A fellow artist threw me under the proverbial bus last week. Eight-year-old Eleanor, a student in one of my school programs, joined me and a bunch of her classmates in a dog collage workshop. First we wrote a poem together and then we got out some different colored paper to cut and glue. The only instructions I gave the kids were to use collage and “knock my socks off by making the craziest, wildest, weirdest dogs” they could imagine. Eleanor, however, was having trouble getting her creative juices flowing and settled for a canine in a hotdog roll. It was cute enough. But, then she just kind of sat there as everyone else continued to work. When I asked her if she was finished she told me she couldn’t think of anything else. (By the way, I will leave the discussion of how an eight-year-old kid–‘Gifted & Talented,’ no less— gets to the place where she, given a box full of colored paper, a scissors, an open-ended project and an hour of free-time in a school day, “can’t think of anything” for another blog post.) So, I took a look at her hotdog started throwing her some more ideas…
A hamburger dog! A french-fry dog! Other kids at the table quickly joined in… A milkshake dog! A pizza dog! It was a regular fast-food fur festival. Later, when I returned to her table, Eleanor was just finishing up a hamburger dog as one of the teachers passed by. Now, I had been told by her teacher, even before the class began, that she was one of the most creative kids in the school, and she basked in this compliment. The teacher excitedly remarked on her picture, “A HAMBURGER DOG! Oh, that is clever, Eleanor!” Then she looked at me and said, “Didn’t I tell you how creative she is?!” You can go ahead and email me to tell me I should have let this kid take the credit–and I did, well, I sort of did. After the teacher left, I looked at Eleanor and said, “Dude, I so can’t believe that you totally took the credit for that idea!” She threw me a sneer! An actual sneer! And then she said nothing and continued to work on her dog. Mind you, I was less interested in the actual credit for the idea than I was at a deeper, more important lesson, which I will get to.
An IDEA… It’s an ethereal thing if it happens around even one other person. Just ask the Winklevoss Twins. Out of one person’s imagination, and into the contagious air between others, an idea gets a pulse, grows eyes, arms, legs, and wings. It morphs and evolves, gathering up the energy from every contact point, growing and growing until it erupts as its material self, whatever that might be. Where did it start? To whom does it belong? Sometimes these questions are difficult to answer definitively and, if there’s money involved, these questions often matter more than most of us can foresee when the idea’s energy is just dust in the imaginary wind.
As someone who makes their living as an independent artist, I can appreciate the angst, anxiety and, sometimes, all-out paranoia that accompanies the creative thought process leading to the ideas that make up my life’s work. For years, I kept book titles a secret, avoided joining writer’s clubs, and I poo-poo’ed the notion of taking classes from other artists, preferring to steep in my own creative juices for fear of tainting my own imagination or inadvertently giving away my own creative secrets. I have come to realize what a mistake this can be and how, ironically, this creative selfishness often undermines the very soul of what creativity is… or can be.
Nearly ten years ago, I was teaching one of my classes and I was showing a bunch of art teachers how I use photo mounting film on the back of Japanese kozo paper to make my collages. I went through my whole process and then had some materials for the participants to try their own. One of them came up to me after my lesson and said, “I can’t believe you’re telling everyone your secrets… aren’t you afraid they’re going to steal your idea?” I told her, first, they won’t have to steal it, I’m going to give it to them, I’m showing everybody everything I do and, two, if someone really wants to be me, they are going to have to start really soon because it’s taken me forty-two years so far and I’m not done yet. They’d better get busy, and quick.
Not too long ago I found myself in an artistic rut and I decided it was time for me to start taking classes from other artists. Most recently, I took an encaustics class from Lisa Pressman, who is the absolute encaustics guru here in the mid Atlantic–what a fascinating medium encaustics is, too. I took a silliness class from Carla Sonheim, who is the Squeen of Silly in all the world, and I had a ton of fun. I’m currently enrolled in a five week online course with Alisa Burke, who is an all around creative expert and extraordinary drawing instructor and I can’t tell you how much I have learned just from her lecture on tools and materials. And, in the spring, I will join my friend and colleague, Lena Shiffman for a watercolor class here in Hunterdon County where I live because this is a medium I have never really worked with but have always wanted to try. Additionally, I have become active in a group of online art educators who share their ideas, projects and lessons in a variety of groups on Flickr. All of these experiences have made my own work better, my imagination more rich and me happier as a creative person.
What I and other teachers, instructors and mentors have come to understand is what Robert Genn so concisely covered in one of his most recent twice-weekly letters, “Passing The Light.” Genn addressed a comment from a reader who lamented that teachers like him increase the overall pool of artists and thereby diminish everyone else’s work. Inherent in his complaint is also the notion that these teachers, by way of revealing all their “secrets,” manufacture little mini-selves that also serve to diminish their work. Not so, said Genn:
While a few bad eggs turn up in every egg-processing plant, what’s amazing is that the vast majority are Grade A. Most artists want to be original. They grasp the principle of rugged individualism. They don’t want to make someone else’s work under their own name. But they do have a right to get info from someone who has some sort of a track record. In my experience, no instructor claims the Holy Grail. As Stephen Quiller says, “The one common element that I’ve discovered when studying master painters is that they were all students.”
I couldn’t have said this better myself and I love that Genn highlights the strong drive within most real, working artists to be unique, to be an individual. Few things feel better for an artist than obtaining a distinctive style. No one really wants to be known as a copycat. Last year I was at a show and a woman walked up to my work, a smile on her face, and then turned to find me. “Is this your work?” I told her it was. “I love it! You know whose work it reminds me of?” Great. I thanked her and waited to hear. Imagine my relief when she said, “Dar Hosta… I love her work, have you ever heard of her?” As a matter of fact, I had.
Creativity is generally defined as the process of taking things that already exist and putting them together in novel ways. It would stand to reason that the more cross-pollination there is, the better. Problems arise, of course, when the reward is money and power and the collaborating parties can’t agree on ownership or simply just participate in out and out intellectual property theft, a very real and serious issue. In most cases, however, creative people are quick to give props to influential people, both because it’s the right thing to do as well as for the networking strength it builds in a community of artists. It can also lead to amazing, collaborative efforts that become a win-win for everyone. Giving credit where credit is due is key, then, and it is a major point made by teaching artists: let me know what you want to use or reference and then, please, give me my shout out.
So, perhaps, Eleanor wasn’t old enough to understand the street rules for artists who share those ethereal things called ideas. I called her out on it and, she’s just a kid so I admit that I felt a little bad for doing so. But, then, later I saw her picture as we were all cleaning up. That hotdog dog was there on the page, lonely as could be. I asked her where the hamburger dog was? She flashed a quirky smile and said, “Oh, I gave it to Josh. I decided I didn’t want it on my picture anyways.” Looks like she learned two, strangely parallel things that day…. a little bit about the importance of rugged individualism and, of course, that it’s nice to share.
TRY THIS WEEK: Share what you thought you could not or should not.