Advice (On Creativity)…

The most frequent question I get asked is, “How do you come up with all of those designs?” To be honest I find it an incredibly flattering question, with its implication that there is some rich reserve of creativity inside me that remains ineffable to others. At the same idea I find it a thoroughly confusing question, for the very same reason. For many people the creative process seems a distant concept, something magical that happens for only a select few. And this, I must admit, baffles me…

Thanks to the way art is taught in America, creativity is generally regarded as an innate talent, something one is born with, something that is largely unlearnable. It is an ephemeral quality granted to only the select. (This, of course, is utter balderdash.) Furthermore the gateway to the entire learning process seems to come at some time in late elementary school when the prized skill of being able to draw a cartoon cat or a flower determines whether a particular student will earn praise and be admitted to the fellowship of the creative. (I was resolutely not one of those children.)

From that point on, the path of creativity is all but written in stone; you are creative or not. You can draw the teapot or you can’t. There isn’t really much art education; there is exposure that is either accompanied by praise or isn’t. Having taught college-level art for nearly a decade, please believe me when I tell you that the hardest part of the job is undoing almost everything students think they know about drawing and composition.

So then, if creativity isn’t innate, where does it come from? In my experience the answer is simple: work. Lots and lots of work, just like anything else. You would never expect someone who seems to get along well with babies to be inherently prepared to be a pediatrician, would you?

At first blush, this may seem a tad elitist, but I would argue it is ultimately more democratic than the innate talent model that says if you are born without creative talent then you are just doomed to mediocrity at best. Personally I find this model to be both unfounded and offensive. If we take creativity as innate I would surely have been excluded. (Please believe me when I tell you I am in no way understating my native facilities; my stick figures truly need trips to the stick hospital and it only gets worse from there.)

If, on the other hand, we take creativity as a process, as a product of ongoing work and effort and study, then all those with the drive, commitment, and, to be honest, the willingness to put up with not making money for a very long time can gain access. The key word here, though, is work.

Creativity rarely strikes, and even less often when one is just starting out. Let’s step back to my days as a college professor. The number of pieces from first-year students that get juried into an annual student show are few and far between, which is why there is often a category just for those students. About 1 in a 100 pieces from first-years will be up to the standards of even a junior level class. And maybe 1 in 10 pieces from juniors will be up to the standards of the seniors. Why is there this disparity? Work, and lots of it. It is not that the first-years don’t work hard; it’s that work is cumulative. The work of the past aids in the work of the future. Experience helps.

But even here, the work of a college senior is rarely up to the level of say a graduate student in art, and graduate level art is rarely up to the level of a professor or long-time gallery artist. Why? You guessed it: work.

Now I am in no way saying that everyone who wants to be creative needs to go to art school or get a graduate degree. That is just one path, and it happens to be the one I took because my first love is academia. School just happens to be a great place to get to do a lot of work, see a lot of work, and talk about that work. Occasionally it is the place where a professor makes you cry in a critique (thank you Barry Gunderson, and I mean that. Best critique of my life). It is a great place to rack up the hours of work.


Speaking of hours. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he writes a lot about the “10,000-Hour Rule.” I love this rule. I think it makes a whole lot of sense. In brief it states that it takes about 10,000 hours to reach mastery. Think of some of the people that really changed the game in their fields and there is a good chance that those people put in thousands and thousands of hours of work before they did so. For some it was in school, for others it was at home, on the ball field, in a basement studio, and myriad other places. The Beatles didn’t just record Sgt. Pepper one day. Special Relativity didn’t just pop into Einstein’s head. Picasso didn’t accidentally paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. While the idea of magical inspiration is appealing, it rarely if ever happens unaided. Inspiration comes from work, from experience.

Now I would never compare myself to The Beatles, Einstein, or Picasso. They merely illustrate the idea, tell the story. How do I come up with all of the designs? I work. A lot. I sit and bang my head against the desk. I research. I read and write and look and gather. But more than anything I use the skills and concepts that have developed over the past 20 years of banging my head against desks, tables, shop benches, and even floors.

Have I reached 10,000 hours? As an artist: long, long ago. 10,000 hours is just 5 years of working at something 40 hours a week. So I’m probably coming up on 50,000 hours at this point. (That just illustrates, I hope, just how profound my lack of innate talent is, whatever innate talent is.) Have I reached 10,000 hours as a fabric designer? A quilter? Not even close. While I’d like to believe that there is a lot of crossover with the concepts and skills between my previous experience and what I am doing now, I am absolutely sure that I have thousands of hours to go before I even reach competency.

All of this brings me to my advice: Do more. Make more. Sew more, cut more, sketch more, write more, do more more. Creativity is hard work. It is frustrating as all heck. The only way to make really amazing stuff is to make a lot of crap along the way. Take pleasure in where you are, but recognize that it is not the end point. First-year students make good work for first-year students, but they are not on the same playing field as a museum-caliber artist, and it would be unfair to judge them by that standard. At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is indeed a difference in the quality of their work. By the same token, I have a long way to go before I reach the level of my fabric and quilting idols; I’d put myself somewhere around the junior in college level in this analogy. I can readily see the different levels of facility, maturity, and experience when I look at my work and many other people’s.

Also, be honest with yourself about what you are making and your goal. Not everyone needs to put in the 10,000 hours; that is a good rule of thumb for becoming truly expert. Not everyone has the time or even the interest in that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying what you do and being good at it. Good is good, as is enjoyment; this isn’t a competition. We all do this for different reasons.

At the same time, if you do want a career in this industry there is nothing that is going to take the place of the work, of the hours and hours and hours. It will not “just happen.” The world simply does not work like that.

Remember those kids back in middle school who were identified as “talented?” Know why many of them may indeed end up somewhere in the arts? Well, they were tracked into art classes, given encouragement, made to practice. They made more (likely bad) art, and over time they got better. Those kids who weren’t identified as “talented” stopped making art.

How did I buck that system? Let’s just say I was a spiteful little bastard back in the day and decided to prove the high-school art system wrong. Know what, after thousands of hours of work I think I have. Hence my advice: Make more. Everything else will eventually follow, just not as quickly as you may hope.

Yay work!!!


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