Friday, January 20, 2012


A trained scientist, stage performer, corporate marketer, amateur historian, gardener, fry cook and qualified diaper-changer, I have chosen to spend the last 25 years making my living as a ballpoint artist, rendering graphic puns in a style reminiscent of Arcimboldo.

The latter part of this unusual pedigree should grant me some authority on the subject of art, and what it takes to create new and unusual things, yet I find that my philosophy of creativity differs greatly from that of many friends who were trained in the fine art world, and even some of my scientific colleagues.

Recently I was asked to participate in in a panel discussion on ‘artistic inspiration’ and ‘the creative process’, where my mundane views on the subject were largely dismissed by the other panelists as an oversimplification of a profoundly complex and obscure phenomenon.

Our disagreement stemmed from a belief that creativity is something that you do, not something that happens spontaneously. My feeling was (and is) that what we call creativity is nothing more (or less) than an intentional association of ideas. The product of these associations is what we call Art. Or Music. Or Literature. Or a new brand of toothbrush.

The fact that I have been chased out of a variety of fields probably allows me to make more frequent and uncommon connections than the average person. Add an endless curiosity, a tendency toward mischievous attention-seeking, and a basic inborn stubbornness, and you wind up with someone who spends hours arranging words and pictures in his head, and doesn’t mind working overtime to get his silly ideas down on paper.

While my background may be unusual, my creative process is probably no different from anyone else’s. I imagine that most people are busy doing more practical things than making jokes with a ballpoint pen. I also imagine them doing all sorts of creative things, every day, to make themselves and their families happier. They do these creative things by rearranging their thoughts, and then acting on those unique mental connections, minute by minute, day after day.

I can appreciate that those who are unaccustomed to identifying with their internal creative machinery might feel that the product of an artist's mental labor is some form of magic – or worse, some kind of proprietary skill that is unavailable to ‘regular’ people. Why shouldn't they? Our everyday discussions of the subject of creativity are steeped in mystery and exclusivity.

As I frequently tell my friends and customers, I am creative mostly because I am unencumbered by the distractions of regular employment. Creativity and freedom are essential bedfellows. Experience counts, too – I am just as fond of saying (quite truthfully) that any six year old could do what I do, after twenty years of practice.

This practical view of creativity is finally gaining some ground in the scientific community, and may be starting to take hold in business as well. Creativity is work, pure and simple. Fun work, to be sure, but it doesn't happen if you don't make it happen. Those who take time and energy to develop the skill of thinking new thoughts and making new connections will be able to solve problems more easily, generate new products and processes, and market them more effectively. It’s all about the ideas one chooses to consider, and an individual’s comfort and experience in associating them in new, unusual ways.

My critics tell me that when I talk this way I am overlooking the wonder of art, ignoring an essential gift of inspiration – that special something that is mysteriously imparted to creative people by the ancient Muses. They could be right about that. After 25 years of indulging in this process, I’m still very much aMused.

And I’m working hard to stay that way.

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