Fostering Innovation: The Surprising Story of Edison Osorio Zapata

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Why would a chef become a glass artist?

Edison Osorio Zapata can tell you. Edison was a chef in Japan where he spent time absorbing the magnificent art of that country – the aesthetic design, architecture, ceramics and was eventually drawn into ceramics class on the side. He found it so rewarding that he went to university to study ceramics further, and on campus saw glass blowing in action: for Edison, it was the beginning of a new life. Today Edison is an artist who works in glass, teaches at NYU, and offers a few lessons on innovation.

Edison still takes classes, workshops, summer school, and every opportunity to get exposure to other artists across many continents. Back in his studio, he does a lot of teaching. “Each time, I formulate a different approach to how I teach what I know, I’m the one who learns,” he says. He observes others, helping other artists get things realized. “Learning never stops,” he adds. He even learns about how to teach by watching other teachers and professionals.

Someone who consciously learns in every situation is the perfect candidate for the David Whitehouse Memorial Scholarship offered through American Friends of Chartres. The scholarship was to the Studio School of the Corning Museum of Glass. This scholarship was awarded to Edison. He hoped to improve his skillset to be a more efficient teacher. At Corning, he was exposed to premier glass workers. He studied figure sculpting with hot glass. This was an area he had never done before and felt uncomfortable stepping into. “It’s important to feel like a novice again. It is a little unnerving, but the teacher was very good at what he does. I learned a great deal.”

As he attempted to learn what he was being taught, he “discovered more about how the material moves, how to maintain the heat and still control it so that it does what you intend.” His level increased, but as importantly, he learned another very important lesson. He discovered the benefits of stepping out of your comfort zone. Edison now tries more things outside his experience realm than before. This subtle shift in mindset about the work is essential for any artist who must challenge the assumed limits of a medium to produce the idea in mind. As Edison explains, “The idea is more important!”

Glass work always references the early techniques of the Roman, 16 and 17 century Venetian masters – especially the 17th century, the pinnacle of blown glass. That glass is very hard to reproduce at the same level today. When asked how it would feel to be a glass worker in the Middle Ages who produced the magnificent windows of a cathedral, his response was unexpected. “My life would be very hard. I would be a maker not the artist. I would grow up in an apprenticeship or be part of a family tradition and never receive recognition unless I became a ‘gaffer’ (the term used for a master glass blower.) Designers designed. Makers just made. It would be a lonely road. You would be doing it because you loved doing it – which is why I do it now.”

Edison believes that the material chooses the artist. “Young artists should try as many different materials as they can. Be as open as possible. To be an artist, you must identify with what you want to do and how you want to do it. You must be open to explore and experiment until you find your path,” he recommends.

Edison continued to talk about this art. “The most interesting time when you are making anything is at the beginning when you are child-like in your thinking. A time when you really don’t know what the material can do. This is the time when you think more laterally. You are willing to think even the impossible where impossible is where new things can be made. Stay young in mind. The more I know glass and how it works and how to harness its idiosyncrasies, the more limited I become…You have to step away a bit and become childlike again, allowing yourself to learn and grow.”

He adds, “If I don’t jump off the cliff without a parachute and get uncomfortable, I won’t grow. You also need to make lots of mistakes. When you watch a master, it looks like a dance. Yet in the mistake, so much can be learned. If you are afraid of losing a piece, you stop learning.” The master must push the edge – both in the selected medium and across many mediums so that you can find and express your voice. Edison ends, “Glass was new to me when I started, and every day I work to keep it ‘new’ to me.”

While it might seem surprising, in the end this story of chef-turned-glass-artist can offer professionals in a range of industries insight into the conditions needed to truly foster innovation. Here are some lessons I’ve taken away from Edison’s story, and some questions I encourage you to consider about how these lessons could apply to your work:

  • Edison said that he learns when he teaches. Teaching allows the lesson to go deeper. How do you encourage development of deep knowledge in your organization?
  • Edison said, "It is important to feel like a novice again. It is a little unnerving." Pushing the edge is always risky, yet a place of vast, potential gain. Do you allow any level of failure in your staff so they can go to the edge and push it?
  • Edison said it was necessary to 'become childlike again, allowing yourself to learn and grow." Do your staff feel they can be who they really are so that all of their abilities can shine through including the childlike ease of creativity?
  • Edison seeks out “every opportunity to get exposure to other artists across many continents.” Innovation is a team sport even for an artist. Do your teams understand this?

What did you learn from Edison's story?