Digital image composition from photographs of natural elements.
Digital image composition from photographs of natural elements.
My journey with art and philosophy is being undertaken with the central goal of coming to know myself better. I have come to the realization that art is a conduit for me, while philosophy is my digestion of what has come about on the page or screen, or through the lens.
At some point I began to see the path through art as less of a fluke, and more of a process. Less of a quirk related to my nature, and more a set of events that have unfolded in a similar way for many other people. I began to start thinking of art making in a broader sense, as creativity across the spectrum. Humans working to express themselves in the way that resonates best for each individual. Creativity in all its forms seemed to be a key focus of the human experience.
Taoism describes the nature of the individual as a unique expression of the whole of creation. Each person, plant, animal, even inanimate object, is a manifestations of a single unifying energy. We all share the energy in one sense, and in another sense we are all, together, concurrently, one and the same with it. I am going to set aside the cosmological questions related to this and use it as a helpful lens through which we can focus on one key aspect: if we are all unique manifestations of the Tao, it can be thought of that our purpose is to express ourselves as such. If the nature of the Tao itself is to manifest into unique forms, then perhaps our nature is to aide that manifestation and pursue our own unique creativity as deeply as we can.
Another way to put it might be that each one of us is here to be the most true version of who we are. Humans, perhaps separate from other creatures, are creativity super-colliders. We seem to be built to smash ideas together in order to come up with new ideas, new iterations and thereby whole new concepts. Imagination, contrary to popular misconception, is not the ability to conjure up an idea that has never existed before. It is a process of seeing connections between things, and using those to extrapolate something new. As a core trait of humanity, we are all built to be creative.
Generally in America we have narrowed the perspective of what creativity means. I’d like to spend more time on that in a separate post because I feel so strongly about it. For many people when they think of creativity, they think visual art, music, performance art, poetry, etc. It is beginning to broaden out for those who do design work, coding and other activities which are sort of gray areas. I would like to point out that any kind of problem solving requires creativity. It is key to every business and occupation at some level, because we all need to synthesize existing data and eventually turn it into something that didn’t exist before. Creativity is the core of those who work in research labs, those who build and maintain budgets, those who craft social policy and every other industry. So, before I continue, let us be clear that creativity is not a trait bestowed upon the few as a magical gift, it is a core human trait that we all have the capacity for even if we are not given the opportunities to use it as often as we’d like. Even if the type of creativity that we exercise is not recognized by the larger society as such. I see you and your talents!
Exercising creativity is the act of expressing ourselves. The unique way in which we as individuals approach and wield creativity has to do with the circumstances of our upbringing, the experiences we’ve had, the genetic mix at play within us and the people we surround ourselves with (to name a few). No two people will come up with the same ideas. I firmly believe that when someone is exploring their own creativity, it is a pure expression of who they are for the world to see (and for them to see). Fostering this is an important piece of how we can all get to a place of self-knowledge and self-love.
Curiosity is our path towards creativity. It is the subliminal tugging at the strings which makes decisions for us between the options presented to us in our daily lives. Well, perhaps curiosity isn’t the voice itself, but I believe curiosity is the act of listening to that voice. It is the act of cultivating awareness about what our bodies are telling us.
I can’t describe the biological or psychological factors at play, but I can describe the feelings that I have had. I can talk about how every time I have walked away from art for an extended period of time it has called me back. I can recall the un-namable undercurrents of frustration and discomfort that came with me everywhere until I made time to express myself and explore with the paint brush, or pen, or whatever it was at the time I was using.
The voice calling me to make art was strong, but there were other voices talking to me about why I didn’t need to make art, or shouldn’t pursue art. They tried to tell me that what I was making wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t become good enough to be worth it. Those voices told me that it was a frivolous waste of time. They told me that I could be spending that time doing something useful around the house, or preparing for the future. They told me many things, but they spoke with the cold language of anxiety, of rationality, of the mental space. The calling towards art was deep seated, and came from somewhere else, and I could feel that it was using an entirely different language. It came up through the bones, and through a tugging in my chest.
Curiosity, for me, was embracing that voice, and ignoring what my mind was telling me. Curiosity was giving myself permission to do something new and unknown. It was a process of faith. Curiosity does not guarantee outcomes or success. It may end up making a fool out of you once things are said and done. If you’re a cat, it may have more dire consequences.
That is because curiosity is the desire to move into the space of the new. It is the desire we all have within us to look around the next corner, or overturn another stone. It is the submerged drum beat pushing us ever onwards toward moments of creativity.
Why is this so important for us?
Creativity requires that we smash other things together. We are not able to come up with brand new ideas that do not have relation to things we’ve never encountered. Creativity is an iterative act, taking two things we’ve learned about and taking it one step further to make something new. Curiosity is how we build our library of experiences. Curiosity pushes us to experience new things, which gives us more opportunities to be creative. Have you heard the saying that “if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? Creativity gives us more tools to work with, which can entirely change the nature of the problem we are trying to solve.
Curiosity moves us and drives us towards more opportunities to express ourselves more fully. I look at curiosity as a kind of engine propelling us towards deeper and more nuanced ways for us to get to know ourselves, and to put that out for the rest of the world to see. That is one of the reasons that I have recently begun to think of curiosity as a most sacred and fundamental value in my life.
Many people hear the word curiosity and think of a vague and tenuous childlike drive. While it may be childlike, I do not think is lacks any kind of strength. On the contrary, I believe it takes great courage to pursue curiosity when it comes knocking.
Think about this: in order to truly learn something new, we need to allow ourselves to be open to the idea that what we thought we knew was wrong. This requires a setting aside of our ego. It may require that we reconsider entire sections of our lives. We function within the world based on the stories we tell ourselves about how that world works. Opening ourselves up to new information, unknown information, could shake the foundations of everything. I mean, if I accept the fact that I feel pretty lethargic and irritable every time I have dairy, then I might need to seriously consider giving up cheese!?! Is that even possible?
Belief changes come in all shapes and sizes, and most of them don’t end up being cataclysmic, but this is still frightening stuff. That is the difference in my mind between causal exposure to new things and actual earnest curiosity. In one you will most likely reinforce your own beliefs by absorbing information that appeals to you. In the other, you will openly suspend what you think you know, which may cause you to be a situation where your landing pad is no longer there on your way back down.
Here we are now: Creativity allows us to express who we are, and Curiosity is what drives us and challenges us so that we can have more opportunities to explore our curiosity.
If you are with me to this point, then compassion will be simple to understand. Compassion, from my understanding, is simply the energy we put into supporting the curiosity of other people. It might be thought of as the external version of curiosity. It is the willingness to allow others to explore who they are and to express it as fully as they can. It is the understanding that everyone is working towards their own creativity through curiosity.
Again, many people will think of compassion as a soft emotional skill. It will especially be thought of in relationship to sadness and distress. We seem to use the word almost exclusively to talk about supporting others through hardship and loss. Indeed, compassion during difficult times often has so much to do with simply being with others where they are at and letting them know that there are people around them who love and support them.
Why does compassion need to be kept only to difficult times? Why can we not meet people where they are and let them know that we love and support them when things are going well? I would love to infuse the idea of compassion with a sense of positive support.
So much of my journey has been lonely and internal. Much of what I am trying to do with my art and my writing is to make connections with other people who can share their experiences with me as they walk their own paths. Think of how amazing it would be if we had a culture where people got excited about how other people were pursuing their curiosity and creativity? This is why good friends are so critical. Even, or perhaps especially, when we are doing the world to explore who we are, it means that we push the boundaries of our social networks and established norms.
American society loves the rocket-fired genius or shooting star, but we discourage those who are taking steps to be something new. We talk about self-made heroics while telling our children that pursing untested waters is a recipe for disaster.
Creativity has one other aspect which is key to the larger conversation. It isn’t a zero-sum game where there is only so much to go around. Expressing yourself fully does not limit the ability of someone else to do the same. In fact, I would argue that the more we are able to demonstrate and celebrate it, the easier it will be for others to do the same.
We need a sense of compassion in the world that acknowledges the truths of human nature: that we are all here to be creative in our own unique ways, that in order to do this we need to be free to explore new territory, and that if we are walking a path ourselves which is often difficult and challenging, it only makes sense that we celebrate and support everyone else as they struggle to do the same thing.
It is for these reasons that I am embracing curiosity and compassion as my guiding concepts moving forward. Thank you for reading.
The name for my creative journey is a link back to many different aspects of my life and my practice. I wanted to use this idea, rather than just my name, because I feel like there is something larger I want to tap into.
When I started making art as a kid I had an implicit understanding that it needed to be a part of my life. At the same time, it was also made quite clear to me that pursuing art as a career would not provide a stable or successful outcome. I understand now that this is buried deep within my midwestern upbringing. There is a strong undercurrent telling children not to attempt anything risky, and not to stand out from the crowd. It certainly sank home for me, and became a strong but muffled tug of war which bubbled up every once in a while.
After getting through my required classes in high school I filled up everything else with art study. I wasn’t the kid who was drawing non-stop, or doing a lot of skills building on my own, but the interest was there. When I left high school I had built a desire, but only limited skills, or so I thought.
When I went to college I avoided art entirely for the first couple of years, but instead of sticking with something more concrete in the hard sciences, I found myself swept up in a philosophy class that completely changed my world.
Deep within me I felt the desire to ask the important questions, and to try and find out how to match up what I was experiencing around me, with the values I had buried deep within.
As I slide further into Philosophy I also re-embraced art classes, and finished college with a mad dash to fit in as much art as I could. Plenty of interest, no significant depth, and a deep lack of personal value kept me convinced that art was not a serious option.
The next decade followed a similar pattern of avoiding art and philosophy so that I could focus on a “real” job, which is pretty easy when it means keeping up with the bills and groceries. With stability, however, the art came creeping back in, refusing to be left alone.
We were living on the east coast in Providence, RI and I had the opportunity to attend continuing education classes at RISD. I decided to focus on a “practical” degree in print design, and spent the next five years completing it. During this time I learned how to follow a concept and develop a product. I began making art prints to sell and actually got up the courage to attend a few art fairs, with very little success. I still had the idea that I would ride my art business out of my current job and into something new.
At that point my wife graduated with her PhD was offered a job in Nebraska. We moved to the Midwest once more, and the cycle repeated itself. I put art aside to focus on a new phase of my job which required regular travel away from home. We also started a family and were finding a new balance.
I couldn’t leave the practice of art alone any longer after we had been settled for a couple of years. This time, however, instead of trying to do art with a mindset of where it would take me, I returned to it with a perspective of curiosity. I started with watercolors, a medium I had not spent much time working with, and simply allowed myself to explore. Everything else has come from that perspective in which I let the art process lead me to the next logical step, the next evolution.
The wandering path of avoiding and returning to art is about so much more than the art making. It has been about discovering myself, and connecting to my values. It has been about overcoming fear and getting clear on what I want out of life.
Taoism, a philosophy/religion that began in ancient China and continues today, is the art of following the “way” or “path”. This way is unique for every person. Philosophy has helped me identify the larger project, but art has been the major driving force in helping me to cultivate myself as I follow my own path. It is not straight, and the destination is not clear, but it is through the wandering that I am able to live by my values and experience of the beauty of the life around me.