(by Devon Jackson, May 2016)
Tory Hughes is a kind of human flow chart in action. She seeks flow. She produces flow. She advocates flow. She is flow. Her. Her art. Her whole being.
“Creativity is a moving target,” she says as we talked in her studio. Her colorful workshop is visible through a doorway, part of her new gallery, Atelier Hughes, near downtown Santa Fe. “You’ll feel better when you can move with it. And when you do, you’ll easily stay connected to your creative flow.”
Among the images that adorn her studio walls, there’s a flow chart. A very exact and beautiful flow chart that her dad, who’d trained as a mechanical engineer, had laid out in pencil in1986, outlining processes in jet engine development work for his job at General Electric. She likes it because it links her to the lineage of engineering running through her family. It’s something her father made, an illustration of his mind in process. And maybe, too, because it’s connected to that whole concept of flow, that’s so clearly who she is.
A bit of a moving target herself, Hughes was born in Virginia, but her father’s career at GE had the Hughes family—Tory, her younger sister, and her parents—constantly on the move, from Virginia to Pennsylvania to the Philippines to Maryland to Ohio to France to Germany, then to Massachusetts for college. “My approach to life was formed by my father’s corporate career,” says Hughes, who moved to Santa Fe in 2003 (via Albuquerque, NM, Berkeley CA, Wheaton MD, several San Francisco area towns, two years in metro NYC, and a decade in Northampton MA). “Moving around the world, and in international corporate and diplomatic communities, I was constantly learning about new cultures and approaches. Each culture has a beauty and rightness appropriate to its unique circumstances. We did a lot of global traveling from wherever we lived, so as a kid I experienced a huge collection of ways to be human. I knew early on that there is no one way to do things. There really are no mistakes, there are only more or less useful choices, and each one teaches something. What great training for maintaining a creative, outside-the-box way of thinking: never notice the box to begin with!”
What also formed her, as it does for all of us, were the others in her family. Despite the family’s corporate background, she was not pushed away from art in college. Each member of her family pursued their own creative activities, and no one tried to shut down another’s making of things. Her father was also an inventor as well as engineer, and built things in the basement. Her mother is an artist, as is her sister, who is also an economist. “ I think this diversity and self-expression also stems from growing up outside the US. We were usually in environments where your self-expression was as important, if not more, than whatever you did for a day job.”
Upon returning to the States from Europe and abroad, though—boy howdy, was that culture shock. “It was alarming,” she says now. “The schools I attended in Europe were truly international schools. I grew up with other children from all over the world, kids who grew up like me. We were interested in learning about everything and then talking about them, in reading, listening, and watching, exploring experiences, putting ideas together, communicating cultures.”
She began using polymer clay in France when she was thirteen, in 1971, when her family lived there. Her art teacher, Suzanne Sparks at the American School of Paris, recommended Fimo after watching how Hughes liked to work. Early on she was making things and selling them to her friends and local community. From the beginning she’s preferred the brand Fimo, now Fimo Soft, made in Germany.
When Hughes moved back to the US to attend college, she found herself in what was technically her country, her identity. But she was in a country that seemed to encourage a divide between creatives and non-creatives, between loving the feeling of learning and growth, and trying to suppress and control growth. A separation that was anathema to where Hughes had come from, and to Hughes personally. After all, she’d grown up thriving in both worlds. Her four years at Smith College were challenging, but even more the cultures of New England and America. “If I could have looked at this as another culture I was experiencing, things would have been less difficult. But everyone’s assumption about me was that I would understand this culture as my foundation, that I would want to fit in with everything, would share their suspicions of any other way to be – and I could not do that. Like asking a hummingbird to want to live like a house-cat, just doesn’t fit”
And the family life had influenced her in other ways, as well. “I came out of this peripatetic environment wanting to develop a life that I could rely on, an identity that I generated and maintained, rather than one I had to learn and adapt to as quickly as possible. Where I could make choices that were beneficial to me. Where my own timing and flow wouldn’t be disrupted,” says Hughes,
Unlike most of her peers, she found solace in both art and science. Art for its freedom, science because in science itself, as opposed to scientists, there’s very little ego and a lot of evident facts. Art gives her a platform to do what she is moved to do. Science keeps anchoring her to her experience. The earth is this, the oceans are that. “Art and science are ways to explore and understand how things work, and what can be done with that information”, she say.
Originally she planned to major in marine biology and become a scientific illustrator. At Smith that plan reversed itself. Eventually she majored in art, and minored in geology. She spent the last three years of her time there overseeing the school’s weather station, getting up at dawn every morning, heading to the weather station on the roof of the science building, taking measurements, then forecasting and posting the weather for the day. “I had lots of energy, so this schedule wasn’t hard. Very early mornings are so peaceful. This was a glorious way to enter into what the day could offer. Now I might even call it a kind of spiritual practice. I was gregarious” says Hughes, “but I need time to myself too.”
Ever independent and appropriately peripatetic, panicked over money after graduating, not yet clear about a direction, Hughes first moved to Seattle WA, then to Anchorage AK. During her time on the last frontier, she became quite ill, and went back to her parents’ home at that time, in Connecticut. The doctor diagnosed her with severe strep throat as well as severely hyperthyroid. Turns out the combo of the strep and hyperthyroidism could’ve easily done her in.
Hughes stayed in CT for nine months for medical care. She began making wearable art – appliquéd, mixed media vests and wide decorative belts – and selling them to boutiques and galleries around the New York area. “In one of the galleries, the owner bought a vest, and wanted my necklace,” recalls Hughes of the polymer and mixed media piece she’d been wearing. “She asked if I’d make her a dozen for the gallery by the next week. So I did. And that’s how I started.”
This was 1982, and her artwork quickly took off. After moving back to Northampton Mass., she began her own business, Tory Hughes Art To Wear. She started doing juried shows, and hired an agent for her work. By 1986 she was doing the American Crafts Council shows and other high-profile national fine-craft expositions. These large retail/wholesale shows launched her work to an increasingly international group of galleries. From these galleries came an increasingly visible profile in the fine craft world, that’s culminated with work in permanent collections of major museums. Although the thrill of that is undeniable, Hughes feels most appreciation for having her work be among the objects that inspire new young artists to explore and experiment.
Hughes likes polymer for many reasons. Versatile, responsive, magnificently chameleon-like, very accessible, this medium can immediately give form to an artist’s aesthetics. “In lectures I describe polymer as being like a golden retriever: it has a little teeny brain, and a huge desire to please you. It will do almost everything you can think to ask it do. So ask it! Play with it!” It’s also therefore an instantly visible way for people to understand their creativity. Which has huge appeal to Hughes—who loves to teach and even more so loves to unlock people’s creativity.
Which dovetails nicely with Hughes’ teaching and life coaching philosophies and her ideas on creativity, energy, and flow. “I’ll teach you the techniques,” she says, “but you do the aesthetics.”
Known for inspiring people’s creative oomph, Hughes has very strong opinions on how energy flows through us when we work. That’s why, for instance, she keeps her work tables high. “Mechanically,” she explains, “you have a lot more room if you’re standing. Also, for our creative energy to be most effective it has to flow all the way through us. If you’re sitting you’re not getting much from the ground.”
Her teaching led to her work as a creativity coach, visible in her other incarnation as the Inner Sherpa ( “…Helping you navigate across your inner territory, by letting go of the baggage, packing a compass, and having a good map”). Based on her lifelong love and study of Vedanta and Eastern traditions, the Inner Sherpa coaching is about helping people learn about what they really want. “In any action, any gesture, you can ask yourself: what do I really want to accomplish by doing this? What am I choosing?” says Hughes, who’s been a professional coach for over 20 years (and who’s also a certified hypnotherapist). “People realize more about who they are and can find what they need, in what I offer.”
Although she’s the first to say that process is not for everyone. “Not everybody wants to be that focused and conscious about their life choices,” says Hughes. “What I offer is best for people who are committed to their inner creative process”
“Ultimately, it’s about your own personal power,” she adds. Which is why she loves to teach with polymer. “Because polymer is so non-resistant. It gives people access to all these ideas they’ve had since they were kids. It gets them into that flow, into their creativity.It reminds them what they love, and thus who they are, who they’re meant to be. And to happiness. Or something like it. As author John Crowley says, ‘The things that make us happy make us wise’.”