Hello and welcome to spring! I have a couple of things to share this month including this post which features a TEDx talk that I gave in January of this year entitled Against the Grain: Creating Opportunities for Creativity. It outlines 3 actions you can take immediately to enhance your creative process. I hope that you will enjoy the talk and that it will encourage you to take some small steps in the direction of supporting your creativity. If you enjoy the talk please feel free to share it with your friends and leave a comment on Youtube : ) For those of you that prefer to read your content rather than watching a video I have included a transcription of the talk below.
Also, earlier this month on March 15th, I posted 2 short videos that show some examples of my mark making that is inspired by calligraphy. As part of that post I put together a PDF handout of some of the calligraphy and mark making tools that I use along with where you can source them. There are two versions that you can choose from based on whether you want to view the document on your computer or print it as a resource.
Thank you again to all of you who sent in your ideas for the blog and shared aspects of your creative process. Although the prize draw is over, please feel free to connect with me to share ideas, inspirations, questions or concerns as time goes on. The goal is to make this space a community for creatives to learn, grow, be challenged, share, and connect. Based on your input I have lots of exciting projects and ideas already in the works!
Thanks again, and I wish you all hours of joyous creating! Nancy
TEDx Talk Transcription
This morning I googled “Creativity” – there were 534 million responses. To give you some idea Weight Loss doesn’t even have half of that number…Don’t get me wrong – sex is still way in the lead, but you get the idea – Creativity – is a hot topic that is generating a great deal of discussion across boardrooms, offices and studios alike. While each of us is born with the innate ability to be creative, sadly somewhere along the way many of us came to the conclusion that we just weren’t creative and we stopped giving our most unique and amazing cognitive gift the time and attention it deserves.
For about 30 years I’ve been working as an artist and teacher – focusing on my passion areas of visual art, art history and the creative process. I have been driven by a desire to understand the conditions that are conducive to fostering creativity (both in my own life and the lives of my students) and then use that information to help people identify their unique creative voice and express their message in an authentic and powerful way. And the conditions that foster creativity in the studio are those that foster creativity in all realms – in academic classrooms, the science lab, at home, in business, on the athletic field and more.
One of the benefits of having been at this endeavour for so many years is that I’ve had the opportunity to witness incredible change, growth, and progress over time. It has also put me in a position where I am now aware of some very disturbing trends that are having a detrimental effect on people and their ability to be creativity including overwhelm, distraction, lack of focus, and anxiety. Fortunately, I’ve also been able to discern a number of powerful antidotes that combat these creativity killers and that contrary to the notion that “Some people have it…and others just don’t” creativity is the result of a series of attitudes and behaviours that are deceptively simple, often counter intuitive, and most definitely run in opposition to our current cultural conditioning. What I’d like to do in the brief time that we have together is to share 3 actions that each one of us can take to become more creative.
A number of years ago I was working with one of my senior art classes. I had just read them a short passage from a book called Ignore Everybody…and 39 Other Keys to Creativity written by Hugh MacCleod. The jist of the piece was that everyone has their own private Mount Everest to climb, and that this metaphorical Mount Everest could be anything from raising a family, to creating a business, writing, making their art, and so on. He said that while you might not reach the summit you will at least usually get above the snow line, spend time on the mountain and have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried – which is of course much better than dealing with the regret of an abandoned dream. The students were reflecting on the passage and we started to discuss its meaning and relevance. All of a sudden one of the young women who is normally very quiet said in an ominous sounding voice “I have a confession to make!” We all turned to her with shocked attention and she said, “I want to be a fashion designer!” It was like she was confessing to a crime. She went on to describe the fashion channels she subscribes to, the sketchbooks she has filled, the ideas she has for eco fashion – all a dark secret that she had kept hidden from all of us – a creative field that she had somehow convinced herself she was incapable of entering. Everything changed that day. Within a matter of months she had designed and sewn several garments and she completed a portfolio of artworks that she used to apply to a renowned fashion school in Paris. Not only was she accepted but she received a substantial scholarship. When I tell people this story they say “Wow…it’s a miracle.” But it’s not really – not in my experience… it is wonderful to be sure but it is not a miracle. It is the result when intention and passion and courage align and I have been most fortunate to see this pattern repeat hundreds of times over the years.
I think it’s at that initial point of intention where many people turn away from their creativity and their passion– we wait for an external sign from the universe that we should pursue our creative ideas. We convince ourselves that those ventures should be left to others – more capable and creative than us. We fail to recognize that our creativity is a skill, and like all skills it can be learned and strengthened, developed over time. And I don’t think other endeavours experience this same phenomenon. I mean did my dentist worry about being the best brusher in town prior to pursuing dentistry? Did he wonder if his passion for teeth would remain year in year out? Did my doctor know that she would become a great surgeon? Of course not…there was an initial interest in the area, followed by an intention to pursue. And that’s something each one of us can do today. We can listen to the stirrings of our soul and decide to become more creative with our endeavours. We can commit to the intention to be a more creative teacher, a more innovative leader of people, a more thoughtful artist and designer, a more visionary school district that paves the way for what education could become. Everything starts with intention!
Now, I would be remiss if I gave a talk about Creativity and didn’t pay homage to two of my life mentors Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci (who many believe to be the most creative person who has ever lived.) You will see a few of their ideas expressed as quotes through this presentation. Through the documented stories of their lives, the works that they created and the ideas they explored through their writing they share with us many essential observations and ideas about life and what’s important. My friend teased me…”You are the only woman I know – who keeps falling in love with men…who died over 500 years ago.” She might be right…Seriously though I think their ideas are as relevant today as when they penned them in the Renaissance and I hope you will enjoy them.
Last year I conducted one of the most radical experiments that I’ve ever tried in education using my senior art students as the subjects. It was a move initiated out of desperation. A troubling number of our students were failing – failing to meet major deadlines with quality work, failing to create with conceptual depth and skillful execution, and perhaps most importantly failing to experience the joy of creating and engaging deeply with their passion area. It’s a disturbing trend that I have seen growing over the past several years. The experiment was what I called the Media Cleanse Challenge – a 2 month ban on technology use that wasn’t directly linked to their creative efforts. Technology could be used as a tool to create and share that creative work, but not as a vehicle for consumption. Outside of essential communication it meant – no social media, no texting, no TV, no video games, no internet, and so on. Yes…it was extreme.
While on the outside it appeared to be about what I wanted them to experiment with taking out of their lives, it was more about what I was attempting to have them put back in. I wanted them to experience time to create in an environment free from distractions, quality time with their family and real life friends, time to connect with nature and the world around them – directly, mindfully. I also wanted them to realize that they had a choice about the degree to which they let technology into their lives. The challenge was optional but highly recommended. 58 or 60 students opted in as did I. We had about 2 weeks to get prepared for the challenge, which kicked off on January 1st. Realizing how great the temptation would be several students actually brought me their devices and asked if I could lock them in my filing cabinet. I had a small fortune in there! I had the students write daily reflections in their sketchbooks and submit reflections to me at 4 intervals during the challenge. We had prize draws every 2 weeks based on an honour system. You could submit your name in the draw for everyday you remained true to the spirit of the challenge. I can honestly tell you that as a teacher is was one of the most profound things that I’ve ever done, and it broke my heart. While I was abundantly aware of the toll distraction and overwhelm was having on their creative output I hadn’t considered the impact it was having on their lives overall – their ability to experience life – really take it in, feel it and in turn feel like they were being heard by and really connecting with others. One day when I asked one of the girls how she was doing she said to me “Not very well, I realize that no one really listens to me.”
Creativity depends on our ability to be attentive and attention is a form of listening. It is listening with all of our senses, listening to our thoughts and our imagination. My advice to students is to “Notice what you notice”, because each of us has our own unique take on the world and that it is these impressions registered through our attention that are the fodder for our creativity. And it is our precious attention that is under attack – attack in the form of an avalanche of information and incessant distraction. And we have known this was coming for a long time. Way back in 1977 Herbert Simon, a Nobel-winning economist warned that
…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention…
As it turns out we really can have too much of a good thing. Now – don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying that technology is the devil – that would be like blaming paintbrushes for a bad painting. What I am saying is that technology is an incredibly powerful and addictive tool – it is tool that has been insinuated into people’s lives – our lives and the lives of young people with very little or no instruction as to how to use these super tools in safe and productive ways so that they can be life enhancing and foster our creativity rather than destructive forces that kill our attention resulting in loss of creativity, productivity and enjoyment of life.
One of the first steps in learning to work with any new piece of equipment or medium is to review any personal health and safety risks and learn how to work with it. Can you imagine a shop class where the teacher just encourages students to give it a go with the band saw? How about the painting teacher that fails to inform the class that cadmium pigments are known carcinogens…or a cooking instructor that doesn’t discuss the potential burns associated with ovens and elements. Now you might say that those are poor comparisons to make as people are not likely to lose life or limb through the use of their cell phones or computers – but I beg to differ.
I think what we stand to lose is our ability to be present and attentive and engaged with what is happening to us right in the moment and that those trivial seeming moments are the gateway to everything that is critical to our experience and enjoyment of life, the quality of our relationships, the development of our ideas, the formation of enduring memories and our ability to be creative. Effective creators in the future must learn to be vigilant gatekeepers of their attention.
This can be achieved through becoming more discerning with the flow of information we let in, training the mind to be present in the moment though mindfulness and meditation, and eliminating distractions especially during key hours set aside for creating. I think as teachers, parents and creators, we need to reflect on how we’re showing up in our own lives, assess how we are using our own attention and then help the younger generations to navigate through the particularly complex technological terrain of the 21st century.
While I was preparing this talk I came across these images on Instagram. In under 10 minutes I was able to source the name and contact information of the artist who created these digitally manipulated photographs, sent him an email and receive permission to use them. Antoine Geiger is currently studying Architecture in Paris…he is 20 years old…and I think he has really nailed it with these images.
So now what? You’ve set the intention to enhance your creativity and honed your attention. The next step is to become active with the process of invention. A great place to start is to develop a system to record your observations, thoughts, ideas and inspirations as they occur throughout the day. There is a reason that artists keep sketchbooks and creators in all sectors keep notebooks and journals. This is also where technology can really support our creative efforts. My husband who is a musician records a number of his conceptual and compositional ideas by humming or playing into a small sound recorder in addition to keeping a musical journal. It’s critical to catch our observations, reflections and ideas immediately when they occur as they are often fleeting.
Another important step is to carve out some time in your daily or weekly schedule that is designated as creative time – a time for invention. This is the time to work with the raw materials that you’ve amassed. It is the time to review, question, synthesize, play, distill, experiment and create. This is sacred time and depending on your area of interest this invention time might take place in the kitchen, studio, office, laboratory, or on the field.
What often frightens people at this phase is a sense of overwhelm at all the possible options, it’s the creative block when faced with a blank page or canvas. To quickly move past that, I recommend again to
restrict your options – less is truly more here – and you will likely find that your creativity will flourish with constraints.
Rather than trying to paint with a full colour palette choose one dominant colour to work with and experiment with interesting combinations or pairings. The same could be done with a spice, a dance move, a word or phrase, a bar of notes, an educational concept and so on.
It is a challenge to address a topic as broad as creativity in an 18 minute talk and have it make any kind of meaningful impact. What I can assure you, though is that by making a few small changes we can grow our creative capacity. We can start by setting a clear intention to be more creative, we can foster our attention by being present and connected to the moments in our life as they unfold and we can set aside sacred time for invention. Through these focused actions of intention, attention and invention, not only will we enhance our experience of life discovering greater meaning, purpose and freedom, but we will dramatically increase our odds of producing a truly creative result regardless of whether that creativity is taking place in a science lab, while writing, or producing something in our studio – and I hope you will go and do exactly that!