Common Creativity

When Thing1 was still a pea-picker, he hunched over his Matchbox cars for hours, watching their wheels and gears as he drove them around carpets and vitas he created and telling them their stories. I wish I had written them down because sometimes I think he needs proof as to just how creative he is. I think a lot of people do.

Thing1 is about to turn twenty. He knows how to fix cars and program computers. Anyone who watched him studying the movements of cars as a toddler would say it pretty accurately predicted his mechanical aptitude. 

His love of discovering how things work, however, often translates him putting high value on common sense and things that can be proven. When I tell him of the spaceships he conceived and drew, of the stories he told, he answers, “I’m just not all that creative anymore, Mom.”

Yesterday proved him wrong, and this time I got the photos to prove it. 

When Thing1’s college closed, his first action, over our strong objections, was to go job hunting. He received two offers as soon as the state closed down both businesses, but his employment history from the previous year earned him the ability to collect benefits during the pandemic (he wasn’t eligible for the stimulus because he’s too much of an adult and too much of a dependent to fall into any category the government considers visible).  He’s saving some of that money but, still a teenager for another two months, money can burn a hole in his pocket. 

Thursday he announced he was buying a hammock to use at school when it reopens. Then he announced he’d like to test drive at home. He asked the Big Guy and then me if we could think of any appropriately socially distant pairs of trees from which to hang it and, despite being surrounded by trees, we just scratched our heads.

Friday, Thing1 and Thing2 traced our normal route around the house, making incursions in to the forest when this or that pair of trees sparked their interest.  They showed us a few ideas, but the Big Guy and I just couldn’t see the right trees for the forest.

Saturday, Thing1 disappeared again and then took his machete and power saw to the woods behind the house. We heard some hacking and then a familiar buzz. Thing1 came back to assure us that the tree he’d taken down had been punky and about to fall anyway and then to invite us to the clearing he’d made. The Big Guy and I started our usual afternoon route and went to where the boys were waiting, Thing2 dancing from foot to foot to show us Thing1’s work.  

The boys had found a perfect opening into the forest and created a more defined path to a pair of trees that, somehow, the Big Guy and I had missed the day before. Thing1 had felled one tree and cleared some rosy bush between the two that would support his hammock. Then he indicated the tree-filled slope leading down to the river that will be the view for anyone sitting in the hammock.  

Thing1 had pulled a paradise from the mass of trees and rosy bush. When the hammock arrives, he’ll assemble it and give credit for the completed project to his common sense. I’d like to think that it was actually good old fashioned common creativity that helped him identify the perfect spot to meditate on the question.

Walking to Paradise

Me and Imogen

So here I am in the backyard, shooting flowers again, wondering where my creative life is going. It might look like I’ve come full circle, but, when I look closer, my loop has the twists of a Möbius band.

Fifteen years ago, wanting a creative career, I ran a wedding photography business. I sucked at up-selling, so I also delivered papers and did a little freelance programming, all the while looking for that ‘real’ job.  We went to the local art museums on their free family days, but for the most past, art was relegated to the back seat, and the back seat was getting pretty cluttered with empty newspaper boxes, bills and booster seats. 

I was still searching and scrambling when I bumped into a friend at potluck picnic. 

“How’s your photography going?” she asked.  

I had been hoping she wouldn’t ask.  An established documentary photographer, she had been encouraging when I’d first picked up a camera, and I was embarrassed that it had fallen by the wayside.

“I haven’t had time to do much,” I said as then two-year-old Thing2 hung on my arm.  I pulled out the one-handed point-and-shoot that I was using most of the time.  “I’ve been working a few jobs, but I just don’t have time to do anything except when the kids are in bed.  The only thing I do anymore is write and draw and shoot flowers.”  Then I joked, “Don’t they say your creative life is over when you start shooting flowers?”    

“Not so,” answered my friend, and she introduced me to Imogen Cunningham.

Born in 1883, Imogen Cunningham studied chemistry at the University of Washington, photographing plants for the botany department to finance her tuition.  She went to work for a portrait photographer after college and then traveled to Germany to study photographic processes. When she returned to the states., she set up her own studio.  Her portraits and other work had established her as an artist by the time she became a mother.

https://www.imogencunningham.com/

At that time, even in America, her quest for education, career and artistic fulfillment weren’t commonplace for most young women in that era, so I was surprised to learn that, after all that struggled, she followed the more traditional route of being what we now call a stay-at-home-mom.  I wondered if there was even a choice for her. 

But art was not a choice for her.

Responsible for three boys, Cunningham used her camera to focus her attention on her offspring as well as her garden.  Her botanical images from this period of her life won her lasting acclaim. Far from signaling the death of her artistic career, Imogen’s botanical photographs made in the throes of motherhood confirm that an artist can bloom in the face of responsibility.  It just required some really good naptime coordination. 

My boys are long past the nap time stage, but ‘real life’ and the creative life duel constantly. My unexpected, enforced sabbatical seemed like the perfect opportunity to breathe new my painting and writing life, but revivals can have unexpected results. When the intense intellectual and emotional challenges of working in Special Education receded, there was suddenly space to mediate. My writing life, more recently relegated to the sidelines, came roaring back, routing me from my bed early in the mornings. Painting moved to the back shelf, and a blog that was almost 100% illustrated or painted for over six years began relying on photographs to support the writing.

The painting will never disappear, but the need to write online and off and to produce images in minutes, rather than hours or days, hasn’t killed creativity. It’s re-opened an old, almost forgotten path to it.

So I come back to Imogen and her work. It continues to resonate with me because of its beauty but also because of what it embodies. She was a mother. She was a housewife, and she was still making a creative life for herself. And, sitting under the apple tree, my camera trained on a blossom until one of the swarming bees comes to kiss it awake, I know that photographing flowers is the opposite of a creative life ending. 

It’s just begun.

Tree Noise

We may be the only house in Vermont where you can’t actually see a mountain. We carved our plot out of the middle of a hill, leaving as many trees as possible. The result is that we can see outlines of mountains through the branches in the winter, but most of our view is defined by the vertical lines of the tree trunks and the blur of green that covers them in the summer. It’s not a vista or a monument. It’s not white noise, it’s visual tree noise. 

I’ve always been grateful for that tree noise. After a stressful day, it brings me back to earth. It soothes and then inspires. Even when I was working at home, however, I didn’t understand its full potential. 

Normally, just a few days of being home gives me a co-morbid case of cabin fever and wanderlust. Pneumonia initiated my quarantine back in March, well ahead of the state lockdown. It’s still kicks my butt each day, but yesterday I realized that illness is not the only thing that, for the first time in my life, has turned me into a happier homebody.

Thing1 wanted to test drive his car after replacing the cooling system and invited the Big Guy and Thing2 along for a joyride. It was a perfect spring day in the Green Mountain state, so, of course, they said yes. Wiped out from sitting in the garden and mulching the onions (thank you Strawbale Gardening), I opted for a nap in the lawn chair.

The seasonal streams and wind sang through the trees, supported by their supporting chorus of songbirds and crows. I opened my eyes every so often to absorb the visual tree noise. Recently turned green after a last blast of snow, it took center stage again.

I’ve viewed most of our world lately from my fuzzy blue office chair. The tree noise has consisted mostly of branches and mud and snow, but whether highlighted by puffy clouds and a crystal sky or muted against a backdrop of purple and mud, the effect has been the same.  

The patterns and colors wipe away concerns and replace them with ideas and creativity. “Do I have the right shoes for that?” and “What’s my next career move?” become an hour of writing and reading. Paintings conceived replace wish lists made up of things that create happiness for the few minutes after they’re bought.

As those wish lists disappear, so does the cabin fever. We still order the things we need — groceries, essentials. I think, however, my days of trying to wander away from my worries or to purchase happiness and serenity may be over.

Sounds of Scribbling

When grading papers or doing homework, I always have music or reruns on in the background. I want white noise.

When I write early in the morning, the only soundtrack I need is the sound of scribbling which, surprisingly, sounds like two cats purring and a little dog happily groaning as light starts to fill my office and they realize that they are sleeping in the sun.

Making Good Decisions

My problem is not finding enough couch-friendly inspiration to keep busy on a rainy quarantine Friday. The problem is picking one creative battle and ignoring the distractions of social media and mindless TV watching to stick with it.

The day was about, as we say at school, “making good decisions”, in this case just one thing decision.

I sat down at my desk. Good decision number one.

I checked out my index card box full of scenes to write then looked at the text of a children’s book I’ve been agonizing over for far too long and then almost got up to go through the sketch books on my shelf. I was deep into indecision land, which is never a good choice.

Jim-Bob, our orange tabby, came to the rescue, offering some of the Orange Tabby Therapy I usually rely on to get to sleep. As he always waits to do until I’m about to get up from something, he hopped up on the desk, walked to the space between my arms and laptop, turned around three times (a trick he learned from Katie the Wonderdog), and plopped down on my arms, leaving me just enough control to keep typing in the document I just opened.

Apparently, we’re working on the novel today, and OTT(Orange Tabbt Therapy) includes a little decision-making psychotherapy.

By-the-by, Jim also had a suggestion a new, work-at-home, pandemic edition of the Olympics, which, for no particular reason, should include a “Type with your Pet” event (I convinced him there should be a division for all pets even though he’s quite convinced no one would have interest in watching anything other than a cat).

OK, back to my stack of creative to-do’s.

Gallery Management

I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.

In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.

Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.

The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.

Front Row at the Renaissance

I love special education because it’s all about finding the spark in someone and helping it glow. It’s an act of hope informed by evidence. I’m housebound now and spending too much time on social media. The temptation to give into fear or despair is great, but the same internet that serves up daily examples of greed and malfeasances has also recently, for me, been a source of evidence-based hope, fueling optimism, rather than worry over what comes next.

A few weeks ago when the pandemic was still just a probability in the United States, I noticed the occasional half-humorous meme warning that we were about to have front row seats for Armageddon. I laughed nervously at the gallows humor, knowing that, in any apocalypse, my lack of fitness and survival skills will ensure me a spot on the scaffold.

Last week, the pandemic probability morphed into actuality. One news organization and then another reported a sharp spike in gun sales. I wasn’t able to muster a nervous laugh about that story, but it still didn’t convince me that the inevitable next phase will be apocalyptic.

I’ve had the chance to teach Romeo & Juliet twice this school year. Both times I prepared by indulging in a bit of gratuitous research, tracing the history of the play to the various Italian poems and novella that influenced it. My journey through Italian Renaissance lit is never complete without a quick review of Boccaccio’s Decameron (yes, I’m a lit nerd and a sucker for back story), a collection of tales set against the backdrop of the Black Death of the 14th century, told by a group of young Florentines self-isolating in the sparkling solitude of the countryside.

I’ve thought of that book frequently this March.

The Italian Renaissance wouldn’t begin in earnest for another century after the book was published. A number of historians do point to the upheaval caused by the Black Death as one driving force in that movement, but, for me, The Decameron, is, for me, a symbol of one of the seeds sown in a dreadful epoch.

Two weeks ago Italy announced increasing restrictions on movement for its citizens. I remember worrying and wondering how people would react. Italy had good reason to impose the restrictions. Hundreds of people had been dying daily, but good reason doesn’t always illicit the desired response.

Less than a day after Italy announced a nationwide quarantine, however, a video of the residents of Siena playing music on their balconies for each other emerged. I wondered if this was just an outlier, but every day and then every few hours, new videos appeared, each showing Italians playing out a modern Decameron playing music instead of telling stories.

The same stories emerged from Spain and then France. From Ireland came stories of apartment blocks organizing outdoor BINGO.

I wondered how or if people in United States, when faced with quarantines and devastating statistics, would make the same choice. Would we let art and community be our shields?

Then came news of school and business restrictions from my parents’ home in Ohio. Almost immediately a video of two young children serenading an elderly Columbus lady on her porch appeared. Soon after, apparently anticipating the school closures, other teachers and homeschooling moms pro-actively began offering online resources and encouragement. In the next two weeks, from a medium that so often foments division and anxiety, I would instead see and continue to see outpourings of art and photography, soul-feeding poetry and writing, impromptu concerts, and, caremongering.

As the pandemic grows, some people may arm themselves and prepare for an apocalypse. There is another option, though.

The other course of action is the one so many generations before us have taken – it is the choice to get busy rebirthing our souls. It is the decision to use this time of sparking solitude and, inevitably, of profound grief and even fear, to nurture the seeds started by the creative sparks that are connecting and uplifting us.

It is to reserve a front row seat for renewal – for Renaissance – instead of surrendering to the inevitability of a cataclysm.

Me?

I’m not waiting to go back to school to go full-on Special Ed.

I’m going to comb through the piles of evidence from the last few weeks and the months to come, looking for the sprouts that need care and the sparks that need stirring. I’m going to commit acts of hope.

And, based on the evidence, I think I’ll be anything but alone.

Gratuitous Artist Pics

 There are several things that are certain in life at our house.

Dust.

Bills.

Taxes.

And if I sit down at my desk and open a keyboard or a tin of watercolor paint (it has to be watercolor paint), Jim-Bob will crawl into my arms within five minutes to offer his assistance and advice. He is now demanding full credit on all paintings, arguing that he has become an indispensable part of the creative process.

Poem – Familiar

My familiar keeps

The world and work at bay.

Heavy as a blanket,

Draping his heat over my fear,

Hiding my anxiety under

Fat and fur and purring

Till we, happily entombed

Under imaginary desert sands,

Sense that day and lull

Are done.

Thanks Mom

I am spending my Saturday evening working on my first response for my first assignment for my first class in my masters degree program. As I was working through my outline, I suddenly realized a piece I had printed out two years ago and saved because it might be useful had suddenly become useful. I laughed, not because a well thought out plan had come to fruition but because I have finally become my mother. It’s a good thing.

My mom is a history nerd. She will happily stay up until two in the morning researching the most arcane facts about the former Soviet Union or the Gilded Age. When we were kids we used to giggle about her DIY library of notes xeroxed from various Library‘s and her wall of timelines (I would steal that timeline for my classroom now if I could). What sticks with me as an adult, however, is how Curiosity made her so creative. It made her a great teacher, and it’s still putting life into her life.

So as I was going through one of my binders of notes that once had me worried that I would be on an episode of “Hoarders – Teachers Edition”, I had to giggle a little. My curiosity tonight prompted a discovery and even a little creativity, and I realized I have my mom to thank for it.

It’s Not Them

Winter at Heart

Even shielded from news most of the day because of the internet ban at work, it’s impossible to avoid all awareness of an earth-turned-inferno and humanity’s own seeming desire to immolate itself in war. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?”

But the minute I start asking that question, I know it’s not the news. It’s me.

Hammering out a few words each day has seemed to be a Herculean task, and, until last night, I hadn’t touched a canvas in months. I know that, even though in some cases, things really are that bad for some of the world, right now, depression is warping the lens of my mind’s eye.

Sometimes depression is like seeing through a fog, but there are times when it is like living with a lens stopped down to the smallest aperture. It throws everything into sharp, extreme focus. There are no soft edges. There is no cropping out ugly details that make the world seem like an overflowing landfill that hardly needs anymore pointless paintings or posts.

And I know it’s not the world, it’s me – at the moment.

I like to think the depression isn’t who I am, but it’s been with me, off and on, since I could crawl. It’s at least as much a part of me as being near-sighted, and there are even times I’m glad for the hyper focus (this isn’t one of them).

I was driving home tonight, still struggling for what to paint or draw. I knew my head needs me to but couldn’t reconcile my need with the resources it would use, the waste it might generate, or the pointlessness of making anything.

Usually Facebook is the opposite of an anti-depressant, so it was against my better judgement (already shaky this week) that I launched it on my phone when I got home and sat down to decompress. The first photo that hit my feed, however, was a screenshot of a September tweet from Dan Rather that went like this:

“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a canvas, a poets tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And, in doing so, I find hope in the human spirit.”

It was one answer to a question I ask all the time – especially when my focus is sharp but corrupted .

Is art selfish?

I know art is therapy – a softening of the lens. When continents really are on fire, when children are living in prisons and adults are making more misery from war, however, I hope for it to be a light in the darkness. For tonight, the hope is enough to let some softness into my view.

Poem – Stopping Down

I stopped all the way down

And now my field is deep,

Focused and sharp,

Too treacherous to roam.

Something New

Depression may inspire creative bursts of energy once it’s gone, but, more often, I’ve found that giving into creativity has to happen before the depression can truly start to recede. Sometimes, that surrender starts with trying something new.

I recently stumbled onto a quote by Plutarch that goes, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” The quote has been rumbling around in my brain for a few days now, seemingly more accurate each time I recall it.

I often paint because I cannot find words that vent emotions without being destructive. Whether or not it leads to good or bad art is irrelevant. The creating on canvas is the path away from hurt and from hurting others.

Lately, I’ve been writing more and painting less (it goes in cycles), But there are still nights I struggle to distill churning feelings and events into text. Last night, watching our orange tabby embrace his carefree, hedonistic identity and, as always, still wondering about my own, I got stuck between picking up a brush or opening the keyboard. Then, instead of sitting and stewing about it for another half hour until I was too tired to do anything useful, I got up and retrieved a journal from my office and decided to try something new.

I decided to try and make a painting that spoke.

I’ve written maybe three or four poems in the last seven years. It is certainly not a forte. As with the act of painting that leads me away from hurt and hurting, however, trying to write poetry was not about making something good, it was about actively surrendering to creativity.

Poem: The Business of Being

Fat, orange, arranged on the table

Like an idol on an altar,

The tabby invest his life, without reservation,

In the business,

Not of being born or changing or dying

But of being the libertine he is.

And I, still changing, still searching,

Craving substance, loathing indolence but filled with envy,

Can feel the faith of one who’s found

A business of being meant just for him.