The Path to Creativity Part III: Art, Fear and Global Blindness

On an evening bike ride in the late summer, my thinking roams about, my limited night vision brings up thoughts and fears. I glide on a long smooth paved trail, north bound, floating through the air around me.  Then, hesitation, as I brake for a moment of consideration when I suspect something is in the path ahead; fear though, on these night rides, can render me unable to react at all.

 I recently learned of a Frenchman, Jacques Lusseyran, who was able to “see” through his fears in impressive ways.  A resistant fighter against the Nazi invasion as a young man in France, he survived some months in prison and another fifteen months in a German concentration camp.  He experienced the deaths of many friends and countrymen, all of the terror of that unimaginable time. Born in Paris in 1924, he became blind at the tender age of eight in a school accident. 

In his autobiography, And There was Light he says something surprising about his loss of sight, “blindness became for me a fascinating experience and the attempt to live in a new way.”  He speaks of his early years before the accident, as the “clear waters” of his childhood, a happy time when he was “always running.” Later, after he became blind he was able to see glimmers of light: 

"... there were times when the light faded, almost to the point of disappearing. It happened every time I was afraid.  If, instead of letting myself be carried along by confidence and throwing myself into things, I hesitated, calculated, thought about the wall, the half-open door, the key in the lock; if I said to myself that all things were hostile and about to strike or scratch, then without exception I hit or wounded myself. The only easy way to move around the house, the garden or the beach was not by thinking about it at all, or thinking as little as possible.  Then I moved between obstacles the way bats do.  Otherwise what the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear.  It made me blind."

Today I read that Exxon Mobil will be permitted to search for oil in part of the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia--a potential billion dollar financial arrangement with Russia.  The NY Times reports, “Once seen as a useless, ice-clogged backwater, the Kara Sea has become the focus of attention by oil companies in part because the sea ice appears to be receding, possibly because of global warming , easing exploration and drilling.” In the winter months when the Arctic regions are cloaked in darkness, imagine an oil spill clean-up operation like the one we witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010,  only on the icy albedo of the North Pole.  

Without answers to the issues at hand, men in suits shake hands.  Without eco-eyes on the future, agreements are made that may put the world further at risk, a risk like a holocaust. Are we being creative or careless with our resources, fearless or just plain greedy? I am thinking on this late summer night about Jacques Lusseyran and what he would say about our limited vision to move through the darkness of our time, our seeming inability to attempt to live in a new way.


The Path to Creativity Part II: The Hand of the Artist

Think about it, nobody will ever do what you do today or any other day.  No one in the history of humankind will pick up a pen the way you do, or sit at a table writing in the manner you do, in your animal skin, with your degree of intention, or your state of mind.  In a similar fashion, yes, maybe but no man, woman or child will ever have your specific experience, there will never be another you creating what you do, in just the way you do it.  Creativity is that, a unique expression through an individual body, mind, and spirit. And it is so unique that art historians stake their reputations on authenticating artworks by identifying the hand of the artist. They look at the brushstrokes and compare them to known works; they look at the manner of application; they examine the pigments and ascertain their origins.  They research the provenance of a work of art, the records of who owned it when and where.  And, of course, they consider the image itself, to determine whether or not it is the real deal.

Martin Kemp, an art historian at Oxford University says on the subject of attribution, "[t]he initial thing is just that immediate reaction..."  In 2009, Kemp rocked the art world when he re-attributed a drawing originally thought to be a German work from the early 19th century, to be by Leonardo da Vinci from the late 15th century.  He calls it  "La Bella Principessa,"  and it is an exquisite portrait of a young woman in profile. She looks to be around fifteen, dressed in the style of the Renaissance in Europe, with an elaborately knotted hair- wrapping around her long brown hair.

My immediate reaction, is that she is about to speak, so filled with life is this image.  Yet, there is nothing other than the period clothes to convince me that it is an original da Vinci. But then it does look similar to his oil painting known as Lady with an Ermine.  The facial expressions in both are gentle and tender, not as mysterious as the Mona Lisa. The drawing of La Bella Pincipessa  is controlled and not as expressive as his well known late self-portrait;  it has great details  similar to his tempera painting, Madonna Litta, c. 1490-91, the hair, the lips the garments are rendered divine.

As a painter, I know it is entirely possible to create something unlike anything else you have created, easy in fact, especially if it is in a different medium and period in the timeline of your career. All the more difficult to make attribution certain. Kemp has written an entire book about his study of this drawing and he says he has not "the slightest doubt."  Opinions of other scholars vary and perhaps there will never be a definitive answer to the mystery behind the hand on this one.

Few have a body of work to compare to Leonardo da Vinci's, but we all have our own unique expression.

For more on the fascinating story of La Bella Principessa see:

To discover the answer to the mystery check out this PBS video on the story:


The Path to Creativity

On a walk with my friend the other day, we talked about creativity and the urge to be an artist.  I mentioned a favorite book by Lewis Hyde, The Gift, as we strolled under the cottonwood and elm trees, it was a hot, dry, dusty afternoon.  Lewis Hyde proposes that any work of art is a gift -not a commodity. Maybe that is why, in the heat of our conversation, I was moved to describe my recent impulse, to make art and give it away.  Acts of ritual, of gratitude, for the gift.  

Creativity is something I think about everyday in my studio while painting, in the kitchen while cooking, or writing now. To describe it, seems beyond words, it is an alchemical event that we have constantly, but can never quite put our finger on what it is exactly;  that je ne sais quoi, that takes place between our thoughts and our body, between our hearts and our hands.  It is a gift, a gift of expression. 

The author, Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote the best selling book, Eat, Pray, Love speaks about creativity in this brilliant TED Talk

She says that in the last five hundred years or so, with our rational thinking, left-brained approach to life, our culture might in fact be crushing our best artists. Instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us have the ability to be creative wizards.  We just haven't been educated and encouraged to think that way.

I believe our creative capacities can take us into an encounter with the transcendent. We have the ability to be, as Gilbert says, "lit from within,"  to glimpse the divine.  In the studio painting, composing a song or writing a story, the sacred moments only come when we are actually working at the easel, with the instrument, giving expression an opportunity to flow through.  You can give form to a painting in your imagination but it is only when the brush dances across the canvas that moments of revelation have a portal to manifest through, to be shared.  Some people say they have to be in the act at the same time everyday, on a schedule of solitude with their consciousness, for creativity to happen with consistency. Some wait for the muse, and some say they aren't always in a position to receive when the song is in the ethers waiting to be plucked.  I don't think the magic happens everyday or maybe it wouldn't be so magical, but it can be fostered over time, through instruction, discipline and desire.

Sir Ken Robinson says creativity is as important as literacy in education. I was fortunate as a child to have both, in a public elementary school, in the suburbs of northern Ohio. I owe the Director of Art Education in my school system, a big gift.  (Can you believe there once was such a position?) Marie H. Wolfe, wherever you are, you changed my life in 1962 when you created a Saturday art program for children.  Every other Saturday, over a period of some months, we took a bus to the east side of the city and learned about a part of the permanent collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The aims of the program were designed with the hope that we would absorb a sensitivity and appreciation for art.

I still have a copy of the then mimeographed outline for the projected content of the classes. One morning when we were in one of the galleries, working with methods of pencil sketching,  a woman from the museum staff asked if she could have the drawing I was making. I gave her the sketch and felt "lit from within," delighted that she liked what I had drawn.

So, my first gift for the gift, the exchange that inspired my confidence to keep on the path to creativity, happened that day. It has stayed with me ever since, a brief but significant connection with a stranger. I wonder what happened to that drawing and whether that woman in the museum, had any notion that her request would frame the artistic development of an eight year old girl.

Watch Sir Ken Robinson speak on creativity

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