Happening Upon Treasure: Haphazard Paths to Original Ideas

                 (published in Oregon English Journal, Spring 2016)

  A few years ago I took a dance class that made me see the creative process in a new way. In one exercise eight of us stood around the sides of a 14- by 20-foot rectangle marked on the floor with tape. We took turns making passages through the marked-off space, using any steps or motions that occurred to us, then stepping out of the space on the other side. We could stop, but no more than three seconds, and we were told not to plan our movements ahead of time, but to be mindful enough of them to repeat them if asked.

  The skips, lurches, sways, and leaps were fun to watch. Afterward people told what they noticed about these “dances.” One recalled the feeling of getting ready to dive into a swimming pool. Another saw in the wheeling arms of her friend’s dance a run-away washing machine. As an artist with 25 years of mark-making– drawing and painting and scraping–, my big Aha was this: the rectangle was a giant sheet of paper, and we dancers were pencils and paintbrushes moving over it! Suddenly small twists of the body became flourishes of the brush, a series of hops was a dotted line, pauses were emphasized points, twirls were circles. I saw us as elements in an evolving picture rendered with invisible ink.
  I borrowed this and other activities to make some unorthodox multi-media exercises of my own, which I use in creativity workshops with groups of all sorts and ages. They can play a role in transforming education into a more artistically fluid forum for intellectual growth.
                                        Finding Original Ideas
  To understand the best approach to creativity in the classroom, we can use Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity: “The process of having original ideas that have value.” (Robinson 2) Because the “original idea” is by definition unique, no formula or prescribed method can lead to it– it must be discovered. Such an undertaking requires wandering in uncertain territory, and relies more on the senses, perceptions, and intuitions of the wanderer than on measurable benchmarks or step-by-step instruction.

Here’s what masters of creativity say about the creative process: fiction writer E.L. Doctorow: “It’s like driving at night in the fog. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (Doctorow); painter Bridget Riley: “It’s like playing with a hoop as a child…it goes along and you run with it, but if the hoop bounces on a stone you don’t exactly know where you are going next.” (Snyder 86); musician Joni Mitchell: “It’s only through error that discovery is made, and in order to discover you have to set up some sort of situation with a random element.” (Rodgers)
  Randomness is built into my version of the taped-off rectangle exercise. After each student has had a chance to move across the space, I ask them to recall each path of movement, their own and others’. Then I give them an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper and have them draw from memory those paths, denoted by lines or dots or swirls to show the flavor of the movement. Interesting shapes and designs emerge when lines traverse the paper from several directions, and sometimes they form silhouettes of people or animals or landscape features. By the time the students are finished embellishing lines and coloring shapes they have turned these maps into beautiful drawings, even though a half an hour earlier they may have said, “I can’t do art. I’m no good at drawing.” So what started off as a short journey through space ends up being a journey into the world of artistic creation, in part through the vehicle of the body.
  The “leapfrogging” that happens in this exercise– moving from dance to storytelling to drawing– relies on the synchronicitious accidents which are bound to occur when you shake up linear reality. While it doesn’t take much for children to launch into such an open-ended inquiry, adults may be reluctant to trust the unknown, or need a primer on the sort of attitude most conducive to creative adventuring.
  The words of poet William Stafford are helpful: “To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us. We can’t keep from thinking…If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen.” (Stafford 17-18)
  Teaching such delving requires an instructor at ease with randomness, error, and nonsense. What is needed is a guide who demonstrates a simple searching tool (like dancing through a rectangle) and says, “See what you can find.” 


  For young children the simple searching tool might be combining objects not normally seen together. “Students, now I want you to draw two things you like but you hardly ever see together. I drew a hammer and a donut. What will you draw?” As soon as they juxtapose two disparate items, they will be in the realm of original ideas, and those ideas can be parlayed into more ideas. Let’s say second-grader Jenny has drawn an apple pie/pencil sharpener, and her classmate Jim has drawn a vacuum cleaner/bowling ball. You could then ask them to each make up a story involving their own and their partner’s hybrids, with new characters and plot lines revolving around the functions of their newly-created inventions. All this is in the realm of pure play, as there is no goal except the thinking up of something new from which to craft an image and then a story.
  However, such an activity can be vital to a child’s success in school. The chance to find within the individual psyche an acorn of passion, an image or a game or a story inherent to that child–this can be the start of an enduring treasure hunt. Furthermore, to have the discovery of that original idea be encouraged and celebrated–such is the empowerment called for by advocates of diversity and equity and “alternative” learning styles. So much of school is about studying things that someone else already found; creativity encourages finding things that have never been found before.
  Again, one effective way to reach truly original ideas is to leapfrog between sound-making and mark-making and the dancing body. The advantage of this multi-media approach is that it confuses the rational/analytical part of the mind– what Julie Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls “logic brain” (Cameron 12) –so that it essentially gives up and takes a nap. This leaves “artist brain” free to meander in search of ideas that are uncontrived and arise unexpectedly. Here the free-roaming mind can collect material to compose or discover original ideas. The teacher’s job is to introduce such exercises in an easy and enjoyable way. (More accounts can be found at davidlochtie.org).
  A curriculum of creativity can be continued as the child grows older, with more structure and analysis brought into the process at appropriate times. An exercise I have used at the middle school level is what I call the Poet-tree. Students write single words on leaf-shaped pieces of colored paper, which they tape to the limbs of a branch stuck into a pot to look like a small tree. When the tree is full of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, they stroll around it and write down any words that catch their eyes. From these they make poems that are outrageous and nonsensical, or juggle the words to make haiku.
  Another great technique to bring on creative adventure is the “exquisite corpse.” Children love the drawing version of this exercise, which results in hilarious hybrid creatures. Each student gets a piece of blank paper, holds it vertically, and folds it in thirds, the top third for the head, the middle third for the torso, and the bottom third for the legs and feet. Preliminary dash marks should be made to show the neck (visible on both sides of the top fold) and the waist (visible from both sides of the lower fold). The student then draws a head from his or her imagination. Encourage outlandishness! Say, “Weird is good!” When they are done with their heads they fold them out of sight so that only the middle fold is showing, along with small marks for the neck and waist, then pass them to the right, receiving a new paper for their left upon which to create a midsection drawing representing human, animal, or object. When they are done with the torso, they fold it out of sight and pass the paper on with just the lower fold revealed, with small marks indicating the waist at the top. They pass their papers and this time draw imaginative legs. When everyone is done drawing, it’s time for the ceremonious unveiling, as the students on the count of three unfold the entire drawing and see the funny disjointed creature, usually to the sound of great glee. In addition to some unique and humorous pictures, they now have brand new characters (original ideas) to flesh out and place in stories with other drawn-up characters.
  There are many fruitful versions of these games: charades, tall tales, making rhythm, and connecting disparate objects with string or tape, all of which can be combined or alternated to shake up the habitual rational mind and produce surprising images. It can also be fun to juxtapose opposites like “delicious starvation” or “lazy overachiever” to see what wit or insight arises.
  The main point of all these activities is to find seed ideas for visual works of art, poems, dramatic works, and stories told and written. They have the element of randomness sewn into them, and make use of a sort of Mad Lib magic that cuts and pastes reality into original ideas.
  In each case the learner gets a taste of divergent thinking, which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says is crucial to creativity: “Divergent thinking leads to no agreed-upon solution. It involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas.” (Csikszentmihalyi 60).
   Such exercises introduce the beginner to the wide-open, shape-shifting quality of the creative landscape, and lead to irrational and even bizarre notions, the genetic material for the novel idea. “That’s the way ideas come about for me,” explained Stafford, “…through a willing acceptance of sub-ideas that aren’t really dignified enough for most people to pay any attention to.” (Stafford 112).  

                                  The Madman and the Editor

  The creative inquiry will look different at the high school level, though it will retain some unpredictability and randomness. During a creative writing unit, for example, the teacher can try leapfrogging from one activity to another to increase the odds that rich ideas will arise. By this time students may have adopted some of society’s judgements and become jaded, making it harder to move into the realm of uninhibited thought.
  Rhythmic body movement can bypass the judging mind and lead to deep associations. So you might start with slow-motion calisthenics, rhythmic to-and-fro of the standing body, until students begin to be reminded of some machine or animal or activity either in their own movement or in a classmate’s. Then to paper, where they can write down an image or two that has come spontaneously to mind during the movements. Tell them to write a paragraph about the images, anything they want to say about them.
  Next, give them scissors and have them cut out each word of their paragraph separately. Have them find a clear area of the floor and fling their handful of words toward the ceiling, recording the new paragraph the words make when they fall. Seemingly silly, this step will strengthen one of the traits that is a mark of creative people: “the combination of playfulness and discipline.” (Csikszentmihalyi 61)
  Tell them to add nouns and verbs to the new “nonsense” paragraph so that it makes some sense, and then invite them to underline interesting passages. The meanings of their combined words will probably read nothing like their starting paragraphs. One of my students came up with “hyped-up buggies throwing lawnmowers over a deer.” Strange, yes, but there is little doubt that this constitutes an original idea, one that has possibilities for poem, short story, drawing, dance, etc. Like the primary children playing with word-splicing, explorers are likely to find amongst the underlined passages some new image that captures their fancy, either as the germ of a story or a metaphor to be explored. 
  Until now we have succeeded in leaving judgement and assessment out of the process, so that doubt and habit would not inhibit discovery. However, there is still that final piece of Robinson’s definition, “…that have value.” In the adult world value can be measured by how useful a new tool, concept, or artwork proves to be in the public realm. But the measure of value in the schooling of youth should be of a different sort. The original idea that second-grader Jim arrived at when he imagined his vacuum cleaner/bowling ball playing tennis with Jenny’s apple pie/pencil sharpener has value because he likes it and is willing to develop it by drawing it or telling a story about it or acting it out on the playground. At his age, he has achieved success, in that he has assembled from his inner and outer worlds an original idea, and it has value because it has shown him the fertile possibilities of his own imaginings. He has brought an aesthetically interesting thing into the world. 
  The high school student, subject to more rigorous standards of what is valuable, will have to develop her idea through supportive content, organization, word choice, and perhaps some research and interviewing to craft the idea into a coherent presentation that passes muster as a serious work. This is the appropriate place for assessment in the creative process (we remember the old writer’s quip “The madman creates, the editor edits.”), but it should only take place after the gem of the original idea has been unearthed, held in hand, admired for a while. 

 The main thing for teachers to understand is that the first part of the creativity process, the discovery of the original idea, must be left free of assessment. Stafford again: “I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgement can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am making something new, something that has not been judged before. Later others–and maybe myself–will make judgements. Now, I am headlong to discover. Any distraction may harm the creating.” (Stafford 18). This approach runs counter to much of current educational practice, which rushes to measure and assess classroom activities. Creativity, unlike other fields of study, does not conform to data-based “truths,” and will not be pinned down by maps or measurements. No one knows for sure where the frog will hop to next.

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 might 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 the 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 a personal 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 wade in 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 like 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 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 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 not thought up on purpose but emerging through spontaneous interaction because of random cues and nonsense instructions.


Rolling It All Into One: Musings on the Gifts of the Grateful Dead

All the way from Portland, Oregon to Santa Clara, California a question drummed in my head: What has the 50-year Grateful Dead phenomenon given the world?

Turns out the answer is incalculable, the impact too vast. Tens of thousand of hours of unique sonic art ingested by millions of followers and replayed daily by millions more, inspiring everything from fashion to activism to visual art to social architecture… who can explain that? The music has been fired into every nook and cranny of eternity, and there’s no telling who will hear it, what they will do with it, and what it will do with them.

The phenomenon I’m pondering, with its wide and high creative repercussions, started improbably way back in ’65, at a time when a few people were jumping off the materialistic bus to look for a new way of moving through life. Into this promising space wandered a group of friends from the Bay Area enjoying their youth and playing music together. Though they had no ambition other than to plug in and play, they eventually congealed into the world’s most far-out and best-loved rock and roll band. Along the way they would discover rhythms and structures which reverberate today through music festivals and country stations and bluegrass jams, and even pop up in Pop from time to time. Entire generations of musicians have been inspired to take their love of this music and give it a new coat of paint, or discard the form and steal the experimental attitude. Music has been irreversibly changed by The Dead, who were as much archeologists as they were astronomers. For all the star-studded psychedelic wonders they brought to earth, their songs were more often made of the reconstituted bones of Old English poems or folk ballads or hard luck blues.

But there is more to their legacy than the sublime music they delivered. I put my question to some of the guests at the Residence Inn in Santa Clara, most of whom are here to see The Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows at Levi Stadium. Lee from Louisiana says they helped create a lifestyle. “It’s about freedom and treating each other well and helping each other out.” Jen from Seattle says she sees dancing tie-dyed bears in her head when she closes her eyes, then goes on to describe the delight she feels when she paints pictures to music. Rich from New Jersey wears a shirt that says “Wall Street Dead Head.” He says the Dead and their crew goosed technology with innovations in the amplification, recording, and translation of sound. He adds a profound irony: “Those adventurous tinkerers in that 60’s scene invented technologies that gave us surveillance and information storage. They helped create the Big Brother society, and they were the last people who would ever have wanted it.”

“This will never be replicated,” says Dan, 70. He recounts the significance of The Dead for him. “I stepped off the plane from Vietnam on Monday.” He wanted to avoid the bile of the anti-war protestors and the boredom of his hometown, so he joined some friends who had invited him to a free concert in Santa Cruz with a band he had never heard of. “Friday evening I walked into that concert. Everybody was so nice to me, they made me feel so welcome. Then I heard the music. You know when you’re fishing and you’ve got one on the line? I was hooked!”

Even economics has been affected by the give-it-away philosophy of Dead and Family. One guy wrote a book called Everything I Know About Business I Learned From The Grateful Dead. An East Coast Deadhead named Ron, who saw his first Dead show in college in 1970, notes that our hotel is brimming over with Deadheads from all over the country, most of whom have cash and appetites.

And Dave, a farmer from Oregon, takes the question to an even wider ripple this day after marriage has been declared legal for all. He realizes that the Dead community always embraced that most American ideal of Freedom, along with a positive approach to things unknown. “Think about those folks celebrating across the bay in San Francisco tonight. Without the society that evolved here in the Sixties, they would not be celebrating there and all over the country.”

For a while the house band for that “society that evolved here in the Sixties” was The Dead. They started with loosey-goosey multi-media experiments called the Acid Tests, free happenings with colored lights and amplified noises and unpredictable appearances by the band. There was chemical catalyst available to transform consciousness, or at least eradicate normality. That was where they first cranked up the improvisational transformation machine to see what it could do. Tonight, fifty years later, it’s electric arteries and mammal appendages will prove as well-oiled as ever, even as it begins to lay itself to rest.

So try this for an answer: Love.

Throughout the toddlerhood, prolonged adolescence, and adulthood of this band, The Dead were driven by one thing. It was never money or fame or power or comfort or pride. It was simply a head-over-heels LOVE of music. It was in each player from the get-go, and it brought together far-flung perspectives and influences. They created an improvisational machine into which they could collectively pour their passion and obsession, and it would churn out brand new auditory jewelry each time, like the jazz they admired but with an even more rambunctious bent for collage and even less loyalty to consensus reality.

Whenever people try to tell you that the Grateful Dead was about drugs or tie-dyed irresponsibility or Never Growing Up, just remember that that is all peripheral wallpaper. The thing was and is THE MUSIC! This group birthed so many exquisite tendrils of organized noise, so many delectably tuneful doodles, so many slurpingly sensual sunshine rhythms that even Jehovah must be grinning.

And so, within all their sociological and artistic gifts to the world, I think that love is what they gave us, love of music. We have been the benefactors of their heartfelt drive toward sonic discovery. It was love that tossed the pebble in still water, and continues to send ripples outward–ripples of song, ripples of color and form, ripples of friendship, ripples of peace.

The Dead’s most unique contribution to the world of creativity may be their attitude about the act of creation. There was never ownership, no egotistical ambitions. The music was made and given simply because they wanted to hear it. And they understood a creative secret: don’t have too many goals. Here’s what Jerry Garcia said about the process, learned first at the Acid Tests:

“That experience gave us glimpses into the form that follows chaos. If you throw out everything and lose all rules and stop trying to make anything happen on any level, other stuff starts to happen.”

That “other stuff” was the glorious psychedelic sound banquet that we have been blessed to dance to since 1965. They modeled the creative attitude that invited it in, that idea that you sharpen your chops and learn your history and practice your craft, but then at some point you abandon all preconceptions and trust in something beyond yourself.

This was an important way-showing for people engaged in all forms of endeavor. Garcia again: “I believe that if you open the door to the process it tells you how to do it and it works. It’s a life strategy that I think anyone can employ.”

Finally it came down to the heart of the matter, the inexplicable in-duplicable live show, of which tonight’s would be their next-to-last at home. As the ecstatic crowd at Levi Stadium swirled and swayed to that same improvisational transformation machine, all philosophical concerns went up in smoke. There was left only the pure love of music, by the players and the hearers, and the joy in sharing it. Like a giant Sunflower of Sound, the band wove explosion and whisper, exactitude and asymmetry, refreshment and refrain into thrilling new numbers wrung from their oldest compositions. Yes, there were space-age sound systems and hyper-hued light feasts and enormous screens with wheeling fractals, but the music was the main thing.

No big significance beyond that, save for a couple minutes at the close of the first set during a jam that sounded like “Turn On Your Love Light,” when brilliant orange sunset light climbed a billowing brainscape of clouds and crawled across the dome of Heaven to touch the top of a double rainbow that had appeared in the eastern sky. Maybe something about the small wheels and the Big Wheel, and once-in-awhile and The Light.

Taking it Slow at the Art Museum

“How do you touch something without touching it?.”

A Portland State undergrad named Cooper posed this question as he helped me prepare for a teacher workshop at the Portland Art Museum. We were setting up art materials to make “artifacts” after an in-depth consideration of William Morris’ masterwork “Artifact Panel.”


The Morris piece can be thought of as a kind of endless question-poser in its own right. It is made up of 399 glass objects from the artist’s hand, suspended at the ends of wires stuck like insect collection pins into a three-story black panel mounted in the Northwest Art wing of the museum. The stunning grid of colored objects, by turns organic and abstract, recognizable and inscrutable, contrasts the scientific and the mystical, the known and the mysterious, fact and myth, event and record. The idea was to use the panel as a kind of Rorschach device, accumulating perspectives and associations until we had something of our own to make into an artifact.

At first we just looked, contemplatively (The name of the educational event was “Slow Looking.”) We tossed out words that arose from objects, then made hybrid words from them: horsewater, crowjug, skullspoon. We collected patterns and vignettes from intriguing shadows cast on the panel, then wrote and drew from those.

One thing all of us– math teacher, writing instructor, art educators, and undergrads– noticed was the difference between the organic-looking objects and their mathematically precise organization on the rectangular panel. There was powerful tension between the quantifiable geometrical placement and the mysterious purpose of the objects, often abstract (one looks like a cross between a sea anemone and a bottle opener.)

I was curious to see how gesture and movement might add to our understanding of the piece and its parts. We each chose a line at the edge of an artifact we liked, and copied that line with our fingers in space. When we had memorized the line so we could draw it anywhere and at any size, we shared our lines with the others, scribing them large on the air before us. In this way we each presented an aspect of something, with the body the more important teller than the voice. When we got loose and comfortable drawing in space, we all danced our lines while facing the objects on the panel, celebrating silently the mute music of their notes. This response had the look of ritual to it.

Such an exercise might seem silly if one does not understand how dance locks the encounter in the memory. You can really get to know a thing by dancing with it. The body echoes lines, turns motion into sound, inscribes vision on its moving cells. The memory is heightened, and connections with past knowings, similar visions, recollected conversations– all converge.

After we felt the objects in our bodies, we traveled to the studio to make artifacts of our own. I encouraged them to carry the feeling they’d had while drawing on the air, inviting them to translate their 3-D understanding, along with our conversations and wordplay, into a form that would express something of their encounter with the panel.

I asked Michael Strelow, who is equal parts writer and literature professor, about the creative impulse to give significance to sundry artifacts. He says we start by sorting, making piles out of stuff.

“We place the disparate into patterns that help us survive. It’s a way of interpreting meaning from a world that isn’t going to give it.” From there we make our own interpretations, sometimes in the form of an artistic statement that adds to the inquiry.

“Each interpretive thing– dance or art or story or sculpture– is part of a larger version of things. Patterns beget patterns.” He says the possibilities are limitless if you Look Slowly enough: “The question becomes: how much longer are you willing to spend with a work before the next level of complexity is revealed?”

By the time our studio session was complete each person had made and painted a clay object and mounted it on a black rectangle using Morris’ format, and we had learned a great deal. When our math teacher explained how she teaches the process of translation to reproduce a shape to scale, the art teachers realized that we do the same when we teach drawing. We learned that you can borrow across art forms, that random leaps adjoining disparate notions can lead to fertile ideas, that movement is a way of conjuring content for stories or pictures. Finally, we were able to recognize in each others’ work the borrowed contours we had drawn in the air.

This got me thinking about Cooper’s question, how to touch without touching. No one had laid a hand on any part of “Artifact Panel” (there is a gap between viewer and work of at least eight feet and an alarm if you try). Yet there had been a kinesthetic impression when vision and movement were linked. A thread of experience had entered through the eyes, moved to the arms and fingers, and continued on into the small sculptures we produced. Morris’ piece had activated the sense of touch; by attaching visual understanding to physical sensation, a new way of knowing had been achieved. Feeling produced by touch on skin had been replaced by emotional feeling expressed in movement. It was touch without touch, a different way for an object to impress the human organism. It brought to mind the sentiments of Helen Keller: “The best and most beloved things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart.”

The Fountain of Age: Creativity Work with Elders

Of the creativity workshops I have offered to different groups, the encounters with old folks have been the most profound. I have found elders open and subtle and gutsy, and possessing a gentility that is almost translucent.

At Home Woods Retirement Home I spent an hour and a half with a dozen people, all over ninety. I showed them unorthodox ways of expression- drawing sounds, shuffling memories, moving their bodies to pieces of sentences. They were enthusiastic and bold, even though three of them refused to experiment with poetry that did not rhyme, so firm had their training been.

Memories flew out like freed birds: the horse bringing ice blocks on a sled in front of the house, the young boy’s fascination with any wheeled thing. And as they traded recollections I witnessed a quality of shared inquiry that is rare. One woman looked at a green line her friend had drawn, and said it reminded her of the green line on the ocean horizon just after the sun has dropped beyond sight.

“Has anyone else ever seen that green light?” she asked.

Oh yes, they had. She said she used to go to the beach every evening with her friend and watch until the green line appeared. Her friend is passed now, but she thinks of her every time she witnesses the green flash after sunset. That spurred a memory for another woman at the table: she recalled a night soon after her wedding when her new husband woke her from sleep. He had come to show her the moonlight on the white blossoms of the orchard next to their home. She said it was magical, with the quality of a dream.

What I think is so remarkable about these associations is the sensitivity those nonagenarians had to bodily sensations. Because of their experience and their calm attention they had an ability to classify qualities of experience. They were not just making connections between objects or ideas, but between the nature of the feelings they remembered. This is a high level of metaphor, a sophisticated consciousness of soul and body interplay. It is poetic awareness.

There was a fine wit about them, too. When I asked “What’s a song we all know?” they chose Silent Night. I gave them each a piece of colored paper and a felt pen, and asked them to draw the sound of the refrain: “Si ..iiiilent night …” across the length of their papers. We sang the line together, and they let their hands dance the music visually onto their papers. Then we placed all the papers end to end. They formed a continuous line that swerved and jiggled from one end of the long dining table to the other, save for one paper that had been left blank. Jackie explained, “Well, it was Silent Night, so I left it blank to represent silence.”

The folks I saw at Rose Villa Retirement Community were just as enthusiastic about the creative inquiry. A group of residents, the youngest 86, sat round a table as I placed a red rose in a glass dish in the center. I asked them to say a word the rose made them think of. “Mother,” said one. Parade. Garden. Peace. John, who has dementia, eagerly offered, “Seven O’clock!” I wrote down the words on pieces of colored paper. Warren, struggling with dementia, studied the rose intently, and then said, “Vulnerability.” He was full of concentration, and raised his hand to say more. “Appetite.” His brow clenched. “It’s hard to say, but there’s a person who wants…” He faltered, “needs something,” … Long pause… “and someone can give it. Knows how.”

He pointed to the rose that sat between all of us. “It’s that thing. What that is.”

His faltering message, and the poetic beauty behind it, made me realize again the refined sense of metaphor and symbolic beauty that can accumulate in a human life. He was telling us that the rose is the means of connection between two selves, between needing to give and needing to receive. He was pointing to the catalyst for communion.

I am 52 years old, Warren is 94. I have encountered thousands of roses in gardens, poems, and songs, and noted the frequency of the rose as a symbol of life. But not until Warren’s difficult, grasping answer did I see that we need each other to bloom. In human relationship, full of vulnerability but insistent as hunger, we can transform from incomplete matter to blossoming interdependent spirits. And like the vulnerable and insistent rose, relationship — parent to child, student to teacher, lover to lover, friend to friend– shines with a profound beauty.

The group laughed, shared stories, invented rosy phrases from traded words. Near the end of the hour I asked Warren, Gladys, John, Agnes, Mabel, Deanna, Carole, Betty, Davena, and Billie to speak a phrase inspired by the rose. The poem that follows is exactly what they spoke.

The Rose

Scent appetite parade
Mother’s face glows
Peace tattoo wings

Day-Glo, Day-Glo
Daylight come and we wanna go home.

Bike and hike appetite
Hot chocolate mother
The beauty of Portland


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!


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 principles 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 that picture-makers use, 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.