The Creative Habit- Chapters 3 and 4

Hey folks, so I'm continuing to re-read The Creative Habit - here's some thoughts from Chapters 3 and 4!

CHAPTER 3: Your Creative DNA

“ I believe that we all have strands of creative DNA hard-wired into our imaginations ... They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them ... Perhaps you also suspect it when you try to understand why you’re a photographer, not a writer, or why you always insert a happy ending into your story, or why all your canvases gather the most interesting material at the edges, not the center.  In you many ways, that’s why art historians and literature professors and critics of all kinds have jobs: to pinpoint the artist’s DNA and explain to the rest of us whether the artist is being true to it in his or her work.” (37) 

In Chapter 3, Tharp explores the idea of creative DNA.  It’s interesting to think that our creativity is hard-wired into us– that our ways of seeing and forms of working are in our blood.  Tharp goes on to expound on how some of these creative genes manifest.   She discusses ‘focal lengths’ – whether we view life very close up and deal with specific examples of it in our art, or from far away, working with more global themes.   She talks about the two different meanings of ‘life’ in Greek – zoe, which refers to life in general, and bios, that deals with and distinguishes one living thing from another.   Another characteristic she talks about is whether we see the world in black and white, or whether we see in it gray.  She writes that “I have issues with ambiguity, preferring my distinctions to be black or white.  I don’t like gray” (which is evident in the fact that she divides the world into people who like it and people who don’t haha). (40)

In thinking about my own ‘DNA,’ I definitely fall into the ‘gray’ category - that’s why I became a painter.  Growing up I wanted to be a writer, and though I wrote constantly, got high marks in English, and went on to do a minor in English Lit in University, I came to find words too black and white for me.  I fell in love with abstract painting precisely for its ambiguity.  I feel as Vicky Perry writes in her book Abstract Painting that “ the great power of abstract painting lies precisely in its uncertainty, its seeming to reference everything and nothing simultaneously.”  (p8)   I agree with Georgia O’Keefe, when she said “ I found that I could say things with color and shape that I couldn’t any other way – things I had no words for.”  I love abstract painting because a mark on a canvas can be just that -a mark- but can evoke and contain the ‘unsayable’ (to quote Rilke).  As for whether my vision of life is zoe or bios, I think I veer more towards zoe.  My latest series explored the theme of entanglements and connections, and it was the complication of relationships in general – not a specific instance.   I think most of my work tends towards that more general viewpoint- humanity as a whole, rather than particular people, etc.
Tharp next discusses the benefits of artistic self-knowledge.  She writes, “I suspect many people never get a handle on their creative identity this way.  They take their urges, their biases, their work habits for granted.  But a little self-knowledge goes a long way.  If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work.  You begin to see the ‘story’ that you’re trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive) where you are strong and where you are weak (which prevents a lot of false starts);and how you see the world and function in it.” (41)
She goes on later in the chapter to say that “ the better you know yourself, the more you will know when you are playing to your strengths and when you are sticking your neck out.  Venturing out of your comfort zone may be dangerous, yet you do it anyway because our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable” (47)

This brings to mind a conversation I had a few days ago with another local artist about the pros and cons of consistency - how we don’t want to be all over the place stylistically, but also don’t want to be cornered into one style of work.    I’ve thought about this a lot.  I tend to explore a lot of different styles and themes, but there are some things that are usually pretty consistent across the board for me – an exploration of materials, an emphasis on color, and (usually) organic line.  Not too long ago I was pretty excited when, after experimenting with monoprinting for a few years, I finally started making prints that “felt like me” – that fit my aesthetic and concepts.   I had been working up til that point mostly with geometric shapes, and once I started working with organic line again, it felt like me.      

I don’t, however, think that we shouldn’t explore things outside our ‘DNA.”  I only found what I felt was my ‘voice’ in monoprinting after I had mastered the process a little and tried different things out.   While making a process or technique your own is important, I don’t think any exploration is a waste of time. I like what Jackie Battenfield says in The Artist Guide about this.  She writes that “ readiness is when you have developed a body of work that shows consistency of ideas and control of the medium ... If you are self taught, have switched media, or have taken your work in a new direction, readiness comes after you have passed through the exploratory phases and have begin to feel fluent with its connections to your other work ... The best gauge of readiness if your eagerness to share your work with others ... Timing is a factor in determining readiness.  Allow yourself to experiment and let creative excitement build – play, fail, resolve, and re-think.” (AG, 74-75).  I think this is the key – allowing yourself free reign to experiment, but then evaluating if and where your experimentations fit into your overall work.  That being said, I do think artists’ work will (and should) change over the course of their lifetime – for instance, many of the great abstract painters started in realism. 

Tharp closes the chapter by talking about the importance of not splitting your focus.  She writes that “ another thing about knowing who you are is that you know what you should not be doing ... I wonder how many people get sidetracked from their true calling by the fact that they talent to excel at more than one artistic medium.  This is a curse rather than a blessing.” (48)

I’m not sure I agree with this sentiment.  While it’s true that being a jack-of-all-trades can potentially cause us to be just decent at a lot of things rather than excellent in one field, I think I side more with writer Austin Kleon on this one.  He wrote that we shouldn’t discard any part of ourselves, but keep everything in play.  (
After giving up music to just focus on writing and going back to it later in life, he writes that “rather than the music taking away from the art, I find it interacting with the art and making it better–new synapses firing, new connections being made, etc.”  While I don’t write much myself anymore, my love of literature remains a big influence on my painting - I still read nonstop, and many of the concepts I’ve explored in my art has come from the books I’ve read.  I’m not happy unless I have a book on the go – one of my favourite things in the world is going to hunt for new books at the used book store.  I also play music, and although I have no dreams of making a career out of it, I don’t feel like dropping it altogether would be a good thing.  I often find that working in another medium when I feel stuck in my painting helps me clear my head - I used to keep my guitar in my studio, so when I got frustrated with my work or needed a break, I could just sit and sing my heart out for awhile.  I don’t think anything that uplifts and inspires us – even if it’s in another field – should be discounted.  I think that while we have a main focus, exploring other forms of creative expression broadens and enriches our main work- rather than takes away from it. 

CHAPTER 4: Harness Your Memory

In Chapter 4, Tharp discusses the way in which our memories can be fodder for creative work.  She writes that “there are as many forms of memory as there are ways of perceiving, and every one of them is worth mining for inspiration.  Memory, as we most frequently think of it, encompasses every fact and experience that we can call up at will from our cranial hard drives.” (62).  She goes on to say that “ creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ones to connect them .  What we’re talking about here is metaphor.  Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art, if it is not art itself.  Metaphor is the vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before.  It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it- for ourselves and others ... Metaphors ... ‘ transforms the strange into the familiar.’” (64)

Tharp categorizes and explores five types of memory:

1) Muscle memory.  Although muscle memory is especially important for a dancer, Tharp also talks about the benefits of muscle memory in other fields.  She gives the example of a novelist she knew who re-typed his favourite author’s work, through which he was able to pay careful attention to the dialogue, narrative and construction of their works.  She also gives the example of Proust, who spent twelve years translating and annotating another writer’s work.  I think muscle memory definitely plays a part in painting- there is physical skill involved which can be bettered by repetition.   

Tharp adds as a side note that copying is an excellent way to learn.  She writes that “ if there’s a lesson here it’s: get busy copying.  That’s not a popular notion today, when we are all instructed to find our own way, admonished to be original and find our own voice at all costs!  But it’s sound advice.  Travelling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill ... It gives you a path toward genuine creation through simple re-creation.” (66).  I would tend to agree.  Doing studies of artwork you admire is a great way to break down works and learn- something Kleon explores in his book Steal Like An Artist.

2) Virtual memory - “ the ability to project yourself into feeling and emotions from your past and to let them manifest themselves physically. “  (66)  For me, this brings to mind something Rainer Maria Rilke (my fave) writes in his Letters to a Young Poet: when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.”

3) Sensual memory – smells, sounds, tastes, colors, etc, that “ flood the imagination with images from the past.” (67).  Olfactory is said to be the sense most closely tied to memory – it really is crazy how much smells can bring us back to the past in an instant.  The smell of Fall leaves will instantly take me back to being in Ireland fifteen years ago.  For awhile I’ve been wanting to do an installation that involves several rooms with floor to ceiling paintings, as well as a sound and an olfactory element to make it immersive.  (which is tough because of all of the people’s sensitivities, but also really interesting because of how smells can feel like a personal assault if strong and unpleasant, but can also transport us.)  It would also be interesting to see how the introduction of smell into the studio would affect work.

4) Institutional memory – memory that arises from your environment.  For this, Tharp gives the example of a businessman who, when he was feeling uninspired, went through his old files.  Looking through these would jumpstart him again, as it sparked old memories and associations.  I suppose looking at art history books would function in the same way for visual artists.  We can look at works of old masters and be inspired by colors, styles, etc.    

5) Ancient memory.  Tharp gives an example of how she once was looking at a photo of an old artefact- a shard of pottery that was supposed to have been the earliest known image of dancers.  This inspired her to choreograph a dance on the theme of migration.

Tharp writes that “ once you realize the power of memory, you begin to see how much it is at your disposal in previously underappreciated places.  The trick is figuring out how to tap into it ... Sometimes you have to be proactive about mining the veins of memory within you.” (71)

So, whatcha think, friends?  Do you agree with Tharp that there’s such thing as creative DNA?  If so, what’s yours? 
Do you agree that excelling at more than one medium is a curse rather than a blessing?
What are the ways in which you have or could harness memory to use in your work?  Which kind has been and could be the most beneficial?