“I think everybody is creative to some degree, whether they’re creating artistic products or finding new ways to be an accountant or a building contractor,” said Prescott, professor of music at Missouri State University.
“Creativity is part of the human persona,” he said. “People will say, ‘Well, I’m not creative.’ They just aren’t realizing that creativity lies in a lot of directions, not just the arts.”
Prescott’s creativity led him to become a composer whose library of titles includes about 200 works. He’s also enthusiastic about world music – specifically Chinese – and has spent much time teaching students about the rudiments of playing traditional instruments.
His commitment to helping students stands out, as he also utilizes creativity when it comes to advising students. He spent a decade as music department head at Missouri State and discovered he had the opportunity to invent creative solutions to guide students toward the finish line of graduation.
Prescott has demonstrated his commitment to assist Missouri State students in general, said Samantha Sack, a senior composition student who has worked with Prescott for about three years.
“Dr. Prescott is very helpful in helping students focus, reach goals and get material to work with,” she said. “It isn’t just in composition, though. He’s very supportive of students in other areas too. He has a general passion for helping students succeed.”
Writing music can be a fulfilling and humbling process, Prescott said. One key is achieving a level of equilibrium.
“Some of the pieces I’ve spent a lot of time working on have not sold well at all,” he said. “But there’s a piece in my catalog called ‘Aliens Landing (In Your Back Yard!)’ that took me about two hours to write on an airplane, and it has sold a lot of copies and been very successful for the publisher.
“It’s writing pieces like that that allow me to also publish the more serious things that I’ve spent more time at, so I have to balance those things. The commercial and the artistic have to get balanced and sometimes things lean more one way or the other.”
One of Prescott’s most recent compositions is a rearrangement of the four notes in “Taps.” Four students – Jacob Batey, Darrell Burton, Gabriel Duerkop and Elisa Wren – performed the piece, titled “Quadrivium,” for the first time on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Everybody who’s an artist wants to feel fulfilled like their art matters. That what they’re saying is important to somebody else.” — Dr. John Prescott
Months before the student performance, Prescott demonstrated the piece on piano in his office. “Quadrivium” places simultaneous notes in different keys, which creates a discordant sound that reflects the terror of 9/11.
“Now it’s not quite so pretty, right?” Prescott said. “There’s a bit of bite to it.”
Still, there’s beauty in uncertainty and dissonance, Sack said.
“He’s a great composer. That piece is beautiful and touching,” she said.
The choreography of the piece placed Prescott’s students at four locations in Missouri State’s Historic Quadrangle in the heart of campus. As they played, the students slowly converged at the cornerstone in the center. The piece reached its climax when all four players reached the cornerstone and played in a meaningful pattern: nine notes, then 11 notes.
The group played in four different keys at the same time.
“This is about 9/11,” Prescott said. “We don’t want this to be pretty music. We want this to be music that makes people think and creates tension.”
This is from a series that I was doing with Gwen Walstrand, based on what we’ve seen in Cairo, Illinois. She takes pictures, and I respond to the photographs that she takes. I really like the idea of it sort of getting double translated, her interpretation of it and then my interpretation of her interpretation. I like that idea of people influencing each other. Sarah Perkins
But art and design professor Sarah Perkins has mastered a process that turns plain material into a shimmering work of art.
She begins with a thin sheet of metal, which she cuts and hammers into three-dimensionality. She uses fire to enhance the metal’s malleability. After many rounds of hammering, the sheet of metal has become a completed vessel.
Next, Perkins showers the vessel with powdered enamel glass before firing it in a kiln as many as 30 times. The glass melts and fuses to the metal, creating an art piece with Perkins’ creative vision.
I look at a lot of historical work and reference it. Sarah Perkins
This process, which combines metalsmithing and enameling, distinguishes her art.
“I’m unique among metalsmiths because I enamel, and unusual among enamelers because I have a background in metals,” she says.
Cabinet maker Charles Radtke, who first met Perkins in the early ’90s before going on to collaborate with her, recalls being struck by her creativity and technique.
“I was drawn to her work immediately,” he says, “most drawn to the vessels she was creating. They seemed like little mysteries to me, the movement of landscape, the subtle textures and color changes.”
Neither of us sketch, so we convey ideas and a vision that, through much talking and laughing, we come to a sense of the object. Our minds spin wild with possibilities because we know, in the end, whatever we dream up, we can surely make.
Her work has grown and evolved thanks to decades of practice, something she says her professorship at Missouri State made possible. “It allowed me to take a lot of risks and make some mistakes.”
The risks paid off, and her art has gained global recognition. She’s been the subject of solo exhibitions in Boston, Memphis, Tucson, Taipei and many other cities, and she’s slated for a solo retrospective in 2019. Her work is part of several public collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Long Beach Art Museum and the National Ornamental Metals Museum, as well as about a dozen private collections.
A number of organizations, including the Enamelist Society, the Richmond Art Center, the Springfield Art Museum and the Midland Museum of Art and Science have honored Perkins’ work. Her history of awards recognition began in 1979 and continues to this day, in part because she still leaves room for experimentation.
“I’ve started firing dirt into the enamel to give it an interesting surface,” Perkins says. During a hiking trip to Montana, she collected sand, which she later incorporated into her enameling. “One of the sands had a lot of obsidian, which is a natural kind of glass,” she remembers, “so it actually melted a little bit.”
Travel provides visual cues as well. In India, the vibrance of traditional handicrafts inspired new color combinations and applications, and the black and white stripes Perkins observed near roadsides in Delhi emerged as a pattern in an exultant series of bowls.
One day riding around Delhi, India, I was struck by the patterned walls, and I started taking pictures of them. Later, as I looked at the photos, I realized, ‘That’s it. That’s my key.’ I felt like I had an entry into being able to represent what I was seeing there, and it was a completely different entry than I was expecting. Sarah Perkins
Perkins is pleased that over the course of her career, respect for enameling has grown. She says, “In America, enameling was somewhat lost as a medium until after World War II,” when it was popularized in kitschy items, particularly ashtrays. According to Perkins, “We’ve had to push past that history of crafty trinkets,” and her innovation and advocacy have played a role in this success. “I think I’ve played a part in raising the profile of enamel,” she says.
As enameling’s stature has grown, so has its reach, which provides Perkins with opportunities to spread her artform. Through her Missouri State colleague Keith Ekstam, she connected with the Tainan National University of the Arts in Taiwan and began teaching workshops there.
I’ll have an idea of the piece, so I know basically what colors I’m going to use. But sometimes I’ll put a color down and go, “You know, I was going to put that chartreuse green there, but it’s wrong.”Sarah Perkins
“I was one of the first people – maybe the first person – to teach enameling there,” she says. “Many of my students were people who taught at other universities in Taiwan.” These instructors then began teaching Perkins’ techniques to their own students. “When I went back last spring, it had been about 13 years since I’d first been there. I learned that the enamelers there call me ‘Granny’ because I’m considered the teacher of the teachers.”
Perkins may sometimes marvel at her own evolution into a grande dame of her artform. “From an early age, I knew I wanted to be an artist and professor,” she says, “but I never told anybody because I was afraid I wouldn’t be successful. I tried to do other things until I realized I needed to just go for what I wanted.”
From those long-ago doubts to today’s accomplishments, it’s been quite the transformation.