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Six Phases of Creativity

Worktable with 3 “Drafts” for Larger Paintings, Saltworkstudio

Where am I now?  What’s next?

I’ve been incubating this Dionysian series for a while. I have three 2 foot by 4 foot canvases waiting for paint to develop these themes, colors, and forms.  The starts shown above are meant to act as “thumbnails’ for the next phase of larger paintings on canvas.

I have the best luck with my finished pieces when I am purposely experimental, uncontrolled, and unfinished in my draft paintings. I’m groping in my own darkness when I paint.  I don’t want the whole process to happen even before I hit the canvas.  I don’t want  to pre-paint it in my head, my notebook, or anywhere else.

I found a useful new metaphor for thinking about any creative project, whether it’s painting or cleaning out the junk room. These ideas are from The Path of the Everyday Hero,  a book about mythic themes played out in life.  The six phases of creativity are preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination, and verification (or manifestation).

Dignified, precise language allows us to reframe creative pauses or lapses. It’s interesting that frustration comes immediately after preparation, right at the start.  Frustration is the failure stage, the belly of the whale, the so-called “block”. What now?

My friend Karina Nishi Marcus is very clear on the idea that “block” should be eliminated from the artist’s vocabulary.  She says creativity is more related to nature metaphors, like “low tide” for the ocean, or “fallow” for the land.  It is a necessary part of the creative process.

“Noble Bull”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

Frustration stops us from action, and makes us incubate our ideas, like an egg.  It’s on the back burner, in the nest, warming, passive on the surface but active underneath, mysterious, the seed under the ground.  To incubate properly we also need to strategize, to try things that might nourish or warm the invisible idea.   Some might work, some not.  But the passive time is needed, yin to the yang of action. Paintings can stay successfully in this stage for a long time, even years.

“The Great Ones”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

The painter or artist may have to go back and forth in the frustration–incubation–strategy realm for a while, then illumination, the “aha moment” strikes, and elevates the venture to a different level, perhaps to completion.  The creative round, like the phases of the moon, will start again with a new idea.

“We Have Purposely Kept It”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

These paintings are not done, but after some months of incubating, I am strategizing.  The notebook helps keep me on track.  When you find your way through an art dilemna, the solution often seems absurdly simple.  Still, it took time to get there.  The cycle may play out in one painting, or in series spanning decades.

The Dionysian metaphor is one of unbounded spring growth and ceremonial theatre, among other things.  Perhaps I should drink a glass of wine to Dionysios, and return to the paintings.    A flash of lightning,  a sprouting vine, or a Greek chorus might illumine the way to the next act of painting.

Mythic notes:  The Dionysian mystery cults tried to loosen the bonds between the worlds through sacred intoxication, theatre, dance and ritual.  The Pompeii Murals, with their glowing Pompeii red, were thought to have depicted aspects of this.

Pompeii Murals, probably showing Dionysian cult ritual

Happy Couples and Girls with Horns: Archaic Art Friends from Rome and Naples

This is my image of true love: looking into the light of eternity, together.

The Etruscan “Happy Couple in the Villa Giula museum  in Rome used to be painted and draped with fabric.  They had wine glasses and perfume bottles in hand and were reclining and eating at the same time– wonderful.  She had her earrings and jewelry on originally too.  This is the most famous of the tomb sculptures and is still incredibly moving for its feeling of affection and love. Not to mention the great “dos”, his and hers.

Then, the Romans invaded, and everyone started thinking about money, real estate, commerce.  Look at the new portrait of the married couple, Roman-style! Brood, worry, and scheme… not much trust there. And no more damn reclining in married portraits.

When not buying something or conquering someone,  in their spare time the Romans loved their soft and ahem, harder , images of sex.  This is a sweet one from the Secret Cabinet of Pompeii, a collection of erotic/ironic art  in the Naples Archeological Museum.  We did get in, though the guidebooks report this is often dicey.  It was deserted.  I think there’s a basic misunderstanding about what was erotic and what was common during the height of the Roman Empire.  Phallic-shaped signposts, lucky charms, and house decoration: common and boring.  Wall-painting series of  “menus” showing different sexual activities you could choose in the brothels, especially if you’re illiterate: interesting, erotic, naughty, not boring.  She’s light and he’s dark, showing the power of the guy, or something; this painting convention continued through the Renaissance and later in erotic scenarios. It’s Pan and his goat, but she seems happy.

Girls with Horns!  What can I say?  You can check my Mythic notes at the bottom for more ideas.  Here’s an Egyptian version of girls with horns.  They seem to have water buffalo horns, an image seen still in Naples because of their wonderful water-buffalo mozzarella cheese.  You buy it from the deli, little balls swimming in a salty sea, and carry it home in a tied plastic bag like goldfish from the fair.  Mozarrella alone is a “secondi piatti”– main dish– in Naples.   It’s grilled a bit, served with bread, and that’s it.

And now some Pompeiian paintings of girls with horns.  The “encaustic” they used included wax, but the paint actually used soap (lye-based) as the “caustic” medium binding the pigment  to bond with the walls.  These are not frescoes– the plaster was dry.  These are wet, slippery paint layers.  They then used the hot wax to seal the walls as a varnish on top, which they could buff to a high shine.  The first girl definitely has horns; the second may be more of a crescent moon, perhaps Diana.

Horns or crescent moon?  What say you?

For the last happy couple, Scott and I, the morning after our arrival back, at the IHOP at 6AM.  We are not reclining and eating, like the Etruscan couple, but you see a soft upholstered booth, coffee, empty plates and cups, books, and happiness.  Good enough.

Mythic notes: I saw a lot of images of  Europa on the Zeus-Bull.  She was taken to swim on Zeus-Bull’s back through the Straits of Bosphorus– Bosphorus means ox-crossing– dividing Europe from Asia/Turkey–in other words, the Straits of Istanbul.  Europa and Io merge women with bull or cow, and then put them in water– a river or sea.  They might be a holdover from a more ancient cow -goddess, or metaphors for mass migrations and settlement of cattle people, but I just thought that the girls with horns were cool.  The Romans idealized the Nile as a source of fertility;  Roman matrons would buy vials of Nile water at the local Isis-temple  and douse themselves with it to increase conception.

Book notes:  The Social Animal by David Brooks was a great buy.  It’s trending sociological research, carried by his  made-up, somewhat borg-like characters named  Harold and Erica.  The characters provide a framework for reporting findings from everywhere.  Intriguing.  Many are saying that the creative/artistic mind is the big money earner in our new world. Well, let’s hope.  He lets Erica do art after she retires, and there are a few pages on the latest social research on music, painting, and other arts.   Recommended for a rousing non-fiction read and a juicy idea source.

Studio Notes:   I’ve done large paintings of both Europa and Io as abstractions.