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Order up some Random

In multi-media Creativity workshops I have been part of, children have found rich imaginative territory by employing randomness and nonsense.

Some teachers may balk at randomness and nonsense, but it turns out that in the creative process there is no such thing as entire randomness or complete nonsense. This is because the presence of human consciousness gives order to random events and can make playful sense of almost anything.

Consider some “random” combinations from a WavePencilBone workshop I led with elementary students recently. As one kid repeated a spontaneous dance maneuver, turning north then south then east then west, the others called out what the actions reminded them of. “Cheerleader! ” “Starfish!” “Sprinkler!” They wrote their words on colored slips of paper, and put them in a can. Tossed enthusiastically into the air, the words floated down to land in unpremeditated combinations, which the kids recorded. They ended up with things like “dancing basketball flower.” Now, dancingbasketballflower did not come from the normal thought processes for pre-writing, but it sure is an interesting and provocative image, ripe for extrapolation.

Each student drew an original conception of a dancing basketball flower, and of the other invented phrases. These colored pictures were then placed along the edge of a large rectangle of pink butcher paper.

Next I asked them to think of a distinct sound. Perhaps because she lived near the coast, one girl offered the sound of a crashing ocean wave. I presented her with a large purple marker, and invited her to draw the sound as she felt it. As it flew beneath her hand the pen made a wavey line that spanned the eight-foot paper on the floor. Soon the other kids were drawing lines away from hers like branches from a stem, and these gave bloom to hybrid pictures inspired by the word-toss activity: watermelon sprinkler bombs, hyper diver daisies, baby salad cheerleaders, dancing baseball elves, electric flying starfish. Then they added actual seashore debris– shells, stones, driftwood, and a large piece of jumprope kelp that snaked right down the middle.

Creative inquiry is like going to the ocean. We explore the beach or reach down into a tide pool, or cast a line into the invisible depth. We reach out and reel in. Something always comes to us, even if it’s the seaweed of a “mundane” object or a “dull” event. We do not have to manufacture the stuff of inspiration; it can occur effortlessly. We just look at what lands in our hands and begin to dream about what it might mean.

So why is creativity elusive for many people? It is because they don’t know how to get to the beach. It’s as if they live their lives three blocks from shore but stay in windowless buildings with one-way pictures on the walls.

For these people, a random path with nonsensical signposts can be helpful. If they are willing to embrace notions that are sufficiently absurd, they might find themselves hyper-spaced beyond the confines of their normal thinking, combing the shore of possibilities.

What happens is that the rational mind is at a loss to make sense of the senseless and, exhausted, it takes a nap. At that point the psyche is free to leave the house, and to rummage amongst perceptions, memories, thoughts, and emotions, until it finds itself standing at the edge of the sea.

The kids in my workshop made their art in a short time with a kind of frantic grace that seemed altogether natural. What the kids had in the end was a work of art from which they could tell a story. Each “random” image combined with the next, until new characters and places were given life in the mind, and then were pushed were down the highway along impossible plot lines past hilarious dilemmas. Why is that flying electric starfish standing next to the watermelon sprinkler bomb? ‘Cause that’s what they eat! The most exciting things were the unforeseen, the ideas that are not thought up on purpose but emerge through spontaneous interaction because of random cues and nonsense instructions.

The Art of Surfing

When my friend Jeff talks about surfing, he sounds like an artist, waxing poetic about line, shape, form, and space.

“Riding a wave is like dancing in space,” he says. “The ocean is your partner: it’s the place and the energy source– evolving, constantly in motion. You want your movements to stay true to that shifting space and that power source. Then you feel in tune, truly partnered.” Compare that to what Jackson Pollock said: “…the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the results are a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, a give and take…”

Jeff also talks about the importance of visualizing line, in being able to see the “pure line.” He explains, “Pure Line is staying as close as you can to the energy source of the wave, so you can optimize that power and turn it into speed and movement.” Jeff imagines his board drawing a line across the wave, and looks upon waves as blank canvasses. “When you can see that line and you know what maneuvers you want to do, and you stay interwoven with the power source like dolphins do, you can fully participate in the flow.”

For Jeff “the flow” offers bliss. He will find himself in the “green room,” the tube of water that engulfs like a womb, where time slows to such a focus that he can contemplate delicate water droplets in mid-air. He calls it “the ultimate meditation.”

Here my friend is like the ball player who is shooting in “the Zone,” the painter who loses track of time, the musician who let’s the music play him. “In that moment,” he says, “there is nothing wrong. Anywhere. Ever. At all.”

So Jeff is an artist, too. But what happens to his art after the moment passes and the space is gone? “It’s in my head,” he says. “I have hundreds of rides in my memory, and they never go away. To take that water energy arriving from a thousand miles away and make a graceful statement at that place and time– that’s one-of-a-kind and forever. For a brief passage of time I was at one with the wave.”

I once asked painter James Lavadour about the painting process, and he said it is like being a conscious spark of energy registering this moment in time and space, where all the properties and histories of his environment and his life converge in a particular event, like a phonograph needle turning the next arriving moment into song. Sounds like surfing!

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Looking into Space

This is the seventh and final meditation on the Elements of Art and their significance beyond the realm of the visual arts.

Seek a definition of the word space and you might find this: “the boundless three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative position and direction.” That’s pretty all-encompassing, suggesting an infinite cosmic ground where the table is set with goods and the party happens. How do we rodeo this down to an explanation useful in the world of The Arts?

Space is one of the seven Elements of Art. In a picture, it is usually thought of as the suggestion of distance between or beyond things, and is depicted by artifices such as converging perspective lines, horizontal divisors, or the negative shape of sky at the top. These representational tricks usher the viewer into a hallucinatory experience of distance.

The significance of space changes when we move from two- to three-dimensional art. I spoke recently to students at da Vinci School in Portland, Oregon who were practicing a dance they had choreographed. I asked them the role of space in their piece. “It gives it depth,” they said. “It gives the eye more to see than just a straight line.” Their teacher added, “Space in dance is about relationship and levels.” (Her remarks were illuminated by the students, who used the words high, low, lift, turn, here, there, together, fill, between, over, and flow.) One dancer explained, “It’s what we share with each other. It’s the empty place where we make something for the audience.”

Sculpture, too, uses space to enrich the visual experience. The sculptor composes with forms, but also with chunks of empty space that fit the convexities and concavities of the work and extend outward. Like silence in music, the spaces and breaths between statements create rhythm and counterpoint. An expanse of unoccupied space surrounding a sculpture can give a contemplative context in which to consider the the piece.

Martin Eichinger builds his sculptures of dancers and gymnasts on a turntable, “because space has to wrap around, and I am taking a journey through that space.” He thinks of each piece “like a book, a narrative that has an implied history and an implied future, and you’re capturing it at this moment in its trajectory.”

Movement is one of the Principals of Art. If the piece itself does not move through space, it may still suggest movement, as Cezanne’s landscapes did, encompassing different times of day as the sun moved across the space of the sky. Picasso and Braque made similar suggestions by showing different views of the same body simultaneously. One da Vinci dancer described her group’s compositional efforts in terms of Cubism: “I am like one person split into three people- front, back, and side.” Eichinger, too, employs perspective shifts when he brings clay to what he calls “the narrative time lapse.” If the idea of movement is inherent in art, then the idea of time is inherent too, because the changes that movement brings about require the passage of time. Innovations by multi-media practitioners of performance art, time-based compositions, and video have made Time itself a candidate for an eighth element of art. This makes sense, but time must be considered in tandem with space, since the two require each other, in art if not in physics.

Space seems to require distance, too, but “virtual space” ironically offers the experience of being able to go anywhere, even to “the clouds,” by using billions of pieces of information stored on servers in a single locale. My son Thane, a UX (user experience) designer, helps create apps and websites. He says, “You’re hinting at something great, but you really don’t have to show all that. You’re coming at it through the frame of a screen, but you’re building the illusion that the whole world is there.” In his work he thinks of space in terms of the x and y axis, using the same visual techniques as picture-making artists, but he also uses the “z space,” which determines how things are stacked and shuffled layers deep on the screen. In this way he is also like the choreographers, considering relationship and layers. “Really it’s just interacting, so it includes the dimension of time. I like that you can use illusions to make things seem better than they are, to direct an experience in a positive way.”

To make things seem better than they are: isn’t that the consolation of the arts? The sculpture that is better than mere stone, the painting that is better than a patch of cloth on boards, the play that goes beyond common speech, the song that is noise transformed. And each of these needs a tiny piece of the universe’s “boundless three-dimensional extent,” a room, a screen, a field, or a minute in which the magic can occur.

Forms of Life

(This is the sixth in a series of meditations on The Elements of Art and their significance beyond the visual realm.)

When a word has as many meanings as FORM does, there are things to be learned in the places where those meanings overlap.

In art, a form is an object, a three-dimensional shape. Beneath its surface is a volume, an interior of cells or a bulk of some kind. In the workaday world a form is something “to be filled out.” Culturally, in Britain at least, form refers to the conventional way a thing is accomplished; sloppy process is “bad form.” And in the realms of mythology and religion, form is the place where Spirit meets matter to create Life. Each of these meanings points to a manifestation, a realization, a becoming.

In a way, every object is a fulfillment of possibility. We speak of Creation, human or divine, as that which has been consciously composed. And the objects created, having size and volume, must contain some substance “held in form.” Each form is literally a fulfillment, a fleshing out, a coming into fullness.

Form is mysterious. Where there was nothing there is now something: something whose exterior we can see but whose interior by its hiddenness is enigmatic. So we can marvel at the beauty of its surfaces and take satisfaction from the partial understanding those surfaces might give us, but there is much we don’t know about any particular perceivable thing. Physicists tell us that solid objects are composed mostly of empty space, and that atmosphere through which we can see long distances is not empty at all. The world truly is not as it seems. Uncertainties about what lies hidden inside of forms can lead us to make up stories about them.

In psychology the love object (that human form toward whom you feel strongly) can become a repository of your repressed characteristics and desires. The same confusion might happen for any person, place, or thing; forms are screens upon which we can project our psyches. Kieth Haring said: “With a minimum of lines any form can become a symbol.”

Forms can also be misleading when they are standing still. A stone sculpture reposing in a courtyard gives the impression of stillness, permanence. It pretends to have arrived complete at this point in space and time. But its presence in this moment is only the most recent stop on a journey involving cooling magma, the degradations of gravity and chemistry, intriguing human inventions that lugged it from its quarry, and the intervention of a meddlesome human with a persistent imagination and a chisel. All the while it was “taking form” even as it “held form,” traveling with meandering steps, accidental or destined, toward its current state. So a form is usually only the latest incarnation of a work in progress, though it’s uncomfortable to admit. As recently as 1964, most geologists refused to give credence to Plate Tectonic theory, which recognized that continental pieces of rock were actually adrift. It just didn’t seem possible that massive land forms were shifting like ghosts.

We can be forgiven our hopeful conceit that things are permanent, that the forms of the world are reliable and true. The aesthetic intellect delights in a created form that appears complete, its essence expressed without waste. But we know that earthquakes and wars and lichen and water will eventually change what we witness now. Buddhism reminds us that even the monumental is transitory, that non-attachment is appropriate because “there’s nothing you can hold for very long.” Dutch painters of still life in the 17th and 18th centuries had a tradition of putting a rotting fruit or wilting flower in the scene, to acknowledge this Truth.

Underlying the shifting nature of everything is the knowledge of our own death. We, like everything else, will fall away. Things of beauty like the stone sculpture provide respite from the chaos and decay that assault the world and confuse our plans and our minds. The balm of beauty gives solace…temporarily.

Here the FORM becomes transformative: it announces the precious instant of life within the domain of death. Picasso said, “Everything is a miracle. It’s a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar.” Impermanence, the medium of our existence, makes the tulip lovelier, the brow more glorious, the baked hen more exquisite. Every form, every object, is a revelation, an unknowable dark mass emblazoned with light, balanced between appearing and disappearing. Behold the form!

On The Surface

(This is the fifth in a series of meditations on the Elements of Art and their implications beyond the visual realm.)

In visual works of art, texture is defined as the look or feel of the surface. Texture can be understood through vision or by touch, registering as rough, smooth, undulating, irregular, wet, reflective, soft– even as patchworks of all these together.

While the surface treatment of a work might seem inessential, perhaps an afterthought, the triviality vanishes when we realize that vision relies on surfaces to reflect light, light that defines objects and delineates the world. Without the surfaces of the things of the world, there would be no focused beauty, no pleasure in discovery or recognition, no delight in the wonders of the day. Our eyes need objects to deliver visual messages to our brains, just as our ears need objects to deliver sounds (sound only happens when sonic waves strike objects). Without objects and their surfaces, the world would be for us a silent place with a diffuse monochromatic backdrop. We need the play of light for the Play of Life.

On a surf-sculpted beach you can see the gritty texture of the sand, hear it against your rubber soles, feel it abrade your palms. There are larger textures, too: rows of curlicued forms carved by incoming tides, and networks of paisley deltas that mark the ebb. The eye follows the texture of flotsam– an irregular blanket of shells, kelp, driftwood– to the slate of jutting rocks, the hairy bark of trees and their bristly branches, and up into the sky with its own undulating foams and patterns carved by currents. The star performer in all this beauty is Light, and the stage on which it dances is Surface.

Each plane of color is launched from a textured surface, every scene originates in texture, waiting for light to attach its magic. In this way light takes its place as the chief metaphor for Spirit: it is the sublime substance that combines with matter and creates transcendent beauty. The main medium for the visual artist is light itself; by forming and manipulating surfaces of paintings or sculptures the artist invites the enigma of light to intermingle and shine. In a surface-less world there is no place for color, pattern, line, or shape to depart from or be imitated. So textured surfaces allow for the transcendent view of the shore, the picture painted from that view, the cotton dress depicted in the picture, the tide-imprinted topographies on the beach, and a place for the heart, drawn with a stick in the sand.

Black and White Thinking

(This is the fourth in a series of meditations on the Elements of Art and their implications beyond the visual realm.)

During a group conversation last night I saw black and white and grey points of view compose a surprising and satisfying experience. Each sentiment was like a gradation of light or dark – what is called “value” in visual art- and in combination they reminded me of well-composed pictures with depth and punch.

Ten guys encircling three pizzas tackled the topic of The End of the World. Some thought the hypothesis (an apocalyptic event like a meteor headed for earth) ludicrous on its face. Others said it was only a matter of time. Two gentlemen insisted that people would abandon civility and pillage at will. Another said he would seek pleasure, with no reason to plan for his childrens’ future or make the world a better place. Three others argued for the better angels, that people would remember fellow-feeling, would help and appreciate one another more. The urgency of the situation would cause a shift in consciousness, one posited, and the species of man would take a quantum leap of brotherly love. Several even-toned blokes took a middle position.

What I liked best about the arguments, whether I agreed or disagreed, was that each man held his position with certainty, standing sentry to his idea. They were like dedicated placeholders for specific values, this one middle grey, this one black, this one dark grey, this one almost white. By having a range of definite values on the continuum from optimism to pessimism, from light to dark, we got a modeled picture of a range of human responses. It came alive.

I have a friend who is a healer, one who works with the energies of sound and light to release disease. He says that the work of healers is to bring the low-frequency energies of matter into the high-frequency energies of light. I don’t know about that, but it makes me think again of gradations of shadow and highlight in a strong picture. When I teach drawing I often remind the students that every thing -every object from an egg to a bank clerk to a field of daisies- starts out dark. Until light is added, every single thing is dark matter. People tend to shade their drawings too lightly, forgetting that in nature it is light- not shadow- that is added to forms.

The old can’t-have-day-without-night truism is subconsciously at work in any shaded black-and-white drawing. Without light and dark you have no picture. The comic book world is full of dynamic panels using only black ink on white paper, no middle tone at all. Illustrations with high contrast between black and white often contain an energy, an almost electric excitement. They carry in them a tension between opposites, like two opposing points of view. Jungian psychologists, who love this kind of dichotomy, say that whenever you have a clash of irreconcilable opposites in your being, a powerful creative energy resides in the gap. That same kind of creative tension was pulsing in the well-drawn End of the World conversation.

Color of Love of Color

(This is the third in a series of commentaries on the Elements of Art and their implications beyond the visual arts.)

Color is a mystery. It defies complete explanation, and mesmerizes even as it eludes. Science tells us color is the response of the human brain to different frequencies of light, light that is reflected from surfaces or atmospheres. So the blue that seems to glaze the clear day sky is simply the brain’s response to a frequency of light striking nerves and sending signals to the brain. Studied simply as a physical phenomenon this would seem unremarkable we’re it not for the depth of feeling that such perceptions can incur.

It’s a bit like romantic love. A clinical take on love might be that stimuli- sights and smells and hormones and pheromones- hit the lovers and they are moved to respond. Romantics might add that fate and soul are factors as well, and religious people might point to a Divine Hand. But causes are unimportant here; it is the reaction to “love” that matters, the expressive acts that arise from the emotions created by the stimuli. Those emotions are what inspire the poems and songs of the lovers, just as the emotions brought on by vibrations of singing and instruments in music cause a person to dance. These urges are akin to what the artist feels when gripped with the compulsion to paint the colors he or she has witnessed. To those experiencing color or love or music, the urgent reality is the feeling, so intense that it must be acknowledged or praised by some act of creative ardor.

Finally, a word about blue, which I love. Far from being a color of sadness and loneliness, it is a most uplifting color. It bathes my skull in an effervescence of happiness; it infuses my solar plexus with the humors of well-being and good fortune. Blue is a moment of bliss, a Mystery devoutly to behold.

Getting into SHAPE

(This is the second in a series of commentaries on The Elements of Art and their implications beyond the visual realm.)

Life is what we get into and what we get out of. By drawing a border around us–a shape–we can understand where we are and where we are not. So a shape– a boundary of a certain character– is useful as a container, not just a visual enclosure, but a finite place to put time, ideas, symbols, memorabilia.

I make a painting. My hand moves the brush in figures across the canvas, creating places to fill with color, pattern, shadow, collage. The shapes are holders, places for me to put what I see, what I think, what I feel.

There is something similar in the contour lines making shapes in my paintings and a writer’s decisions to limit what is inside the story. Both are creating images small enough and well-lit enough to be contemplated. In one definition of “describe,” Websters even equates the act of describing with shaping: “to mark out; trace or traverse the outline of.”

Writers are constantly concerning themselves with what to leave in and what to leave out. After they have cropped and gerrymandered a simple story from the infinite world of the imagination, they call the resulting outline the “shape” of the piece.
To find the best shape for a story, a writer may ask What is this story about? The word “about” is telling: definitions include “around the outside, in circumference” and “in a circle around.”

Perhaps our individual lives have shapes, conscious and unconscious limits to what we will explore and risk. Whether you wear a large or small shape, geometric or organic, multi-peninsulaed, thick-lined or dashed is determined by a mixture of heredity, history, and pluck.

If you ask people to draw a shape representing their life, they may balk, averse to the constraints of Robert Frost’s wall that something does not love. One friend rejects the notion that his life could be symbolized by a two-dimensional figure. His experience is multidimensional: it emanates from the nucleus of his consciousness in all directions. People don’t wish to put themselves in boxes and crop out the potential goodies beyond. For many of us, freedom is in the negative space beyond the shape of ourselves, and to be confined to a shape is drudgery, limitation.

But consider where we would be without shapes to limit and separate us. Sometimes limiting and excluding are beneficial, like a crib or a curfew or a deadline. Establishing boundaries can give clarity, predictability, finitude. When things are separated out in a sorting of one thing from another, you get a world of distinct objects, beautiful and diverse, with sovereign beings in it. That is preferable to a great jumble of everything mixed with everything.

Walking with Lloyd Lindley through the Oregon Vietnam Memorial he helped design, we talked about the symbolism of the circular paths that traverse the space. I thought they suggested the life of the individual, a season in the life of a country, a unifying force beyond the sorrow of war. But his inspiration, given to him by the veterans he worked with on the project, was the perimeter created by the bunker. “They all said how important that enclosure was to them out in the bush. It gave them the sense of security and togetherness.” The shape meant survival.

If society has a shape, there are those who like to play at the edges, push the boundaries. They are adventurous, rebellious, edgy. I see adolescents standing obstinately at the side of the street, close to dangerous traffic. The great writer Russell Hoban said, “I have tried to keep moving on that wavering edgeline where the sea of the mystery meets the strand of the more or less known.”

Musicians, too, talk about the shape of melodies or the shape of chords. Some see them in their mind’s synesthesiac eye. Conversely, when my hand moves the brush across the canvas in loops and angles, what moves my hand? Usually it is music, being translated through my body into line and shape. Rhythm turns into line, and shapes are proclaimed from gestural trumpets.

So shapes can announce, protect, contain, focus, and approximate experiences, and we know this in our bones, if not in our skeptical heads. Once again, we can see the human tendency to explain our lives through the simple and familiar. Language, built from repeated experience, uses things it knows intimately through the senses, like the characteristics of stones or doorways or the oval of the sky. Such shapes can be the building blocks of thought, and the seeds of meaning.

All Lined Up

(This is the first in a series of commentaries on the Elements of Art and their implications beyond the visual arts.)

If you want connection, use a line. A line in music can connect you to emotional memory, or offer a beat that you can dance to with another person. A line in a painting– perhaps the bright edge of a face against a dark background — connects you with beauty the artist saw 500 years ago. A line in a play can tie you to the character who speaks it, and also to a psychological truth. And if you were to trace the line your body makes through space as you connect one life experience to the next, it would be a sort of map of you. The Fates in Greek fables spun the “line of life,” the thread that determines an individual’s destiny.

The word line makes its way into our vernacular from the Old English word meaning “made from flax”; the flax plant has thin straight fibers that woven together make rope. So dozens of definitions of line — in geometry, art, and theatre, in poetry, reasoning, navigation, architecture– can be drawn back to the practical purpose of a rope, which is to tie one thing to another. When we draw a line with a pencil we lay a small rope between one point and another. When writing a line we string words together, or sounds if composing music. Ethernet cords bring together the thoughts and images of people far away but “online.”

Since all these kinds of lines are rooted in the idea of connection, they are more similar than first appears, and can be considered together for new kinds of products, art forms, and languages. In fact, all the elements of art–line, shape, color, value, form, texture, and space– have a sizable overlap with other disciplines, providing as they do powerful metaphors for phenomena occurring outside the realm of visual art. In subsequent blogs I will explore these elements, find connections between them and other expressive media, and ponder how these revelations might point toward hybrid forms of perception, communication, and creation.