July 5, 2005

Embrace your inner artist

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:37 pm

Quick! Answer this question. Don’t think about it. Don’t hesitate before you answer. Answer immediately based on your gut reaction.

Are you an artist?

If you answered “yes,” you need to read no further. You already understand the answer to life, the universe and everything.

If you answered “no,” or if you hesitated, then read on.

Here’s another question for you. How do you define the term “artist?” Name some people whom you consider to be artists.

Are you done? Did you define “artist” as anyone who expresses his or her creative self through painting, dancing, music, design, gardening, cooking, writing, fashion, teaching, computer programming, house cleaning, managing a gas station, parenting, healing or administrating? Then you can stop reading now and go appreciate a world full of artistic beings.

Or does your definition of “artist” have something to do with someone who expresses themselves via the visual arts? Did you name Michelangelo, your high school art teacher or your best friend who draws really well as people you consider artists? Then I have a story to tell you.

I saw a television commercial for one of those paint-your-own-pottery places. The tagline was “(This Pottery Place) isn’t just for artists. It’s for people who want to have fun.”

I gasped. My head started spinning, and I almost lost consciousness. Did I just hear them correctly? A business that provides the means for ANYONE to paint pottery is making a differentiation between “artists” and “people who want to have fun?” A business that, to be profitable, depends on every single person who enters to bring their inner artist with them is making a distinction between “artists” and the rest of us? Could the end of the world be far behind?

I took a few deeps breaths, sat down and sighed. I had to accept that the advertisers for This Pottery Place were just playing into the societal belief that some people are artists and some are not. They are in a business with the power to change this way of thinking and instead, they let inertia overwhelm them. The tagline could easily have been “Fun for the artist in all of us” or “Anyone can be an artist at This Pottery Place.” Or, for the bold approach, “You are an artist at This Pottery Place.”

I admit, I do not consider myself particularly gifted in drawing or painting. But I have done pottery painting at this kind of place and I was pleasantly surprised with what I was able to achieve. It seems like in a 30 second promo, there must be a way to capture the essence of pottery painting empowerment. Painting pottery is so much more than just fun — it is artistically invigorating.

The term “artist” is overloaded with preconceptions, misinterpretations, and for many of us, doubt. At some point in our lives, someone needs to sit many of us down and make us repeat, “I am an artist” until we believe it. That someone sitting you down may need to be yourself. And I admit, I am guilty of self-conscious hesitation when using the term about myself.

Only six months ago my sister-in-law asked me if I considered myself an artist. I gulped and weakly answered “yes.” It was an intellectual answer but my gut still wasn’t comfortable with the term. I was relieved when my sister-in-law said, “Good, because I think you’re an artist.” It was nice validation, although sheepishly I wondered what she based it on, since I don’t really paint or draw.

Expanding the definition of artist is hard work. I don’t really know why. All children love to draw and paint, even if their paintbrush is their finger and all they have to draw on is a dusty roadside. So we all are born artists, even in the most limited sense of the definition. Maybe the definition gets even more limited when, somewhere along the line, we notice that some kids in the class draw extremely representational pictures at an early age when the rest of us require people to guess whether the green blob on the paper is a frog or a portrait of our mother. As adults, we should know that the green blob is just as valid a form of artistic expression as a scale drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge. But we have internalized the limitations and the damage is done.

If you want to take a step toward fixing that damage, go try painting some pottery. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you move yourself from the category of “people who want to have fun” into the echelon of the artists. Then step back, and think about all the artistic ways you live your life, even if your creative approach to mending the garden hose doesn’t have museums knocking on your door inviting you to have a solo exhibit.

June 22, 2005

Finding a cure for the creatively stuck

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:30 pm

In the course of normal conversation, my sister-in-law, Erin, made a statement that I have never heard anyone say. She told me she was creatively stuck. After a lifetime of singing and vocal training, including earning a Master’s of Music in Vocal Performance, Erin has spent the last four years not singing. At the time this conversation took place in February, she wasn’t sure how to get unstuck.

I was fascinated. For the most part, I live in a world of creatively thriving people. Very few are professional artists, but all make creative activity a part of their daily lives. In my job, I interview artists, actors, painters, dancers, musicians and writers. If they were creatively stuck, I wouldn’t be interviewing them. I consider myself to be very fortunate that I get to surround myself personally and professionally with people who value the creative life force.

Erin said that part of her stuckness was due to the fact that singing, a major creative outlet for her, had ceased to be creative. She felt she had become a technician, producing beautiful notes, but not much else.

Four months later, Erin is singing again and says she is on the road to becoming creatively unstuck. To look at her, it is obvious that her creative spirit is coursing through her body again. She looks happy, she walks lighter, she brings joy into a room when she enters. There have been several big changes in her life lately, but everything is tied together and I have no doubt that getting her creative juices flowing again has helped heal her and steel her for life’s challenges.

How did she do it? After much analysis on her part, the answer is astoundingly simple. Erin began to focus on the process, not the product. I admit, I choked when she first said this because it is a line I hear from artists all the time. While I was an arts beat writer, it was a phrase used so often in interviews of artistic types that a photographer with whom I frequently worked used to joke about it. If ever we were having a day of dissatisfaction in our jobs, one of us would quip, “Well, it’s all about the process, right?”

As Erin described how she refocused on the creative process, I started to really appreciate what that means. Basically, she shoved her perfectionist tendencies to the side, set up no expectations for herself and didn’t look toward past failures or accomplishments as her barometer for what she is doing now. As she put it, if you’re looking in the rear view mirror, you can’t drive the car. It is a daily challenge she has to meet head on, but she appears to be invigorated by it.

Coincidentally, the last four months has yielded another conversation about creative stuckness with my friend, Jennifer. Jennifer is endeavoring to raise her 2 1/2-year-old son, Clayton, in an arts rich environment. A year ago, she asked me how to start painting with her son, since I am known for letting my kids go nuts with paint. I wrote out instructions for her about letting Clayton explore the paint any way he wants and not to worry about the mess. I gave Jennifer some pieces of paper as big as her child so Clayton could have a large canvas. Jennifer called me from the art supply store the day she bought the brushes and paint. In February, I helped her assemble an easel. Yet Clayton did not paint for the first time until one month ago.

By all reports, Clayton had a blast and Jennifer felt personal elation. It turns out, her fear of the mess and uncertainty about how the painting session would go had held her back from giving Clayton the art supplies. She realized that the limitations she put on herself, she was now putting on her son and that is one legacy she does not want to pass on to the next generation. Jennifer now feels that when she sets up the easel for Clayton, she also needs to set up an easel for herself.

Jennifer feels that culturally, we all put so much emphasis on product that the process is deemed less important. If the picture we paint is not worthy of being mounted on the wall, then it’s not worth the time to create it. Boy, I should have had a mirror to look into when she said that. With all my creative advocacy, I am guilty of this thinking. Erin and Jennifer have set a new, very high bar for me to reach toward.

March 1, 2005

What would we do without creative managers?

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:26 pm

The big awards season for movies and music was accompanied by the usual press criticisms of award winners for thanking their agents, lawyers, accountants and managers on national television. I am continually baffled by this criticism.  The winning actor, musician or filmmaker is merely thanking all the people who helped him or her live a successful, artistic life. Those gifted in the arts often are not talented in knowing how to share their gifts with the public without an organized support team behind them. The creative support teams for artists are also visited by muses.

Pediatrician Samuel Lewis of Lafayette is never at a loss for creative ideas to help promote young people in the performing arts. The long time fan and supporter of Belasco Theatre Company in Walnut Creek tirelessly promotes Belasco’s shows, its performers and its outreach program. But he is quick to say that he doesn’t sing or dance himself. Lewis’ gift is knowing the vital importance of getting kids on stage to perform, whether they are from a fortunate home or come from a family who, for myriad reasons, may not be able to give their child a shot at singing and dancing on the stage. Lewis also knows how important it is to give theater tickets to kids who don’t usually get an opportunity to see live theater because he knows seeing live theater can be a transforming experience. And Lewis knows that children who are given a chance to succeed on the stage will often gain the self-esteem, pride and self-confidence required to succeed in school and take that first step to becoming successful in life.

As Lewis says, “There’s some serious big-time talent out there who don’t have a way to share their talents.” It is within the scope of this observation that Lewis’ creative mind shines. Lewis bought some professional DJ equipment and formed the Smooth Motion Disc Jockey Group featuring three outstanding Belasco Theatre Company performing artists, Jonathan Smothers, Dave Abrams and Amber Clay. Smothers and Abrams come from tough backgrounds but have learned to soar via their musical talents. Clay was the top performing arts student at Skyline High School in Oakland last year.

Smooth Motion has been getting into motion performing at private and corporate parties. Using music from Shania Twain to show tunes, they play songs, sing and dance, do some karaoke and basically keep a party in high-gear fun. The money they earn from these gigs is going to their college funds.

This part of Lewis’ idea is great, but a Lewis idea is always multifaceted. Now that Smooth Motion is earning some money, they are starting to host dance parties for local seventh through tenth grade, to give young people who aren’t old enough to drive a safe and fabulous night of entertainment. But it doesn’t stop there. These dance parties are also fund-raisers for non-profit organizations. The first dance benefited the Step Up for Kids Foundation. A couple of bucks from each ticket went to the foundation. This spring there will be three dances to raise money for the new Lafayette Library.

Lewis’ idea is inspired and inspirational at so many levels. He has given Smothers, Abrams and Clay the chance to share their talents and earn money for college doing what they love. Smooth Motion is using their talents to give back to the community through fundraisers. Local kids have a safe place to dance and party away from school and home so they can be free to express themselves. Kids who attend the dance can be empowered by watching the success of their peers in Smooth Motion. And the kids attending the dance get the message that they are important enough to deserve live performers who go beyond simply playing CDs to singing and dancing at a party in celebration of youth and the arts. A volunteer manager who provides this opportunity for our kids deserves a lot of thanks from us all.

February 5, 2005

The high art of pop culture

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:42 pm

Hypocrisy dwells deep within me and plagues my soul.

On the one hand, I preach the importance of creating, participating in and celebrating the arts in our everyday lives. I despise elitism in the arts. I cringe when I run into someone who feels Artist A is more worthy of time, attention and financial reward than Artist B simply because a handful of snobs gave Artist A some wall space in a chic metropolitan gallery. I wince when opera is held up as a higher musical pursuit than doing Broadway shows. I particularly dislike when the world of dance is broken down into echelons ranging from classical ballet to street dancing. And I abhor when the art forms of Western civilization get more credence than the splendors of other cultures.

On the other hand, I am an elitist myself, particularly when in comes to the dreadful direction in which American popular culture is heading. It feels like the bar is set very low right now for American music, movies, theater and television. For instance, the “American Idol” phenomenon alone could be a sign of the Apocalypse, at least from an arts perspective. From what I can tell from one viewing during the first season, millions of Americans idolize young, hip-looking people who can adequately carry a tune loudly. “American Idol” has spurred myriad ruminations about how I must be more highly evolved than the lowest common denominator faithfully sitting in front of tube each week.

I’ve been reading a portion of “Common Culture: Symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young” by Paul Willis, a professor of Social and Cultural Ethnography at Keele University in Staffordshire, England. His words mirror both my Jekyll and Hyde halves.

My Hyde self is ashamed when Willis describes “The institutions and practices, genres and terms of high art are currently categories of exclusion more than inclusion…If some things count as ‘art,’ the rest must be ‘non-art.’ Because ‘art’ is in the ‘art gallery,’ it can’t therefore be anywhere else. It is that which is special and heightened, not ordinary and everyday. The arts establishment, by and large, has done little to dispel these assumptions. It prefers instead to utilize or even promote fears of cultural decline and debasement in order to strengthen its own subsidy, institutional protection and privilege. In general the arts establishment connives to keep alive the myth of the special, creative individual artist holding out against passive mass consumerism, so helping to maintain a self-interested view of elite creativity.”

Ouch! Professor Willis just shoved me in with all the snooty snoots I purport to despise. But Jekyll gets out the cheerleading pom-poms when Willis goes on to discuss his theory of symbolic creativity. He defines symbolic creativity as the multitude of ways in which young people in particular “use, humanize, decorate and invest with meanings their common and immediate life spaces and social practices.” Willis says symbolic creativity is expressed through personal style, selection of clothing, TV shows, music, print media, room décor, dancing, drama or music-making. Willis says these pursuits are not trivial or inconsequential because “symbolic creativity is not only a part of everyday human activity, but also a necessary part.”

Since I whole-heartedly agree that art and creativity are a vital part of everyday human existence, I am re-examining my elitist tendencies in terms of Willis’ assertions. Everyone’s artistic inclinations are completely individual, which is what makes the world an interesting place. Right now, much of American pop culture may not be speaking to me, but it did 10 years ago, and it may again in another 10 years. I don’t have to be elitist about it, but rather speak the mantra “Not everyone is like Christina.” It would be very boring if America were a country full of Christinas.

January 22, 2004

A world full of creative artists

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 3:22 pm

I was making a purchase at the art supply store when two college-aged women walked by in the middle of a conversation. As they passed me, one said to the other, “I’m creative, but I’m not artistic.” I cringed. Social rules and regs inhibited me from going over and lecturing them about my beliefs that we are all creative AND artistic beings. Nothing makes me jittery faster than to hear someone embrace one but deny the other.

It’s a pervasive notion in our culture than when it comes to artistry, you’ve either got it or you don’t. It is simply a matter of semantics. Many people use the word artist to describe someone who paints or sculpts, or uses other static visual arts as a creative outlet. The visual arts community does very little to dissuade the public of this misconception. And the hoity-toity are the worst offenders. Even photographers are usually not included in the “Artist” clique. And if your creative outlet includes film, or any of the performing arts, you are definitely not invited anywhere near the “Club.”

One of the most offensive things ever said to my face came from a local oil painter during a story interview. He asked if I was an artist. I said that I was. He got excited and said, “What do you paint?” I answered that I didn’t paint on canvas, but I did do faux-finishing and decorative wall painting, that I was a musician, loved decoupage, gardening, cooking, interior decorating, filmmaking, writing…” He interrupted me and with visible disappointment said, “Oh, but you’re not an artist.” I needed to take a few deep breaths to be able to finish that interview.

Some people only get the title of “Artist” bestowed on them by themselves and others if they actually make the leap from garage hobbyist to someone who sells their creative outlet for money.

And some people were so creatively stifled as children for felonies like coloring outside the lines or deciding that the spilled paint was more fun to tactilely explore than putting brush to white paper, that they grow into creatively repressed adults. Anthony Ruiz, owner of FastFrame in Lafayette, once told me that he can always tell when someone comes into his shop hauling baggage from a traumatic creative experience. They are the people who are completely paralyzed when he gives them a selection of mats and frames to choose from. They try to slough off the creative responsibility on him, but he is steadfast in making them do the work themselves. Anthony says it is an incredibly emotional experience for these folks because they are so afraid of “getting it wrong.”

Some adults allow themselves to be creatively functioning members of society but absolutely refuse to wear the mantle of “Artist.” Another local painter I once interviewed was almost unable to answer any questions about her art because she found the whole idea that the newspaper thought she was an artist absurd. The occasion of the article was the opening of a gallery show featuring her work, but she did not see that as validation of an “Artist” title. My mom is a terrifically creative woman, particularly in the textile arts, however you will never hear her use the term “textile artist” to describe herself.

Maybe it is because I’m a writer, but I believe the dictionary is the authority on all things semantic. This is a language issue, after all, but an important one since language is a powerful force in our everyday lives. Merriam-Webster says to create is “to produce through imaginative skill.” To be artistic is “showing imaginative skill in arrangement or execution.” Enough said.