I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter, is only about a very simple enclosure. It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.” -Zaha Hadid
Zaha Hadid passed away unexpectedly today at the age of 65. A profoundly influential architect and designer, Hadid brought a formidable sensuality and exquisite sculptural vison to everything she touched.
While her audacious ambition and uncompromising ways are an inspiring tale unto themselves, today I want to honor her by letting the work speak for itself. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Life is short. Paint everything blue. This is the bittersweet story of the artist Yves Klein, from whom we have much to learn about commitment and maximizing our time on earth.
In 1947 three teenagers lay basking on a beach in the South of France. They had become close friends at school while all sharing a love for Judo and the arts. Full of youthful arrogance, these three boys vowed to divide the world between themselves. The young sculptor named Armand Fernandez chose the earth. Claude Pascal chose the domain of words, and Yves Klein committed to take on the sky. If this sounds like a creation myth, that is because, in a way, it was.
With the sky as his mandate, Yves Klein got right to work. Two years after that pivotal moment at the beach, he summoned the infinite with an ethereal performance piece called “Monotone Silence Symphony”. Following the minimalist symphony and a Judo focused sojourn in Japan, Yves Klein held his first exhibit of monochromatic paintings in Paris. For his next show in 1957, he narrowed the focus down to one single hue: the color blue. For Klein, this color represented the concept of the void. He was interested in how its quality of pure energy was in tension with the materiality of the physical art work.
“At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” – Yves Klein
Now known as “Yves Klein Blue”, this vibrant color had once existed only in the form of raw pigment. Klein became obsessed with the lapis lazuli like quality of the ultramarine powder, and engineered a way to keep its luminosity while transforming it into paint.
From the get-go, Klein understood how to make an impact in the art world, and in turn his rise to success was astonishingly direct. After the heralded blue paintings, Klein went on to explore the relationship between the physical and the void by staging performance pieces in which he used naked bodies as vehicles for paint application. He also created painted sculptures and other conceptual performance works. In the field of photography, Klein published poetic series called Saut Dans Le Vide, which shows him swan diving into the open air.
Tragically, with a new wife and his first baby on the way, Yves Klein had a fatal heart attack at the young age of thirty four. It is astounding to contemplate the targeted impact that he made with his brief time on this earth. The commitment and focus with which he approached his life and career seems almost prophetic- as if he was well aware that the clock was ticking away, and that he needed to triage the situation.
Throughout his time, Klein stayed profoundly committed to the sky and its metaphysical implications. His mission was to outsmart mortality, and his method was to paint the world the color of eternity.
When I see Yves Klein blue I am reminded of life’s brevity, and the mandate to be focused, courageous and to make bold propositions in life. We are all living out our own creation myths- the question is what piece of the universe will you be responsible for?
This exercise is inspired by Yves Klein’s passion for the color blue.
Join The Creative Hours community. Share your experience!
Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers : With the Void, Full Powers includes examples from all of Klein’s major series, including his Anthropometries, Cosmogonies, fire paintings, planetary reliefs and blue monochromes, as well as selections of his lesser-known gold and pink monochromes, body and sponge reliefs, “air architecture” and immaterial works.
It’s Always Something By Gilda Radner A wonderful memoir by the one and only Gilda Radner tells of her life and experience battling cancer. It’s Always Something is the inspiring story of a courageous, funny woman fighting to enjoy life no matter what the circumstances
Air Dry Clay Sculpt and let dry! No kiln needed. Soooooo Fun.
“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking—thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know.”–Hayao Miyazaki
“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity…You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things” – Ray Bradbury
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.”–Dr. Seuss
“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking—thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know,” says Hayao Miyazaki, and of course, how could there be a better way if you look at the result of Miyazaki’s thinking? Hayao Miyazaki is the creator of some of the most astonishing and beautiful films of our time, a master of animation. You’ll recognize them: My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and so many more.
If you read the conflicting ideas about creation and thinking at the start of this blog post, it’s clear Bradbury is implying a great enmity between thinking and doing, that the thinking gets in the way of the doing. He’s in the School of Perspiration. Miyazaki is in the School of Inspiration. It’s impossible, of course, that Bradbury never thought, or that Miyazaki never did, but what they see themselves doing is very different. And of course Dr. Seuss thinking of thinking as play and invention.
I went to art school in New York for just one semester, then dropped out. The professors in my classes had us working on abstraction, and conceptual art, and I felt that I didn’t have anything to say. I was 18, I had more to learn, I didn’t know about history, or life, or society, or what I believed. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I had urges and inklings and guesses, but nothing I felt confident enough to make art out of. I wanted skills, mostly, and so I enrolled in figure drawing classes, and classes that focused on technique, the chemistry of paint, the use of different media, but eventually I dropped out and became an English major, because, at the time, I needed more thinking.
The other thing that irritated me, once I became an English major and took some creative writing courses, was the “write garbage” type assignments where you were meant to just do it, write bad stuff, anything that came into your head, especially if you were stuck, just write. I did them, and wrote down a lot of garbage, and never got anything good out of them. Maybe you did. Did you?
On the other hand, children make great art just by doing. They don’t think, they do and do, make and make, wasting shocking amounts of paper and art supplies, indifferent to quality, but fearlessly making art in a state of playful, Seussian quasi-thinking. Our culture is very action-oriented, and most of us adults are focused on Getting Things Done, laboring mightily to get straight A’s in the School of Perspiration. But in our go-go-go daily life, the common-sensical thing is to hew to Miyazaki’s method, and spend our precious free time thinking, thinking and thinking after endless days of doing.
What’s a thoughtful creative person to do? It’s not a matter of either/or, it’s how much of either, and sensing what you need to do at the time, think or write/paint/create.
This creative exercise is inspired by the tension between thinking and doing in the process of bringing out our creativity:
DOING? or THINKING? a creative process exercise
Go to your art-making place.
Make art. Do.
If that doesn’t feel right, or you’re not getting anywhere, think instead. Keep thinking until you’re ready to do.
Tell us what happened at email@example.com
Starting Point: 1979-1996. Miyazaki started out as just another animator, but in this memoir tells of his journey from childhood dreams to founding Studio Ghibli.
Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. A documentary about Studio Ghibli, featuring Miyazaki, Producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s other director, Isao Takahata
Impressionism is culture’s blockbuster. Dreamy and oh so pretty, it is easy to forget its rebel roots, and amazing to fathom how the desire for artists to essentially cut class and go out into the sunshine started a chain of innovation that led to abstraction, modernism and onwards.
“Beauty in art is truth bathed in an impression received from nature” -Corot
In the late 1800’s, the “Impressionist” artists, including Monet, Cézanne, Morisot, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir and Sissley, were fed up with the authoritarian nature of the Parisian art world. They were disillusioned with traditionalism in art and uninterested in mythological or historical subject matter. These artists were loath to sit inside the Academie’s classrooms and train their skills through mimetic and reverent exercises. To boot, they found the emphasis on minute brushwork and stylistic polish to be a bore.
This motley crew of artists preferred to work outside,“en plein air”, and to let observation be their greatest teacher.
“‘Impressionism’ was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet, not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everybody had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision).” -John Singer Sargent
While rough impressions, or sketches used to be an early step in creating a masterpiece, these artists recognized that the imprints were an end unto themselves. They saw the vitality in essences and perception and sought to capture the ever-shifting nuances of light, air and color that render one spot endlessly new to observe. They tried to see without commentary, and to let the colors tell the stories. I love Mallarmé’s impression of Impressionism:
“The idea was that ‘nothing should be absolutely fixed’.. ..so that the bright gleam which lights the picture, or the diaphanous shadow which veils it, are only seen in passing, in the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composed as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light and life.” -Stephane Mallarmé
After nearly a decade of being shut out from the official juried art exhibitions, and after many thwarted efforts to get government support for alternative exhibitions, the artists banded together to organize their own show, which they held at photographer Nadar’s studio in 1874. The exhibition caused a stir and attracted a huge audience. Among the works exhibited, the one by Claude Monet, titled “Sunrise, an Impression” garnered the most attention (not all positive). From his painting and its title, the category of the “Impressionists” sprung, first as a critique, then as an identity, and now as a sacred honor.
This creative exercise is inspired by Impressionism, and in particular by Monet’s wise words about looking and painting:
“When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you.” -Claude Monet
VIEWS FROM THE WINDOW a drawing and observing exercise
Gather paper and markers (I’ve suggested some types below)
Choose a window in your house with your favorite view
Try sketching your impression of the view
Remember to looking out the window more than you look down at your paper
Do this whenever you have the chance, and at different times during the day
IMPRESSIONISM, Reimagining Art This beautiful book looks at Impressionism on a global scale, from its iconic French masterpieces to less familiar works by Scandinavian, German, British, and North American artists.
Tombow Dual Brush Pens I LOVE these pens. Great for impressionistic and lush drawing styles. This is a secondary color set, which I find beautiful, but there are also primary and portrait sets.
Strathmore Artist Tiles Bristol is a smooth and lovely surface for letting makers glide and play. Square paper tiles are a nice proportion for quick impressions.
I am in the thick of it with The Creative Hours, and am loving the process of research and reflection. Nonetheless, all this deep thinking about creativity reminds me that it is essential to keep a sense of humor about the whole shebang. On that note, I hope you enjoy Groucho Marx’s line from Animal Crackers as much as I do. I may adopt it as a motto for this blog:
“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh… now you tell me what you know.” – Groucho Marx
Being willing to be silly is an essential ingredient to creative flow and the survival of an artistic soul. Making fun of oneself, turning reality on its head, and flirting with the lack of meaning is a way of keeping the blood flowing and the molecules dancing. I’d go as far as to say that being at play is the opposite of deathly stasis.
Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor. – Stewart Brown, MD, Psychiatrist
While play is a no laughing matter, it is conversely true that humor touches the very deepest of human truths. Richard Avedon reflects this in his SERIOUSLY beautiful portraits of iconic comedians.
Further Reading and Supplies:
Richard Avedon Photographs Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 includes 125 reproductions of Avedon’s greatest work from the entire range of his oeuvre-including fashion photographs, reportage and portraits-and spans from his early Italian subjects of the 1940s to his 2004 portrait of the Icelandic pop star Bjork.
I find Cunningham’s 1952 portrait “Blind Sculptor” beautiful. Photographer Imogene Cunningham was a glorious treasure to the world in so many ways, and I am excited to talk about her specialness- but first I want to explain what I love about this picture.
Let me start with the presence of touch in the photograph. Look how solidly the sculptor’s left hand cups the shoulder of his creation. In that touch I see the fatherly weight of an artist’s hand as it reassures his creation of its physical actuality. I feel the coolness of the clay, and imagine the contour beneath the sculptor’s ringed pinky-finger. His right hand is Pygmalion- and I am privy to an intimate moment of caressing and exploration. The figure’s head tilts upward with pride, and the artist’s head points down in concentration, inviting me into the hidden picture of his imagination. Then notice the figure’s giant hands which, wrapped Cycladic style, also seem to be confirming its own physicality. Poignantly, the figure has no eyes to speak of.
All photographs speak about the act of sight and creation. What makes this work particularly poetic is the juxtaposition of blindness and visual art- both in regards to sculpture and the photographic medium.
“The formula for doing a good job in photography, is to think like a poet” – Imogene Cunningham
Born in 1883 in Oregon, Imogen Cunningham was a dynamic spirit who braved the sexist tides of her time, and became one of the most innovative and revered photographers of the twentieth century. She came to photography through studying science and processes for developing film. Her work is known for her sensual images of botany, the body and portraits of other artists, as well as experiments in double exposure. She used the technique of Platinum printing, which gave her work a soft and silvery signature style. Her sense of adventure and passion for her work stayed with her all of her life. She died in 1976 at the age of 95.
“Blind Sculptor” is one of many portraits that Cunningham did of other photographers, musicians and artists. I wish I knew more about the astonishing artist in “Blind Sculptor”, but I was unable to find this information.
“One must be able to gain an understanding at short notice and close range of the beauties of character, intellect, and spirit so as to be able to draw out the best qualities and make them show in the outer aspect of the sitter. To do this one must not have a too pronounced notion of what constitutes beauty in the external and, above all, must not worship it. To worship beauty for its own sake is narrow, and one surely cannot derive from it that esthetic pleasure which comes from finding beauty in the commonest things.” – Imogen Cunningham
CREATIVE PROMPT: GET TO KNOW A FLOWER
This creative exercise draws on Cunningham’s photographs of flowers and plants, which were inspired by the demands of motherhood and the proximity of her own garden.
TIP: Digital photography is fantastic for experimentation. Go wild, it costs nothing. Then you can look back at see what you think works or doesn’t work in the pictures that you took
Further reading and supplies: Imogen Cunningham, This publication celebrates the rich diversity of this modernist pioneer, covering Cunningham’s entire seven-decade career–from her abstract shots of plants and nudes and optical illusions created using techniques such as inverted positive/negative images and double exposure, to her iconic portraits for Vanity Fair of artists, dancers, actors, musicians and writers such as Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Martha Graham, Frida Kahlo, Gertrude Stein, Morris Graves and Merce Cunningham. Imogen Cunningham 1883-1976, Spanning all the genres used in her work, the book presents the images which marked Cunningham as one of the early pioneers of the photographic medium from her 1920’s plant images to her speciality, portraiture.
After Ninety: Imogen Cunningham, Previously unpublished photographic portraits as well as selections from Imogen Cunningham’s earlier work confront the condition of old age and testify to the wisdom, dignity, despair, and loneliness of the elderly.
Pain and sacrifice are needed to be a good collaborator. You must check your ego at the door, give yourself fully to a new collective identity, learn how to give and take, choose trust over distrust, be ready to fail, and commit to the unfurling nature of process.
It is worth it. A good partnership brings fresh inspiration, useful limitations and a supportive structure. The pushback of collaboration can carry you to places you never might have traveled to on your own. Most importantly, its challenge provides great training for any kind of creative intelligence.
If collaboration is boot camp for creativity, then post-modern dance is boot camp for collaboration. In 1972, a dancer named Steve Paxton and a handful of his friends at Oberlin College got together, rolled around, hurled themselves at each other, practiced falling and improvised their way to a radical new dance form. They called their invention “contact improvisation”, which Paxton described as
“the communication between two moving bodies that are in physical contact and their combined relationship to the physical laws that govern their motion—gravity, momentum, inertia. The body, in order to open to these sensations, learns to release excess muscular tension and abandon a certain quality of willfulness to experience the natural flow of movement”.
Contact Improv (as it is often called), is a movement language that emphasizes responsive reflexes and generates choreography from the alchemy of bodies in contact with one another. Paxton’s experiments with this mindful movement of the body turned traditional dance on its head and laid the groundwork for postmodern dance as we know it today. Contact Improv has qualities both edgy and raw as well as smooth fluidity. Its influences are apparent in the work of Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs and many many other seminal choreographers.
My first introduction to all of this was in college in the nineties. My friend Abby insisted that I come to her contact improvisation workshop. Nervous to be out of my element, I was relieved to find myself in creative paradise. This was not the “five, six, seven, eight, chasse, two, three, four, and keep it pointed six, seven, eight…” sort of dance I had been accustomed to. Not at all. This was playful, unselfconscious and gloriously body positive. We experimented with finding true responsiveness to touch and impulse, weight bearing and giving, and moving as a single entity.
Contact Improv is fantastic practice for becoming a solid collaborator. Yet, as Paxton points out, it is important to remember that we are always collaborating with something. Even when alone.
“Solo dancing does not exist: the dancer dances with the floor: add another dancer and you have a quartet: each dance with the other and each with the floor.”
CREATIVE PROMPT: SMALL DANCE
Steve Paxton created an exercise called “Small Dance”. It helps you to feel creatively attune, relaxed, and to realize that you are constantly collaborating with your body, gravity and the floor.
Further reading and resources:
I highly recommend seeking out a class or jam session. Contact Quarterly has a directory of teachers and centers. Take it from me, you do not need to be an expert to engage in this practice.
American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History by Margaret Fuhrer, traces that richly complex evolution of Dance in America. From Native American dance rituals to dance in the digital age, American Dance explores centuries of innovation, individual genius and collaborative exploration.
Contact Improvisation by Cheryl Pallant.
In most forms of dancing, performers carry out their steps with a distance that keeps them from colliding with each other. Dancer Steve Paxton in the 1970s considered this distance a territory for investigation. In this book the author draws upon her own experience and research to explain the art of contact improvisation, in which dance partners propel movement by physical contact.
I am grateful that in doing research for The Creative Hours, I came across Milton’s exquisite words:
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
Creative people live on everyday epiphanies. We find muses in the mundane, and receive life’s variety as a non-stop blessing. Living with a “gratitude mindset” means being in love with the poetry of now.
Way back when, from John Milton’s religious 17th Century perspective, the stakes were high. His epic poem “Paradise Lost”, grieves the biblical expulsion from the garden of eden. Milton was plagued by the irrevocable nature of this tragedy, but found a redemptive key in the poet’s mind and the reader’s imagination.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”
Unlike the romantic grandeur of Milton, the contemporary poet James Wright found rays of transcendence within the ordinary. James Wright (1927-1980) was a tortured soul who suffered with depression and alcoholism. His lonely poems often speak for the interloper and outsider. However heavy his heart, Wright found inspiration everywhere- even on the side of the road.
Wright’s friend, the poet Robert Bly explains the inception of the famous poem “A Blessing”. He tells how at dusk, on a drive through Michigan they spotted two ponies off the highway. At Wright’s request they pulled over, got out and climbed a fence to watch the horses for a few moments. Once back in their car headed to Minneapolis, James Wright opened his spiral notebook and wrote this poem:
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
CREATIVE EXERCISE: THIS POEM IS A BLESSING
This creative exercise takes a page from James Wright and prompts you to jot down the vivid details from a moment in your day. This is a wonderful way to practice gratitude and nurture creativity
TIP: don’t worry about whether the poem is “good” or not. The fact that you are writing a blessing is good enough!
Share your Blessing!
Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or post with hashtag #TCHblessing
Further reading and supplies:
Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Milton’s epic poem explores the struggle for ascendancy between God and Satan is played out across hell, heaven, and earth in the work the consequences of the Fall are all too humanly tragic, with pride, ambition, and aspiration being the motivating forces
Above the River: The Complete Poems, by James Wright. From his Deep Image-inspired lyrics to his Whtimanesque renderings of Neruda, Vallejo, and other Latin American poets, and from his heartfelt reflections on life, love, and loss in his native Ohio to the celebrated prose poems, Above the River gathers the complete work of a modern master.
Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.
– Robert Louis Stevenson
In other words, art provides meaning unavailable to us in the chaotic reality of living, frames a space for us to experience and understand what would otherwise be missed, or even lost, in life’s confusion.
The sickly, Scottish son of a lighthouse designer, Stevenson wrote many of the classics of our time, traveled widely, worked hard, but died young, in Samoa, where a Samoan mourning song was written for him, which is apparently still sung.
A Child’s Garden of Verses is a must-read-to-children book. The poems are magical, mysterious, funny, clever, and express perfectly a child’s world. Children also like sounds and suggestions, they seem to be OK with not understanding poetry–unlike many adults!