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July: Lifelong Creativity
 

“If you’re alive, you’re a creative person.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert
 
Hello friends,
 
If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, I hope you made it through the extreme heat ok. At my un-air conditioned house that was all thanks to a hose, a bathing suit, and many glasses of water.

I was fortunate enough to spend a weekend in Oregon with several good friends this month (thanks science, Dr. Katalin Karikó, and vaccinations!). There was a slip and slide, some river rafting, good conversations about everything from mycelium to sunscreen, and a lot of laughter. On the drive back home, I listened to Ezra Klein and Alison Gopnik discussing “beginner’s mind,” essentially about why as adults it’s worth our time to approach the world around us in more childlike ways. 

After a weekend of rest, it was no surprise that my mind was ready to jump all over the place, and the podcast got me thinking about the teaching and educating of art and creativity. While it’s good for us to learn about art history, basics of composition and mediums, and all the other things we put in the “art” category, "art class" isn’t really about the art at all, it’s about building the skills for creative thinking and a creative mindset. 

A couple of months ago, my friend Andrea, an artist and art educator, sent me an article titled “Creativity and the Murky Mind: Mental Mechanics of the Creative Process.” In it, the author looked at some of the recent findings in neuroscience and creativity and applied them to the classroom, writing: "Today’s students will need to develop creative thinking skills to solve the increasingly complex and unprecedented problems they will confront in the 21st century. In this context, the urgent challenge for art educators is to use instructional practices that optimize students’ creative thinking abilities in the art classes they teach every day.” 

When we take a class, when we try a new medium—whether we’re 13 or 53 or 83—the cognitive benefit lies not just in what we create but how we encourage our brains to think. The act of making art is an act of keeping our creative minds healthy and robust. 

I thought back to math class. I recently had a discussion about a love of high school calculus (I know, I was that student). There was the beauty of the formulas, the satisfaction in working through a problem and finding the solution. There was a focus and a flow to it, and when I think about it now, perhaps similar in nature to how I feel when I am making a papercut. But ask me to do calculus today? Forget it. I certainly don’t find myself implementing calculus formulas to use in my everyday adult life, and I think it’s highly doubtful that if you put one in front of me that I could remember how to work through it. Does this make the act of learning it useless? Absolutely not. 

Working through those math exercises provides a basic platform of analysis, critical thinking, and calculation, a platform that’s crucial to us as adult members of society. Math has value for us beyond the exact functions of geometry, algebra, and calculus. The same goes for history classes. They are important to our understanding of culture and society, even if we can’t remember exact dates. Biology is necessary too, because it helps us understand the natural world, even if all we can remember is Kings Play Chess on Funny Glass Stools (a taxonomy mnemonic which lives in my brain rent free, but I rarely put to use). As a society we value the overall benefits and takeaways that come from education, even if we can’t remember all the little individual bits and components. 

But we rarely view art this way. Art is most often seen as a means to an end, where the end is a "product": you learn to draw in order to be able to learn to draw. Because of it, our creative path as much younger people is wide open, but it narrows, and even closes, as we become adults. We begin as children by scribbling on paper with abandon. We create imaginary worlds, we build forts, we come up with stories, we play, we explore. Then we grow a few years older and we start to categorize our work as “good” or “bad.” If you’re not “good” at math, you still have to stick with the class, you are still challenged to figure out a way to learn. But if you’re not “good” in art class, you’re free to ditch out, because what would be the point of art if you can’t make a masterpiece?

This is a flawed way of thinking, and it’s to our detriment, because if we’re deemed “not good,” we bail on a process that’s essential to our functioning as human beings. We bail on a process that’s essential for us to fully experience and appreciate the world around us. We bail on a process that allows us to dream, play, explore, and find joy in the everyday. We bail on a process that’s crucial to building a better society. 

What if we rethought art and creative practice to not focus on what we create but what we gain as we go through the process of creating? What synapses are firing as we put a pencil to paper and make a small drawing? What new ideas are sparking as we write a poem? What problem solving skills are deepening as we take a vague idea and try to figure out how to bring it to life?

This approach is useful whether we are teaching, have children, or are just adults pursuing our own creative paths. Much like we aspire to be lifelong learners, we can aspire to have lifelong creativity, because creativity serves us at every step of the way. In fact, we’re able to take on creative pursuits even when our cognition is suffering from degeneration or disorder. “This attests to the disorder-resistant power of the brain in enabling self-expression and communication,” says Anna Abraham, author of The Neuroscience of Creativity.

Our creative potential is with us from the day that we are born to the day we die. If we commit to thee relationship, creativity is a dependable, lifelong friend. 

As the School of Life puts it, “Creativity isn’t a rare and highly dramatic activity; it’s not a side-show incidental to the core concerns of our lives. It’s something that – ideally – we’re always involved in. It’s a refusal to accept the world as it is in all its facets, it’s a commitment to doing better with what we have.”

This brings me back to the heatwave of last weekend. I can’t get the resulting horrors out of my mind: heat-induced deaths, towns that have burned, farmworkers suffering in dire conditionsn. That’s just in my own backyard. Around the globe sea levels are rising, people are being displaced, and even cold Arctic ice isn’t stable anymore. “Come on in, the water’s a grim reality of climate change,” said the caption of a cartoon by Ali Solomon, underneath a picture of someone ready to jump off of a dock to go for a swim. 

The reality we are living in is dark. "Talking about our shared dread won’t bring down the temperature or vanish the smoke,” wrote Charlie Warzel in the Washington Post this week. “but leaning into the grimness is grounding — because a dystopia feels only more dystopian when everyone’s trying to pretend things are fine.”

I say this for three reasons. First, I think that creativity and the act of making art is a way to process these emotions. It’s a way to navigate our way through dark times, it’s a way to contribute to change. Secondly, we need to ground into reality in order to envision something different. Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, if we are going to commit to doing better with what we have, if we are going to find new paths forward, creativity is more essential than ever. It is what we need in order to deal with crisis, it is what we need to guide us into the future.

We evolve everyday. We grow, we change. We take in new information, new ideas, new concepts. We keep moving forward. The creative process is a part of all of that. 

Engage in a creative act this month because it brings you joy.

Engage in a creative act this month because it keeps you balanced.

Engage in a creative act because it keeps your inner child alive.

Engage in a creative act this month because it keeps you hopeful.

Engage in a creative act this month because it reminds you of your humanity. 


Be a lifelong learner, commit to lifelong creativity.

-Anna

ps: there is a new installment of Coffee Adventures Outside with Alastair Humphreys

pps: summer shop sale - there's more info and a code down below so keep scrolling

pps: come ride bikes and make art with me!
 

If you need daily prompts, here's a list for this month.

SHOP SALE

 
25% off everything in the shop through this weekend if you use the code "COLDBREW" at checkout. 
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