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You Keep Using That Word…

Sunday, 21. May 2017 23:49

“Acting is my passion” are words that I often hear from my students, sometimes repeatedly. Usually it’s not true, at least if one is to judge by their behavior. Passion is one of those things that you usually don’t have to be told about; you can see it in the behavior of the person. I keep wanting to say, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” But I don’t. I think they think that passion for something means they enjoy it, which does fit one of the dictionary definitions.

In my experience, however, Passion and enjoyment do not mean the same thing. Some artists have a passion that they don’t necessarily enjoy; rather, their passion is what drives them. And while many artists revel in their passions, others do not enjoy being as driven as they are.

And passions, it turns out, do not necessarily respect one’s desires. A musician I was talking with the other night mentioned his daughter, a senior in high school. Unknowingly, I asked if she played. He launched into a short tirade about how she played in marching band, but did not enjoy the music part; she liked the marching, and the patterns, and the being outdoors. According to him, she had no passion. He went further to say that his kids’ only passion was the smart phone, which they “played” with great expertise. The situation, I think, was not that his daughter had no passion, but rather that she had no passion for music (which evidently disappointed him). Her fondness for the outdoors, or intricate marching patterns could, conceivably, develop into passions, and she might have other passions as well.

Or she might not. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone has a passion, or even the capability for being passionate. I rather suspect that real passion is somewhat rare. Many people go through their whole lives without it, and don’t really seem to miss it. In fact, I think people without what I would call passion are in the majority.

The minority—and I believe it is a very small minority—who are passionate about something don’t have to tell you. What they do tells you. What they talk about tells you. What they think about tells you. How they spend their time tells you. The way they live tells you.

Take for example Nolan Ryan (and forgive me if I have told this story before). I know a person who went to high school with Ryan and who says that all he ever cared about was throwing a baseball. He did it for hours a day, every day. He was obsessed; he was passionate about throwing a baseball. And that passion was responsible for a remarkable career and more than a few records.

Passion is one of those words like Art that I have always been hesitant to claim for fear of sounding pretentious. It seemed a word that was more appropriate in a romantic (or Romantic) novel. You will seldom hear people who are genuinely passionate about anything talk about that passion; they are too busy dealing with it to discuss it.

While some people are disconcerted by those who are passionate, I appreciate and admire them. They are the ones who set records, who make break-through discoveries, who invent new technologies, who create great art.

So if you are one who has passion, my advice—worth exactly what you are paying for it—is to rejoice in it, celebrate it, let it lead you, live it.

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Take Time to Recreate

Sunday, 7. May 2017 23:13

Like you, I have very little down time; I jump from project to project to project. In my leisure time, I do those personal projects that bring me little income but a lot of joy. So, like you, I’m really always working. And I’m a list-maker, so when I’m “relaxing” in the back yard, I’m making notes on what maintenance items need attending.  My experience with “vacations” has not been rewarding; they have typically consisted of a lot of time getting places and thinking about what I needed to do when I get back.

And even though I have read articles such as philosophy and psychology writer Olivia Goldhill’s “The Psychological Importance of Wasting Time,” which cites various authorities on the value of taking time away from work and recreating, I was never quite able to find the time to take time off.

Last month, I was invited to spend the afternoon and evening at a waterfront house that some friends had for the weekend. Even though this was not something I would normally do, I accepted. Arriving just after a cold front, I spent the afternoon and evening on a deck chair under a blanket. I watched the dark water and let my mind wander. Instead of making lists or worrying about a project, I began to think of nothing in particular. I think it may have been the longest time of being in the present without making lists or contemplating projects or evaluating my life that I have ever experienced—perhaps because the temperature and the wind demanded that I concentrate on the present to remain comfortable.

The result was an astounding (to me) sense of tranquility. My mind was still, my outlook positive. I felt more rested that I usually do upon waking after a full night’s sleep. It was like the work I had been doing with mindfulness for years finally flowered. The day following was just as calm; I was able to evaluate potential projects that had been causing me issues calmly and unemotionally creativity juices began to flow. And the best part was there was none of that “I’ve taken time away, so now I have to catch up.” I simply felt refreshed.

Last next week I found myself on a bench looking at Puget Sound, doing essentially the same thing. The weather was warmer and the bench was in a public park and it was early afternoon, but the experience was essentially the same. And this experience only reinforced the first. In neither case was the outcome expected; I don’t know that I had any real expectations, but what I got will facilitate my creativity and ongoing project work immeasurably.

I had accidentally recreated. Dictionary.com says that recreate means: “to refresh by means of relaxation and enjoyment, as restore physically or mentally.” It is not necessarily something that I advocated before. But now that I have experienced the real thing, I cannot advocate enough.

I’m not suggesting that you go rent a house by the bay. What I am suggesting is that you find whatever it is for you that will allow you to “just be,” to spend some time thinking of nothing. Perhaps, like me, you will happen upon it accidentally. Perhaps it will be an activity that you were never able to fully embrace before. However you get there, you will find that Goldhill’s conclusion is correct: it is time well spent that will ultimately make you better at what you do.

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A Question of Relevance

Monday, 17. April 2017 2:10

Pippin, in the musical of the same name by Steven Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson learns that the problem with a creative life is that “you’ve got to be dead to find out if you were any good.” What he should have learned was that, no matter your skill level, in order to be any good, you have to be relevant. And if your art is to last, it has to stay relevant, or at least be relevant to periods other than the one in which you lived.

Relevance does not mean “generalized” so all people in all ages can understand it. Rather, it means that the artifact, while being specific to its own era, can also speak to audiences in other times and places. The words of Confucius, of Jesus, of Gautama Buddha are relevant today, not because they are generalizations, but because they are universal and apply to humans no matter what time or place.

If you look at the sayings of Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, you will find that they are very specific, referring to particular people and situations of their respective times. What they have to say, however, is, with certain small exceptions, applicable to people and situations far removed in time and place.

This is also true of works of art. Certain works speak to people of different places and times and others do not. The works of Eugene Scribe and Victorien Sardou, for example, are not well-remembered. Famous in their own time, their plays are not revived outside of France, and even there they are not well received. You never hear of a play by either man being produced. Why? Because they are no longer relevant. What they wrote was relevant to their times only; reports are that they were very well received at the time, but they were too much tied to the times, too closely linked to the people and the place in which they were written.

Other artists are still relevant, or can be made so. Shakespeare is the first to come to mind. But not all audiences are ready for the language and the milieu of his scripts as written. If the producer and director can get the audience past those barriers, Shakespeare has much to say to the modern audience; his insights into the concerns of many of his characters are concerns of people today.

Relevance is not an all-time thing. Because of the current political situation in the US, work which has seemed irrelevant to many in the past suddenly provides understanding and perception. Take the work of Chekhov. Unlike some, film critic David Edelstein thinks that Chekhov is always relevant. However, he says, “But maybe there is something more relevant now….  Change had to come – but at what cost?

It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare or Chekhov or Picasso or Michelangelo or Rodin sat around and worried about whether his work would speak to generations besides his own; the work is far too specific for that. What mattered to each of these artists is that the work spoke to his own audience.

Unless we can do the same, our work will lack significance. As Pippin so clearly pointed out, only time will tell whether we speak to future generations. In the meantime, we must work to make our own work relevant to our tribe and perhaps a larger audience of our own time. Only then can we consider ourselves serious artists.

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The Necessity of Commitment

Monday, 3. April 2017 0:29

There have been a number of posts here about obsession and the necessity of obsession for an artist (here, here, and here, for example). The problem is that obsession is not enough. Obsession does not necessarily engender action. There are a number of people whose obsession leads to nothing but mental preoccupation with whatever the object of the obsession happens to be. These people can include “artists” who sit around obsessing over the “next piece” but never actually doing anything about it.

What such artists need, in addition to obsession, is commitment to the work, a dedication to practicing their craft. It’s the thing that puts artists in the studio for x number of hours a day, every day. It’s the “going to work” part of making art. (In at least one previous post, I talked about the necessity of working at one’s craft—every day.) Artists have to show up and do the work whether there is inspiration or not, and that takes commitment. Commitment demands action, and action is exactly what artists need to move from the idea to the creation stage of art-making. The artist who is able to couple commitment and obsession is one who is likely to succeed.

A digital artist I know is completely obsessed with creating really intricate pieces; as far as I know, her obsession has never waned. However, not long ago she had a period of self-doubt; she was “down” for several weeks. But during all that time she never missed a day at the computer. She sat down and did her work, which she filed—because she felt that she was in no mental state to evaluate it properly. Fortunately her depression was short-lived, and soon she was back to her usual self. In the meantime she had continued working and had produced what turned out to be, with a little editing, some excellent pieces.

On his double album The Gold Medal Collection, singer and social activist Harry Chapin talks about Pete Seeger’s commitment. Seeger was committed not only to music, but to social activism as well. Chapin says (and it’s difficult to determine whether he’s quoting Seeger or commenting on Seeger):

Who are the people who are your best friends? Who are the people you keep coming back to? Who are the people who make your life worthwhile? Usually the people who are committed to something. So in the final analysis, commitment, in and of itself, irrespective of whether you win or not is something that truly makes your life more worthwhile.

Seeger and Chapin were talking about commitment to a cause bigger than oneself, but the same thinking applies to a person who is committed to his/her art (which is usually larger than oneself). It’s a person who doesn’t just think and talk about creating, but a person who does, a person who creates, a person who produces—and keeps on producing.

And to do that, the artist must be committed. And that commitment demands that the artist show up at the computer or the easel or the keyboard, or the sketchpad or the studio or the theatre or the rehearsal hall regularly and work at his/her art. The artist must follow the lead of Louis Armstrong, who said, “Even If I have two three days off, you still have to blow that horn. You have to keep up those chops… I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.” Artists must be committed.

The digital artist mentioned above said that she thought that sitting down and doing the work every day was responsible for her returning to normal quickly. We would do well, I think, to follow her example.

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Art Evolves

Monday, 13. March 2017 0:01

Occasionally, someone will ask me if the show is what I wanted it to be. The short answer is “no,” but that always seems a little abrupt and not what those who ask really want to hear. I think I am supposed to say something thoughtful and positive and “artistic” as an answer. The truth for shows is—as it is, I think, for almost all art work—that it never turns out exactly the way you thought it would. There are simply too many variables.

Neil Gaiman in Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, says much the same thing about writing stories: “once the story was underway, the real ending became inevitable. Most of the stories in this volume have that much in common. The place they arrived at in the end was not the place I was expecting them to go when I set out. Sometimes the only way I would know that a story had finished was when there weren’t any more words to be written down.” Gaiman is not the only author to make such a claim. Many writers talk about how the characters in a book or play or short story take the narrative in an unanticipated direction.

In the case of theatre anything can happen: an actor gives an unexpected line reading. The costume designer comes up with something completely surprising. The lighting designer wants to do something “fresh.” The assistant choreographer makes an off-hand comment. The musical director changes the tempos.  And it happens in other arts as well: the model shows up with a tattoo the photographer didn’t know about. A light burns out in studio and the subject looks different in the new lighting. The film editor got a new idea overnight. The sculpting medium has a mind of its own and doesn’t carve the way the sculptor anticipated.

This idea is not unique to me. An art professor that I know tells students that things arise in the doing that cannot be anticipated.  His opinion is that the act of making art creates a situation in which something “worth doing” might happen, even if that thing is the realization of what the artist really should be doing.

The artist, of course, has the choice of ignoring the unexpected and forging ahead with whatever his/her vision is. Or the artist can respond to the unexpected either by treating it as an interference and working around it or by incorporating it into the work. In either case, the work of art evolves according to the artist’s response—often for the better.

Insight (I hesitate to use the word inspiration, because I’m not exactly sure what that is, except unreliable) can come from anywhere. It can be something overheard, something read, something seen. It can be the result of an interaction with a collaborator or with a friend or with a stranger. It may come from talking to oneself or a dream or a daydream or out of the air.

Art does not spring fully-realized, Athena-like, from the head of the artist. Insights happen. Serendipity happens. The unanticipated happens. Happy accidents happen. It seems to me that part of what makes us artists is sensitivity to all of the things that occur in the process of doing our work and choosing from among them to create art that is far richer and has far more depth than the piece we had in mind at the beginning of the process. We must learn that part of our job is to let our art evolve.

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Politics and Art

Sunday, 27. November 2016 23:49

The Sunday after the US election, I got a text asking whether Unnatural Light would be commenting on the election. I replied, “No, at least not this week.” I had thought to wait until the election was really over (when the Electoral College votes on December 19 or the counting the electoral votes on January 6). But as the days passed and more and more things happened, the more I felt compelled to at least say something about my thoughts and feelings.

The arts community seems to be primarily liberal, or “progressive” if you prefer. I am no different. The election and its immediate aftermath are, in my opinion, horrific. As Austin Kleon put it, “It’s been a rotten week.” This is not because the “other side” won. I have lived through many non-progressive administrations. What has been most disturbing about this election has been the potential regression and repression. There seems to be unceasing talk of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny, as well as suppression of criticism. Equally disturbing are the members of a variety of minorities who have, in the last week, talked to me about acquiring defensive weapons because suddenly they no longer feel safe in the America-we-are-becoming.

That said, there are those in the arts community who are political conservatives. Indeed, there are some who are supporters of the President-elect. I have no real explanation for this other than that art and politics are not necessarily aligned.

Most artists have some opinion of what art is and how it should respond to the politics and culture of the time. The President-elect feels that a plea from the Broadway stage for inclusion is harassment and requires an apology, that the theatre should be “a safe and special place“. Others feel that Edward Albee’s assessment of theatre is the correct one: “Well, I think if you don’t offend some people, you’re probably failing in some way.” “A playwright has a responsibility in his society not to aid it, or comfort it, but to comment and criticize it.” “All plays, if they’re any good, are constructed as correctives. That’s the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. We’re not merely decorative, pleasant and safe.Patsy Rodenburg thinks that the power of theatre in general and actors specifically lies in the ability to tell the truth to people who may not want to hear it. She explains in a must-see TED Talk video.

There have been several posts on the internet purporting to advise artists on the appropriate response to the newly-elected administration. There have been calls to give the incoming administration a chance, to work with the incoming administration, to oppose the incoming administration at all opportunities. And, of course, there have been innumerable articles on how artists are responding (here and here, for example).

Personally, I am not convinced that there is a “correct” response for artists. In a 2011 post, I defended artists who chose not to create political art. This is because, at the bottom of it, I believe that art is individual and that each artist speaks with his/her own voice and concerns him/herself with those subjects that are important to him/her. From time to time, I have made political art, but it does not make up the bulk of my body of work by any means; I only do such work when I feel very strongly about a political topic and when making that art coincides with my current artistic interests and goals.

So, no, I do not think that proper artistic response to the recent election is that artist make anti-administration art. What I do think is that each artist should follow his/her artistic instincts. Each artist should speak to his/her audience in whatever way is appropriate to that particular person. I agree with Rodenburg; art is powerful. So my wish is that each artist use that power and present the truth as he/she sees it. My belief is that that is one of the only requisites in art: whatever our topics, no matter who it offends, we must present truth to our audiences.

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A Question of Ethics

Monday, 31. October 2016 0:48

The question of ethics is not one that comes up very often in arts education except as regards plagiarism. However, there is the occasional consideration. A friend of mine who teaches visual and plastic arts sent me this problem recently. Although the case he presents here is hypothetical, I think he may have encountered a similar real-life situation:

A student in some one of the arts comes to his/her instructor with a project idea that is not only contrary to the instructor’s beliefs but would probably be offensive to a majority of society (hate speech, fringe group propaganda, pornography, advocating violence for some reason, advocating cultural or racial paranoia,). Which is the appropriate path for the instructor?

  1. A. Help the student incorporate the message into his/her art because art is about communication and the teacher’s job is to guide the student in achieving the student’s goal.
  2. Let the student know that what he/she is doing is inappropriate and a probable detriment to society, and counsel the student that art should be for the betterment of society.
  3. Considering the greater good for the community, discourage the student from completing the project, at least with its present direction.
  4. Some combination of A, B, and C
  5. Some other answer

Anyone thinking about the problem for more than a moment will realize that the choices are not all that simple. For example, if one were to choose 1, would the instructor then be an accessory to the production of questionable art, to the production of hate speech, porn, advocating violence or paranoia? Without instruction, the piece would probably be less effective and thus damage society less. Or is the instructor completely without responsibility in this situation?

In considering answer 2, one must ask oneself whether art really should be for the betterment of society. While that is the goal of a lot of art, I don’t know that it should be the goal of all art. Actually, I would be very hesitant to assign any one single goal to art. People make art for all sorts of reasons; some of them are political, and some, decidedly, are not.

The problem with 3 is that to advocate for the greater good, one would must know what the greater good is. And who is to say that the instructor’s view of the greater good is accurate? To the best of my knowledge, teaching in the arts does not entail any special insight into the needs of society, whether those needs be sociological, cultural, or political.

While not mutually exclusive, 1-3 are designed to be not easy to combine so 4 is difficult at best and adds unneeded complexity at worst.

My answer (5) combines 1 with a part of 2. The instructor’s job is, I believe, not to censor the student, but rather is to guide the student in developing the skills with to achieve his/her goal. However, that guidance must be more comprehensive than just advice on technique and methodology. Part of that guidance must be advising the student when he/she is doing something that is in bad taste and that might be a detriment to society. The student should understand what the impact of his/her work is likely to be and understand what reactions the work might receive.

What was your answer?

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Listening to the Silence

Sunday, 18. September 2016 23:55

Meditation is said to enhance both creativity and productivity. However, meditation requires discipline and practice; without a coach and some training, formal meditation may be beyond the reach of some. What is often overlooked is that there are various forms of meditation. For example, some time ago I ran across a variation that was previously unknown to me. It was in one of those “10 Habits of Highly Successful People” lists (which I wasn’t able to find it again for reference for this post); this list said essentially that successful people take some time every day for quiet, or introspection, or meditation or devotion, time to just be. What I will call “personal quiet time.”

While formal meditation may be, in many ways, superior to a personal quiet time, there is much to recommend the latter; while personal quiet time does take discipline, it does not take the training that meditation does. And the goals are the same: taking some time to free the mind, preferably every day. And while freeing the mind every day may or may not help make one successful, it can certainly be beneficial in the same ways as meditation.

Something about the way this personal quiet time idea was presented struck me. Perhaps because I have an interest in mindfulness, I decided to give it a try. The space I found for this experiment has a comfortable place to sit, a large window that faces east, several pieces of art that I have seen hundreds of time but that still invite contemplation.

Every morning I set aside a time to just be. Well, actually, it has a bit more structure than that. Every morning I sit in the same place and read one chapter (some would say verse) of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. (Probably many other books would do as well.) Then I just let my mind wander; there is no effort to make the mind empty as there is in formal meditation. Sometimes it wanders over what I have just read. Sometimes it wanders over one or more art pieces or out into the yard beyond the window. Other times it wanders to the future and puts the events of the day in order, or it wanders to dreams, or it just wanders. And sometimes solutions for problems or ideas for new projects or new approaches to old projects appear—out of the air.

Early on, I learned that music did not enhance the experience; rather, it detracted from it. So now there are no sounds other than those made by the house. I’ve come to think of it as listening to the silence.

How long does this go on? The time it takes to unhurriedly drink a cup of tea (coffee would work too of course); it varies from day to day (usually between 15 and 30 minutes). And so I sit, and listen to the silence, and let my mind drift.

It’s very like meditation in that it seems to generate an altered state of consciousness, somewhat akin to a very light trance. And when it’s over I come back to myself and the “real” part of the day begins.

In just over 30 days it has become an important part of my day. So important that I will get up earlier, if necessary, in order to have that time before I have to be somewhere doing something—and I am not a person who takes getting up earlier lightly.

The benefit is worth it. My creativity and productivity have improved dramatically in the short time I have been practicing listening to the silence. Whether it would do the same for you I have no idea. I do, however, recommend that you find some way to unplug and take a few moments for yourself every day—to just be. You may see a difference in your work, and maybe in your life.

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Be Like Rita

Sunday, 4. September 2016 23:30

Rita Dove is not only a woman who writes amazing poetry, she is the second African-American to win a Pulitzer prize for poetry and the youngest person ever to be named United States Poet Laureate. Moreover, she has received 25 honorary doctorates as well as a host of other prestigious awards. If you look on the internet, you can find a number of quotes that are attributed to her.

Most of those quotes have to do with things other than art, but there are a few that do, and those few describe an approach to art that would benefit almost any artist. Her art, of course, is poetry, but you do not have to be a poet to apply her words. Just substitute your own art or arts whenever she refers to poetry and you will see why what she has to say is important.

Concerning her creative goals, she says, “All I ever wanted to do was write the best damn poem that I could write – a poem that was true and honest and the very best I could write artistically and linguistically.” What could be a better goal for an artist? Work that is true and honest and the very best that one can create both artistically and mechanically is all any of us could strive for. How many of us have gone to our theatres or computers or studios and done work that was maybe just a little less than true and honest? Or perhaps, on an off day, we did not do the best that we could either artistically or mechanically or both. If so, maybe our own creative goals could stand a little re-examination.

Continuing on the subject of truth, she finds it important to be true to oneself and recognizes that in doing that, the artist is being true to a much larger constituency. She says, “Being true to yourself really means being true to all the complexities of the human spirit.” Because (1) we are all connected and (2) the complex being that is us reflects all those complexities that make up humanity, in being true to ourselves, we cannot but make more empathetic, more complex, or more truthful art.

Dove says this of her approach to creating: “Every time I sit down to write, I try to feel that I’m starting over. It’s all new. It’s all fresh, and I’m learning as we go.” And “I make a discovery in a poem as I write it.” How better to make art? Every project in brand new and fresh. The artist makes discoveries and learns both artistically and personally as he/she creates. This does not mean, of course, that the artist does not bring all his/her experience and learning to the project. But if the project is to be more than a recycling of old ideas and formulas and means of expression, it must be new and fresh and full of discovery. Otherwise the work is, in the words of Konstantin Stanislavski, imitative art or worse, hack work, and who wants to be associated with that?

So, perhaps if we were to follow Dove’s advice about creative goals and being true to ourselves, as well as adopting her approach to creation, we might find that our work is more honest, more reflective of us, fresher, more innovative—better.

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Going Further

Monday, 22. August 2016 0:43

Some artists make their art and call it done. The painting is finished; the character is complete; the novel is written; the photograph is finalized. The artist, content, then moves on to the next project. Once the work is declared done, the artist never looks back.

Unless he/she is in the class of an art teacher I know. He always, no matter how good the “finished” piece, asks his students, “Have you thought about… [some twist or slight modification to the piece.]”  There are some variations; sometimes it’s a different question entirely, or seems to be. And it’s not even a real suggestion, just a question, asked very gently. I’m not sure he’s really interested in the answer. What he is interested in is getting students to think beyond themselves, to consider possibilities that they haven’t considered, to understand that when it’s done, it may not be done.

Whether the students do anything with those considerations may also be of lesser importance. What is important is that that they think about his question. They may then attempt whatever suggestion was hidden in the question, or modify the piece based on a different idea, or, having evaluated their piece, decide to keep it as it is. Regardless, they have considered going further. And that’s the point.

Most of us reach a point in the creation of a piece of work when we declare it “done.” There may be a number of reasons: a deadline, thinking we’ve spent too much time on this project, anticipation of the next project, just getting tired of working on the project. Or it may be we actually consider the project done.

Many good artists, however—at least the ones I know—are seldom satisfied, no matter when they get to the point when, for one reason or another, they have to release their creations into the world. They may call it done, but they are still thinking about it. They suspect that there is something further that can be done.

This attitude was perhaps best expressed by Picasso, who suggested that the artist is never finished: “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.

And, like Picasso, we may never finish our pieces. Still, sooner or later, we must let our work be performed or published or shown or sold. But before we do, we need to look to our imaginations to see if we can make a little twist or slight modification that would make the piece better before its required release. This is not to suggest that the new piece will ever be finished either, only that we take it just a little further before we let it go.

Because we can always go further, this could be a never-ending journey. But isn’t the creation of art that already? Perhaps by making that small twist or slight modification we have not yet thought of, we can reduce our dissatisfaction with our own work. Perhaps we can make our work just that much better. And how could that be a bad thing?

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