I started reading a book called “Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play, (Who knew there was such a thing?) and Christopher Vaughan. I am completely riveted. I’m learning about all of the benefits of play for kids to develop problem solving and social skills, and for adults in preventing brain degeneration. I’m finding the topic fascinating, but of course my main interest is in the benefits of creative play. Interestingly, it was in a chapter about kids and play where I found the phrase that stopped me in my tracks.
Brown and Vaughan write, “. . . the self that emerges through play is the core, authentic self” (emphasis in the original, pg.107). “That’s it exactly!” I thought. As an adult engaged in creative play, it may not be that the authentic self is emerging, but rather re-emerging, but that’s exactly how I felt as I began to play more and get back in tune with my creativity. I finally felt right again, like I was back in my own body rather than looking at myself from the outside wondering who I had become. As I got more comfortable with my authentic self (whom I had not known in a VERY long time), the most amazing things happened. I was finding inspiration on an almost daily basis and creating art that for the first time, really spoke to me. I also began feeling joy, an unexpected but incredible benefit.
I never knew what that phrase “inspiration strikes” actually meant. Until recently, inspiration was really more perspiration for me. I’d decide to start a project and then I’d think through options until I planned what I wanted to do. I might start with a piece of fabric or a block design and go from there and I thought that I was “inspired” by the fabric. I have since come to realize that working on a design that grew out of something else wasn’t inspiration at all. Inspiration is a design that grows out of nothing at all, that comes flitting into one’s imagination unbidden.
Having this experience of inspiration, these moments when inspiration does truly strike has been one of the unexpected outcomes of my creativity journey and my experiments with creative play. As I have started to play more with no goal in mind, to experiment more, to try different media and generally just open myself up more to chance, I have had more and more moments of true inspiration. These moments are truly awesome, as in creating awe.
My first experience with true inspiration came over a year ago. I was merrily sewing along, minding my own business, but I was thinking of the Orlando shooting that had just happened that week. Then, in the midst of those thoughts, I thought about making a quilt and the idea for my “Victims” quilt began to form. I negotiated with the source of the inspiration for a bit like a petulant child. “Oh no,” I said. “I’m busy. I don’t want to take this on. This is a big project. This is a difficult project. No way.” I didn’t get a response. But, having read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, I realized that if I didn’t take up the project, the inspiration would leave me and move on to someone else so I sighed and said, “Fine. I’ll do it.” Then, I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out the whole design in a few minutes.
Since that time, inspiration has struck more and more often and I have gotten better about accepting it. I now skip the step of complaining and go right to grabbing a pencil. In truth, however, the pencil is totally unnecessary. These ideas that come dropping into my mind when I least expect it are also tenacious buggers. Many times, they just stay there lodged in my brain poking at me until I get to work. The good thing is that once I do start work, these inspired projects have come together amazingly quickly with nary a broken needle. (Again, awesome.) The best part of all of this? The works that I have created from these strikes of inspiration have been the most powerful, most meaningful pieces that I have ever done. They come right out of my soul and when I see them finished I am truly amazed.
I’ve seen the recommendation in a couple of sources to spend at least 15 minutes a day in your creative work. It’s a great idea. Fifteen minutes a day is enough to keep your creative pump primed and enough to feed your soul on a daily basis. But, even 15 minutes a day can seem really daunting if it first requires clearing off the dining room table and pulling out all of your supplies in order to get to work. We may not all be able to have a room of our own for our creative work, but having a least a corner or a small surface is absolutely necessary.
We all need a spot where we can sit down and do our creative work and on days when 15 minutes is all we really have, it’s important to be able to sit down and get right to work. If even that time seems like a struggle at the moment, think about where you might find 15 minutes a day. Would you have 15 minutes while something simmers on the stove as you cook dinner? Look around for a spot near the kitchen that could become your space. Do you have one of those bill paying desks in the kitchen? Ever paid bills there? No one else has either; make it your creative space.
Does it take your child 15 minutes to get her pajamas on and teeth brushed before bed? (Mine takes at least that long!) Is there a closet near the bedrooms that could be emptied and turned into a creativity closet? I am lucky enough to have a room of my own (having decided not to have a guest room in my house in order to have a studio – sorry, Mom!), but I still turned my closet into a work space. I hung closet organizers and a standing height desk and I use the space for all non-quilting related art, painting, paper crafts, etc. (and some junk too as you can see below).
In March’s newsletter, I wrote about the importance of play time to stimulate your creative juices and how I have found the times when I have allowed time for play to be some of my most creative. But what if that still doesn’t work? There certainly are days when even the idea of playing in the studio without any plan in mind feels too hard. When that’s the case, get out of the studio and do something different.
I’ve talked before about those periods of frustration when nothing seems to be going right and I’ve prescribed leaving the studio then to take a walk or go on an Artist’s Date. Both of those are good things but, believe me, sometimes that isn’t enough. I’m talking now about those days when you walk into the studio and just want to turn right around again. Even housecleaning is looking more appealing than creating. Those are desperate times! Before you pick up a scrub brush, try one more thing – explore other media. Haven’t picked up a paintbrush since grade school? Try it now. Mash your frustrations out on some clay. String some beads. Take a class in something that’s really new to you or experiment in media you haven’t tried before. Even when you’re playing in your preferred medium, it can be hard to truly let go. That’s the point of trying a new one. It’s totally new to you so there are no expectations. (Actually, you probably expect that what you create will be total crap and you’ll just be pleasantly surprised when it’s not.) You can create just for the sake of creating. If you can recapture a few moments of that sheer joy of creating that you had as a kid, you might just find that spark that will bring you back to your work.
I recently took a watercolor journaling class with Jane LaFazio. I may never be a watercolor painter, but I tried something new, opened up some new creative channels and managed to paint a pretty decent shoe:
I had an essay already written and all typed up for this month’s newsletter when I began reading The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde. (Thank you, Carol, for the introduction to this book.) Reading it has been so transformative that I felt like I needed to shelve my plans for this month and write about it. I have been really struggling lately with my plans of making a living as an artist and the reality of doing so. This book has helped me to understand why this has been such a struggle.
Hyde describes two different economies: the commodity economy and the gift economy. In the first part of the book, he delves into anthropology and history to describe the development of both. But, my basic take-away from the first part was this: I have participated in a commodity economy for more than 25 years. From my first minimum wage job at 14, through salaried work and now highly-paid but still hourly consulting work, I have been able to directly equate one hour of work with a certain amount of pay. Art doesn’t work this way. An artist participates in a gift economy in which she or he receives a gift of artistic talent or inspiration and then creates a gift by making the art. The artist gives the gift to the world and is compensated indirectly through another gift. It’s a circle that continues but one in which there is no way to directly correlate hours worked with a ROI. To say that this is a foreign concept to me is a complete understatement and I’ve realized I have to completely shift my thinking about what it means to work and about compensation. I have no idea yet how to do that, but it does help explain why this hasn’t been working.
What is Creative Play and why do I keep talking about it? Well, I keep talking about it because after many, many years of fighting it, I have finally realized how very important it is. I stopped playing at about oh, two years of age. That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one. My mom has told me that I was the most mature five year-old she had ever met (and I think she really means “serious” when she says “mature”). My sister can vouch for what a stick-in-the-mud I was as a kid. Needless to say, I carried that into adulthood too. I love reading, but I read mostly non-fiction or classic, serious fiction. I took up quilting as a hobby initially because it resulted in something useful and was something that I could do while watching TV and thus otherwise “wasting” time. Honestly, it’s amazing people wanted to spend time with me!
I started playing in 2008, at the ripe old age of 33. That’s when I started my “Creative Play” blog and I went into the studio each week with the sole purpose of playing. During that time, I tried out many new techniques and I learned a lot. The most important thing that I learned from that experience, however, was how play feeds creativity. That period was one of the most creative times in my life, precisely because I was leaving room for creativity. I was just playing around to see what happened and what happened was some of my best work.
Fast forward to today, when after a hiatus from playing and after having fallen back into my old pattern, I am again leaving some time for creativity. A few weeks ago, I decided on a Friday to not make a To Do list. I decided that I wouldn’t work on any of the projects on my work table (unless I really felt moved to) and that I would just see what the day brought. I had barely finished my first cup of tea when I started thinking about the BirdZeed challenge word for the month. It was the 27th of January, four days from the end of the month, and I had had no intention whatsoever of doing the challenge. The word was “line” and I had not been inspired. But, on that day that I had left open, I decided to take up the challenge. An idea came very quickly to me and I made a good start on the piece. After buying some supplies, I finished it up before the end of the month. I had no plan to create this work, but because I gave myself some play time, my creativity flourished and I created one of my most heartfelt pieces to date. Read more about what it means to me in my blog post.
Line in the Sand, 2017. 8″ x 10″
Read last month’s newsletter article.
Many years ago, I was the charity quilt coordinator for my guild. In that role, I was the recipient of many, many donated UFOs. What absolutely surprised me was how much I loved dealing with other people’s UFOs. I have rarely felt as creative as I did when staring at a stack of blocks and trying to decide what to do with them. Since they were not my UFOs (of which I have plenty!), I was completely freed from any preconceived notions of what the blocks were supposed to be and could instead look at them as a challenge: what is the easiest/ fastest useful quilt I can make, either with what I have here or with just a few additions? It was a much greater challenge than starting with a blank sheet of paper and a well-loaded quilt shop and it led to some of the most creative solutions.
I started each UFO project by asking myself a series of questions to ascertain the situation. “How many blocks did I have? How big were they? What could I create with them?” If the answer was “nothing good,” then I thought about whether I could add a little more fabric in sashing, alternate blocks or borders and come up with something of the right size.
I encourage you to look at your UFOs with fresh eyes and see what creative solutions you find. Tackling one may be just the challenge to get your creative juices really flowing and it has the added benefit of dispatching with a UFO! I’ve created a two-page worksheet to download that steps through those questions I asked myself as a free gift for subscribers to my Creative Play Newsletter. Click here if you are interested. I’d love to hear about ways UFOs spurred your creativity so please feel free to post a comment here on the blog or over on my Facebook page. Happy Finishing!
I have been thinking about the nature of creativity for years, but nothing has helped me understand the topic more than having a child. My daughter created fearlessly from the moment she could first hold a crayon. But, judging from the stacks of papers other parents took home with them from day care, she’s just as creative as the next kid. Watching her and her peers, it has become clear to me that creativity and the desire to create are innate. It is something we are all born with, but somehow, it gets beaten out of us so that as adults, we are much more hesitant to ask, “what if?” Her innate ability to create without hesitation is what Tom and David Kelley call “creative confidence.” As I suspected from watching my daughter, we are all born with it but can get buffeted by life enough that by the time we’re adults we believe that we never were creative, that we weren’t one of the lucky few who were born creative. Not true. We were all born artists, but over time, we lost our creative confidence in different ways.
So, what now? As the Kelley brothers describe, creativity is a muscle that can get as flabby as my abs. You just need a little exercise, or maybe even a little creative play. No matter how long it has been since you got a little creative exercise, that little girl or boy who mixed paint just to see what happened and then painted his or her hands is still in there. So the next time you begin a project, maybe don’t start with a pattern or a book, let your inner artist out to play a bit.
Read January’s post – Know When to Walk Away
Remember last week in my Creative Play Newsletter when I talked about how the Universe doesn’t always work from the same project plan? Boy, is the Universe having a good laugh at my expense this week! My husband is away this week for work so I had an ambitious To Do List full of energetic things like heavy duty cleaning and closet organizing but I have had to revise my plans. Just as my husband was packing his suitcase, I came down with a cold (his cold, thank you very much!). I was so walloped by it that the only times I moved from the bed yesterday were to take my daughter to school and pick her up and to make myself some tea and toast. Otherwise, I was completely horizontal. I’m happy to report that I am sitting upright today! That closet organizing may have to wait and the heavy duty cleaning absolutely will. Sometimes the Universe just laughs in the face of the plans we humans make and there’s nothing to do but roll with it.
Speaking of plans…I’ve scheduled another Creative Play Date for tomorrow. Now, when I scheduled it, I didn’t realize that it coincided with the Inauguration, but it occurs to me that playing in my studio is really a perfect way to spend the day. So, I hope that you can join me for a little play time at some point tomorrow. I’ll check in and let you know what I am working on.