Aesthetic Arrest

lilyfaceI love this term—’Aesthetic Arrest’. It best describes the feeling we have when in the presence of a work of art, or any object of beauty, that has that ‘wow’ quality, that stops us in our tracks. We feel somehow altered by the encounter, taken outside of ourselves, elevated somehow. Robert Rye best expresses it here: “The contemplative instant at which (an artwork) is appreciated by the mind, which has been arrested by its wholeness, and fascinated by its harmony, is the luminous, silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

I’ve always pondered what, if any, is the mysterious ‘recipe’ for creating work that resonates in this way. It’s a bit of an elusive thing, very much the result of letting go and really leaning in to the process of making art. Intention is just the jumping off point. ‘Rules’ tend to get in the way. Yet there are some aspects that ‘arresting’ works share. Sir Thomas Aquinas does a pretty good job of getting close with these suggested attributes for beauty: WHOLENESS (integitas)—the unity of the whole, HARMONY (consonantia)—balance, fitness, symmetry, rhythm of structure, and RADIANCE (quidditas)—’thingness’—a unique product of your thinking. I like this framework because it doesn’t imply rules, rather useful criteria that can be applied to any creation, visual or otherwise—anything in existence, whether man, woman or nature made. It speaks to the soul of a thing; it allows for the inexplicable….yet gives us a standard to aspire to.

When was the last time you were arrested?

The Artist and The Athlete

Toller_1I lost a new friend this week. We had only just met and had one extraordinary conversation, but he made such an impression on me. I was very much looking forward to seeing him again. Toller Cranston was found in his home here Saturday, lifeless apparently from a heart attack, at the all-too-young age of 65. I had initially become aware of Toller as one of the many eccentric, and perhaps best known residents here in San Miguel De Allende.

In addition to six consecutive Canadian men’s champion figure skating titles and an Olympic bronze, Toller introduced a level of artistry into the sport unseen before, paving the way for today’s more balletic performances. The NY TImes refers to him as ‘The Nureyev’ of figure skating and speaks to his contribution to the sport; he is to be inducted into the World Skating Hall of Fame. My experience of him had nothing to do with his skating accomplishments. I knew him only in his reinvented state as an artist. His paintings are mesmerizingly beautiful, informed by a uniquely imaginative and fantastical vision inspired in part by Russian fairy tales.

I was initially blown away by his his over-the top home, experienced on a house tour—chock full of amazing objects—many of his own creation. I then met him at a book signing event held in his studio. I had never encountered such a quiet presence—gifted, prolific, larger than life in his accomplishments yet exuding warmth, accessibility and genuineness. His output was prodigious. He painted 12 hours day, most days. I caught his attention when I asked him if he felt a parallel in the experience of being an athlete to the experience of being an artist. I knew the answer, especially in his case, would be a huge and mighty YES.

We spoke of the discipline required to accomplish anything in both realms. We spoke about the passion and commitment required and the ability to deal with critics and failure. But mostly we talked about FLOW–what it feels like to be ‘in the zone’ in either pursuit. He acknowledged that is what made Toller-the-artist and Toller-the- superstar athlete keep showing up each day to do the work—the intense immersion and subsequent ‘high’ produced from challenging oneself in a realm one is passionate about, every day. He saw them as one in the same. Toller is said to have produced over 40,000 paintings; many of which I have seen. I think his reputation as an artist would be greater had it not been eclipsed by his reputation as an athlete. A very rare thing for one to burn so bright in such seemingly different realms. In his mind it wasn’t such a leap (pun intended).

For a great read about the man who was his own work of art, written by a life long friend click here, or simply Google him. Pure entertainment: YouTube  has some great videos of Toller on ice.

Beauty Everywhere

beautyeverywhereThere is beauty all around us, all the time, often when we least expect it, if we’re paying attention.  A previous post here, ‘Necessary Beauty’, speaks to why beauty, the creation and appreciation of which, was so important to the Greeks—as a value equal to Truth and Goodness. I’d like to propose another reason to ponder beauty as a value—the appreciation of beauty can be a mindfulness practice—a way of enriching and embedding our moments, heightening our awareness and training our attention: an antidote to the hyper-distractedness of our time. What is essential though is a broader understanding and embrace of what constitutes beauty….as a way of integrating attentive discernment, as a form of meditation in action.

Howard Gardner proposes three criteria for a new understanding of beauty for modern times. First, the object, or subject is INTERESTING.  And since as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it simply has to be interesting to you. Second, it’s FORM is memorable…sufficiently powerful or evocative. This raises the bar a bit. …but still is subjective. Lastly, there is a desire to encounter the EXPERIENCE again, due to liking, curiosity or a feeling of awe. Again-suited to your personal taste. What’s missing here for me is some sense of universality–some criteria not based on personal taste or cultural differences. Is it possible to create some standard that we can all aspire to and integrate into our daily experience, as a way of centering ourselves, as a spiritual practice…as a way out of the perpetual visual clutter…as an antidote to all the distracting documentation of our every moment?

It’s about shifting the focus (pun intended). It’s about changing the way we use our devices. It’s about learning how to tune in rather than tune out. It’s about learning how to pay attention in different ways. It’s about learning how to have a ‘Good Eye’. Stay tuned….

 

 

The Upside of Exile

exileI’ve written of the need to have ‘Fresh Eyes’ in the pursuit of any creative endeavor here in the past. I came across this essay by Costica Bradatan a couple weeks ago in the NY Times column ‘The Stone’  which beautifully validates, and expands on this idea. It speaks to the upside of exile—typically a term carrying a negative connotation—banishment from all we hold dear, from our sense of  well being and identity which are so much a function of the place we call ‘home’. And yet, with regard any sort of  renewal, refreshment, reinvention, rejuvenation—a certain amount of self-imposed ‘exile’ is essential for new perspectives……

“For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas. To live is to envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what’s under your nose. The more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old “truths,” which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind.”

“The redeeming thing about exile is that when your “old world” has vanished you are suddenly given the chance to experience another. At the very moment when you lose everything, you gain something else: new eyes. Indeed, what you eventually get is not just a “new world,” but something philosophically more consequential: the insight that the world does not simply exist, but it is something you can dismantle and piece together again, something you can play with, construct, reconstruct and deconstruct. As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways. Certainly you can find that in books, but there is no deeper knowledge than the one that comes mixed with blood and tears, the knowledge that comes from uprooting.”

So the challenge (if you choose to accept it)  is how to create that sense of exile—that eye-opening fresh view of things—without sacrificing too much. As Anais Nin famously quoted “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” On my fridge 🙂 Not always easy, but we are infinitely richer for it….

 

 

Routine Creativity

zenstonesblogOne of the most important aspects of Creative productivity is striking a balance between disciplined daily routine and remaining open to new experiences and perspectives—flexible and adaptable—so that we can keep our eyes fresh and energy high. Too much routine can be mind numbing, uninspiring and vortex (tunnel vision) inducing; too little routine reduces the chance of flow and any significant productive creative output. While we can find evidence of creative genius unfettered by routine—the Basquiats and Jimi Hendrixes of the world—there is an unsustainable, crash-and-burn quality to those sagas. Even Toulouse Lautrec showed up everyday for his work in a very routine fashion after his nights of debauchery at the Moulin-Rouge.

I was pleased to come across a recent NY Times op-ed article where David Brooks, celebrating President Obama’s recent UN speech, links routine and hard work to Creativity and…world order. He holds up the habits of writers and artists as inspirational and exemplary, citing Mason Curry’s wonderful book on the daily rituals of artists mentioned previously here.  Brooks writes  “Order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring. Building and maintaining order—whether artistic, political or global—seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard”. Indeed.

Henry Miller declared “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life”. How do we find this balance? As Creatives we need to ground ourselves in a daily routine–we need to find what time of day we are most productive and build our schedules around that. We need to show up for a few hours every day, no matter what, and simply put in the time at our chosen craft. It has been my experience time and time again that the rewards come, the muses show up, and everything flows from there. It is in the routine that we find the freedom, the inspiration, and most importantly—the staying power to honor the best we have to give—every day.

 

Miksang

EW_Miksang_2

Miksang is a Tibetan word that translates as ‘Good Eye’, and is based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, artist, and scholar Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Miksang, at its most basic level, is concerned with uncovering the truth of pure perception. We see something vivid and penetrating, and in that moment we can express our perception without making anything up—nothing added, nothing missing. Totally honest about what we see—straight shooting. As we allow ourselves to become more available to the things around us without the biases, filters and formulas often associated with photography, our experience and expression of day-to-day moments becomes more rich and endlessly varied—beyond what we think. One moment, one shot—fully present.

Your iphone can be a powerful tool for this practice. We’re not talking Instagram here…..it’s all about intention, and is available to everyone, all the time. It’s a wonderful way to give your mind a rest, take a break and get your daily dose of flow.

 

Gaps as Creative Opportunities

EWatt_gaps_1

We all  experience ‘gaps’ in our lives—those in between times where we are not forging ahead with a strong sense of direction, where we feel a little lost, where we are in limbo. Gaps present as periods of ‘not-knowing’ large and small—the voids and upset we periodically experience as we move through life. These are the uncomfortable in-between spaces—old habits no longer serve, all momentum is gone, all certainty of what to do next evaporates. It’s like the too-long pause in a conversation—uncomfortable. The impulse is to fill the gap—either by pushing hard to move forward or falling back on what was once comfortable. We live in a culture that values certainty over all else, so there are external as well as internal pressures to move out of this space as quickly as possible.

Anyone familiar with the process of creating knows this is where real opportunity lies—in those in between or liminal spaces, the ‘gaps’—the not-knowing. This is where creative energy is found. It is only here where new information can enter, where something that has never existed before—that which is valuable and in alignment with the truth of the moment—can come into being. We are speaking about a form of creative intelligence here—‘Intelligence’–from the Latin inter and legere….which mean ‘to gather between.’ The formula for creativity I so often refer to here supports this–the incubation stage is essentially a Gap—an easing off from the knowledge acquisition stage (effortful) or saturation stage so as to allow the subconscious brain to process and make new connections. Our Eureka! moments come to us in gap spaces–on walks, in the shower, when resting. Artists and creators know how to get comfortable with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’.  

Our brains need to re-calibrate to new realities. If we short circuit this process, we never evolve or connect to our creative selves. We stay stuck. Creativity is about getting beyond what we take for granted, pushing through to new levels of awareness. It’s not easy, but we are infinitely richer for it. The good news is that it is only by slowing down, paying attention and engaging with the chaos and confusion rather than resisting it that we can truly move forward. The answers you’re looking for will emerge when you least expect it; when you think you are ‘slacking off’.

And, speaking of gaps and slacking off; I apologize for the huge space since my last posting here—lots going on. Thanks for tuning back in.

Necessary Beauty

peonies_black_blog To the ancient Greeks, human society was characterized by three values, equal in importance: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. By that definition, the experience of beauty involved the appreciation of Aesthetics, Art and Nature. As someone who has made a living making things look beautiful, I’ve often questioned to what extent I was adding value to more than the clients’ sales numbers or my own satisfaction. I was therefore happy to come across this reference to Beauty a couple years ago—the creation and experience of it—as having equal value as those noble pursuits of Truth and Goodness. Even philosopher Alain de Botton goes so far as to state: “One way evil reaches us is through ugliness”. So, in terms of one aspect that makes life worth living: What is beauty?

In his book aptly titled Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed Howard Gardner speaks to the need to revisit the conception of beauty for this new age we’re living in “lest we succumb to such a joyless, or normless, or pointless existence.” He states that the pursuit of experiences that are beautiful constitute a crucial part of life. Of course this discussion would be irrelevant if more basic needs such as food, shelter and safety weren’t satisfied. Yet, in this time of over-abundance, ironically, we do seem to be suffering from a ‘poverty of discernment’, where aesthetic standards and ideals seem to have been abandoned and replaced by…anything and everything (Miley Cyrus anyone?). And yet…

Does the concept of beauty still hold its value? How do we introduce young people to the concept of beauty? To what extent should the rest of us re-conceptualize traditional ideas of beauty, leaving behind picture-postcard aesthetics and narrow definitions of what constitutes beautiful?

I like Gardner’s new criteria for beauty; it allows for a much broader range of possibilities:

  1. The object/subject is INTERESTING.
  2. Its’ FORM is memorable…sufficiently powerful or evocative.
  3. There is a desire to ENCOUNTER THE EXPERIENCE AGAIN, due to liking, curiosity, or a feeling of awe.

…So much more to work with there. At the end of the day I do embrace the cliche ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The sooner we each identify what is beautiful to us, the sooner we can fill our lives with beauty as a virtuous path….I think it helps to have a new framework.  What makes you ‘Tingle’?

Image copyright Sacco & Watt.

Creativity is a Habit

Mason CurryWelcome to the new look of this blog. I always feel September to be the start of a new year; a time of renewed focus and, especially today, a time for reflection. Though hardly idle, (I really wish I was better at that); I did allow myself to drift a bit for the month of August. In addition to the redesign here and re-launching my photography website (more as a visual resume than anything else), I spent some time reconnecting with my original vision for this work around facilitating creativity. One challenge of being a solo-preneur is that we’re often operating in a vacuum—pushing our agendas in isolation, showing up each day and doing the work we think we’re supposed to be doing outside of any structure or system of validation. There are therefore days where we question the rightness of our efforts, which leads to questioning the questions—is this Resistance? Fear? Procrastination?—all those things we’re supposed to push past, daily. And yet….

Any creative effort is ever-evolving and organic with a life of its own. Unpredictability and uncertainty are essential components. Whether starting a new business, writing a book, a blog—pursuing any personal project—the trick is allowing for the evolution of the thing and adjust as we go along. What is true one day may not be true the next. The challenge is to see clearly every step of the way, pay attention to our motivations—Are they still valid?—and keep our energy up. Jonathan Fields has a great post which speaks to this, with some good questions to ask ourselves periodically about any pursuit we’re invested in.

And…once we’re clear….it’s about getting back to work. Creative productivity is a discipline. Countless books have been written on the routines of creative people. One of the best and most recent I’ve read is this one by Mason Curry. He documents the work habits of 161 people—from Benjamin Franklin to Woody Allen (the shower thing!) to Twyla Tharpe. It’s a great read for all the quirky anecdotes (headstand to clear the brain) and commonalities as well—massive amounts of coffee and long walks among the most common. The one thing that was common to almost every single subject was simply showing up everyday, for a period of time, no matter what. All the varieties of methods for summoning the muse were just that–methods based on knowing what worked for them, and that was all that mattered. They knew what they had-to-do and how-to-do-it, day in and day out, whether the muse was whispering to them or not. They knew how to be prepared…just in case. They knew how to get lucky.

Tip#5: How to have Lots of Ideas

©Maria Ferrari

©Maria Ferrari


The last ‘Tips’ post spoke to the importance of having lots of ideas whenever we’re trying to solve a problem or move our lives forward in some unprecedented way, as our first ideas are most likely perpetuating old ways of thinking. There are numerous tactics floating around out there. Some are more specific than others, and have been popularized by creativity experts such as Michael Michalko, Edward De Bono and Eric Maisel. All are about shifting perception, fostering a spirit of discovery and encouraging free flowing connections. Here is a distillation, with my own take, by way of explanation.

Sharpen the focus. The more specifically you define the problem at hand, the more infinite, original, (and appropriate) the possibilities. Contrary to what many think, creativity flows more freely from constraints and parameters. This is why some artists (Jasper Johns with his flag series) limit their subject matter and concentrate on creative process: how many variations are possible here? It becomes less about the what and the why and more about the how. Begin your brainstorming with questions to laser-tune the focus as much as possible. The likelihood of ‘Flow’ is much greater here as well.

Saturate yourself with inspirationYou need what I refer to as ‘fresh eyes’. Scan the universe for information and ideas related to your issue; fill your head with relevant facts, perspectives, ideas. Be joyful and curious in your approach. Be open to ideas coming from seemingly unexpected sources; seek them out, push beyond your comfort zone (it’s called that for a reason!). It’s all about connecting things in new and different ways. You will surprise yourself.

Set an ‘idea quota’. The popular version of the idea quota, often used in brainstorming sessions in business settings, is the ‘Paperclip’ model: come up with 20 uses for a (paperclip) in 10 minutes—no editing or judging of ideas. The time pressure takes thinking and judging off the table, and can produce some wonderful fresh ideas. The next essential step for this approach to be effective requires an editing phase, or the ‘verification’ as I refer to it in the formula. Which ideas are viable and useful? The best ideas then can be pushed and further developed through mind-mapping, below. This tactic is actually the least interesting to me personally, yet one of the most popular in business settings.

Engage with the Formula.  Another approach integrates the formula for creativity I’ve put forth in previous posts here, allowing right/left brain interplay to occur. Once the problem is defined, saturate (above) then let it go . Set an idea quota, but give it time to allow for the subconscious connections to occur— maybe  5 ideas a day for 5 days in a row. The first 5 might be the hardest, because you’ll be ‘thinking’ too hard, but then ideas will start to flow more freely. Chances are they’ll come in the form of ‘mindpops’ when you’re in a relaxed or distracted mode. I could write a book (hoping to) around this one approach. You could also call this one ‘summoning the muse’.

Work Visually. A much used tool in business brainstorming and strategy sessions is mind-mapping.  Countless software versions have been developed as a result, which I find relatively useless because the real power of mind-mapping comes from the free flowing physical aspect of charting and diagramming thoughts and ideas by hand, with big juicy markers, on a huge piece of paper on a wall, table, or floor . The mind-map breaks us away from a linear way of thinking, which I find often jams my brain because there should be some logic: A precedes B precedes C—too much thinking involved. When you work with ‘idea pods’—continually breaking the thinking down, jumping to other pods, capturing ideas as they pop into consciousness. There is no editing involved, to the contrary, this is hugely stimulating, and sometimes even emotional because it connects us more with what we’re feeling. The mind-map also lets you see all your thoughts and ideas–it’s like a crazy picture of the mish-mosh of your brain. When you can visualize all the seemingly unrelated and undeveloped thoughts, patterns emerge, new connections are made and you have the benefit of this hugely therapeutic mind-dump. I use this approach for my weekly to-do lists as a way of organizing and prioritizing my thinking.

Enough for now. It’s about developing a mindset for more creative thinking and being. Back to the CS mantra: “Change is an art form and creative productivity is a muscle we can build.” Would love to hear any tricks you all may have up your sleeve. I’d be happy to feature them here with credit given 🙂

And for some fun…..A great list of very specific tools for creating ideas can be found at creatingminds.org.

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