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It’s That Time of Year

Sunday, 5. January 2020 21:40

No, not that time of year—rather, it’s that time of year when we begin to de-decorate from the holidays, or re-decorate, depending on who we are. Most of us only do the former, returning our post-holiday environment to “normal.” Few of us think about what de-decoration means in terms of our thought and creative processes.

There is little question that the holidays affect us mentally. Just google “holidays mental impact” or “holidays brain.” Interestingly, the vast majority of articles that turn up on either of those searches have to do with negative mental impact of the holidays, whether it’s depression or stress or anxiety or seasonal affective disorder. Occasionally there is an article that focuses more on the positive. Whether we perceive the holidays as a time for loving and celebrating and giving and socializing with friends and family or a time for depression, stress and anxiety, it’s time to put those things behind us and transition (back) to the non-holiday world.

Although much has been written about how holidays affect us as people, there is little written about how the holidays impact us as artists. Are we more or less engaged with our art? Is it a time for increased creativity or increased productivity, or is it a time for sidelining our creative thoughts and processes?

Regardless of how the holidays affect us as people and as artists, we are, at this time of the year, engaged in the transition out of the holidays and into something else. Our environment may be changing: we may be de-decorating, removing holiday decorations and restoring our rest-of-the-year décor. Others of us are re-decorating, removing winter holiday decorations and decorating with post-holiday winter décor. (There are those of us who are so conscious of their personal environments that they decorate for every season and every holiday on the calendar.)

Whichever way we approach the decorating opportunities, what is important is that this is a period of transition. Some of us are packing away the stress and anxiety that accompany our winter holidays. Others of us are putting away a happy time of socializing with family and friends, of gratitude, of giving and receiving. How we approach that transition may be as different as what we are transitioning from: it might be a time of reflection; it might be a time for reviewing what we have done and not done during the holiday period; it might be a time for reexamining and reevaluating our past work in general; it might be a time for taking inventory. Or it might be a time for looking ahead; it might be a time for actualizing those creative ideas that appeared during the holidays; it may be a time for reinventing ourselves; it may be a time for just moving forward.

Irrespective of how our holidays went or how we see our future, we must understand that how we handle of the transition can be of great impact—on our creative as well as our personal lives. Assuming that we decorated even a little bit, in de-decorating we are changing our environment, and there can be no question that environment impacts creativity. Perhaps instead of simply restoring that environment to the old “normal,” we should take some time to consider, then, going forward, take steps to make our environments more conducive to creativity.

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Broken

Sunday, 22. December 2019 22:24

America, it would seem, is broken. Every day there is another headline about this or that being broken. It’s to the point that there seems to be nothing that isn’t broken. Here are just a few examples:

But these are all political and social systems. We in the arts may or may not be interested in those programs. We should, however, be interested in the following list.

While American theatre in not classified as “broken,” it might as well be. In most locations, professional theatre, if it exists, is far from affordable, thus there are websites like BroadwayForBrokePeople.com, which doesn’t secure inexpensive seats, but does provide links to digital ticket lotteries.

For those of us in the arts who do not work on Broadway or have our work auctioned by the big New York auction houses, things sometimes appear to be broken on our level as well. It is difficult to find representation, or paying gigs, or gallery space, or win at the crap-shoot that is the juried show system, or just sell a piece now and then.

The point, of course, is that everything seems to be broken. No matter where we turn, this system or that industry or program is broken. For example, just a couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal announced that clothing sizes are broken. Clothing sizes! What’s next?

A better question might be, “What’s not broken?” And the answer is “creativity and art-making.” Neither of these is broken. In fact, it’s a good time for those of us who are creative and interested in making art. There is an abundance of material about and from which we can create. And there are people who are interested in what we do, even if they can’t afford to purchase our work. And performers can find outlets; even if they are non-paying or low-paying ones, still they exist.

And while some systems and programs that impact us are broken, the one that is our primary outlet is not. We can still produce art; we can make things; we can perform; we can create. We need to remember that even though giving birth to works of art can sometimes be painful, it is also a great joy. And we need to remind ourselves that we have the power to present a point of view, the power to share our ideas and feelings, the power to make people feel, the power to change minds, the power to change lives. Art itself is not broken, and never will be. And that is something to celebrate!

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The Gift of Unstructured Time

Sunday, 8. December 2019 21:55

Americans reportedly work more than workers in any other developed country. Some would say that our work ethic is the result of Puritan influence; others might blame it on our no-holds-barred capitalism. Whatever the reason, we spend a lot of time working.

And if we are artists, it’s even worse. Because we like what we do, we tend to spend an enormous amount of time working. Added to that is the pressure to produce, particularly in the current social media environment. Jonas Jödicke has described the present-day pressure to produce this way:

 

So we work. And some of us try to follow the advice of so many successful artists from Khaled Hosseini,  to Julia Cameron and work with discipline, which means working on our art at a set time every day or working a certain amount of time every day. And many of us work at our art literally every day. Working with discipline often requires schedules and organization. And, as anyone who is a regular reader of this blog knows, I, for one, am a great believer in schedules, organization, structure, and lists. For anyone similarly disposed, this bent of mind facilitates the further structuring of our work time.

And structuring our work time can lead to structuring our other time as well, particularly if we are busy.  This leads to structuring all of our time. And while such structure might make us remarkably productive and organized, it can also have a deadening effect on our creativity. We find ourselves locked into our schedules and operating much like machines. What to do?

The solution sounds oxymoronic. We simply need to schedule unstructured time.  That is, we need to periodically set aside an amount of time during which there is no structure, during which nothing is scheduled. We can then use this time to think, dream, create, play the guitar, play with the cat, wash the dishes, weed the garden—or all of the above. That’s the point; it’s a time during which nothing is planned. This can be scary the first time, particularly for those of us who are schedule- and list-driven. And there is the fear of being bored, but creative people can always find something to do, and the discovery of new things to occupy us is one of the positive results of unstructured time. Once we accept the idea of unstructured time, there is yet another danger: planning what we will do during our scheduled unstructured time. This, of course, negates unstructured time. Once we plan what we will do, the time becomes structured. And even if we are addicted to being busy, we can busy ourselves during our unstructured time—just doing unplanned things. It’s like kindergarten recess for creatives.

How much unstructured time we need is an individual matter. Some of us need some every day. Others find once a week satisfying. Still others may need unstructured time only once a month. Length of time also varies with the individual. Whatever our particular needs, having that block of unstructured time will have a positive effect on our creativity and overall disposition. And that’s a gift worth giving ourselves.

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Talk About Your Work

Sunday, 24. November 2019 22:55

Remember when you were in that class and the instructor asked you to explain your work? Remember how you thought, “It’s art; I can’t explain it.” And then you took that other course and the instructor asked you to do the same thing, and this time you thought, “If I could explain it, I wouldn’t have had to paint [photograph, sculpt, compose, write] it.” But it only got worse. They kept asking you to explain what you were doing and, worse than that, they asked your peers to critique your work and say what they thought you were trying to communicate and how well you accomplished that.

It didn’t matter which art you were studying; the teachers were always asking for rationales for the choices that you made. They never let you get away with, “I’ll just let the work speak for itself.” And they continued to ask your peers what they thought about your work. And sometimes you learned that your work did not say exactly what you set out to say, at least to other people in the class.

As is often the case, the teachers were correct in their push to have us articulate our work. Even though we hate doing it, articulation forces us to put our work into prose, which forces us to think about the art differently. This is particularly useful for work that may be mysterious or ambiguous or may not be clear to the viewers/listeners. Probably this was not apparent to us when it was happening in school. The fact is that there is always something to be learned from articulating our work.

Please note that this has nothing to do with the talking about our work that agents, advisors, and gallerists tell us to do. That is a sales technique. And we’re really talking about something different:  the story of how the idea came and the process of making the work rather than an attempt to explain the work itself.

Many artists make articulation part of their process. For example, I know actors who, as part of their technique, walk through all the actions they will perform in a show, but they talk to themselves as they do it. I also know stage directors who have conversations with their assistant directors for the sole purpose of hearing themselves evaluate the things they are doing to shape the show.

Recently I found another use for talking about my work. Some photographs were not quite what I wanted them to be, but I couldn’t put my finger on the precise problem. I had a friend look at them, and he pointed out a couple of things that I had thought about, but did not realize the full impact of until I heard it in words. Then I realized that I could have done it by myself. All I had to do was start talking about what was right about the image which, of course, led me to realize and be able to verbalize what was wrong with the image. Hearing it in words makes all the difference.

So now I talk to myself—even more than I used to—but now I talk about the art and how it works, or doesn’t. It sounds simplistic, but it takes editing out of the world of feelings and ideas and puts it into the world of reason. And that helps, and anything that helps make the work better is worth a try.

Category:Creativity, Criticism, Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Stay Open

Sunday, 10. November 2019 23:10

One of the most difficult things for student actors to learn is to keep inventing. It seems that as the blocking (the pattern of movement) and the line memorization become solid, there is a tendency to want to also solidify their readings and business. As they solidify these aspects of their roles, these actors tend to close themselves off to other possibilities.

One supposes that this is because they come from backgrounds in church plays or high school where the philosophy of production was to rehearse until they got it “right” and then repeat that for the performances. A number of directors, myself included, believe that that approach is a formula for producing stale theatre; we believe rather that actors should create their characters anew at each performance and that rehearsals create the stable structure that allows this to happen. This approach works best if actors stay open to new insights and ideas and realize them on the stage.

Yet they continue to stop inventing as the rehearsal process moves along. And that’s a shame because trying one new thing, even toward the end of a creative process can generate new concepts and open never-before-thought-of understandings that can only enhance and enrich the creation—if the artist is open to it. Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, quoted in Austin Kleon’s recent blog post says, “Really be as naïve as possible, you know as ignorant as possible, because then you can keep yourself as wide open as possible for anything that could be of help, could be of use…”

The need to stay open applies to artists other than actors as well. Artists are notorious for tunnel-vision, particularly as they near the end of a project. But along with that single-mindedness, artists need to remain available to other ideas that may appear along the way. Ask any musician who does jazz improvisation; sometimes a new riff comes because one person in the group played a single note differently.

And this idea is not restricted to performing artists. A photographer may note the particular way a model turns or notice something in an image during post processing that s/he had missed before and suddenly new doors open up. The painter may slip and make an unplanned brush stroke and then realize that it was not a mistake, but one of Bob Ross’ “happy accidents.” A writer can mistype a word and suddenly realize a direction that s/he hadn’t thought of before. These opportunities would have been missed had the artist resisted a new idea because s/he was too close to finishing the work.

And many of us focus not only on the work, but on finishing the work—particularly as we get closer to that goal. Unfortunately, this state of mind works to our detriment if we refuse to let new intuitions into our creative process

As for finishing the work, Pablo Picasso has famously said that to finish a work is to “kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow…” The natural extension of this idea is that all art should remain unfinished, and since it is unfinished, new directions and modifications are always possible. Just thinking about our works this way can give us the freedom to continue to explore and invent, even as we move toward completion of a project. In other words, thinking this way gives us what we need: the ability to stay open to new ideas and insights all the way through the creative process.

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Tiny Adjustments

Sunday, 13. October 2019 22:27

On Twitter earlier this week, Andy Williams posed the question, “Photographers: Do you MAKE a picture or TAKE a picture?” Ansel Adams, one of America’s great photographers, answered the question years ago when he said, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” I must agree. Of course, every photographer wants to take a good picture, but that’s only the beginning. Adams made prints from his superior negatives, but not without a bit of darkroom magic to enhance the picture. Today, when most photography is digital, we strive to get a good capture, and then we turn to computer software to do our digital legerdemain to improve our images.

It is at the computer that a number of decisions are made which can make or break an image. One of those is the decision on how to crop the image, i.e. deciding what to keep and what to discard. Several years ago, I posted about the importance of framing, determining what information stays within the borders of an image and what gets left out. It’s a task that most photographers do instinctively without overthinking the process.

However, I have a colleague, a fine art photographer, who has developed a process of making 5×7 prints of certain images and attaching them to his refrigerator with small magnets. “It allows me to think about them over a period of time,” he says of the process. “I find that it makes my work better.” He pins the images to the refrigerator where they will stay for sometimes a month while he considers what will make them better. Sometimes he decides to reject them entirely, but usually, he will make cryptic marks, noting what modifications he wants to make in the image. In answer to my question about the process, he said, “These are the problem children. Most images are easy to edit in the computer, but some are more difficult to get exactly right. I find it hard to see exactly what they need unless they are on paper and I can study them off and on for a while. As far as the decision goes, I just look for what will make it better.”

He is a firm believer in creating the best image he can imagine and ruthless when it comes to adjusting what stays in the image and what gets cropped out. This sometimes means making images which do not fit any standard frames; he says that he gave up on standard sizes long ago, and is concerned only with making the best possible image. The other day, I got to see the current collection of images in his kitchen. One long, thin image had a mark slightly less than 1/8 inch from the top with some words I couldn’t read. In answer to my question about what it was, he said it was where the image needed to be cropped. “But that’s a tiny amount,” I said. “Yes, he said, but it will make the image better. The new crop line removed just a little less than 2/100 of the overall height of the image, a tiny adjustment if there ever was one. However, he made that adjustment and reprinted the image. It was indeed better.

And so it is with all art. Tiny adjustments can make a piece radically different: an actor changes one line, which then cascades into an entirely different performance. The addition of two measures completely alters the nature of the musical composition. Minute brush strokes modify the meaning of a painting. The examples are endless.

But to be clear, this is not about perfection; it is about using (usually small) adjustments to make a piece the best it can be. And it’s about understanding that making such adjustments might allow us to reclaim some projects that we had before considered failures.

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Stay Flexible

Sunday, 29. September 2019 22:18

One of the most difficult things for actors to learn is live in the moment and respond truthfully to fictional environment of the scene. This is particularly observable in the way they cling to old line readings even though the circumstances of the scene have evolved since they arrived at those line readings. The impulse is to do what has worked before rather than trust oneself to step into the unknown and offer a new response based only on characterization, character objectives, and the immediate circumstances.

This unwillingness of the actor to trust him/herself in the moment can based in a number of things: (1) it could be laziness or intransigence; “I learned it this way, and I’m not going to change now.” (2) It could be that the actor believes that s/he has found the “right” reading, and anything different would be “wrong.” This, of course, means that if the scene goes in a different direction from the way it was last performed, then that new direction is “wrong.” These are the sorts of actors who believe that the goal of rehearsals is to perfect the performance, which then stays constant no matter how many times it is performed. Experience teaches that this is not the best approach to live theatre (or probably any performing art, or perhaps any art). (3) It could be fear (about which I have written a couple of times: here and here). Stepping out into the unknown is scary business, particularly when there are people watching. What if one were to make a bad choice in front of an audience?

The actor’s reasoning could be based on any of these, or some combination, or something I haven’t thought of. Whatever the reason, s/he sticks to yesterday’s plan, fails to adhere to the truth of the moment, and creates bad art.

This is not just an actor’s problem. Almost all artists are faced with creative situations where success demands flexibility. The characters in a novel take the plot in a direction unforeseen in the writer’s outline. An unexpected heat wave modifies the malleability of the sculptor’s materials. Rain mars the outdoor wedding photography. Every artist is likely, in the course of creation, to encounter some factor that modifies the work being attempted. The artist can respond in the same way as the actors above, refusing/declining to change what they are doing or how they are doing it. Or they can be flexible, see the situation for what it is, and respond to that situation in a spontaneously creative way.

Undoubtedly, those who are more flexible and can respond to the moment will be more productive, since they don’t wait until conditions are restored to optimum; indeed, that may never happen. And it is likely that they will—in the long run—be more successful. The actor who only repeats the same readings at every performance is soon considered stale and boring. The photographer or painter who will only use the one lighting setup will likewise find him/herself producing repetitious and uninteresting work.

So whether we are actors or musicians or painters or writers or photographers or sculptors, we need to stay open to the possibility of momentary change and be flexible enough to embrace those moments, modifying our procedures and practices as the situation demands. The bonus is that being that flexible has the potential to open doors that we didn’t even know were there.

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Back to Basics

Sunday, 21. July 2019 22:25

A friend of mine is a tutor who is mostly involved with coaching students on test-taking to improve their scores. Recently, however, he was given the job of working with a broadcast journalist who had been having trouble on her job. It seems that the station she worked for had recently switched from reading from paper to reading from a teleprompter. She, for some reason, was having difficulty reading the teleprompter. This would lead to a panic situation wherein she would become completely tongue-tied and flustered. Needless to say, it was a situation she needed to remedy if she was going to continue in her present occupation.

So the tutor, who is not a speech pathologist, began to experiment to see if he could get to the root of the problem. He went about this methodically, trying one thing, observing the result, then trying another. He asked colleagues who had taught voice and diction for advice; since he had a theatre background, he talked to former teachers, all the while continuing to experiment. Finally he hit on a process that helped immeasurably: vocal warm-ups. He found that if the client did vocal relaxation exercises prior to reading aloud, things went better. Then he added tongue-twisters and other articulation exercises that actors use for vocal warm-ups. The results were amazing.

The exercises seemed not only to relax the client’s mouth and throat, but her in general. She became much less stressed at having to work with the teleprompter, which led to a much more relaxed and articulate presentation. Once the breakthrough was made, it was just a matter of designing a custom vocal warm-up routine for the client that would maximize articulation and relaxation. That, in turn, increased the client’s confidence in her ability to use the teleprompter successfully.

The solution was essentially a case of returning to the basics of vocal performance. This whole situation made me think how useful it is for any artist to revisit basics from time to time. We have a tendency in our work, regardless of the area of arts in which we are involved, to move toward more complex work, work further and further removed from basic rules and principles. Sometimes we get so far away that we lose our moorings. Those are the times we most need to get back to basics.

Perhaps it would be better if we did not wait until we were so far removed from the basics of our respective arts to embrace them, since those basics are the foundation upon which our artistic endeavors are really built. It certainly could not hurt to periodically review basic practices and principles, and it might actually improve our work. Revisiting fundamentals can be especially important when we, like the client in the above story, are undergoing changes or entering a new branch of our art.

Intermittently going back to basics can not only remind us of foundational principles and practices of our arts, it may also remind us of why we are working in the arts to begin with and serve to refresh our creativity, and that is never a bad thing.

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Consider Developing an Inspirational Environment

Sunday, 23. June 2019 21:43

Several years ago, I was thinking about modifying one’s environment in order to live an artistic life. Some recent events have me thinking about that again. Some people in the arts have a need to surround themselves completely with an environment that feeds their artistic sensibilities. This causes them to move to places where they consider the arts energy to be very high: New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Paris, London. They feel that in addition to there being a higher likelihood of employment, there is in these places an artistic energy upon which they can feed.

This is the same impulse that encourages some artists to seek the isolation of a retreat, often establishing residence (at least part-time) in less populated areas because they draw their inspiration from an isolated environment with or without other like-minded artists and far fewer “big-city” distractions. This is the urge, for example, that led James Jones to end up in in the small, somewhat isolated town of Marshall, IL.

Some who work in the arts feel they cannot move, either to one of the arts centers of the world or into the wilderness, for any number of reasons. They may love where they live or dislike it intensely but still feel bound to the place. Those people can work to make their residences or work spaces into an environment that supports their art. A man I know loves where he lives, but when Hurricane Harvey put the ground floor of his house underwater, he did not build the house back as it was. Instead, he spent the insurance money and then some on redesigning the entire house to reflect his artistic interests, even down to changing all the of the (undamaged) wall art to pieces that he found more inspirational.

Another person I know really dislikes the town that she lives in, but feels she needs to stay there. So she has made her home into an artistic sanctuary full of artifacts from which she gets inspiration on a daily basis. She even has certain spots in the house designated for wall art which she changes at irregular intervals in order to keep things fresh. She is currently spending money on the landscaping of her back yard, which she has come to consider an extension of her sanctuary, into a garden that encourages meditation and reflection.

Artists who are place-bound but do not have the funds or inclination to turn their homes into complete artistic environments, might work on a smaller scale. Many artists have an office or studio in which they work. This space can be turned into an artistic environment so that when they are working they can absorb inspiration from the space. It is likely that this will make the work space radically different from the rest of the house or apartment, but that’s really the idea—to modify the environment so that it supports the artist’s work.

Some artists, particularly those living in small rental spaces do not have an entire room in which they work. Rather, they have a small area, a nook, perhaps, which is where they create. Even in tiny spaces, adjustments can be made to provide an inspirational environment, even if it is simply the use of a wall or a board upon which to tape, tack, pin inspirational images and quotes, such as Wendy MacNaughton’s studio wall of inspiration.

We all may not be able to lead a completely artistic lives; some of us may not even want to. We can, however, create environments, no matter how small, that provide creative inspiration.  While we may not immediately embrace such an idea, it is certainly worthy of consideration.

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You Have to Be Ready for Inspiration

Sunday, 9. June 2019 23:57

Several weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about it being time to write the next blog post. He asked, “Where do you get your inspiration?” I don’t recall my answer, but it was lame, I’m sure. The real answer is that it comes from all sorts of places. Sometimes it’s something I see, or something I hear or something I read. Or it could be any one of those that sets off a chain reaction of thoughts that ends in what might be called inspiration.

Then as I was thinking about inspiration, this week serendipitously brought Austin Kleon’s blog post “It’s not inside you trying to get out, it’s outside you trying to get in,” which posits that inspiration comes from outside. We do not have books, or songs or photographs or paintings or poems inside us. Rather they exist in the universe and come to us for expression. He quotes artists as divers as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Michael Jackson, and Henry David Thoreau to make his point. Not only do inspirations come from outside, but if we are not receptive, they go elsewhere to find acceptance.

There are at least two implications contained in this idea. The first is that we creatives are not really creators. We don’t originate the ideas, the inspirations. Rather, we in some way prepare ourselves so that we are ready to receive the idea when it comes. Then we snatch it out of the air or ether or wherever it is and write it or paint it or sculpt it or do whatever we do. Cave as much as says this in his advice to a “blocked” songwriter.

The second implication is contained in the first. It is that we as artists must make ourselves ready to seize inspiration when it does arrive. As I have written before, inspiration is not something that we can always count on. Sometimes it comes; sometimes it doesn’t. What is important is that we are ready, which means that we show up, we exercise discipline, we do the work—every day. And that showing up and doing the work readies us for inspiration. As Kleon puts it in one of his blackout poems:

the Muse

is ready to

surprise me

if

i

show   up every day

and

say,

“Wanna hang out?”

Art is, at least in part, about making connections and seeing patterns. The inspiration triggers a set of ideas which ends in our making those connections and seeing those patterns. And if we don’t figure out a way to ready ourselves, then the inspirations fly by unnoticed. Connections don’t get made; patterns don’t get recognized.  We call that “being blocked.” Then we often bear down, which closes us off even more from the universe, and then we really are creatively blocked.

It’s not really magical, although it may look and sound that way. It may not even be mystical, although some would argue with that. It is simply doing the work that is required to be creative and doing it regularly, putting ourselves in a mental and physical place to be receptive to our own flow of ideas and not thinking so hard in a single direction that we close out other possibilities. Only when we are open can a new idea develop. Then all we have to do is recognize it and do something with it.

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