February 9, 2020 — Brad Coupe
I think if I had been asked about my creative process before I undertook to write this Reflection, I would have simplistically said my goal has been to find beauty and paint it without putting words around the mental processes or stimuli that set the course. Paula’s challenge has led me to explore how “creativity” and “spirituality” have operated on me without my having paid particular attention.
My research has been illuminating, and I know that painting will now be even more bedeviling as I try to fit my actions and choices into these metaphysical concepts. But I expect I will be better for it.
I begin on a summer evening in 1894. Winslow Homer was sitting outside his studio when he suddenly exclaimed, “I’ve got an idea!” His biographer described the scene: “He almost ran into the studio, seized his painting outfit, emerged from the house and clambered down over the rocks towards the shore.” The result of that impulse – plus 4 or 5 hours of painting – was a dramatic seascape with the rocks and ocean waves bathed in a soft yellow moonlight. For me, this painting encapsulates almost everything you need to have to understand the creative process. And it also touches significantly on the subject of spirituality.
But let’s define some basics:
What is “creativity”?
A simple definition that I arrive at is this:
“Creativity is a person’s use of originality or imagination in the performance of an activity.”
I think it is the idea, or inspiration, that drives the creative person to pick up the pen or paint brush, or to sit down at the piano and perform their art in a personal way.
Getting the idea is the easy part. It “occurs to you”; it “sparks” your imagination; or you have an “AHA” moment.
Steve Jobs said it well:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
You can nourish your creative instinct with frequent use. Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” I like that notion. Artists don’t just sit around waiting for their AHA moment. They go looking for it. They go out to paint and evaluate each scene for its potential merit. And, over time, they develop the ability to see potential in more things. People who go with artists are impressed with their seemingly greater powers of observation. The quote from Camille Pissarro that Paula put in the bulletin last Sunday fits. It said,
“Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”
Those people who are so blessed are that way because they have developed their creativity and have amassed a storehouse of observed experiences that make them seem especially perceptive. It is a learned ability.
After the inspiration, comes the hard part, turning the idea into your personal expression, by creating a painting, a musical piece, or a poem.
Thomas Edison said:
“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
I think that applies equally to any artistic endeavor. Producing a painting that conveys the beauty or emotion in an idea as well as its originality is a real challenge.
Too often people say, “I can’t paint. I have no talent”. “I just don’t have an artistic bone in my body.” If you say that and allow yourself to believe it, it will be absolutely true. No question. On the other hand, as Van Gogh said,
“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
The artist has to work to acquire experience in the scope and science of his chosen endeavor to recognize what choices will produce the intended result. Pasteur said in his Nobel Prize acceptance that, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” We have all heard that.
If you take up a creative endeavor, it can take years to become accomplished and poised to respond to any creative inspiration that comes along. But early on you will be pleased to see progress and you will be rewarded as your work improves and grows. And as your skill develops, you will find you have a mental toolkit sufficiently packed with refined techniques such that your “prepared mind” will find more obscure or sophisticated creative ideas than would occur to the untrained eye.
As these thoughts demonstrate, the execution of the idea and its success or impact, depend upon your dedication and hard work. Some have more natural talent than others, but everyone can reach a level of enjoyment and personal reward. You just have to start.
Not surprisingly, the term is derived from the word “spirit”, which the dictionary defines as,
“The animating force within living beings; the soul”
“The part of a human associated with the mind, will and feelings.”
These definitions appear to credit the workings of the brain with the formulation of spiritual ideas. Respected religious thinkers and many artists have believed, however, that spiritual ideas were instruments of the Almighty. Michelangelo was one. As he put it:
“Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.”
“The mind, the soul, becomes ennobled by the endeavour to create something perfect, for God is perfection, and whoever strives after perfection is striving for something divine. –
There is a certain nobility and humility in thinking you are painting with the guidance of the hand of God. But DaVinci was not prepared to say his own work was inspired by a higher power. Perhaps out of modesty, he said he would leave it to the friars and priests to opine on that. Nonetheless, Da Vinci did say:
“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”
I suspect that we, in this building, find ourselves straddling two camps to understand the internal human core of every person. We balance the view that our inner animating force is the working of a free and independent mind, against the thesis that what plants inspirations in our craniums is a divine influence acting upon, or for, us.
But let’s return to Homer. Was his idea just to show the earthly beauty in that dramatic scene? I think that was certainly part of it, but I believe he was using that earthly beauty to express a deeper spiritual idea. I have omitted two critical pieces of information that would enable you to see what I think his idea was on that evening in 1894. The first stems from a tiny red dot on the painting’s horizon that is barely visible. That red dot represents the light from Wood Island Lighthouse about ten miles down the coast from where he was sitting. And the second clue comes from the painting’s title itself, “Moonlight, Wood Island Light”.
I think that the original idea that caused him to run to get his paints was the contrast in the scene between the weakness of man’s light, the red lighthouse beam, and the grandeur and power of Nature’s light, the moon. My perceptive critical acumen was, of course, sharpened by the source of man’s beam coming from Wood Island for which I have great affection.
And to show that inspired spirituality can be found effectively in a far less grandiose contexts, I invite you to consider the art of Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the Mutts cartoon strip. Every morning he delivers three square frames in which the day’s episode is played out. His messages are gentle depictions of animal characters acting out daily sentiments, sometimes just a pithy bit of happiness as two charming buddies, a cat named Mooch and a dog named Earl, observe and experience life. At other times, Patrick evokes an impactful sadness in the lives of animals confined on a factory farm or in cages for medical research, or empathy for a chained up and lonely “Guard Dog” desperate for affection. When I sit down at my computer each morning, I start my day with a delicious teaspoon of Mutts.
It was about Patrick and his images, that his friend, the esteemed spiritual thinker and writer, Eckhart Tolle, said,
“Their essence lies beyond what the eye can see. They contain a dimension of depth that elevates them to works of art, and if there is a certain degree of depth in you, the viewer, you will feel what it is that inspired these images: a profound love of nature, of animals, of humans, of all life forms, in fact. A love that is still present within each image as its invisible essence.
“These images, then, celebrate and remind us not only of the oneness of all life, but also, by implication, point to That which cannot be named, the formless One Life that is the origin and essence of all forms.”
Tolle is unabashed as a believer in a higher power as the source of inspiration.
I am not a scholar or advocate of either camp. Whether inspiration is earthly or heavenly, we who work at creating, do draw upon inner feelings shaped by our moral or metaphysical experiences and that is enough for me. I don’t need to sort it out; I am just glad to have them. My struggle to acquire talent will go on. It won’t be finished before I am. However, I am very fond of Winston Churchill’s plan for the afterlife. He said,
“When I get to heaven, I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject.”
I am hoping Churchill has it right, and that I can join him.
A Special Reading for Creativity & Spirituality Sunday
Let your life be your art.
Allow the golden, glistening moments to weave themselves
Into an intricately crafted tapestry of experiences,
Thread by thread
Intertwining past, present, and future
Into one awe-inspiring spectacle for the universe
To behold here, now.
Let your life be your art.
The way you move your body
As you work, on the street, in the forest, in the kitchen.
Allow the carefully choreographed way
your hands dance as you prepare dinner
become a performance,
Rhythmically chopping, and stirring, and mixing.
Let your life be your art.
Surrender your speech to poetry.
Note the beauty of your articulations as they land
On the ears of your beloved
Like a sonnet,
Caressing them with love, understanding, and compassion
Igniting light, illuminating their loveliness.
Let your life be your art.
The way your feet lovingly graze the earth
Like paint-strokes on a canvas
Sketching the soil, each step with a brilliant palette
Of gentleness, care, lightness.
Let your life be your art,
The greatest studio space imaginable,
the most infinite realm of creative free rein.
You were born with this craft, this aptitude, this intrinsic ingenuity.
You need not go to art school, take classes, collect praise,
For your life to be a classic work
That fills you up from the inside
Spilling over boundaries, overflowing into the current
Of right here, right now.
Let your life be your art,
Moving and being moved,
The lasting touch of divinity
Leaving imprints of connectedness
The totality of mindful moments
A masterpiece to share and behold here, now.
Alix Koloff, “Elephant Journal”
In an “On Faith” column in the Washington Post, artist and teacher Lauren Rader writes, “Sometimes, when I’m painting, I notice that I am in a deep spiritual place. The movement of my strokes are in rhythm with the piece, my body is moving with the painting. My psyche is fully, but quietly engaged. It seems my soul itself has entered a state of bliss. It feels to me like praying. . . . in working with prayer in art, we are freed from what others think, and left with our own deep personal reflection. . . . Art and prayer are entwined, exclusive of any kind of God, but I find it deep and satisfying. . . .When we make art, we become the art we are making–it’s kind of a circle–we work on the art and the art works on us.”
Psalm 8: 1-6, 9
O Lord, Our God,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals[a] that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,[b]
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
9 O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!