This editorial is about creativity – or lack thereof. As a teacher and designer, I am constantly confronted by students who disparage themselves as not being ‘creative’. This is a notion I try hard to dispel for perceiving yourself as un-creative can paralyze and stunt your imagination.
The creative process as pertains to art and design can be represented as a square; there are four facets to the process – creativity (or imagination if you prefer), artistry, originality and voice. In this essay, I will address each of the four aspects individually. Back in the 60’s the term ‘square’ had negative connotations; it meant you were inflexible, old-fashioned and unable to appreciate the unconventional; most young people did not want to be thought of as a square. Well guess what – as an artist it is ‘hip’ to be ‘square’.
The first facet is creativity: let’s get one thing straight – we are all creative on some level. Creativity is a fundamental characteristic of being human. If mankind was not creative we would have died out long ago unable to compete with stronger, more durable creatures. Humans as a species are not exceptionally strong, especially when facing another being that is – like a bear, we are ‘smart’ however (most of the time). In hand to paw combat with a bear, we would lose. If we had to rely on physical strength alone to fell a tree, move the log and build a house we would still be living in caves. Not to get sidetracked but this brings to mind a very interesting book I read some time back – ‘At Home’ by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating treatise on how our homes evolved from cave dwellings to modern structures, innovations such as chimneys, staircases, indoor plumbing and glass windows… when did they appear, who invented them and why.
Back to the topic at hand, it is our creativity that allows us to tackle a problem and come up with the tools and processes to solve it. If you have ever had to make a substitution when you were cooking a meal and ran out of a specific ingredient (and jumping in the car to run to the store and buy more does not count my gentle readers), or if you needed a sewing stiletto you did not have and discovered that using a large needle pushed into a cork served the same purpose, or came up with an arrangement that allowed you to stack one more box of fabric in a closet or even used an empty tin can as a pencil holder… you were being creative. Have you ever improvised a bookshelf by laying planks across cinder blocks? Come on folks, raise your hands, I’m sure when you were a student in a dorm or a young adult living in your first apartment you had to improvise at least some piece of storage or furniture.
This is creativity; setting out to accomplish a task or goal enlisting tools and materials to help us accomplish something we would otherwise not be able to do. So accept the fact that you, as a member of the human race, are intrinsically creative.
Moving on to the next facet – when many people claim they are not ‘creative’ what they actually mean is they are not ‘artistic’ – there is a difference. Even then, what is Artistic? A dictionary might define it as someone or something that displays a skill or inclination in art which in turn begs the question – what is Art? Most people think of ‘art’ as something that is aesthetically pleasing but not all art is pleasant. Some art is jarring or disturbing; art often conveys a message and that message is not always agreeable, sometimes it is something we would rather not hear. Just because we don’t like the statement does not mean it is not art. So art is really an expression of one’s thoughts and soul; something that we all have, pleasant or not. Granted, some of us are more skilled at presenting our thoughts and ideas in a form that can be easily received and interpreted by others and that is where artistry comes into the equation.
Art can be imitated. Just because one can reproduce a piece of artwork faithfully does not automatically make one artistic. Duplicating a work of art takes skill but a good technician can acquire the skill plus the technological tools we have at our fingertips can do that for us. You can open a photograph in a photo editing program such as Adobe Photoshop and apply a filter that will transform that photo into a skillfully rendered pencil drawing. Does this make you an artist? Perhaps on some level – having the vision and the expertise to use these tools signifies some level of talent but is it the same as another person picking up a pencil and using their hand and fingers to transfer to paper what their eye sees and brain interprets?
This brings me to the third facet – Originality. This is perhaps what most people actually mean when they say they are not creative or artistic. We are all creative to some degree in our thoughts and souls but the question lies in our capability to express them for others to see. A writer can put pen to paper and record their thoughts but the artistry and skill of assembling those words into a composition that enthralls the reader makes the difference between a mundane scribe and a gifted author.
We all take inspiration from everything that crosses our path; our minds are like stuffed filing cabinets full of all the experiences we’ve had and things we’ve seen. Some of the data lies buried so deep that we may not even remember the experience. Sometimes I get an idea, a design that just blossoms in my head and to tell the truth, I cannot swear if it is an original concept or a faint memory of something I saw, perhaps even as a child reawakened in my brain.
Assimilating other’s ideas is not necessarily a bad thing (though copyright infringement is); take language for instance. A collection of people establish language one word at a time, naming things, sharing terms and the structure of words so as to communicate with each other. If, in pursuit of individuality, we all invented our own proprietary words for objects and ideas no one would be able to talk to anyone else. To digress from my topic again for just a moment, I highly recommend another book by Bill Bryson – ‘The Mother Tongue’ which is a fascinating dissertation on our language and how it evolved to what it is today.
But back to my subject, what sets us apart even when speaking the same words is our ‘voice’. What makes it possible to hear a program narrated by James Earl Jones and know without seeing him or his name credited? It is the unique timbre and inflection of his voice. Artists also have a voice and this is the final facet of Creativity (with a capital ‘C’). When a artist explores and creates enough work, a unique pattern may start to emerge, some intangible thing that others can perceive, this is their voice and it may bridge across various mediums.
In some cases, the artist may not even be aware of it. I think of my own work as varied, all over the map yet I had an experience once that proved that I must have an artistic voice. I brought a quilt to show at a guild meeting and hung it up on the display wall. I was standing and conversing with a group of people about 30 feet away from the display when a guild member I knew but only casually walked into the main door and I saw her scan the wall of quilts on display. It was a very large meeting room filled with over 100 people and she was at the opposite corner from me but I saw her eyes zero in on my quilt and she began making a beeline straight for it. She was scanning the room as she walked and when she saw me, still halfway across the room mind you, she pointed at the quilt and then at me with a questioning look; I nodded. When she arrived, I asked her how she knew it was mine, I thought it was so different than anything I had made at that point and she said ‘yes’ but it was different in a way that only I could have done.
To summarize my essay, Creativity, Artistic Ability, Originality and Voice are an integral part of expressing ourselves in a manner that others can see and appreciate. If you look deep inside of yourself, you might find you are more creative and artistic than you thought. It might be hidden away in a small locked room, down the stairs, through the corridor, past the sign saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’ (homage to Douglas Adams); but it will be there, it’s just a matter of finding the key to unlock that door.
And now – because most people like to see pictures and not just read text, here is a picture of my cat ‘helping’ me with a new quilt I’m working on.