Thursday, November 17, 2011

Creative thinking

[All posted artwork in this entry is copyright James C. Christensen; it is used solely for the purpose of illustration.]

Long ago, deep in the mists of time when the Internet had hardly been invented yet and I was in college the first time around, I attended a lecture given by fantasy artist (and BYU professor) James C. Christensen on the nature of creativity.

(And by the way, if you think the lecture hall looked like this you are sadly mistaken. Though that would have been AWESOME.)

Anyway, in this lecture one of the things Prof. Christensen said was that everyone is creative. That statement met with a certain amount of polite disbelief in the lecture hall, so he elucidated.

Too many people, he said, seem to believe that creativity is a talent or state of mind which only a few special souls possess. But, he pointed out, we are all born creative. Children are innate creators. Give them anything at all to work with and they'll make something out of it. But over time, if not guided in the right direction, those same children will tend to lose that simple faith in their ability to create.

He said that people place strictures on creativity; too many people believe that a creative work has to be absolutely unique, to come out of nowhere into existence. But that's not really possible. In any case, that's not how a child's creativity works. The child takes what's available and makes something new. And that's all that creativity really is -- drawing from what's available in your head, taking hold of the materials before you, and using them to make something new. There's no such thing as creation ex nihilo; it all originates from somewhere.

You young whippersnappers probably don't know what a real card catalog is (and oh, are you missing out -- it's one of the most delightful pieces of functional furniture ever!), but I'll try to explain what he said next anyway. He compared our learning, our life experiences, our memories, to a card catalog filled with cards -- each card a specific experience, all connected and cross-referenced. (If you've never used one of these, you could also compare it to the way Pinterest works.) He said that creativity can be as simple as pulling two (or more) disparate cards from your mental card catalog and putting them together in a new way.

One of Prof. Christensen's earliest fantasy paintings, "Low-Tech," neatly illustrates this way of looking at creativity. If you look carefully at this little spaceman's homegrown starship, you'll see it's an amalgam of many familiar items: a flashlight, ping-pong balls, an eggbeater, a satellite dish, various batteries, an old flight helmet, even a bentwood kitchen chair and a household lamp. And, of course, a Coleman cooler for his lunch. Prof. Christensen may well have gone through his kitchen's junk drawer for inspiration, but the overall composition is novel, funny and charming. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The point is that the individual ideas which you use to compose your creation don't have to be unique; your way of putting them together already is.

So the experience of an artist, or indeed any person who wishes to hone his or her creativity, involves getting as many cards into that catalog as possible, so that you have more ideas from which to draw. That can include new styles and techniques, experiments with new media, various life experiences, random stuff you've seen or read. You can see this in Prof. Christensen's work. As he's gotten out into the world, visited different places and had many life experiences, the nature of his work has changed.

It's taken on a different depth and texture -- because he now has more cards to draw on in his own mental card catalog. But it's still recognizably his art, because through all the changes and experiences he has retained his own definite style.

I went away from this lecture with a completely different outlook on creativity. It had become less of a mysterious alchemical process to which I had not received an invitation, and more of an opportunity to experiment and try things just to see what happened. Though I don't consider myself an artist (more a crafter and doodler, really), I do fancy myself a writer, and much of what he'd said about creativity applied just as well to writing as it did to painting. All the concepts he'd been talking about went buzzing around my head; I was excited, spirited, full of ideas, like a little kid. I wanted to make something. It was kin to the same compulsion that led me to start this blog.

What fires your creativity? And don't try to tell me you don't have any.


Anonymous said...

I love your blogs! Creativity is truly within us all.

Rachel said...

I enjoyed this post and agree with what you shared. I'm more like you though, I tinker a bit with crafty stuff but am so left brained that my form of creativity is mostly manipulating things on the computer.

I love President Uchtdorf's talk several years ago about creating, called "Happiness, Your Heritage" and I especially love the Mormon Messages video they made from his talked called, Create.