Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stop the Block

Sometimes  Creative Block expresses itself with a bunch of noise inside your head. Especially in this technologically oppressive age, the brain often finds itself overwhelmed with input. We lose sight of how many messages and flashing lights are constantly coming at us. The brain and the eyes are the organs that are constantly fielding that input (imagine a soccer or hockey goalie constantly bombarded by balls or pucks from the other team). Just in the course of an ordinary day the whole sensory system gets exhausted. So imagine what happens when you sit down with your sketch pad or your drafting table or your computer program and it's nine at night, and you decide you want to create something.
     What your sensory system needs is a break. It needs you to STOP. You feel that fatigue (I know you do), but you've finally got a little time. The house is quiet. The kids are asleep. But the body is not a machine, and your mind lives all over your body. You can stave off a wrestling match with The Creative Block, by knowing when not to work.
 Have you ever looked at a guitar at rest? Or a violin, or any musical instrument. They are beautiful. The shape, the wood, the detailing, all those aspects of a musical instrument make it a work of art even before it makes music. Well, you are just the same.        Your whole physical being is a work of art; it has beauty and value even when at rest. You don't have to do anything. And, in fact, to get the most beautiful 'music' from your instrument, you need to give it a rest.
Repose and recreation are ways to catch up with yourself. Time for the body to recover from neural bombardment and the stress of urban and suburban life. Take time to meditate, watch the sky, walk, or dance.
I have worked a good deal with teenagers. When they begin to paint or draw, I first see a reflection of the culture around them. Words, symbols, images from advertising or product designs, come right out of them and onto the clean white page. When I get to work with them in small groups I have a chance to ask questions like: What does this symbol or word have to do with your life? If I ask directly to see something that is not so commercial, something more personal, they don't know what to "come up with". Amazingly they access the personal by reflecting on poetry, which carries a lyric message across time, and lends itself to personal visual expression. Whether it's Rumi or Emily Dickinson, even young people who live in a hip hop world respond to the truth in poetry with their own truth.

So this gives you two more weapons against The Block: Know when to stop and rest (this means put away your creative tools and do something else). Then immerse yourself in the art of others. The two activities actually require the same thing: disconnect from your urges and drives. Lose yourself in the world around you for a while. When you go back to your "drawing board" begin by reflecting on someone else'swork. Let their work lead you to reflect authentically without reference to common symbols and slogans. In that reflection you will find yourself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Busting the Block

In the last blog I started talking about out-smarting the dreaded Creativity Block. We all know that The Block is a tough customer, it takes more than one approach to get rid of the thing. So in this posting I'll pass along another technique that works for me.
The graphic to the left is a good example of playful improvisa- tion, something I use whenever I'm feeling like the creative flow is dammed up. This piece is a collage of paper and bark with pencil and tempera paint. There's a little incorporated message cut from a magazine at the bottom, it says "When one door closes they say another one opens."
I remember playing with all the pieces for quite a while, rearranging them, adding and subtracting things that I had cut and torn. It helps to have a lot of things to work with. I collect interesting images and quotations from old magazines and keep them in big manila envelopes. So when I feel the shadow of The Block cross my path, I pull out my saved clippings and open a sketch pad. This piece wound up looking really nice, but a lot of collages meander into being over a long time and are often over done. It takes patience and playfulness. This particular piece taught me the importance of space in compositions and in my attitude. The important thing is to become deeply involved in the process.  Keep breathing consciously and get rid of the idea of "making" something.  
I usually turn the page (or canvas) over, looking at it from every direction. Doing that stops me from making a commitment too soon. It also let's me catch myself being clever. You don't want to end up with something cute or cliché. The idea is to keep risking. Keep throwing out the easy answer. Instead of making a piece that "reads" easily, make a piece that presents a riddle or a Buddhist koan. You don't need to please anyone. Use the improvisation process to have fun and knead your creative energy into a pliable state.
How about dealing with a Life Block?
This blog is dedicated to having a creative life, so the obvious question that comes to mind is: How does dealing with a block in the artistic creative process help with the rest of life? Here's where I find journaling to be really important. The collage gives me the process of turning a chaotic jumble of images and words into something organized. It's hard to do that with life's elements unless we use some symbolic form to help us. That's where the journal can be a great ally. Sometimes I can make lists, or draw some shape that feels appropriate to what's going on in my life. I can draw a circle on the page and write down all the things that are going on inside the circle. Looking at it that way, I can then ask myself, "What do I need to take out of the circle to make things workable?" Then I can do that visually and see the situation changing.
My coach's training has taught me to develop many ways to help clients improvise seeing and understanding their life situation. But I recommend journaling as one of the best places to improvise solutions to creative blocks that happen in life. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ubiquitous Creative Block

The whole world knows about the ogre that haunts creative people, the monster known as Creativity Block. Even people who have never written a story or a poem, even people who've never picked up a brush or a pencil know about the dreaded Block. You'll be glad to know that we don't need a super hero to pulverize this nemesis into Creativity Block Powder. We can defeat this enemy ourselves. Yes, we can. I know what I'm talking about because I did it, and once I developed a new way of thinking and working, I never saw The Block again. It didn't happen overnight, of course. It took a lot of self-examination to get rid of the pesky thing.
It's important to understand the ammo required to destroy the Block. What worked for me was a lot of self-examination. You see we each construct The Block in our own creative way. That's right, you may hear echos of other voices in The Block, but its power comes from your belief in it. For some people the block may be a wall of bricks (individual self-negating, judgmental messages neatly cemented together). For others it is a stone monolith of voices and experiences, fears, and self-doubt. No one builds The Block for you, and no one can take it down for you.
In the next few blogs I'd like to dissect The Block, and let others see what worked for me. I hope that through my teaching, writing, and coaching I have helped other people dismantle their blocks. This blog is one more place where I can hope to do some good.
Looking back on my own battle with The Block, I recognize that an important contributing factor was a paradox of expectations. In order for me to really value what I was creating I had to see that it was exceptional. I had absorbed that ridiculous myth about great artists being discovered like Lana Turner sipping a soda in Schrafts. Believe me, if you have that "star is born" I'm-gonna-be-discovered mythology in your head, wash it out now. The world recognizes Pablo Picasso was an artistic genius, the artistic giant of the twentieth century, but Pablo did not come out of the womb wielding a paint brush, instead he was taught from infancy about art by his father who was not only an artist but an art teacher. He surrounded little Pablo with the finest art and instruction from the time he could hold a crayon. In fact, the boy skipped normal child forms of expression and spent his lifetime trying to attain it. The same was true of Frank Lloyd Wright probably the greatest architect of his time. His parent's groomed him to be an architect, selecting the creative tools for that profession and surrounding their son with them.
Most of us were not so fortunate. Trying to value your work by comparisons to those giants is only going to add mortar to the Block's blocks. Wanting to be famous as an artist or in any field is not a serious creative goal, it is an ego trip. Living a creative life isn't about fame or recognition of any kind, it is an adventure of the spirit and the intellect engaged with the world, its creatures, animate and inanimate.
Someone once said of Picasso after observing him looking at a painting, "It's a wonder there was anything left on the canvas." His eyes were voracious consumers of the world around him. And that is first weapon in the destruction of The Block: a passionate hunger to see the world around you. Seeing becomes so important that drawings become authentic recordings of that seeing. Here is the key: the experience of seeing becomes more powerful and important than the product. This helps the artist disconnect from the opinions of unqualified critics. We can always learn from the guidance of teachers, but the easily-garnered opinions of others are meaningless.
The Creative Block feeds on ego insecurity. And those insecurities come from a morbid concern for the opinion of others regarding the final "product". Remove the "product" focus of your attitude and your Creative Block becomes an anemic and hungry pauper.
     The drawing about is a study I did of the pouch in which I carried pencils, erasers, sharpeners, and sand blocks, the tools of my drawing practice. Once the drawing was finished I wrote that piece that you see above it, which reads as follows: The metamorphic body of this post-white sac slumps and stands, folds and collapses according to its contents. Its sensual shapes and formations seem as infinitely transformative as the images that eventually emerge from its cargo of pencils and paints that, hidden away, play a clinking song like tinker toys from another age.
    The whole process of the drawing took me back, as the last line suggests, to my childhood, and it taught me that I'd been carrying around pouches of pencils all my life.
Whenever I come to a creative place that feels stuck, I interact with something at hand and make that thing the whole world. I challenge myself to make it my inspiration. It takes my mind off of the stuck place and keeps me working. The creative process from the distraction usually teaches me something to apply to my stuck place and before long I have kicked myself into gear again.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What does it mean to live a creative life?

The title of the painting above is Echo Off Stone. When I look at it, I find myself inside a cave hearing the muffled noises of things that live in its dark recesses.
You know what an echo sounds like, but how does it feel? Continuing from the earlier post, I want to reflect on the power and richness available by expanding the conversation between the mind and the body. The body is the source of intuition, the most powerful untapped talent of every person. And intuition is an important element of creativity.
Modern medicine is finally accepting the body-mind-spirit connection, but public education is still largely in the dark ages on this important reality. Most of us were taught to read words, but not to read our body. Schools focus on everything outside of the body: history, mathematics, civics (do they still teach that?) and science. And everything we learn comes from reading texts and watching screens as if our only way to take in information is through a highway from the optic nerve to the brain. Only in special cases do students get three-dimensional approaches to learning.
In coaching, when understanding and clarity stall, I often ask what or how the client feels. The body is always ready with information. This is a method I use with myself. I use it when I realize I'm painting from pure intellect that the work has become forced or clever. Cleverness is death to art. When it happens it's time to take a break and come back with the authenticity of the body's experience.

I often ponder the question: What does it mean to live a creative life? Authenticity is a key element to a creative life. Intention is another. Most importantly a creative life comes from living with a curious awareness about the next moment, and an organic responsiveness to that moment. Get something new from something ordinary. Hear an echo and ask yourself, how would I paint that? It's not important that someone else look at your painting and know that it's an echo, it's only important that you followed your curiosity and created an original response to life.

Listening to Consonants

The above painting is titled Consonants. It's part of a small series I did about how language feels in my head.  I think a lot about how to help others incorporate creativity into their way of living and this painting (in fact that whole series) illustrates one of the tools of creativity that can be put into practice.
That tool is going into the body for information.
The marks on the canvas are not in themselves consonants. You can't see a p or a k or a w, but you see what consonants feel like to me. The marks are also elements of the written consonants without being the consonants themselves. So the painting grew from an intuitive sense, from a feeling inside me. Artists are credited with mysterious talents, often envied by museum and gallery visitors, but mostly the talent artists have is an expanded sensory awareness and the courage to value and follow that awareness into action.
Everyone gets information from the body. Your stomach growls, you know you're hungry. You yawn, it's time to get some sleep. Now imagine that you start listening more closely to the responses of your body to the world around it. There lies a seed of creativity: curiosity.