a leadership college in Roswell, New Mexico, was the most interested party because they were looking for sculptural metaphors about achieving high goals and going the extra mile.  I think the title of a work also has a lot to do with a successful sale.  Perhaps, some of Roswell’s history had some influence on the acceptance of my design.  Dr. Robert Goddard built and flew his invention of liquid-fueled rockets for many years on the outskirts of Roswell.

Reaching for the stars; Doug CzorSteel Maquette, 41 inches x 24 inches

Construction and Installation:  The art selection committee chose my design, triggering the process of scaling up the maquette with an engineering company and searching for quotes from steel machine shops.  In the beginning, I had no idea the project would become my greatest challenge.  I received the first payment and began work with the engineering company.  Yet a small but powerful group of college personnel on campus contested my design, claiming the selection committee did not have the right to choose the artwork while their leader was away on business.  Their preference was a bronze cavalry horse and rider, rearing up with drawn sword.  The disagreement was classic, the conflict between traditional bronze and contemporary sculpture.  Ultimately, the entire student body of Cadets was asked to break the stalemate.  “Reaching for the Stars” won with a large majority of support.  The Cadet spokeswoman stated that they voted for the contemporary sculpture because it represented their era, and they did not want a sculpture that represented the history of a hundred years ago.  But even after this vote of confidence, the opposition continued various types of interference.  In order to keep focused, I meditated before showing up on the job each day.  I practiced a combination of Zen and East Indian meditations.

Fortunately, the city of Roswell had everything I needed:  engineering design firm, steel fabrication shop, concrete foundation contractor, crane owner, and painters.   I was allowed to work at the steel fabrication shop as long as the sculpture was positioned outside the building.  Each tower weighed about 1.5 tons, so the shop moved the towers around for me as work progressed.  One day, the two steel towers were standing up next to each other, and I realized that they were interacting with the sky.  I reclined between them to photograph the communion.

Conversing with the Universe; Doug CzorConversing With the Universe

After a few months, the towers were ready for installation on their concrete foundation.  I called the college office to say the sculpture was ready to be hauled over and mounted on its base.  However, the opposition had other plans and speaking through the college office said, “Don’t bring it over unless you commit to adding a sidewalk around the sculpture’s base.”  I had previously negotiated with them to make the sculpture 10 feet taller, bringing the total height up to 35 feet in trade for not installing a sidewalk.  I had the paperwork to prove the negotiations.  Nevertheless, they stopped the installation anyway.  Fortunately, the State public art office who supplied the 1% for the arts commission, stepped in to rescue the project.  The Director asked the college office one simple question, “Do you really want to go up against a breach of contract law suit?”  A couple of weeks later, the project restarted again, but low-level interference continued.  I was met with minor personal confrontations at times.  College administration environments are very intense.  Both the worst and best sides of humanity spring forth from these habitats.  The 3½ hour drive from Albuquerque to Roswell gave me plenty of time to listen to Ram Dass tapes and get into the right frame of mind.  My Christian upbringing and stories from the Ram Dass chronicles helped me smile when they hoped for an angry response.  Many times upon arrival in Roswell and before stepping onto college grounds, I practiced a few short meditations, and then I was ready.

Reaching for the stars; Doug CzorReaching for the stars; Doug Czor

Reaching for the stars; Doug CzorReaching for the stars; Doug Czor


We have within us the natural drive to create and achieve some higher state of humanity. How is it possible for art to enhance Cognitive Science, the merging of psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, linguistics, anthropology and philosophy, to form a new Cognitive Science and, in turn, use this art enhanced Cognitive Science to develop new design methods for the technology and infrastructure we need to improve the world to come?