A Recipe for Creativity

How do you make creativity? Curious minds want to know.

Inspired by a beautiful passage from Toni Morrison’s novel Sula, I have put together a list of 8 important ingredients that foster creativity.

First, the passage and a few thoughts about the author:

“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”

This description of Sula nails the potency of the creative spirit, and the importance of channeling its energy into articulate expression. As human beings, we all have creative spirit rattling around inside of us, trying to push outwards and take shape. Perhaps what defines an artist is the demanding character of this spirit, and the permission to recognize its cues for what they are: The dire need to create.

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More than any other writer I can think of, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author Toni Morrison knows how to cut to the aching heart of things, and how to turn the invisible into sensual and tangible form. Her novels, which include masterpieces such as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, Song of Solomon and Jazz, are bountiful with a somatic kind of poetry as they delve into the powerful tales and experiences of her African American protagonists.

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For Sula, curiosity and a gift for metaphor are the tell-tale signs of her highly creative soul. Which brings me to the promised recipe, or at least a handful of ingredients:

A Recipe for Creativity

  1. Start with a curious mind and an open heart
  2. An unbiased hunger for studying the world
  3. Compassionate interest in experiences beyond oneself
  4. Attentiveness to all the dynamics, properties, qualities and details that you encounter
  5. You will know if you are on the right track if you can find inspiration anywhere and in anything
  6. Remember that you are building an archive of observations
  7. Metaphoric thinking. Metaphors are the tools of translation for all that you see, hear and feel. Metaphors give us words and ideas with which to hold and define our observations
  8. Last but not least, learn some skills, so that you can easily use your understanding to create and express your heart’s desire.

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Toni Morrison knows the secret sauce well. The curious, compassionate and metaphoric strengths of her work are out of this world. There is so much to learn from her.

“I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither…. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” -Toni Morrison


CREATIVE PROMPT:

This creative exercise is inspired by master storyteller, Toni Morrison. It encourages you to look closely, and apply compassion and imagination throughout your day.  Remember to share photos or thoughts! #TCHhands

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Further reading:
Sula, by Toni Morrison Two girls who grow up to become women. Two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret

 
Beloved, by Toni Morrison  Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a magnificent novel.

 

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

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