Last month, I spent a couple weeks teaching part of a Master's of Education class on creativity. I had my wonderful, adult students, working on collaborative art projects, going on visual scavenger hunts with iPads, creating dance moves to represent and sequence parts of a day or event, and visually interpreting contrasting pieces of music. It is a treat for me to hear fellow teachers of children tell me that I've given them something they will use to engage their students and teach the curriculum.
We live in a time when creative thinking is crucial in solving the enormous problems in government, the environment, industry, and complicated family lives. Today's students need to know how to see situations with new eyes and find answers to the big questions and seemingly insurmountable dilemmas in their future. They can learn creative problem solving skills through unstructured play, hands on activities, experimentation, exploration of the natural world, and the arts. We do students a great disservice when we base our classes around high stakes multiple choice tests and worksheets where only one answer is accepted. They need to find possibilities that have not yet been imagined. We all do. As a special education art teacher, I find myself having to find answers for every student's unique set of disabilities. Throughout my day, I ask myself: How can I teach observational drawing to an elementary student who is completely blind? How do I have a discussion with a child who has autism and is non-verbal? How can I help a student with cerebral palsy to hold a pencil? How do I invite cooperation from an angry high school student who is refusing to work? We all have our daily challenges, which turn into daily victories when we play with possibilities and seek inspiration from wherever we can find it. When my oldest son was eight, we visited an art exhibition and I asked him where he thought artists got their ideas. "Artists get their ideas from everywhere. From the world around them," he said. He was right. The best ideas come from outside oneself.A single paragraph from from a novel, (about music being recognized as a written language by a passenger on a train), was the jumping off point for my husband to make more than a decade's worth of collages, prints, and paintings. The computer mouse is inspired by roll-on deodorant. Inspiration can come from unlikely sources. In Elizabeth Gilbert's popular Ted Talk, "Your Elusive Creative Genius" she talks about ancient Greece and Rome, when people believed that divine spirits came to offer creativity. She said, "The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons. Socrates, famously believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar." "So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame," she said. In the Middle Ages, the idea that the individual human was the center of creativity came to be accepted. "And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error," Gilbert continued, "I think that allowing somebody one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smudge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just complete warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance."
Twenty years ago, Baltimore based artist, Claudia Matzko, explained a concept to Ohio State graduate students, that sounded even more cosmic than she would have liked it to sound, none the less, it was this: There are ideas floating around, and it's your job as an artist to catch one. If you don't catch it, someone else will. As writers, it's not such an "out there" idea. Plenty of us have had brilliant and original book ideas only to find someone else beat us to the publisher with the same idea. My brother was a little kid, freezing chocolate pudding into ice cube trays with toothpicks for handles, to sell to neighborhood friends years before Jell-o started selling pudding pops. Maybe ideas, answers, inventions, and melodies are just hanging in the universe waiting for an artist, waiting for anyone to notice. And it is up to each of us to catch the ideas and do something with them to make the world better and our lives more interesting. We also have to allow our children to engage in creative play and seek inspiration. We must offer them problems with opened ended solutions, and model how to think through possibilities. But before we model for others, we must learn to do those things ourselves. Play. Ponder. Listen to your muses. Catch some ideas and make something unique!