Photographs and work provided by and belonging to Bobby Sharp
To conjure up beauty from nothingness, you have to see things differently from the rest of us mortals.
Dyslexia, a frequently misunderstood "learning difference", literally causes people to see the world in a different way from people without dyslexia. Along with the challenges, people with dyslexia often have superior problem-solving, design, creative, visual, and oral skills. Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, George Washington, and Pablo Picasso were among the creative geniuses who were dyslexic. They each changed the world by sharing their unique way of seeing with the rest of us.
Bobby Sharp, an artist with dyslexia who grew up in Oneonta, attributes his creative and visual acuity to that distinctness.
"All my life, I've seen things differently," he tells New York Makers. Most of the creative breakthroughs I've had have arrived in dreams. I wake up with the memory, and then I know what I have to do. Even every day tasks come to me in the form of pictures, instead of words."
A TOUGH BEGINNING
Living in a movie about your own life may seem like utopia for an artist, but when Sharp was a student in school, it was anything but. School in the 1970s for kids with dyslexia was generally pretty rough, as teachers and administrators didn’t have the tools to teach many children with learning differences.
"I begged my principal to be put in class with all of the other kids, but he told me I'd never be able to keep up," Sharp recalls. "So I was in class with kids who were severely challenged mentally, and, while it was difficult for me to thrive and challenge myself intellectually, I did become sort of dad to them all. I've always been bigger than most people [he's 6'4" and built like a football player], so I ended up standing up to all of the bullies for them."
In high school, he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia, and his world became marginally brighter. But he still struggled in school, and, despite the extra tutors his family hired and his mother's work with him one-on-one, graduating in 1983 was tough because, until the 1980's, educators didn't really have even the most rudimentary lesson plans or educational background to know how to work with children whose brains work differently.
Yet Sharp's family saw his potential. While they were unsure how it would manifest itself, they were determined to help him find a way to make it happen.
"My uncle had a successful law firm in Virginia, and when I graduated from high school, he called me and told me to come down for the summer," Sharp says. "He hired tutors to diagnose me and assess my skills. I ended up going through a series of tests at George Mason University."
A BRIGHTER FUTURE
The accessors determined that his visual skills were exceedingly high and advised him to pursue a career in photography.
"It was so emotional, and, in some ways I was relieved; but I did not want to become a photographer, so I was devastated," he says.
Yet being finally told that he had talent, and potential, was empowering. He began experimenting with art projects in his spare time, enrolled in a community college Delhi Tech back in New York, and began working for his father's construction business. Dismayingly, however, the same types of troubles that plagued him in school also followed him into the workplace.
"I had a really hard time thriving at work, because I couldn’t process information unless it was delivered to me visually," Sharp explains. "During that time, I also got a job working in Manhattan as a carpenter. I'd ask my boss to give me a visual picture of what they wanted, and they just got frustrated."
After being fired from multiple jobs, he realized he'd have to forge his own unique path.
"People don't have the patience to deal with that, and I started to panic, because I realized, I had to create an opportunity, a life, a career, for myself," Sharp says.
MANIFESTING A DREAM
Shortly after having that realization, he had a dream. "I pictured flowers, encapsulated in plastic," he says. "I saw immediately how their beauty could be captured and transformed. I saw how it could be done."
He wondered where to begin, but then he thought of a Jehovah’s Witness who had stopped by his home previously, and told him he created art out of plastic. Sharp had grabbed the man's card at the time because Sharp suspected it might come in handy one day.
"So I called the guy up, and told him what I wanted to do," Sharp says. This was around 1986, and it serves as a line in the sand between when Sharp was a participant in the movie of his life and when he took control of the plotting and direction himself.
After several failed experiments, Sharp began creating plastic boxes for blooms himself. He also began hiking in the Adirondacks to gather hundreds of blooms, then moved to Costa Rica to study flowers and hired a band of flower gatherers, and, eventually, moved back to New York to crank out botanical sculptures.
Through his network of strangely but felicitously acquired contacts (through a dentist friend, he obtained permission to cut blooms from gardens at Cornell University; another person put him in touch with flower gatherers in Hawaii), he was able to get his hands on increasingly unusual and stunning species. But flower power can only get you so far, Sharp explains. "I was only thinking about the art," he says. "All I cared about was creating the most beautiful thing I could. But I knew I had to start thinking about business and money."
At that point, Sharp says he met "a gentleman named R.S. Horn in my local town sitting on a bench. We started talking about art, and my dream of preserving blooms in plastic." Horn happened to be an art dealer who worked with artists, including Leonard Baskin, Alexander Calder, Marino Marini, Robert Indiana, and Johnny Friedlander. Horn sold limited edition prints and lithographs of their work at Graphis Gallery on Greenwich Avenue in New York City.
"He saw my work, and told me I was a visual genius," Sharp recalls. "At that point, I was living in a garage at one of my sister's houses because my Uncle Tom [the attorney] advised me that the best way for entrepreneurs to grow their business was to erase their overhead."
Horn agreed to take Sharp under his wing, and teach him the basics of business. "He helped me understand how to market myself, who to talk to, what buyers wanted," Sharp explains.
In addition to the flowers, Sharp was building custom furniture. Under Horn's guidance, he started spending time in Manhattan, approaching galleries and collectors with his work. He sold several pieces in the five-figure range and was approached several times with opportunities to produce multiples of one creation, but ultimately he wasn’t interested.
"It's unfortunate in some ways because it would obviously make business sense, but I'm much more interested in the process of creation and invention, and you lose that producing the same piece over and over," he says.
Six years ago, he began having second thoughts about being more commercial. He thought of Horn, the lessons he imparted, and the example he set in his own prodigiously creative, but also financially lucrative, career.
"I was sick of struggling financially," Sharp says. "I wanted a creative business, yes, but also one with stability."
Sharp bought a furnace in Vermont, and went into business in Franklin Mountain with a glass-blowing partner. While the partnership didn't work out Sharp's ceaseless appetite — and talent — for using his network to grow his creative abilities has only increased.
He spent 18 months training in glassblowing at The Corning Museum of Glass, and while there, found a new mentor, Art Reed, of Sweetwater Glass. He also met several apprentice glassblowers and "gaffers" (production workers in the glass trade), many of whom he recruited for Bobby Sharp Glassworks. Reed advised him to upgrade his equipment; Sharp hired a master glassblower, Aric Snee, with whom he worked on a regular basis.
"Aric comes in for a few days, and we just buckle down on designs and production," Sharp says. "We work super long hours, but we make it fun. We put on good music, I have great food and snacks, and we just hang out and crank it out."
Sharp's hard work, utterly unique vision, and belatedly acquired business savvy are paying off.
He is under contract with the Beekman Boys of Sharon Springs on several glassware projects, his work is being sold at several prominent galleries, he is working with the Cooperstown Bat Company on a stunning hand-blown glass in the shape of a baseball bat, and now his creations can be found on New York Makers. Check out his incredible handblown decanters and glasses.
PAYING IT FORWARD
Sharp is also, for the first time, ready to share not just the pieces of his vision, but also the story of how that vision came to be.
Sharp is collaborating with a dear friend of his who has done ground-breaking work in autism education and animal behavior, Temple Grandin, on a project with Springbrook, a behavioral health program for children who have autism and other learning differences. They are setting up a camp program for kids so they, and other experts, can help mentor children and teach them how to harness their creativity and turn it into a business.
"Temple and I have decided that I may be on the spectrum myself," Sharp says, adding that after his sister's son was diagnosed with autism, she shared her suspicions that Sharp was autistic as well. "We both feel there are so many children who think like us — differently than others — who need to be taught how to use their creativity in the world as it is."
Sharp may not be able to change the whole world. But he's changed the way it sees him, and his work contributes a special dimension of beauty that enriches the lives of us all.