What is Creativity, or My Problem with Heroes.

Spend enough time working making things and the idea of creativity may rear it’s confused little head.

What does it mean to create something? Is it the same thing to make something as it is to design it? Is it the same thing to have an idea and to make that idea take form in some way? Is creativity a solo venture, or is it something done by groups?

There has been a lot of literature on this subject. After all, the element of creativity is critical to industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a software developer looking for the next big app, an auto-maker looking for the next great design, or if you’re looking for the next great shoe, you need creativity. Consistent creativity is the Holy Grail of any of those groups.

This is one of those areas where the concept starts to get fuzzy. Is creativity a way of being, a process, can it consolidated into a process? I think if we look at many parts of the public media one may become suspicious about whether there is really any creativity out there, or just clever people who are really good at figuring out popular culture? Perhaps the people who understand popular culture create it. K-Pop looks like an industry that manufactures the appearance of creativity, but it is a relentless and high quality product that is required for that industry. I have a hard time thinking that creativity doesn’t play a significant part in it.

Art is a place where creativity is an expectation. Picasso is a fine example of a relentlessly creative modern artist. He certainly created a lot of art that is held in high esteem. His fast sketches seem to me to cross the line between art and craft. Hey- a prejudice slipped in there. Is art more creative than craft, and why? Sketching is a craft, but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of art. Although sometimes craft appears to be art- who can argue that the Taj Mahal is not a work of art?

So, what is creativity? Is it the act of creating anything? That seems to imply that a photocopier is a creative machine; creative, then, is a term of art…

Oxford online dictionary defines creativity as “The use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of artistic work”. That places it directly into the realm of art, but seems to be sorta vague again. What’s an “original idea”, and how do you prove it? It seems that limits creativity only to new, original ideas, which would eliminate almost all sculpture, for example. If you’re simply carving marble into shapes, and it’s been done before, then calling it original is a matter of perspective?

My working definition of creative a bit less restrictive. I think that a more realistic use of “creative” is having the ability to apply disparate ideas to new tasks. It is having the ability to apply lessons from different areas, resulting in solutions or results that may not be immediately apparent. For example, Escher using his drafting skills to create optical illusions. Or Frank Lloyd Wright applying Japanese building elements; Wright claimed that Japanese architecture was not an inspiration for his work, but when I look at it it’s a clear element. I believe that creative license is an applicable term, and probably more in line with his take on the question; he was not using the specifics, but using his own creative ability to use the lessons he learned or recognized in Japanese architecture to create his own designs.

This leads to a foundation of how I view creativity; creativity is a continuum. It may not be a conscious continuum, but it is the application of what has been experienced and learned to a task or problem. All of the famous artists I know of had very cohesive groups of supporters, mostly other artistic people. I think that these groups are a critical element of creativity.

The tech field has a number of company leaders who make the point that their job is to bring creative people together and give them a supportive place in which to create. That’s probably my favorite way to think about creativity; it is what happens when people with similar interests attempt to do something together.

We often do creative things alone. I made an inlaid sill recently that I think is a good example of creativity. It was unexpected, and contained elements that the recipient didn’t know I could do. I could explain it as a personal creation; I wanted to do something out of the ordinary, bring a surprise in that would be appreciated. But if I look at the process I can’t honestly say that it was an entirely original thought; I knew the person’s history and I used techniques and skills that I learned from other people, other jobs, and other disciplines. I had done straight string inlay, but never free-form curves. I had done a carved inlay before, but saw the idea first in a furniture book. I used hide glue and hammer veneered the inlay, a very old method of veneering.

When I made the S-shaped inside corners for a boat companionway I had never done anything like that before. I don’t see it as new or original, but I have been told that it is creative. I used an old tool, a scorp, to hog out most of the wood, and then scrapers and sanding paper, and also electric tools and finished it off using a pneumatic spray gun. I could have bought tooling for the shaper and saved myself days of work and it would have been more perfect, rounder… I used methods I learned from other people, methods I read about in books, and had to come up with some of my own solutions for how to join parts together, but they are the same solutions any experienced woodworker would have used.

I don’t think it is possible to be creative without others. Even if I am alone, what gets my creative juices flowing are the ideas I get from talking with other craftsmen, other artists. Some of what motivates me is the wish to use techniques others have mentioned, to create projects that reach to meet what I’ve seen. It is the culmination of the teachers that I have had, both intentional and unintentional.

Getting a bit more egotistical, I do think that this applies to all creative people. What we see when we are presented with someone as a creative genius is most likely a whole crowd of unnamed people who make up most of that person’s genius. When we talk about Bill Gates as a “genius”, we are using his name as that of a vast group of people. When we look at Frank Lloyd Wright, we are looking at the culmination of him, his teachers, and a few different design systems for home design. Sam Maloof brought techniques from outside of traditional furniture and used them to create traditional furniture designs, and then evolved them into his own designs.

Heroes are the face of movements. They are the spokesmen of some advance or change, but they are not the sole element. When I look at Ghandi I can’t forget that he learned so much by visiting Africa and observing what the people there did to fight against Apartheid. Phillip Johnson looks to me like the next step in an evolution of architects, engineers, and window builders of his era.

I suppose this is why I don’t have heroes; this is the problem I have with heroes.

I suppose I should be kinder and allow them their status. After all, they are the culmination of what came before. While they have had help getting to where they are, those names, those faces are what allows their group to gain fame and notoriety in the greater public. A Steve Jobs is not a real person any more than Sam Maloof or Frank Lloyd Wright- what they become are goals for people to reach for. The person inside that figure is someone more like your neighbor (and your neighbor might have a larger ego, or smaller) than like the public persona. It is highly unlikely that they really were creative in that definition above- it’s more likely that they were smart people who surrounded themselves with other people, and the famous person is the sum total of what happens when you gather a group of smart, talented individuals and give them the freedom and support to do what they want.

So, maybe that’s the hero that I could look toward. Make that the goal; to be one of the people who is part of or gathers together a group of people to do interesting things.


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