Mr Bean and the Art Class
I was transported the other night back into my high school art class. I was watching an episode of Mr Bean with my son, in which he attends a still life drawing session. If you haven’t watched this episode in a while, it’s a great excuse to have a laugh. But in addition to the laugh, this episode gave me the opportunity to reflect on my creative experiences and perhaps one of the greatest challenges I believe we all can have as adults- to start the process of un-learning and question some previously held beliefs relative to our creativity.
From the outset I am envious of Mr Bean’s confidence at the easel. The setting is all very cliched, The art teacher is French, the subject is a bowl of fruit. I am instantly teleported back, somewhere 1995-ish, and I am staring at an almost identical bowl of fruit. I remember struggling trying to draw the banana, clumsily smudging charcoal all over my fingers and the white page. I glance over at the other students drawings. Suddenly bothering with my drawing doesn’t seem worthwhile anymore.
I feel irritated as a couple of students have already completed their drawings. The perfectly life-like bowls of fruit they produced seemed effortlessly channelled and they seemed (at least to me) to be unappreciative of their considerable skill. My mind drifts to similar negative memories- a poorly graded black and white photograph, or an art teacher attempting to fix my very weak attempt at the human ear.
But after years of yearning for an artistic ability to be able to create beauty and deeply envious of those who can, I have come to realise now is that bothering is worthwhile. More than that, bothering for me is essential. I have now come to appreciate (with some additional maturity) the type of artwork I would prefer to buy- and it turns out it is the far less life-like, but arguably more connected piece by, well…Mr Bean. Yes, I’m serious.
As the episode closes, and in the midst of my son’s chuckles, I am reminded of the Greats, the Masters. I am lost in the bright sunshine of Van Gogh’s heavily stylised vase of sunflowers, and his violet rambling field of Iris. Neither of which were photo-real. But entirely his own offering.
And I smile to myself.
The Creativity Quotient
There is, I am disappointed to say, a barometer of creativity called the creative quotient, which similarly to intelligence levels, claims to be able to measure our levels of creative ability or aptitude. Instantly my mind wonders if I would score very well on this test.
I am highly suspicious of this quotient (and not just because I doubt that I would score well), but I believe that creativity is something that simply can’t be measured. Would the same arrogance suggest that a quotient could be devised to measure the size of the human soul? In my opinion, creativity is a fluid process that waxes and wanes, that can easily become suppressed and denied. Human Beings change and grow and creative potential continues to change and grow in response to that stimuli. For me, creativity is not only a daily challenge but a privilege.
I am reminded of years of my own ‘creative constipation’, and know that I am not alone. I often talk to people who insist ‘I am not creative’, and I know that this simply is not true. It is just a story. I wish there was a Metamucil or Coloxyl equivalent in my handbag I could offer to relieve this predicament but know that none such exists. What I can do though, is to offer my honest reflections on the creative process and the truth might surprise you. It continues to surprise me and it is my hope, that it might encourage you on your own creative paths.
In the early years of my life, I was fortunate enough to have a creative outlet. I could express myself through dancing and music. But at the age of sixteen, (when it became clear I was not going to become a ballerina) the creative brakes were unconsciously applied and I suddenly had no outlet for self-expression. In between studying at University towards a law degree and working an unhappy job, twenty years slipped by.
I would admire the bravery of risk-takers, however having two children was the perfect excuse to convince myself we would all starve if I took a risk and left my job. I would like to say that I was bold and unequivocally quit that job (you know- Jerry Maguire style, ‘Who’s coming with me?!’). The truth is a little less impressive, but I eventually emancipated myself from that environment and found myself on an entirely different and uncertain path. Much to my relief, to date, we haven’t starved.
I believe it is never too late to give oneself permission to express his or her unique creative potential. In granting myself this permission, I am reminded of the sage advice of Noel Monkman, in one of my favourite biographies and his comments on the ‘great locust of time’:
‘When I did notice the voracious creature, it had already gulped the soup and had started on the meats; but at lease I chased it away from the dining table in time to get my share of the dessert’.
I continue to fall victim to creative traps and it is something I have to work at. I am often reminded of the quote ‘Comparison kills creativity’. I love this quote but I am reminded that ‘I am human and I compare often’. It is an unhealthy habit that makes me want to crawl back into my shell. Daily. But then I remember that same bowl of fruit, and I know that every human being has a unique fruit offering, even if in my case, it could well be fruit salad.
I can attest to the health benefits of art to one of my children when they suffered a significant period of anxiety. It was the only mindful activity that offered them a period of relief. I will continue to wonder why we stop believing that the process is just as important (perhaps just as healing) as the finished product.
A Creative Apprenticeship
In a world that seems caught up with perfection, it is easy to believe that creativity is a black and white construct: i.e you either have ‘it’ or you don’t. I wonder when and why we expect ourselves to be accomplished or have mastered a particular set of skills by birth? I wished I could go back and talk to that girl in her art class. I would whisper to her ‘it’s okay to show your training wheels, it’s normal to be on an apprenticeship. I would tell her to immerse herself in the process, and to choose interpretation over perfection.
I suspect she would still doubt me.
I would keep encouraging her (as I believe her art teachers should). I would tell her to try to ignore their negative judgement and energy, and to keep on practising regardless.
Creativity for me is something I have only recently started to explore. I am proud to say I am on my own creative apprenticeship. I have a problem with the definitions of creativity that tend to focus on a degree of production or the success of ideas. I believe that all human beings are, by our very being, creative. Imagination and tenacity were gifted to all and runs through the veins of those who are open to it. Some people may have more finely tuned creative antennas, but perhaps I can fine tune mine, and get rid of the static? Creativity for me, is now a choice. I am creative now, not because of what I produce, but because of how I consciously choose to live. I am creative when I allow myself to wander the paths of my imagination, and get lost in labyrinths of memory or association. I am creative when I can appreciate beauty, or nature, or feel grateful or connect, or be nostalgic.
I would tell that young girl the truth, that creativity is not easy, it can be a struggle. Constant questioning, struggling, doubting and sacrificing are all unwelcome and unpleasant bedfellows.
Another path toward creativity
When I imagine creativity, I think of a single flame. If it flickers somewhere inside yourself (however dim, however fragile), then it is worth pursuing. I felt it, and I ignored it, even extinguished it, for many years. I believed I simply wasn’t good enough.
I don’t think I am alone.
I have had the pleasure of watching customers get lost in a display I have created, only to insist to me, that they are not creative individuals themselves. I have many a times, prejudiced a sale (insisting to those people that they are creative), because I would rather them leave with a belief in their heart, than a purchase in their hand.
With the benefit of age I have made some important realisations. First and foremost, I understand that creative potential is as unique as your own fingerprint, and is not underscored by pure technical proficiency. Creativity requires discipline, patience and practise, and while perfection is not a requirement, an attempt is.
I often allow myself to become lost in the lyrics of a favourite song by Claire Bowditch, Amazing Life. Claire offers the most beautiful reminder:
You think you have to be
Fully formed already
A New Still life
One day, I am going to attend another still-life drawing class- charcoal and all. This time I am going to approach the easel with a quiet confidence (perhaps with a little less bravado than Mr Bean!). I have no idea what I could produce, or what I am even capable of producing, but I will be less attached to the idea. I am going to ask the art teacher, if just once, we could make the objective to be the most creative interpretation rather than the most realistic, or whether, just once, the objective might simply be to reduce stress or anxiety, or depression, or to enjoy ourselves ?
I really hope you might join me at the easel…