“. . . immersed in creating . . . in those moments I am everything that ever was from stardust to dinosaurs!”
I first encountered Robert Costanza in 1997, while I was working as a system engineer for McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach, California. Initially, I knew Robert as a gifted and dedicated engineer—someone who had worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab on a number of space-related projects and then made the move to the commercial world of aerospace. We shared a cubicle in “Dilbert Hell” for several years. During that time, I got to know more about Robert, namely he is not only an engineer, but an artist, a yoga practitioner, and an entrepreneur with an activist’s heart.
When I decided to interview artists, Robert came to mind immediately. I asked him if he would be willing to talk with me and he said, “of course.” What ensues are Robert’s thoughts on art, rocket science, and his role in society.
Kim Terrell: Since you are both a scientist and an artist, if you have not read Art & Physics by Leonard Shlain, I recommend it. Feel free to answer from both of those perspectives, as you tell me about yourself.
Robert Costanza: Funny, I did read Art & Physics a long time ago and could not sync with Leonard Shlain’s major hypothesis. As I recall, Shlain claimed that major advances in physics were foreshadowed by artists. I enjoyed reading his take on the histories of each field, but he didn’t convince me there was any correlation between the two fields beyond each of the figures having amazing creative skills.
Kim Terrell: As an artist, do you agree with the quote below? The quote is from a playwright, but I believe it applies to all artistic forms.
“Once we made the choice to produce our plays not to recoup an investment but to recoup some corner of the universe for our understanding and enlargement, we entered the same world as the university, the museum, the church and became, like them, an instrument of civilization.” Zelda Fichandler
Robert Costanza: I find her language strange… “recoup” is to regain/recover, but we are talking about the creative process, and to me there is no recouping here. Once given out, energy flows and gathers, transforms, and flows ever onwards. Yes, to clear and hold space for understanding and enlargement is a sacred act. I like that. However, I would not expect such a brave act from the institutions she mentions. The people in these institutions have pensions to preserve and positions to defend, so they are quite restricted in what they are able to unfold and enlarge upon. I agree that if you are in these structures, you are an instrument of civilization, yet it’s not determined if that holds a destructive or constructive nature. Don’t all instruments of humanity hold humans’ fundamental duality?
Kim Terrell: Could you be more specific about not expecting “such a brave act from the institutions she mentions?”
Robert Costanza: In my opinion, these institutions have served humanity by putting forth their own version of history. Universities have taken a turn towards ugly in the decades since the 60s—all dissent and speaking-out has disappeared from the now powerless academic elite. The church? As Jed McKenna says, “What else is religion but man’s fortress against reality? It is institutionalized denial.” Museums do provide service, yet here, perhaps, we find an even more radical power structure that excludes much more than it includes. This broad brush stroke critique doesn’t acknowledge islands of brightness, which exist and spread from special souls working within these systems—needed voices that help to shape highly humane trajectories for these institutions.
Kim Terrell: In thinking about the above quote, do you see yourself as an instrument of civilization?
Robert Costanza: Again, I do not think along these lines. Civilization to me is not a heartfelt word—not with the ever-changing form of capitalism I was born into. I see myself as an instrument to destroy all inequalities that capitalism represents. At the top of the list is perpetuating mindless distractions that keep a lot of our citizens asleep and imprisoned (without knowing it!). Maybe as those pillars tumble down, a civilization will come shining through, one that is worth serving. I like Bertolt Brecht’s quote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Kim Terrell: Are you talking about all civilization or the current environment in the United States?
Robert Costanza: I’m talking about our civilization, right now, primarily here in the U.S., but rapidly spreading to all developed nations, who then create their own nuanced version of our insane behavior. Capitalism/globalization/ “our” civilization historically… what is currently happening in capitalistic societies is quite distinct. Just like the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian civilizations had their own unique distinctions—all of which contributed to their respective downfalls—we have ours.
Kim Terrell: James Baldwin once said, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. That’s why I write.” Why do you paint?
Robert Costanza: I create art to explore and navigate a path through this incarnation. Art helps keep my thoughts focused on what is most important. Without art as an anchor to what truly is important, I’d get lost to the rat race of everyday existence. There is insanity in all pockets of our culture, yet our culture can be exciting and challenging and helpful to our evolution. I use art to keep my head above the waterline for as many moments as I can each day.
What is most important from my perspective is to change the course our civilization is on: degrading standards of living for most people, the depletion of our planet’s natural resources, and destabilization of our global environment (termed “global warming”). For the next generations, it is an absolute necessity to destroy outdated capitalistic structures that are unwilling to change on their own. I’ve worked in a number of governmental systems and have found that working from within trying to bring about change, one encounters deep and violent resistance to change.
Kim Terrell: What do you focus on when you are not lost in the “insanity” in all pockets of our culture?
Robert Costanza: In my clearest moments, I am thinking about awakening, staying awake, and forging a path to an enlightened state. It is unfortunate the misconceptions these notions hold in popular culture. The process is about evolving to our full potential as humans, no more, no less.
I am a visual artist/scientist and generally work alone, so the dharmic path naturally suits me. It involves a lot of introspection, peeling back layers, and analyzing how our spirit/body/mind work together. We are so incredible and mystical; Western science is just beginning to scratch the surface of that which older traditions explored in great depth.
Robert Costanza: Inquiry into what internally isn’t working in harmony within me, then extended out into the world. Discovering how to create change from the inside out to improve the world—this is the path I am on. Hopefully, this is what my art reflects.
Kim Terrell: How is the current society in the United States exciting and challenging? How does it impact your work?
Robert Costanza: Our society discourages us from becoming self aware and from questioning our assumptions and growing to realize we control our realities. We have lost the journey from childhood to adulthood—most adults never make that transition. On the whole, we are all grown children fulfilling our desires, despite the implications of unwise decisions—decisions that work against our individual health and the health of our planet.
This perversion provides the fuel and oxidizer, or, if you want, excitement/challenge to fuel my passion to want to evolve, make new art, and create a path that I can “heartfully” live within our current economic paradigm. Forging such a path takes so much creativity. Fortunately, I seem to be healthier circumventing the challenges of being very poor yet living an existence which allows me to work on creative challenges everyday. Working in a cubicle making three figures a year, I am able to accumulate wealth, but my value to other generations diminishes, my mental health declines.
Kim Terrell: What gives you the most joy with respect to painting/creating? The most sorrow? The biggest challenge?
Robert Costanza: The biggest challenge is creating something new, fresh, and heartfelt. It really is such a challenge. Giving creative birth can be a long process fraught with dead ends. To birth a creative breakthrough all the way to completion takes incredible tenacity. This amazingly difficult process gives me the most joy and the most sorrow. It’s that maddening duality at the core of being human that provides further fuel to create and to tackle challenge.
Kim Terrell: So, for you the process is the most important aspect? What creates the joy? The sorrow?
Robert Costanza: Yes, it is all about the process, the path to the end. How I navigate on that path determines the process I create, the art falls out of that. I get an idea in mind and move on creating it with little idea where it will all lead. As it unfolds, that is the incredible magic.
The joy comes from the magic. I am trying to bring something new into existence, and with that the universe starts lining up people, places, and things to help me reach my goal. Many miracles appear to help me along—that is the joy!
The sorrow has to do with all the setbacks, external, yes, but more importantly, internal: my emotional landscape, resistances, and fears that arise and conspire to take me from the path. My emotional constructs—if I’m not mindful of their arising—create fear and then anxiety, which can lead into neurosis. These constructs can take incredible amounts of energy to understand and transcend. In one sense, that may be an enlightened state—when all fears and resistances fall away. It’s so incredible to be human!
Kim Terrell: Who are you when you paint?
Robert Costanza: When “I” create, in those moments when my ego mind is totally absent and I am immersed in creating, I am everything that ever was, from stardust to dinosaurs, to circuit boards and flower bouquets, and everything in between. I am everything that ever existed, and the energy to evolve and keep on is what directs my brush. “I am” that energy.
Kim Terrell: What do you think about hour by hour, day by day? How does your thinking impact your creative process? How does your creative process impact your thinking?
Currently, I’m really into the concept of momentum of mind, of thoughts . . . they really do gather wings and take off, flying towards intention. At those times, I try not to control my thoughts; that becomes such an effort. I try to observe them, to catch a glimpse of them when they do not have me pinned down. Between awareness and surrender, there seems to be a path into pure intention, and from there a way inwards that allows me to go deeply into the creative process.
Kim Terrell: Does clarity visit you more often these days?
Robert Costanza: When I’m in retreat, clarity descends and takes root. If I continue meditation after the retreat, I’m able to foster a level of clarity in everyday life. Clarity of mind, for me, generates clarity in the heart. So that is my challenge, off-retreat, to remain connected with my intuitive center, the heart. Everyday stresses build up, which bring me into the mind center. I start to lose heart clarity, and soon all sorts of old fears come out to party! I am fascinated to witness the descent into misery, when I back off my meditation. The mind is truly amazing; it’s unskillful habits powerful, yet oddly, somehow, this cycling nurtures creativity.
Kim Terrell: As an artist, do you think that you have a role in society? If so, what do you see that role being?
Robert Costanza: Yes, but I am still growing into my role; there’s so much to learn. Currently, I feel my role is to help lead new generations in a smooth transition into new economic models. I’m in a no man’s generational zone, just after the baby boomers; I had the option to accrue rich retirement packages but always felt the cost for doing so was too high. I’m constantly inching towards alternatives to our traditional models.
Robert Costanza: I’ve recently found the Critical Path Institute that embodies and references many pioneers and embodies a rather unique approach to ushering in the new. This isn’t my expertise—fortunately, there are many gifted voices out there. Bloggers like Charles Hugh Smith, displaced newspaper reporters like Chris Hedges, amazing print material being disseminated by magazines like AdBusters… to name one in each of my preferred categories of information sources.
I really love working in classrooms. I do not want to veer too far from contact with new generations—it isn’t healthy. I’m trying to get an outreach program up and running, where I’ll work in classrooms to model for students that an artist can use engineering and teaching skills to craft a very unique path, while being of service to others. In the end, I’ll be teaching math using science concepts, but there is much more than this being taught—I’m viewing this as performance art to open eyes to unlimited potentials.
One notion that I explore in a practical sense, a shift in paradigm, is to think in terms of building net value rather than in terms of net worth: the number of close friendships you have nurtured, the number of people you have mentored, gardens planted, practical skills you have acquired and shared, amount of time you have spent in solitude, mastery of difficult disciplines, number of strangers you have freely abided in your house. This road seems to be where our secured futures lie.
Kim Terrell: How does the world of technology impact and inform your work? How do the current political and social climates in the U.S. impact and inform your work?
Robert Costanza: Currently, I have two thrusts to my art: one that is critical of technology (guided without heart) and one that explores various spiritual paths. I have a sense that the technological/political spectrum amounts to fine wrapping on false promises. A parlor game of rising profits and evolving security systems is what seems to drive a lot of technologies. This will all change as the newer generations evolve. I trust we will recoup our humanity, our ability to sense deeply and remain internally very still and silent for long stretches of our day. This is the human with optimal health of mind, with an open heart.
Kim Terrell: I am not sure I understand what you mean, “I trust we will recoup our humanity.”
Robert Costanza: In a tsunami, people asleep in coastal hotels are swept away, while animals sense ahead of time it is wise to move to higher ground. I trust our distant ancestors moved to higher ground as well. In capitalistic societies, we have put too much distance between ourselves and our natural survival instincts. We’ve adopted new, unnatural survival instincts that leave us in high stress levels for much of the day. This is ruinous to our health.
Kim Terrell: Is technology inherently bad? Are politics inherently bad?
Robert Costanza: Technology and politics are not inherently bad, but they have become evil due to outdated power structures from which decisions are made and handed down. As a personal example, I was the system engineer for propulsion systems on the Delta IV family of launch vehicles. We were in competition with another company, which was also developing a family of huge rockets—a winner-take-all design contest. At the time, we envisioned a healthy commercial launch for communication satellites. What the Air Force decided was that both teams won the “competition,” so both rocket systems were funded!
Fast forward a decade and both companies have been merged into one. Over ninety percent of their launch business is top secret stuff, and I suspect they are “spy satellites.” Now there are no competitors, so this new company can charge the government astronomical launch prices. To think we invested hundreds of billions of dollars into two massive rocket systems, each with their own launch sites and unique equipment!
Simply put, there was no vision in this plan, no leadership or forethought. A very few people are getting very rich off this scheme; it inspires not one kid to pursue a dream of designing rockets. Today, America cannot get one human being into earth orbit—we need the Russians for that. I can’t even take a class to visit a launch site, because with secret payloads there is a security clearance process required. To think I gave years of my life to this insanity.
Kim Terrell: You have lived in a number of different countries. How has that impacted your work?
Robert Costanza: Spending over a month living in any one city on this planet is amazing. In that time, a community emerges from all around you that encompasses and engages on multiple levels that are totally unexpected. I’m not talking about westernized nations but developing nations, where humanity is the priority and achievement takes a back seat.
Drawing street beggars on city sidewalks, some missing multiple limbs, took 45 minutes, so I had an hour in their life as a silent observer. These people had an amazing array of friends and benefactors, who engaged in heartfelt exchanges. Seeing this, experiencing it, transformed me in ways I have yet to understand.
Kim Terrell: It seems simplistic to suggest that westernized nations all lack community and emerging nations all have community. Would you expand on that?
Robert Costanza: It took an earthquake for me and my neighbors of four years to meet one another. Electricity was out for over ten hours, so we hung out and smoked cigarettes in the apartment hallways. A lot of us were friends from then on. With time compression, we were able to achieve what should have arisen naturally, but we were all too busy working long hours, doing chores, and decompressing.
In developing nations, the entire town pours outdoors at sunset—just hangs out and mingles in the streets and plazas. Anywhere you travel, you can experience this. Looking around at all the smiles, you sense a big beating heart to these communities.
Comparatively, our streets are soulless, built with security and commerce in mind. There are TVs at home that beacon us. We exist in nuclear families, in the vacuum of our homes or amongst friends, more individualistic than what I see traveling. I don’t want to sound critical; this is just one aspect of our existence. We have so many options open to us in this country that do not exist in other nations.
Kim Terrell: Perhaps we should re-integrate community and commerce ?
Robert Costanza: I like that notion, re-integrating community and commerce to fit the needs of citizens within a democracy.
Kim Terrell: I’m curious, how does the scientist in you inform your artist? How does your artist inform your scientist?
Robert Costanza: They are inseparably wrapped within a creative urge. I am drawn to industrial settings such as port regions and refineries. There is such raw beauty in these creations. Yet look closer, and there is little visual sense in how it is all laid out—so practical, every little design detail brought in for function only.
This is the engineer mind that is trained to creatively solve complex problems. I love doing this; there is something magnificent about using mathematics to predict how nature will behave ahead of time.
The artist mind is trained to do the same thing, except here the problems are aesthetic in nature and always involve getting your hands dirty. In a way, it is much more complex, because the end point is not always so clear and the parameters are not as delineated. There is more freedom and often the scientist, in this case, will come along and constrain things up a bit so I can get to work. It is the need for this control that drives me away from abstract painting—this being a resistance I should probably look more closely at.
Kim Terrell: For you, what constitutes success?
Robert Costanza: Success to me is to live in accordance to my spirit/soul’s purpose. I believe we carry a soul purpose into this life, and to tap into that and create a life that fully embodies that purpose is my definition of success.
Kim Terrell: Have you always lived in accordance with your spirit/soul? How have you increased your net value since we met in 1997?
Robert Costanza: (Laughs) I have not always lived in accordance with my spirit. It has been, and is, a long, long road to even realizing my purpose. I highly value intuition and try to follow that. I trust my spirit feeds information into my heart and leave it at that.
I hope I have increased my net value since our rocket days. I became a teacher and created a lot of cool physics demonstrations for the kids and hopefully inspired them in ways I can’t know. I learned to create animations for a “crowdfunding” video last summer… a huge undertaking.
I have spent thousands of hours on a meditation cushion since 1997 and went through a yoga teacher’s training course. I’ve traveled a lot and created an entire storage space of paintings and drawings. Found myself exploring communal living, couch surfing, and permaculture. Learned about health and cooking and continually try to share what I’ve learned, when called to.
Most of these activities were inspired by intuition, certainly none of these went towards increasing my net worth—not that I can currently discern. I’ve adapted to stay on the path. Since I left “Dilbert Hell,” I’ve had a lot of fun and enjoyed wonderful learning experiences.
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