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Life & Work with Joseph O’Connell

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joseph O’Connell. 

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I grew up in an artistic and scientific family near Thomas Edison’s West Caldwell laboratory. My grandfather had been friends with one of Edison’s sons. Our house was filled with motors, gadgets, and even some lab notebooks from the Edison factory. From an early age I was a maker; I made light sculptures, a gas-powered skateboard, a hovercraft, catapults, creative folding weapons – everything a boy could think of. My mother was an artist and taught my sisters and I to use clay and draw at an early age. At that age, and even until my 30’s I didn’t call what I did ‘art’ – it was just making cool things to fulfill particular ideas that would grab hold of me and not let go.

I started my company Creative Machines in 1995 driven by a mission rather than with a particular market in mind. My mission then was:

“We create objects and environments that encourage creativity, support social interaction, and inspire self-confidence.”

That mission is pretty much the same 26 years later. At first, it was just me in my garage. I started by making interactive museum exhibits for science and children’s museums. I saw that the work I was doing in children’s museums could be really valuable to kids stuck in children’s hospitals, so I started developing exhibits and art pieces that kids who were stuck in the hospital could immerse themselves in. I had always made art and had shown in several galleries and museums. About fifteen years ago, I added pubic art to what my company makes, and that has become the main focus of our work in the years since. I can see us evolving into new markets constantly, but the mission – creating stuff that supports positive feelings and interactions in public – remains essentially the same. The company grew organically. Creative Machines is 26 years old and we’ve added approximately one person every year. At this point we have a gender- and race-diverse staff of 30 designers, engineers, architects, fabricators, and project managers – all united by a shared vision of creativity, enthusiasm, and respect. We have an amazing 8-acre facility rooted in a unique community and we create permanent art that is loved all over the world. Couples have gotten married at our Bike ChurchTexas Rising, and Chinook Arc. Schools have adopted our sculpture, Toby, as their mascot. Ballroom Luminoso and Bike Church have drawn such crowds that parks have been built around them. We have created art installations, interactive exhibits and ball machines all over the world.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
There have been challenges at every step of the way, but they’ve changed as the company evolved. At first, the challenge was getting enough work. Like many creative entrepreneurs, I learned to say “yes” to all jobs and then figure out how to make them happen. That’s easier to learn than to unlearn. As a company matures, the challenge becomes learning to say “no” to jobs that aren’t a good fit for your company or where you feel a client would be better served by someone else. We’re so enthusiastic about good ideas that we still struggle to say ‘no’ when we don’t think a project will be successful – but we have to.

The financial challenges have evolved too. Cash flow is a challenge in bad years. Tax strategy is a challenge in good years.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has been coming to know who I am, who my company is, and communicating that to others. Does a fish know what water is? Ideas grounded in history, anthropology, art, and an understanding of how humans play have always come easily to me and my team – to the point that we would almost give ideas away and spend most of our time talking about how we were going to give those ideas physical form. I’ve had clients think that our company is just a fabrication company and not realize that most of what we fabricate are ideas we’ve come up with ourselves. Lately, I’ve been trying to see us as primarily a design firm that happens to fabricate our designs.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
We use a remarkable diversity of forms and materials, but the common thread is our belief that an art piece or exhibit is not complete until other people have made it their own through interaction. We have created permanent sculptures that react to people’s touch, their heartbeat, their waving hands, their shadows, and videos on their cellphones. But the way we think about engagement goes much deeper than technology. It encompasses careful analysis of sightlines, placing sculptures where people can influence them, creating shapes that invite exploration and forms that encourage people to communicate with each other and feel emotions deeply. Light and motion frequently animate our work, and in a world of screens, our sculptures remind people that they still have bodies.

Along the way, we have created some of the world’s largest kinetic sculptures, the world’s largest acrylic sculpture, and some of the most complex forms of interactivity to be deployed in harsh environments.

We are somewhat unique because we take projects from conception to completion in a single 77,000 square foot facility. We feel that having concept design, engineering, and fabrication all under one roof we can extend a consistency of vision to all aspects of a project. But the norm for large projects is to have one firm design them, put the drawings out to bid, and then have them made by another firm.

Most of our projects are in the $250K to $2M range and completed within 6-9 months. While I lead each project and assume full responsibility for it, I welcome my staff of architects and engineers as collaborators and have developed a fruitful environment for nurturing ideas, talents, and a positive outlook. Our culture of inclusive collaboration goes into every piece we make. We also collaborate externally. We are currently working on large design team projects in many states.

Can you talk to us a bit about the role of luck?
Luck is everything, but so is recognizing good luck and grabbing it. Purely by coincidence, I rented my first workshop space from Thomas Edison’s former shop foreman. He was in his 90’s and I was in my 20’s at the time. We set up a hammock for him to relax in as he rehearsed for interviews he was doing for the National Archives; he would tell me about how Edison managed a creative workforce. Those lessons of putting together creative teams inform how I run Creative Machines to this day.

I’ve had the further good fortune to meet and learn from Nobel prize winners, the inventors of tetracycline, magnetic resonance imaging, and the electron microscope, and prominent artists. But I’m a good listener and they all shared valuable lessons. One brilliant person from whom I learned a lot said to me “Here I am, probably training a future competitor… but nobody else listens like you do, they’re all too wrapped up in their own heads to let anything new in.”

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Creative Machines

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