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Art Thoughts

The Creative Process, Part I

©2022 Janet Maher, InterBeing #1, mixed media drawing

The work of opening boxes and creating out of their contents the last archive of my life continues. One of my recent finds was a paper I wrote twenty-eight years ago for a Philosophy class. I’ve decided to share some of it here only slightly edited, since I still abide by the thoughts I expressed then.

  The Creative Process ©1994 Janet Maher

       When I was a child I spent a great deal of time alone, exploring the world around me and making things. Often at dusk in the summer I would lie still on the grass and look up into the sky to watch the darkness descend. I would transport myself as far as I could imagine, beyond the stars, beyond gravity, and wander, just as I would imagine as far as possible myself walking upsidedown on the ceiling of the rooms in my house and into the outside.

       There was a feeling of transparency for me in these imagination games. I was no longer a solid physical being, but instead, a container in the form of a young girl through which my self could wander in and out. When observing things, a palpable connection woud be formed between my self and an other. I would be in silent connection with the bark of a tree, or be walking physically along with a Japanese beetle as it munched on the leaf of a fence vine. I and they would become one, the charge of energy around each of us would merge into a single presence as long as the moment of connection lasted. When my attention was fully spent and I drew back into my contained and embodied self, the moment would be over and ordinary life would resume. Ordinary life, however, would never again be the same, for I brought back to it the experience that had just worked upon my soul.

       When making things this same presence would descend, enveloping the activity and myself like a sacred circle around us. I, my hands, and raw materials were in silent dialogue. As my self communicated to and through my hands to touch, choose, form, mark, a new physical object would begin to appear. A movement would become activated, directed by me, but existing as if in its own right, outside myself as I watched while doing it. Back and forth movement would make wave upon wave toward completing itself. I would remain still at times, allowing my self to assess, awaiting a message as to the next move, the next choice, and on and on until something in me would say “stop”. Sometimes “stop” would mean, “it’s time to leave off in order to pick up again another time;” sometimes “stop” would mean, “it’s finished”.

       This is what the creative process looks like from the silent, observing recesses of my mind. This is what the heart  of the activity still is to me now. This part we celebrate, the part that keeps us involved in doing what we do. This is where it begins, and for many, the process is enough. To embrace the creative process one must be willing to allow this emptying and filling to occur, and to wish to become a channel through which something else may be given form. During the creative process one becomes two—the doer and the observer. Both parts inform and energize each other.

       In childhood we begin to use ourselves as creative beings. We become aware of our surroundings, begin to interact with the tangible objects around us, begin to speak, move our bodies, attempt to communicate with other humans and animals and imaginary playmates. We make sounds, make messes, begin to make ourselves. As time goes on many layers are added to our initial pure potential as beings. We begin to gravitate toward pursuits and disciplines that interest us. Sometimes others attempt to force interests upon us. We begin to do both what we like and don’t like, begin to learn the rules appropriate to our particular tribe and culture, and we begin to learn to make the conscious choices that will be continually necessary for us to do for the rest of our lives.

       Creativity may be with us throughout any or all of our activities in life. The ability to remain an open, non-judgmental channel, and to face choices and moments with childlike, joyful presence of mind is necessary in the creative act. One is in suspension between conscious and unconscious time, while the senses that perform whatever skill we call into play acts in synch with all of our being. The more we can tap this ancient place within ourselves the more we are truly alive and present to anything we do.

       In a perfect world every person would exist in tune with every moment, every interaction. It seems to me that most individuals do have some place of connection with creativity, though it may not manifest in the form of any of the arts. They will operate within that font of creativity to varying degrees as the occasion or activity warrants. Others live through the creative process of their being the better part of the time. Still others have forgotten the creative potential in themselves, having become buried underneath their layers of living, possibly thinking that the potential is no longer there.

       People may be creative in the way they cook, garden, parent, teach, think, communicate, make love, write, dress, make a home, fix their car, collect things, or eat a sundae. Anything that a person does, from the moment of waking to falling asleep at night, can be done creatively, artfully, with attention, with care. Doing things creatively might include a spontaneous approach to the materials at hand and the combination of things that are not usual to the activity. Thinking on one’s own, making things up as one goes along, not feeling bound by a necessity to act or produce in ways that are predetermined by others’ rules would also be part of this way of being. To have developed any aspect of oneself to the extent that manifests in such a way that the person is one with the activity, centered in the doing of it, might be another way to see the creative act.

       While creativity exists in virtually any profession or walk of life, age or location, in terms of aesthetics and art it is necessary to focus more closely upon the act of consciously creating in pursuit of an end result. To be an artist is a phrase that also needs to be clarified. It is used when one refers to someone who is particularly  skillful in an activity or any kind, say “an artist of the ice,” for one who is a fine figure skater. Someone who can peer into a refrigerator door and its drawers, look around the kitchen to find edible things and can “throw together” a delicious and beautiful arrangement of what they have found and serve it forth is a creative cook, perhaps “an artist of the hearth”. One may also be “an artist of life”, undaunted by any obstacle or misfortune, trusting to the possibilities inherent in the unwritten page of every day, and full of human spirit that spills over into every encounter. To be “an artist” may also mean to have a particular profession. Some may say that to be a “real” artist, it is necessary to also be “an artist of life”. Certainly, the more one can live as an artist of life, no matter however else he or she is identified, the more he or she fully, happily, lives.

       If we continue on this train of thought, the next step would be to say that everyone who does things mindfully, with an open, accepting approach is creative and everyone who is creative is an artist. However, if seems to me, if we were merely to say that people are born creative and everyone is capable of being an artist, I believe that we would be oversimplifying something which is as complex as life itself. Likewise, to say that people who take part in creative endeavors are artists and those who don’t are not, seems to me equally oversimplified.

       Can one be a creative person and not be an artist? Can one be an artist and not consider him/herself to be one? Can one be an artist and not be creative? Is there anything about the creative process that is common to all conscious activities? Such questions as these begin to narrow down this vast topic in order to focus it. For the purpose of this aesthetics course in which we looked upon the idea of “art” by separating a final product (objective) from our feelings about it (subjective) and considered that it was not complete as a “work of art” until it entered a public sphere (realm of the audience and critic), it seems to me necessary to view the creative process in light of the total process which surrounds some form of completed work of art.

       For the purposes of this paper, I will consider the term “artist” to mean “a person who has been chosen by and is consciously involved in the vocation of making art”, and for “creativity” to be a necessary element in his or her process. By “to be chosen by art” I mean that one cannot will oneself or decide one day to become an artist. One either is an artist or is not and must either choose to pursue or not to pursue the path of his or her perceived gift. By “vocation” I mean that one must devote oneself to the choice of this pursuit and support it, sacrifice for it, and be driven from within to trust and honor and be guided by its direction.

(End of Part I, sixteen more pages…)

By Janet Maher

I am a visual artist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Art from Loyola University Maryland. My longstanding interest in the history and culture of the land of my ancestors accompanied my work in the studio for many years, and I have written two books about that.

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