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.