Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Thoughts on Creativity : Steal Like an Artist - Genius - and Bowie MashUps

Prompted by my blogging friend, Sheila at Idaho Beauty, I just read the book "Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon.  If you don't have time to read the book, this video gives a good idea of what he's about.  If you don't have time for that ...

Here is Kleon's Top 10 abbreviated advice.  I've thrown in my own comments -- as if I were having a conversation with Kleon and my friend, Sheila.  Feel free to join in via the comment section.

1) Steal like an artist
Kleon starts out by quoting 3 creative greats : 

"Art is theft." -- Pablo Picasso

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.  The good poet welds his theft into a whole feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn."  -- T.S. Eliot

"The only art I'll ever study is stuff that I can steal from." -- David Bowie

 The point is : We're all here on this blue earth.  Of course, we're influenced by what we see and hear and read ...  Take it all in, use the good stuff, and transform it into something new.   And know who your influences are. Give them homage.

I'm also reading The Geography of Genius, and there's a whole section on China and their collective idea that, "There's nothing new under the sun.  It's all just a matter of re-combining and presenting things again -- sometimes to a more appreciative audience in a different time.  It might look new only because no one remembers it from last time around."  It's a very different sentiment in the US -- with an emphasis on originality and patents and copyright and the ownership of ideas.  It was a complete relief to me to see someone actually admit and articulate this point. 

There was a certain online Art Quilters Group I joined several years ago.  The discussion was lively and prolific -- Topics came round to copyright and originality; who was a "real" artist, and those who were wanna-bes or worse, those who were faking it by buying a kit or an art quilt pattern and saying they were Quilt Artists.  Not an inspiring environment for up-n-coming Quilt Artists.  And no acknowledgement for how you grow, evolve, learn your craft, and get to the point of being a "real" and "original" artist.   Things got so hot in that kitchen, I had to leave the list.  Thinking back, I should have spoken up and said something, but at the time, I didn't have the words, and didn't want to be flamed online for speaking up.

I remember reading a fascinating book about Tori Amos and her creative process called Piece by Piece.   She keeps journals and notebooks and recordings filled with ideas -- all to be kept private, so that no one knows where the pieces of inspiration came from.

In this section, Kleon suggests keeping a journal or a "swipe file" of all those tidbits and inspiration  from the world that are worth stealing -- quotes, doodles, conversations, images torn from magazines -- whatever ...   Of course, I LOVE this idea because I've been doing it for years with my Sweet Leaf Notebooks -- Part of the original reason I started making blank books was so that I could fill them with bits and pieces of the world, and my interpretations there-of.  Remember that scene from Shakespeare in Love where Will is walking through the streets and he overhears a preacher saying, "And the Rose smells thusly rank."  The preacher was speaking against the Rose Theatre, protesting, not flowers.  Shakespeare noted it, filed it away, for Romeo & Juliet.  There's no telling if that actually happened in real life, but it is a wonderful example of how some of the most creative people absorb everything and re-process and present things in a whole new light. 

2) Don't wait until you know who you are to get started
Don't be afraid to start by copying what you like, pretend to be your heroes.   That's how you practice, and learn the elements and techniques until you master them ...  He talks about Copying as being "reverse-engineering" deconstructing a thing to see how it works--how a creative mind works--It's not the same as plagiarism.   Pick someone worth copying.  ;-)  Doing this creative work IS how you get to know yourself, how you develop your own style, and how you find your own voice.   On the way, you pay homage to those you admire and appreciate.

In this section, too, Kleon offers a really nice graphic that should probably be used in schools when teaching the difference between "Good Theft and Bad Theft," between giving credit and plagiarizing; between stealing from many and stealing from just one person.

ADD IMAGE - p.39

3) Write the book you want to read
Instead of writing what you know, write the book you want to read.  Write what you like.
That's pretty much what I've tried to do with all my art : I make what I like.  If I like it, then maybe someone else will, too.    Either way, it's not like I'm making a living off my art, so I have the freedom to make what I like, not what the market wants. 
4) Use your hands

Yes, put down your smart phone, disconnect from the internet, and make something with your hands.    Make something in real life!

Although, these days, I do use the internet a lot for fostering ideas, learning new techniques, finding quilting patterns, research, etc.  At some point, you have to disconnect, go to the studio and make stuff in the real world--with your hands.   Have something to show for it.  Be productive!

5) Side projects and hobbies are important
It's this distraction time that allows you to process what might be happening in other parts of your life.  For instance, some icky things have been happening at work this month, so I would come home and relish the time working on an applique quilt block that did not require me to think about work, to use my words, or to worry about things beyond my control.  It was a wonderful break for my mind--a productive distraction--or rather, a meditation.

I first learned about blogging (many years ago) through my work as a Librarian.  I picked that up in my home life and ran with it ...    I learned PhotoShop as a hobby that grew out of blogging because I wanted to make better pictures.  Photography had a faster turn-around time than the years it takes to develop and complete an art quilt.  Those skills are transferable to work, too.    The Hobby time is play time that can help you solve problems in other parts of your life.


"Don't worry about unity from piece to piece -- What unifies all of your work is the fact that YOU made it." -- Sage advice from Austin Kleon. 

6) The Secret : Do Good Work and share it with people

This blog has been a wonderful record of my creative process.  I only started tracking things here in 2006.  It's kind of like I wasn't really making things before that (which is not true) because there's no written record of what I was doing, how, or when.  On Sweet Leaf Notebook, I can look back on 800+ posts and really feel like yeah-I have been doing something with my life.   It's also neat to be able to go back and see HOW I did something because sometimes I can't locate my dye notes or soap recipes.   Nice to have them searchable and accessible here on the blog, available for anyone else who might be interested.

A while back, Ira Glass has a video on the creative process.  Basically, he said, "Do the work. You're going to suck at it for a long time, but eventually, you figure it out, and you start to get good at it.  Keep at it.  

Neil Gaiman says something similar : Make Art.  Make Great Art.

Kleon says, share your process, give away your secrets like Martha Stewart or Bob Ross on PBS.  If your worried about people stealing your stuff, you can share the dots without connecting the lines - little sneak peaks, rather than the whole piece.  

7) Geography is no longer our master

Enjoy Your Captivity
Kleon quotes Franz Kafka : "It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen.  Don't even listen, just wait.  Don't wait, be still and alone.  The whole world will offer itself to you."  

Leave Home 
"I couldn't have written things like "Low" and "Heroes," those particular albums if I hadn't been in Berlin and the kind of atmosphere I felt there." -- David Bowie.

Bowie had to get out of the Rock 'n Roll fray to find something new--and those albums were certainly groundbreaking.  Travel really does help to take you our of your usual surroundings and routines, and give you new sites, sounds, and feels to inspire.   But Kleon says it's not necessary -- especially with the internet bringing so much of the world to you wherever you are today.  You can build the world you want around you by surrounding yourself with books, music, etc.  even finding online communities (or real life ones) that inspire.

8) Be nice ( The world is a small town)
Make friends, and ignore your enemies.
Although -- some rivals/enemies can be creative instigators, causing us to run farther, faster, strive higher than we would have done on our own.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon had that kind of relationship. 

Write fan letters.  If you really appreciate someone else's work, tell them.  But don't expect anything in return.

Remember those John Hiatt quilts I finished up last year?  Those were all inspired by the songs and music of singer-songwriter John Hiatt.  I used my own hands to create a visual response to some of my favorite Hiatt songs.  It wasn't imitation or stealing his ideas -- It was a visual transformation, how I processed those songs and made them into something new.

I have no idea whether or not Mr. Hiatt ever saw my posts.  I did bring "Mama Let You Lick the Spoon" to one of his concerts last year, but we were not able to meet/see Mr Hiatt so I could show him in person.

Surround yourself with Creative People.  I still miss my Art Quilt Group.  That was such a creative incubator.  If I was having a problem with something--anything, the ladies in that group would come up with 6 different ways to solve it.  

Keep a Praise File--It's nice to look back at it when you're feeling down.   Delete the nasty stuff -- don't keep it around.

9) Be boring ( It's the only way to get work done.)

I do some kind of work, whether writing or painting or recording, on a daily basis. And it's so essential that when I'm involved in the actual process, my so-called 'real life' becomes almost incidental, which becomes worrying. David Bowie
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/david_bowie_4.html
 "I do some kind of work, whether writing, or painting, or recording on a daily basis.  And it's so essential that when I'm involved in the actual process, my so-called 'real life' becomes almost incidental, which becomes worrying."--David Bowie.

When I'm 'in-the-grove," I forget to eat, forget to go to the bathroom ...  Fortunately, my husband keeps me on a feeding schedule.  He cooks, so I don't have to waste my creative energy on what to make for dinner.     Kleon advises creatives to "Marry well."  I did that!

Get a calendar -- Get on a schedule.

Since my son was born, Sundays have been my Grounding Day.  I don't go anywhere on Sundays (if I can help it); I do chores on other days, so I can devote the whole day to creative pursuits.  That was a hard lesson to learn back then.  Looking back, I realize now, I probably had post-partum depression.  That was the hardest time of my life--being a new mother.  There were days when my husband would leave toast in the toaster for me in the am, and it would still be there when he got home--I was so tied to this new baby who was either hungry and nursing at my breast or sleeping in my arms, that I couldn't even take care of myself.  I could not wait to get back to work where I could be productive again and actually have some control over my time and energy.  But work time belongs to work, and home time belonged to my new child and husband.  There was no time for me then, and I was close to a nervous breakdown--until we as a family decided that I needed some me-time -- It started with 2 hours on Sunday mornings where my husband would take the kid, and I could do whatever I wanted for me.  It was a survival tactic then.  It worked so well, and as the kid got to be more independent, I can take the whole day now.  When we bought our house, I insisted on a Room of My Own -- no boys allowed, where I could have my sewing studio, leave stuff up the rest of the week--as opposed to using the dining room table and having to tear everything down so we could eat (Darn it, you mean we have to stop and eat again?).   

I do some kind of work, whether writing or painting or recording, on a daily basis. And it's so essential that when I'm involved in the actual process, my so-called 'real life' becomes almost incidental, which becomes worrying.
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/david_bowie_4.html
I do some kind of work, whether writing or painting or recording, on a daily basis. And it's so essential that when I'm involved in the actual process, my so-called 'real life' becomes almost incidental, which becomes worrying. David Bowie
Read more at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/david_bowie_4.html
10) Creativity is subtraction.
Choose what to leave out.   

Kleon talks about the Law of Constraints, knowing what to leave out.  The Geography of Genius also talked about that concept.  More creative solutions happen as the mother of necessity--when you need a solution and you don't have a lot of options, it's actually easier to think outside the box.

With David Bowie's passing in January 2016 -- (Yes, I've been a huge Bowie fan since I discovered him in 7th grade.  So thank you for the condolences on his passing.) -- I've been thinking about the nature of creativity.  How did Bowie come up with some of the stuff he did?  I saw a quote where it sounded like he basically put together a couple of unlike things, and waited to see what shook out that was worth keeping.  This is so evident in things like Ziggy Stardust with the space age influence and Kabuki theatrics.  Who else would have thought to mash that up?  That's not to say there's a formula there -- more of a technique.  Bowie was a master Hybrid-maker.


The Idaho Beauty said...

Wonderful post. Did you steal parts of it from me? ;-) I haven't read Steal Like An Artist for awhile and it was good to have some of these concepts put in front of me again. They are so important to remember as we slog along or soar in our creative journeys.

Don't have much to add except I need to get off the computer now (#4) and go be boring (#9) as the current quilt is ready for its binding which needs to be pieced before being applied - what I sometimes call grunt work. The idea for the quilting on this one came from several places, including a design on a batik that I modified and a motif used on the last quilt (#1). Yeah, sometimes we end up stealing from ourselves too!

Michele Matucheski said...

Yes, Sheila. This was a response to your post a while back on the same topic. Thanks for bringing Kleon to my attention!