I started making things at around 3 years old by cooking with my mother and copying what I saw my father doing with wood and metal. I learned to weld before I was in high school because my bike broke and we couldn't afford to take it to a shop, and I absorbed a great deal from farmers I grew up around without realizing at the time that I was being taught. During my early teens my father built a 60' ferro cement yacht (ketch rigged) in the back yard, which I hated because his obsession with the project fractured our family - I also did not much enjoy holding the steel frames while he welded them, rain or shine.
In my last year of high school, students were asked to select a career counseling session to attend. I checked all the boxes, but was told that I had to pick either sciences or arts, which was a problem because I liked and did well at both. The Deputy Principal called me to his office and told me there was no point studying art when you have ability with science. He then assigned me to the science careers program. I stayed away from school on Careers Day.
The next year I enrolled in sciences at university. Though interested in the concepts, I was not deeply engaged and eventually that extremely patient institution decided it no longer required my services. Over the following decade I became a musician, a songwriter, and a filmmaker - all things I learned the same way I learned cooking, woodwork, gardening etc. It was a slow process, but things stuck and they were customized: I learned - maybe even invented - my own ways of making... of creating.
This was rewarding, but I craved mentorship. In my 30s, and with much trepidation, I enrolled at a different university as a part time student studying English literature, then switched to philosophy, which it turned out I was very good at - or maybe it was just that I was interested, passionate, and engaged. All my study was accomplished by sneaking away for lectures, first from a full time job, and then from film projects I was either producing or directing. In the period from 1999 to 2001, I was awarded a University of Auckland philosophy prize, won the New Zealand Best Drama Award for a tele-feature called Lawless, and earned my graduate degree in philosophy with 1st class honors.
I feel strongly that something is very wrong in the way learning is theorized, formalized, and managed, and this is the case in screen education as much as any field. Aspiring filmmakers find it difficult to make an impact without attending film school, yet most educational institutions continue in 2018 to respond to technological advances and growing economic pressures by fetishizing technology and standardizing and compartmentalizing the learning. From my perspective, right when creativity is crucial, it is being marginalized.
I first addressed this in a presentation at the 1999 UFVA Conference in Boston, MA, and two years later was hired to lead the Columbia College Chicago Film & Video (later Cinema Art + Science) Department. I served in that position from September 1, 2001 until May 31, 2017. For most of those 16 years we were able to bring creativity to the center of film education through imaginative strategic planning, innovative curriculum development, careful fiscal management, and the creation of the Media Production Center, a unique hybrid space that is a laboratory for exploring screen art and science, and modeling professional screen practice.
The 2008 financial collapse revealed the true nature of the business of education and led to long overdue fiscal reality checks at many institutions, but most administrators lacked the vision to come up with anything other than crude tactics pulled from the 90s neoliberal playbook. One consequence has been an ongoing dilution of the role active creative practitioners play in arts education policy-making, leadership, and administration.
Watching this process unfold up close awakened me to the need for new ways of looking at creativity and how humans learn and develop as creators. As far as I could see, all higher education (not just in the arts) makes crucial assumptions about creativity and learning based on incomplete or outdated models of cognition and psychology.
My experience in filmmaking, music, higher education leadership, and the study of philosophy converges as a PhD topic: Creativity and imagination in human development, education, art and science from the perspective of 4E cognition theories of mind.
[4E = Embodied / Embedded / Extended / Enactive]
I have been researching, presenting and publishing on this subject for a decade and am scheduled to complete the PhD Spring 2019. I continue to produce and direct for the screen, teach aspiring filmmakers as a full professor at Columbia College Chicago, and participate in the University of Auckland Creative Research Initiative. I am Chair of the North American region of CILECT, the world organization of film, television and media schools, and a member of CILECT's governing Executive Council.
Whatever I am doing, my primary interest is to empower creators, especially, though not exclusively, young people.
I continued to make films while serving as Chair of Cinema Art + Science at Columbia College Chicago, which was a (mostly) rewarding challenge. The first project I completed after stepping back from the Chair position was Our Blood Is Wine, a feature documentary on winemaking culture in the Republic of Georgia, which was directed by Emily Railsback and selected to the 2018 Berlinale. I now develop projects through my company, Jumping Shadows - the name comes from the idea that our human love for storytelling was born with shadows jumping on cave walls, and then there's the reality that creativity often feels like trying to jump shadows...
Some of my earliest memories are of my father reciting poetry and signing to me as I drifted to sleep. My experience of music is best captured in Clarice Lispector's concept of 'is-ness': "everything has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing".
As I've gotten older, the range of music that affects me deeply has broadened, which is unusual and I'm not sure why it's happened. That said, my favorite music is unperfected - at base raw and visceral, though often this quality hides beneath a smooth surface. I hear it in everything from the Buzzcocks to Miles Davis.
On this site I include songwriting sketches as documents of creative process, which is my research focus.