Getting Dirty with Eartha Kitt

My brother Zac and I once made a killer dress for Eartha Kitt. It was blood red stretch velvet. When we fit the dress, Eartha knew precisely what she wanted: lower the neckline half an inch, tighten the ruching at the hip and extend the leg slit to the top of her thigh. At the age of eighty, Eartha Kitt still had legs to die for and was a fierce (and flirtatious) commander.

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Fathom her life. She was most likely conceived by rape and grew up betwixt abusive households and on the streets. Despite her harsh and disjointed upbringing, she managed to pursue dance lessons, which eventually landed her a job with the Katherine Dunham Company. Traveling with this African American dance troupe opened doors and changed the course of her life. Early in her career Eartha branched into singing cabaret on the European circuit. In Paris she was discovered by Orson Welles. He declared her “the most interesting woman in the world”, and promptly cast her as “Helen of Troy” in his stage production of Dr. Faustus. Opportunities continued to unroll before her like a leopard spotted carpet.

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The once unlucky misfit from South Carolina turned into an award winning singer, dancer, actress, cat-woman, movie star, activist and highly educated polyglot with an insanely foxy persona. Orson Welles saw the future.

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Eartha Kitt did not shy away from her history or inner forces. Despite coming of age in an era of sexism, bigotry and repression, Eartha harnessed her sexual drive and converted her scarred youth into powerful and expressive charisma. The Eartha Kitt persona was in heat and on edge. She was not afraid of being mean, messy or dangerous. In 1954 she released an album she titled “That Bad Eartha”, which launched many of her now classic songs, including “C’est si Moi” and “Uska Dara” and “I Want to be Evil”.

“The more I surrendered to myself, to the self that would not be limited and narrowly defined, the more glorious a time I had with me and with life”

Here is a video of her digging into her fabulously evil side:

Her honesty extended beyond her stage persona, and she spoke her mind without regard for consequence. Eartha Kitt’s career came to a temporary halt when, at a formal luncheon, she confronted the First Lady about the idiocy of the Vietnam War. The story goes that her candor made Lady Bird Johnson cry- and in spite of the repercussions she faced, Eartha remained gracefully unapologetic.

Eartha Kitt was aggressively prolific during her eighty-one years on this planet. She attributed her success to her fierce survival instinct. Her daughter tells of her death, and how after a fight with colon cancer, at eighty-one, she literally left the world screaming at the top of her lungs.

“My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or of my opinions. I’m a dirt person. I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”

There is a profound lesson on creativity here. The lesson is: find your inner beast. Excavate your truth. Find within yourself the good the bad and the ugly- and use it to fuel your creativity. Pain, desire, fear, anger, hurt, love, jealousy, sexuality, rage- all these feelings inside you are raring to be expressed. Surrender to them and let them motor you to create something great.


Further Listening and Reading:

Eartha Kitt: Femme Fatale, a newly released graphic novel by Marc Shapiro. Tells the story of Eartha Kitt’s life.

 

 

Confessions of a Sex Kitten, by Eartha Kitt.  This memoir tells the dramatic life story of the entertainer-activist who captured Broadway in her debut in New Faces of 1952.

 

 

America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, by John L. Williams.  An fascinating biography that captures the ahead-of-her-times woman behind the myth and also takes a look at race relations in Twentieth-century America.

 

 

That Bad Eartha, Eartha Kitt

Georgia O’Keeffe, her barrel of bones, and finding your thing

Art fairs are now everywhere, all the time.  The pressure is always on, and I think I should move my studio to Siberia or the desert.

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Georgia O’Keeffe found her escape from the noise when, in her forties, she discovered the Great Southwest. Already a successful painter who was recognized for her closely framed flowers, O’Keeffe sought new subject matter and distance from a complex romance with photographer Alfred Steiglitz. In 1929 she found in New Mexico what she described as:

such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’

She would spend the next decade traveling back and forth from New Mexico to New York and Lake George. Eventually she made a permanent relocation to Abiquiú, where she would live and paint until her death at 98.

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For me, the magic of O’Keeffe lies in opposites. Joan Didion described her as “simply hard”, and copious photo documentation concurs- she is American’s Marlboro Woman. Her radiant paintings, however, with their wavering forms evoke the very softest of experiences. Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: blunt and the same time swept away by mystery; solo and yet entwined with lovers. When speaking of her art she managed to be mystical and contrarian all at once and when making art she found the infinity by zeroing in.

Georgia’s mind reveals to us that the ineffable and the concrete are not in conflict. In her own beautiful words

“abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can clarify in paint.”

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New Mexico was her place. The land felt right, the light felt right, and the beauty resonated with her deeply. She tooled around in a Model A Ford, which also doubled as a painting studio, and took frequent rambling walks.  O’Keeffe began collecting skulls, bones and pieces of the desert that she could take with her. By the end of her first few summers there, she had filled the Ghost Ranch windowsills with feathers and finds. She had also amassed a barrel of bones, which became the source materials for her series of iconic bone paintings.

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It seems that  world has always pined to see her work through Freudian and symbolic lenses: wanting to understand her flowers as sexual, and her skulls as morbid and so on. Georgia rejected all that.  In this inspiring video Georgia O’Keeffe sets the record straight about the story of the bones:

“People think they are about death.  They are not about death.  They are simply shapes that please me.”


This creative exercise, inspired by Georgia’s barrel of bones, is about careful observation of shape and form.  It is also about discovering inspiration and paying homage to what simply pleases you.

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FIND YOUR THINGS: A COLLECTION OF SHAPES

  1. Select a home for your collection- window sill, dresser top, shelf etc.
  2. Think about a type of objects pleases or interests you- bottles, feathers, wires etc.
  3. Keep a look-out for these things – in your house, on the street, in the woods
  4.  Build a collection over time
  5. Admire your objects. Look closely, relish the peculiarities, enjoy the whole
  6. Take a picture of your collection and share it #TCHCollection or email to thecreativehours@gmail.com

 

Further reading:

Georgia by Dawn Tripp, A recently released work of historic fiction that paints a picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s early life, her romantic involvement with Alfred Stieglitz and her journey against odds to establish herself as an independent and successful artist.

 

 

Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity, produced by the Portland Museum of Art, this book brings together a lifetime of portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe from artists and photographers including: Warhol, Stieglitz and Webb.

 

 

Portrait of an Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle,
Georgia O’Keeffe, an excellent biography of one of the most original painters America has ever produced, who left behind a remarkable legacy when she died at the age of ninety-eight. Her vivid visual vocabulary had a stunning, profound, and lasting influence on American art.

Matisse, and how creativity keeps you young

In the spirit of leap years, daylight savings and the possibility of stretching time, I am saluting the visionary Henri Matisse.

This glorious Frenchman understood that his purpose as an artist was to “recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it”. Driven by this goal, Matisse was able to tap into beauty, simplicity, and visual joy in a way that few others have been able to.

His story is inspiring. As a struggling artist, Matisse’s first foothold in the history of art was at the turn of the Century as part of the Fauvist moveent in painting. “Les Fauves” (wild beasts) took the liberties of Impressionism a step further by proposing brash colors and interpretations that strayed from literal representation. Throughout the stylistic waves of Cubism, Surrealism, and Dada, and despite his close relationships with Picasso, Derain, and others formidable artists of the 20th Century, Matisse drove forward his love for effulgent color and distilled composition with independent integrity.

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Towards the end of his life, Matisse was diagnosed with a grave illness which placed him in a wheelchair and threatened to end his art career. In lieu of defeat, he traded in his canvases and brushes for a pair of scissors, sheets of paper and a couple of lovely assistants. Matisse reveled in the liberating nature of his new process, and its essential purpose. “You see, as I am obliged to remain often in bed because of the state of my health, I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk… There are leaves, fruits, a bird.” This resourceful pivot towards ease and play gave Matisse a new lease on life and the cut-outs that resulted are some of the most influential and beloved works by the artist.

Watch this rare snippet of Matisse, letting his scissors steer the winding landscape of a piece of paper.

This gorgeous video is revealing: while his cuts are clearly masterful- confident, controlled, and visionary, they also bely a childlike nature. Matisse then holds up tendrils of paper, and tries to divine the future that lies within those messy curls. Next we see him shuffling shapes on a blank page- basically a child at play with toys in his sandbox.

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Creativity is the spirit of play. It is the ability to keep an openness and an innocence and to let things be easy. No matter how young or old you are, how healthy or sick, or how teeny-weeny your living space is, or whatever else you believe impedes you, creativity is the fountain of youth.

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The great Irish Playwright, Bernard Shaw once said “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


Here is a simple creative exercise inspired by Matisse’s cutouts

Happy Paper Squiggle

1. You need 1 sheet of paper (white or a color), scissors and a pushpin

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2.  Using organic curves (no straight lines or sharp angles), let your scissors make an ongoing squiggly line in the paper. Don’t over think. Just let the scissors and the paper do the work.

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3. Try to keep line going as long as you can and touch all regions of your paper

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4.  Find a good point with which to hold up your coil of cut paper
5.  Pin it on your wall
6. Observe the beautiful shapes and rhythms that it makes
7. You can repeat this several times. Using colorful paper, these can make very happy wall decorations to enjoy.
8. Photograph your work and share it  with #tchcutout, or send it to:  thecreativehours@gmail.com

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Further reading:

Matisse on Art by Jack Flam compiles the major writings of Henri Matisse. Flam provides an astute biography, and shares his reflections on the development of Matisse’s aesthetic values and theories.

 

 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs by MOMA was published in conjunction with the most comprehensive show of Matisse’s cut-out works, which were first created in the early 1940s and were made until the artist’s death in 1954.

 

The Unknown Matisse by Hillary Spurling tells of his early years in a gloomy French Village, discovering himself as a Fauvist and artist, the scandal that almost destroyed his career, and his fight back to life and the vivid joy of his paintings.

 

 

Hannah Hoch and Collage

Hannah Hoch was ahead of her time. She was one of the few women participants in Dada, an avant-garde art movement from the early 1900s, which included members such as Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and George Grosz, as well as many women–consistently overlooked–such as Emmy Hennings and Beatrice Wood.  Dada emerged after WWI and was anti-war, anti-bourgeois, and dedicated to upending notions of the artist, the art object, and the establishment.

Hoch said she possessed “an experimental turn of mind”, and she is now recognized for pioneering the technique of photomontage as an art form, which presaged the mash-up media world that we live in now.  

Hannah Hoch Collage

Photomontage is a collage technique. It is a process of generating an original image out of other images and fragments which can be cut, layered, glued and arranged. The resulting composite conjures new visual and conceptual associations.

Hannah Hoch faced ugly bias from the male dominated art scene, and was routinely pushed out of the Dada club. Confronting dismissal from her peers and an ill-fated love affair with Dada artist Raoul Hausmann, Hoch persevered on her own, her work growing more and more politicized and challenging to gender norms, racial bias and class discrimination.  The series “An Ethnographic Museum” is a powerful example, which layers a mixture of fierce social criticism and soulful aesthetic sensibility.  I think it is a masterpiece.

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Here is a playful exercise based on Hoch’s work:

Photomontage Selfie

Goal: to use your hands, open your mind to playful associations, and by cutting and “alienating” imagery, and recombining it- to see the visual information that surrounds us anew.

Secondary Goal: to have a great post for Instagram.

  1. You will need paper, scissors, glue, a few magazines, catalogues, newspapers, and a printed image of your face. I prefer rubber cement for collage, but a glue stick or Elmers will suffice.  For the base of your photomontage, a black piece of construction paper is ideal, though a regular sheet of printer paper can also work.  Cut your paper so that it is a square.
  2. Print out a picture of you (ideally a close up) on 8 ½” by 11” paper.
  3. Choose images from your source material to cut out.  Find interesting shapes, subjects, words, colors, or anything else that intrigues you.  Take your time cutting out stuff, and don’t worry about overdoing it.  Abundance is good.  Cutting can be very meditative and relaxing.  Enjoy it.  This exercise can also be fun to do with a friend.
  4. Take image that you printed of yourself, and carefully cut out your features- your eyes, nose, mouth, hair or other distinctive shapes.
  5. You are going to create a new self portrait of yourself.  Start by playing around with compositions made from the cut up images.  
  6. Look for continuity of shape or color or juxtaposition between images.  Find arrangements that make you laugh. Be playful and trust your intuition. There is no “right” way here. Try a number of iterations before landing on a composition that interests you.
  7. Incorporate your features into the collage.
  8. Piece by piece use the glue to afix the collage to the paper.  Do this carefully, but do not fret if something gets messy or out of order- it might be your materials telling you something.  
  9. Set the collage to dry for an hour or so.
  10. Use your phone to photograph your photomontage selfie.  Try out different filters on your phone to see which looks most interesting.
  11. Post it with hashtag #TCHhoch

It is hard to get hold of good books on Hoch, which may be because Hoch is still marginalized by the male-dominated art world. She was brilliant. It is well worth the hunt.

Further reading:

Dada’s Women by Ruth Hemus.   Includes biographical material and artwork by Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber, Hannah Höch, Suzanne Duchamp and Céline Arnauld

 

 

Hannah Hoch: Picture Book   A picture book for children, using her photomontage technique, of mythical creatures and plants. 

 

 

If you want to think more about sexism and art history, I recommend reading any of the books by the inimitable Guerrilla Girls: 

The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. “A leveling indictment of bigotry in the art world, the work of the Guerrilla Girls elevates cage-bar rattling to a fine art.”—Mark Dery in The New York Times Book Review

 

Equipment & Supplies:

Stellar Scissors

Having a good, satisfying pair of scissors is a must

 

Rubber Cement

Choice glue for collage

 

 

Black Sulphite Sketch Book

Black paper makes a great base for collage

HAIL CAESAR, and how we get great ideas

Last night I attended a special screening of the Coen Brothers’ brilliant new flick, Hail Caesar. Ethan Coen was there for a Q&A following the film.  What a gift. I love the Coen Brothers, whose films have included Barton Fink and Oh Brother Where Art Thou, True Grit and Fargo, to name a few. Their movies always serve up nostalgic charm laced with poetic/pathetic humor and philosophy. Hail Caesar certainly delivered. Set in the 50’s in a fictionalized movie studio, starring George Clooney, Josh Broden and Scarlett Johansen, Hail Caesar is a frivolous caper in which a pupu platter of Hollywood genres are joyously jumbled. Run to the theaters ASAP if you haven’t seen it already. If you loved  Singing In The Rain, this movie is for you.

Singing in the Rain

It is always great to hear an artist talk about process and the creative life. As Ethan was describing the nature of his collaboration, the inception of Hail Caesar, and how he and his brother had come up with the idea for the film, I had an epiphany for The Creative Hours: We back into our big ideas. Ethan and Joel had a funny image in their heads. A pleasing lark. A tickle, a spark. They imagined a dashing and bewildered guy in gladiator regalia, sitting in a swank mid century pad on the California Coast sipping a Mai Tai. That image, which made Ethan and Joel crack up, is the seed from which the film started. The Coen Brothers did not set out to make a profound movie about movies, or a philosophical comedy. They did not start with an outline or an agenda. They started with a nonsensical shard of an idea.

There are a lot of scientific methods out there on how to be creative. Creativity has become a business. However, in all the brainstorming, mind-mapping, Post-it™ laden pedantics, I have noticed a gulf between innovation strategies and how most artists arrive at great ideas and creations.

Creative people understand the wisdom of intuition. A million visions may appear each day, but occasionally one stands out. Why?  It is hard to say…it just seems promising.  It is what we are in the mood for–even if we have no idea what awaits. Trusting our senses, we follow the trail and let the map unfold as we go. Eventually the big idea makes itself known and in the end we arrive, surprised at how we got there.

We do not build our great ideas from the big idea up. Often stellar and complex ideas are backed into by trusting a spark of imagination. Let your mind wander, start small, trust the path, and go see Hail Caesar!

Further Reading:

 

Interviews with the Coen Brothershttp://www.amazon.com/Coen-Brothers-Interviews-Conversations-Filmmakers/dp/1578068894/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&qid=1456545695&sr=8-1&keywords=coen+brothers+interviews&linkCode=li2&tag=&linkId=acfebea2f6f0ad9b78aa9553f68c613d, from the Conversations with Filmmakers series.

Yoko Ono and how teachers dislike creative children

Yoko Ono’s birthday is today, and she is 83. The daughter of a Buddhist and a Christian, and born into a wealthy family in Japan that moved back and forth to the United States, at a very yound age she started creating some of the most radical and avant-garde art in the art world. Her art work is sometimes beautiful, sometimes shocking, sometimes whimsical, sometimes tragic. She invites people into her work, to participate in it. She would ask people, for example, to imagine a painting in their minds, rather than painting it. The audience in her 1965 performance “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall was persuaded to cut off her clothing piece by piece. And of course she was also singing, once upon a time, with John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band. She is as prolific today as she ever was.

Yoko Ono performing "Cut Piece" at Carnegie Hall in 1965
Yoko Ono performing “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall in 1965

In many ways Yoko Ono embodies the project of The Creative Hours, in that her conceptual art challenges people to see and think differently, and seeing and thinking differently is the golden road to creativity. In her book Grapefruit, a “book of drawings and instructions” she asks readers to “Watch a movie without looking at any round objects”, or, “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” In her more recent book Acorn, she instructs “Count all the puddles on the street / when the sky is blue.” Ono is different from others, and has struggled with criticism and ostracism her whole life–even being blamed for breaking up The Beatles–because her way of thinking and being were divergent from the norm. But her difference is also the very root of her brilliance and creativity.

Reading an interview with her in Songwriters on Songwriting today, this passage caught my eye:

When Yoko Ono was a child in Japan, her writing was rejected by teachers who objected to the fact that it didn’t fit into existing forms and that she had no desire to make it fit. “It’s not that I consciously tried not to conform,” she explained, smiling, “I was just naturally out of the system.”

This is often the experience of creative children. And it turns out that in fact teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary. 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking, and yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service, most creative children are different, like Yoko Ono.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.

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For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient. You have to be a strong character to stay creative in a classroom that thwarts the very thing it purports to serve.

But being disliked, even hated, is something artists often face. At one time Yoko Ono was “arguably the most hated woman in the world”, as pointed out in an article about last year’s exhibit Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971 . The sense of being outside, or against, or in the shadows, or wrong is often part and parcel of the creative life, for better or for worse. And Yoko Ono embraces this. Her works allow that dislike, rejection, scorn, even hatred to enter in. They do not defend themselves against them. Look at Cut Piece, Rape, Painting to be Stepped On, and Painting for Cowards in which the artist performing the work shakes people’s hands through a hole in the canvas. The courage of her work is its vulnerability.

Whatever happens to the artist, starting young, starting in school, no matter the pleasures of creation or their rejection and resistance, no matter the joys or trials, all of it is inspiration and fodder for great art.

Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964
Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964

John Cage and The Art of Listening

Inspired by our launch of The Creative Hours, I’ve been compiling a diverse collection of practices that nurture creativity. Tools, rituals and exercises from around the world, across disciplines, and from the nether regions of my own noggin, that are aimed to foster fluidity, imagination, innovation and play. It struck me that a good portion of my collection was dedicated not to making and doing, but rather observing and listening.

Learning how to pay close attention and be receptive is a foundation for creative thinking.

No one embodies this principle better than artist and Buddhist, John Cage. His beloved book Silence: Lectures and Writings is both charming and profound.  I highly recommend keeping it near for creative inspiration and grounding. It is a wise book that never grows old, and offers itself for fruitful rereading again and again.

John Cage
John Cage

Composer, writer, and artist and music theorist, John Cage is considered one of the major American creatives of the 20th Century. He pioneered ways of thinking about sound, silence, instruments, composition and chance.  Also influential in the world of dance, Cage was life long partners with the equally seminal choreographer Merce Cunningham.


For our first creative practice on The Creative Hours, let’s channel John Cage. This exercise pays homage to his his passion for the world of sound and draws from his artistic commitment to mindful listening:

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THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: LISTENING  MEDITATION   

  1. Find a private moment in your day, and a tranquil spot. Close your eyes. Breathe Deeply.  
  2. Start to turn your attention to the soundscape that surrounds you. Notice the many threads and types of sound.
  3. Start by focusing on the sounds that are farthest away. Do you hear cars humming, wind blowing, an airplane or the buzz of lives spinning outside. Spend one minute carefully finding and listening to these “in the distance” noises. You do not need to name or comment on the sounds, but simply to pay close attention. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  4. Next listen for the nearby sounds that are in your immediate sphere. Let the far away sounds recede, and listen carefully to the composition of sounds around you. Listen to tone, quality, pitch, rhythm of all the different ambient noises. The rumble of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the rustling of a pet. Again, just listen for a minute or so.
  5. Finally, shift your focus inward, and try to listen to the sounds within your own body.  Hear your heartbeat, your stomach growl, your breath rise and fall. See if you might even be able to hear your brain churning or your blood flowing. Stay attentive to the smallest details and feelings. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  6. Take a deep breath and open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Take stock of your body, breath, your emotional state.
  7. What did you notice? Experience? Share your reflections #TCHlistening or email them to thecreativehours@gmail.com

This is a wonderful and grounding meditation to do before you begin a creative practice. It puts you in a sensitive and receptive state- a great state for letting the creative process flow.

Further reading: 

Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage

First published in 1961, Silence is a wise and whimsical collection of Cage’s essays and lectures.  In keeping with John Cage’s experimental approach, many of the pieces feature poetic methods of presentation or composition.

 

John Cage: Visual Art, To Sober and Quiet the Mind by Kathan Brown

A treasure of a book featuring 116 color images.  This exquisite book features Cage’s sublime chance made drawings, and Brown’s insight into his work and the role that art can play in this world.