Why would a person trade a successful career with tech giant Google to create light sculptures? We asked Ted Bradley, who did just that. Bradley shared the motivation behind this career course correction and the savvy decision-making that allows him to make a living from it. He also took us inside his creative process – from the frustration in working with fragile materials to the pleasure in problem-solving his porcelain.
“When I was a young adult, even pre-college, I wanted to be an inventor,” Bradley remembers. So he went where invention was happening. “Software is where a lot of the exciting innovation was happening.” Climbing the tech ladder landed him a gig at Google. However, his instincts pushed him to keep moving. “I could have made a career out of it,” he admits, “but my heart wasn’t in it.” Bradley was still looking for something special that only he could give to the world. He pushed the reset button and returned to his original goal of being an inventor. “I feel like, essentially, when I go to the studio every day, that’s what I’m doing: I’m really inventing, which is very cool.”
The Selling Side of Light Sculptures
However, the rewards of creation don’t guarantee monetary compensation. But for Bradley, that’s all part of the problem-solving. “What I’m doing is the intersection of art and business,” he says. He’s sensitive that some in the art world might instinctively identify his light sculptures as business. “There are going to be plenty of folks who look at what I do and say, ‘Hey, you’re not really a sculptor. You’re making products for sale on the shelf.’ And there’s a truth to that,” he says. “On the other hand, there’s the truth that I’ve chosen this path that is between the two.”
“From a practical standpoint, it was a tremendous risk to uproot my career and go out as an artist,” Bradley continues. So he found a way to make sure his art reached more potential buyers. “It’s a little bit of a safer bet, from a career and financial standpoint, to create sculptures that can be reproduced in a way that I can actually sell them through, for example, high-end lighting showrooms.” Without that solution, his success could be in the hands of art world gatekeepers. “It’s a very different path,” he admits. But he also finds it stimulating. “I also genuinely enjoy business and have started a couple [of] businesses before,” he says. Though, ultimately, this balancing act is a means to an end: “I really want to be able to do this for the rest of my life.”
The Difference Between Design and Art
Bradley also acknowledges that even the creative side of his process falls somewhere between design and art. “Design, for me, is more of an intellectual process. I can be anywhere: sitting in the passenger seat of a car on a road trip or walking around my house doing mundane things. It’s about taking the boundaries of a problem, creating visually in my mind, and seeing what strikes the right chord that is both aesthetically beautiful and also hits the requirements.”
“Then, separately, there is art and sculpture,” Bradley continues. “It’s about what sort of feelings am I working through based on the context of my life. They become, ultimately, physical manifestations of something much more deeply rooted.” He has described how one of his pieces reminds him of the bones of a sea creature, washed ashore and bleached in the sun. “I think about a whale skeleton or—even more—about my own skeleton,” he explains, “about death and pain and how that intersects with expression and beauty and light.”
Ted Bradley Finds Problems in the Process
Unfortunately for Bradley, the porcelain rings in his sculptures are far more breakable than bones. And the path to creating his first successful light sculptures took over 200 failed rings, and 1300 pounds of clay. “It can be both a frustration and a fascination,” he reveals. “If I had gone into work in the studio every day and been frustrated by the failures, I never would have been able to stick with it.” But curiosity kept calling. “It was the fascination of trying to really understand what the material is doing and why something is happening that kept me coming back. Porcelain and clay are so incredibly complex, especially when you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before. It’s a playground for a lot of really interesting problems.”
So how does he go about finding solutions? “It depends on the problem,” he says. “What’s the first thing that every ceramicist does after they’ve finished a piece? They throw it under a bag, and they put it on a shelf on a plastic plate. So I did the same. But then the rings were cracking. So instead, I put the pieces on shelving racks in a humidifier chamber to control the humidity, and they were still breaking.” Ultimately, he needed to monitor the humidity even more closely. “So I got three Bluetooth humidity sensors that hook up to my phone. Now I’m on call 24/7.”
Keeping the Light Sculptures Fantastic
“I learned over a period of about three months that if the humidity drops below 86% the rings will crack, and if the humidity is above 94%, they’ll barely even dry at all,” Bradley says. And these are just a few of the many variables he adjusted. “We go on and on with fans and temperature and steam and a million other things—just in that one small problem of humidifying and drying.”
“It’s a challenging but rewarding process,” Bradley continues. “I had the vision for a porcelain ring in my head for about six years before I started working on it. And still, to this day, every time I see one come out, it’s an exciting experience.” What’s more: the experience continues. “The funny thing is, even after I finished my first sculpture, and I said, “Oh, the process is complete,” I still go into the studio every day and work on making things a little bit better.”
“Keep in mind that these aren’t produced in a factory,” Bradley says of his light sculptures. “Even bespoke designers who were making commissioned work—it’s still often produced in their facility with 20 people. Maybe I’ll be there someday, but right now I’m a sculptor that makes each of these by hand. A porcelain ring is going to pass through a 300 step process under my hands. It’s going to take five weeks to make a single porcelain ring. I’m hand-sanding these, hand-finishing them. They break and I toss them out, and I only take the very best ones,” he adds. “So the things folks are getting, it’s not just a light fixture there. It’s a sculpture that has lights in it.”
Ted Bradley Finds Unexpected Inspiration
Much like Bradley took an unexpected path to creating his light sculptures, he also received inspiration from a surprising source. “My greatest mentor for these pieces hasn’t been an artist or an engineer. It’s actually a man. His name is Gil Boese. He recently passed away. But he dedicated his life to environmental conservation and conservation for animals. And he’s an incredible person,” Bradley recalls. “Just hearing him speak: it was less about problem-solving and art and more about him choosing a path that was authentically his, authentically rooted in his passions.”
Gil’s philosophy resonated with Bradley. “I believe that each of us has an intersection between passion and ability. And if we don’t pursue whatever is at that intersection, the world is missing out on an opportunity,” he says. “Each of us only has one—or a few—of those, and it feels like they’re the fulfillment of our time here. We’re alive to pursue what we’re best suited for and most excited about.” If you’re looking for Ted Bradley’s intersection, you’ll find it shining somewhere that art, design, business and engineering all overlap. And if you look at them just so, you might notice how they remind you of the beautifully illuminated bones of a creature from the deep.
Photography of the artist by Benjamin D. Buren.
Read more illuminating lighting stories here.
Paul Hagen is a writer and editor for aspire design and home magazine.
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