We Need to Talk

From the Index-Card-A-Day challenge. The Spurs Coyote chatting it up with some fans.

The Spurs Coyote is chatting it up with some fans to get ideas about his performance. From the Index-Card-A-Day challenge.

Researcher at the University of Michigan conducted a study to determine if 4th graders who were allowed to discuss a complex problem with other children were more likely to come up with more and/or better solutions than those children working alone, or not discussing the problem. The research showed that students who were allowed to work with a partner, and speak to that partner, extrapolated stronger hypotheses than those working alone, or who were not allowed to talk.

I don’t know about you, but some of us (me) like to stew on problems in isolation. However, it can be beneficial from time to time to leave the confines of your studio or design table or computer, and share your ideas with others, inviting feedback about what you’ve been up to. Discussing work-in-progress with like-minded creators can help you to hone your craft, discover possibilities, and/or receive useful critique.

It might also be beneficial to ask someone who has no idea what you’re talking about. “Ask A Fool,” is one of my favorite prompts from the Creative Whack Pack by Roger vonOech. “Ask a Fool,” suggests that conversing with someone who is unfamiliar with your discipline will help you to see a problem with fresh eyes. We become so familiar with our own output that it can be stimulating to look at the work from a newbie’s perspective.

Who can you talk to about the project you are working on right now? What expertise can they add to yours to help move your work along? Who might add a different perspective on what you are trying to do? How can a novice help you to explore what you do and why you do it?

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Whoa! Step Away From That Idea!

Drawing I made for the Index-Card-A-Day challenge.

There’s nothing like a long, slow, simmering pot of individual ingredients that becomes a delicious mélange of flavors, like say, a marinara sauce. The separate elements of tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices, combine to create a complex, yet enticing blend of awesomeness where no one flavor overwhelms another. While I think there are a lot of parallels between food and art, what I’m really getting at here is the idea of incubation.

Deadlines and pressure can kick us into an adrenaline rush of creative output, but an opposite, and equally useful strategy, is that of wait-time. In education, wait time is the period a teacher might pause for students to respond to a question before giving hints, offering answers, or asking the next question. Generally, the more complicated the query or problem to be solved, the longer the wait time. In a classroom, wait time might be a few seconds, but for our purposes here, wait time is expanded.

When working on a creative project, wait time can be an important factor in solving, clarifying, or exploring your idea. Putting all of the raw ingredients into the pot, turning your brain down to simmer, then walking away, allows your mind some time to work on solutions in the background while you’re not paying attention. When you return to the work, you will see what you’ve started with fresh eyes. You might also have one of those Eureka! moments when you’re driving, or taking a shower, or feeding the cats, when a revelation comes to you seemingly out of the blue. Giving yourself an incubation period allows time for your inklings to stew and become a cohesive pot of goodness, a complex blend of individual ingredients transformed into something special because of the simmering. Stepping away from a problem can actually speed up your creativity and production in the long run.

In what ways do you ruminate? Are there ways you can approach a problem in sections or stages that allows for an gestation period in the work flow?

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Set It On Fire

One of my preparatory drawings for my Cat Circus series.

Preparatory drawing for my Cat Circus series












Let’s face it. Many of us are more productive when there’s a deadline. Whether from a client or teacher, a challenge-a-day or a show deadline, that little bit of pressure can be the catalyst to create. The result may not always be our best work, but it does require that we make something, which almost always leads to something else, and can often be surprising.

That’s why I love shows like Project Runway and Top Chef. Contestants are faced with a challenge. There’s a list of supplies, like sequins and burlap, or tuna and turnips. The criteria are always coupled with a time limit, say, 24 hours, and relatively high stakes, like culinary stardom or famous haute couture. The contestants are instantly in a flurry of activity and ready to tackle the problem. Materials are considered. A plan is made. And production begins. Just when things seem to be moving along (better for some than others) there is usually an unexpected announcement that ramps up the pressure. One of the hosts tells the chefs that they must cook without electricity, or designers must use asymmetry and the bark of a tree. Suddenly, the original plan is derailed and must be rethought or enhanced by the introduction of new information.

The former president and CEO of Honda, Takeo Fukui calls this, “kicking out the ladder.” In this video, he tells a short parable about how he gets his engineers to produce high quality work in a high stakes business. Ignore the plug for Honda and pay attention to the discussion taking place among the employees about problem-solving and risk-taking. The ideas presented about creating can be applied to anyone in any discipline committed to eliciting the best results.

While you might not want to use these high-pressure strategies of setting parameters, creating unexpected obstacles, and taking extreme risks all of the time, they are great for short-term projects or when you need a boost in your production. Yes, you might fail, or things may not turn out like you’d hoped, but you will learn a ton. You might also find yourself doing greater things than you ever thought possible.

In what ways do you encounter challenges, deadlines, and unexpected obstacles? How do you use these perceived roadblocks to further your own creative thinking?Can you find or set parameters to achieve even greater results?

Get yourself to the next level, kick out the ladder—and set it on fire, so there’s no going back!

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Creativity: Not Just About Good Ideas

This is the second post in a series on where I will present strategies, resources, and examples about how to nurture creative thinking.

“Creative skills aren’t just about good ideas, they are about having the skills to make good ideas happen.
E. Paul Torrance

Everyone can develop the skills necessary to be creative no matter what the subject matter or occupation. So, how can creativity get a jump-start? Here are some first steps and resources to assist you with your quest to inspire creativity in yourself and others.

Just some of the ways to measure levels of creativity. This example explores things that are round.

Just some of the ways to measure levels of creativity. This example explores things that are round.

Generate a comfortable environment where ideas are welcome and the censor is silenced. It’s so easy for us all to get mired in that internal dialog that tries to tell us we’re not capable, or that what we have to say isn’t interesting or valid. Having permission to explore without judgment is the first step. It’s the “what-if” stage where, ideally, all possibilities are on the table. I like to think of it like a collage where you lay all of the pieces out to see what inspiration comes by looking at all of the parts.

Play. Once you have a supply of options, it’s time to rearrange, contemplate, elaborate, eliminate, and refine the ideas. This exploration comes from having freedom to see what happens. I think it’s also important to note that, most often, the first idea is NOT the best idea. Keep delving, connecting, and ruminating. The more difficult the task, or prompt, the longer the wait-time required to really come to a conclusion. In fact, sometimes, it helps to give your brain time to decide without your conscious self interfering. (I also know that deadlines are a reality, and can be powerful motivators for decision-making, but I will address that in a later post.)

Some awesome resources I use for the idea-development and refinement stages:

E. Paul Torrence
If you are not familiar with the father of creativity research, then definitely check out this NPR Story about him. He defined the parameters for measuring what characteristics are present in a creative thinker! Super-interesting stuff. There’s also a test to check your levels, though not available to the general public, it’s a taste of the kinds of things you might find on the assessment.

Caffeine for the Creative Mind by Stefan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield
This website and book series is designed for every person to have fun thinking and playing. From name-your-own-crayons, to photocopy challenges, these short prompts create exercise for your brain.

A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger Von Oech
A series of books and accompanying Whack Pack Cards present strategies for elaborating and reframing ideas. Particularly good when existing ideas seem to be stuck or need a boost. There’s even an app for your smart phone!

Thanks for your time. I hope these ideas and resources are helpful. Get out there and be creative. 

Next week: Creativity and Deadlines

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Taking the Mystery Out of Creativity: Encountering Genius

This is the first post in a series on creativity where I will present strategies, resources, and examples about how to nurture creative thinking.

Drawing by Juliana Fagan

Drawing by Juliana Fagan

In her TED talk on creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, explains the origins of creative genius that I find fascinating. During Greek and Roman times, creativity was not thought about in the same way as it is today. They believed that inspiration was not something that came from people, but that humans were simply a conduit for that inspiration that originated in a spiritual realm. The Greeks called these spirits daemons and the Romans called them geniuses. The idea was that if you created or performed or invented something particularly brilliant then you had a really good daemon or genius that used you as a conduit to bring that idea or creation into the world. You, human, still had to practice and be open to hearing and executing the idea, but — and here’s the part I really like—if you did something particularly brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit because you must have a great genius. And conversely, if what you did was an epic fail, you had an out because your genius or daemon must not be doing their job. This takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of the mere mortal to be brilliant all of the time. Nothing that is produced, whether superior or abominable, is truly the full responsibility of the maker. That responsibility is shared with your genius. (This all changes in the Renaissance when people went from having a genius to being a genius.) If you are interested in more about this, and a more specific explanation of why this puts so much pressure on creative types, then I encourage you to watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk because it is thought-provoking and inspiring.

I liked to show this talk to my advanced high school art students around the middle of the school year when their enthusiasm for art making wanes. Students, challenged with sustaining their creative energy, found it easier chat about their college applications, or the winter formal than to produce meaningful work. However, after we watched Elizabeth Gilbert, it often alleviated the performance pressure and encouraged them to find the divine inspiration waiting if they could be still, show up to the work, and listen for that inner voice.

The thinking necessary to ruminate and solve problems is the same creativity in any discipline. It’s nearly impossible to encounter unique solutions if the work is not approached with sincerity, diligence, and openness. There’s a quote attributed to Thomas Edison. “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” I think that sums it up!

How do you approach problem solving? How do you find unique solutions or inspire others? I look forward to your comments.

Stop back in a week for the next installment!

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Sketchbook Memory

Mixed-media sketchbook pages using graphite, collage, acrylic, and latex.

Mixed-media sketchbook pages using graphite, collage, acrylic, and latex.

I recently said goodbye to my sweet cat, Emily. She was my constant cat friend for 18 years. Emily was also a convenient model and became the subject of many drawings and paintings over the years. Right after she passed away, I came across these preparatory works that were originally studies for paintings, so I decided to collage them into my sketchbook. The drawings were a bit smudged and faded, like a memory. I decided on a mixed-media approach to further emphasize the fleetingness of time, and to also reflect my emotional response to losing Emily. The paint is acrylic and latex, and the drawings are adhered and layered with acrylic and glaze medium. I was trying to capture the essence of our time without overthinking the process.

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One Big Show

One Big Show The end-of-year art extravaganza is upon us! So proud of our students and ready (almost) to hang the show. The drawing and painting students exhibit over 200 works of art! That’s not including the photography or sculpture!

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Summer Sketching Season is Here!

Cat Drawing

Inspired by a statuette at the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri

A visit to the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri yielded this sketch of a statue of Bastet. The Egyptian cat goddess is one of my favorite museum subjects so I have quite a few versions of Bastet in various sketchbooks from different museum visits.
During the summer is when I do most of my traveling and I love the fresh perspective I get when I go to new or familiar places. I find interest in the the ordinary and am often inspired by things I encounter.

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Best Moments!

Positive reinforcement doesn’t just apply to dealing with dogs.

Best Moment AwardWow! I want to take a moment to thank We Live in a Flat for acknowledging my recent post, A Walk in the Park, with a “Best Moments” award. Taking a cue from my nominator, I would like to thank my awesome husband, Neil, who is always willing to go for a walk.

Since I’m new to getting awesome awards from strangers posted to my blog, I need to find out what protocol is next and most appropriate. So while I do some research, please take a moment to check out We Live in a Flat and the fun dogs thereabouts.

I’ll be back soon !

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A Walk in the Park

Ink and watercolor on Fabriano HP 140.

Ink and watercolor on Arches HP 140

Here’s a mind map I created based on a walk I took in a local park. It was the second assignment for the online Creativity Crash Course through Stanford. The idea was to go for a walk and observe the location as though you were on high alert, or in elevated participation in one’s walking experience. I’m the one in the middle.

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