The Art Assignment


Creativity is Overrated

You don't need to be creative or inspired to make art, but you may need the advice of artists, and perhaps a prompt!

AIRED: May 07, 2020 | 0:09:55

Hi; so this is not our usual set

and this is not the video I had planned for today.

But since we had to cancel our filming trip,

I thought I'd share with you instead some of the voices

that have been echoing around in my head

during this time when many of us are stuck at home,

our lives upended or put on hold,

with a whole lot of anxiety to process.

They're the voices of artists I've interviewed in the past

while making this show, they've passed along a lot of wisdom

about creativity and how and why we make things

that I think is extremely relevant

at this moment in time.

There are a lot of good reasons to make art right now,

whether or not you usually make art

or consider yourself capable of it.

Maybe your mind, like mine, is having trouble

focusing on things for longer than a few minutes,

and doing something with your hands

is a welcome way to be productive for a while.

Maybe you're understandably stressed out

about your own situation and thought of your community

and the world.

Making art can be a way of processing that worry,

finding an outlet for it, or at least distracting you

from it for a while.

Maybe you're sick, traumatized, or grieving.

Maybe you need to entertain yourself or your children

for large portions of the day.

But no matter your situation,

I'm going to let you in on a secret.

You don't need to be creative or inspired to make art.

Seriously, I think creativity is hugely overrated.

To make art, all you need is to sit down and start doing it.

Many artists are well-suited to self-isolation,

spending long stretches in small rooms

straining toward unknown goals.

They wake up feeling uninspired, scattered, and full of doubt,

and they make art anyway.

So there's a lot we can learn from artists

to help us through this crisis.

I'm going to let some of the artists

address some of the excuses you might be making right now

for why you can't or shouldn't make art.

Excuse number one-- "ugh, I am so bad at this."

It can be really scary to confront a blank page,

try out a new material, or start a new project of any kind.

Artist and illustrator Christoph Niemann

shared some thoughts about this when we talked to him in 2014.

CHRISTOPH NIEMANN: This is probably

one of the most beautiful but also most terrifying

things about creating art.

I think insecurity and doubt are so essential to this.

I'm bored by art where I feel the artist went there

and was like, [MUMBLES].

My painting-- I think the struggle, the theme of art

that interests me, of music, literature, painting, drawing,

is doubt, is struggle, is trying to understand this world

and trying to understand all this stuff that

doesn't make sense.

And then finding somebody who uses their tools

to show that struggle that I then can relate to.

I find this idea so freeing,

that struggle and doubt are not something you

have to overcome to make art.

They're actually part of it.

For me, this thought helps me accept my doubt,

embrace it, and charge forth regardless.

Christoph is really good at outwardly and inventively

struggling to understand things that don't make sense.

Here's his New Yorker cover about coronavirus.

Excuse number two--

"I don't have any art supplies."

Another secret I'm going to let you in on--

you do not need art supplies to make art.

When we talked to artist Sopheap Pich

about his transition

from art school in Chicago to eventually going back

to his home country of Cambodia, he talked about his access

to materials.

SOPHEAP PICH: As a painter in school,

I needed some brush, I needed some color,

I needed some stretchers, I needed a canvas,

just like most people paint on.

Those things, I just go to Utrecht or Pearl Paint,

and that's how I knew how to start

making this thing called art.

But when I went to Cambodia,

there was no such thing as an art store

that you can get canvas or stretchers or color.

So it was a big struggle to try to paint.

So what ended up happening was, I just went to hardware stores

and just got powder pigment, house paint, glue,

and I learned how to mix it together.

I learned how to work with all those difficulties.

So even if you think you don't have any supplies

to make art, I guarantee you do.

Go through your recycling bin and pull out

junk mail or old magazines to make into a paper weaving.

Reuse a shoebox and turn it into a constructed landscape.

Take your unwanted T-shirts and hand-crochet them into a rug.

A lot of art doesn't require you to have

any extra material at all.

Christoph's assignment, Emotional Furniture,

asks you to rearrange furniture in your house

to embody given emotions.

Nina Katchadourian's has you arranging book spines

into short phrases to form a kind of portrait of a person.

The other cool thing about Sopheap not having access

to the traditional painting materials

is that because of that, he discovered

materials he liked a lot more.

He started making sculptures out of rattan and bamboo,

materials readily available in Cambodia,

which have connected with audiences around the world.

So maybe you don't have the things

you think you need to make art, but by working

with what you have, you discover a way

of making that's even better.

Excuse three-- "I started something, but I'm stuck."

If you're like me, you really enjoy starting a project

but then stall out at some point.

I get bored or distracted, or life gets in the way.

This happens to professional artists, too, and many of them

have evolved ways of pushing past it.

We talked to Toyin Ojih Odutola about this.

TOYIN OJIH ODUTOLA: If I'm really stuck,

if I'm really just like, no, I blast a lot of hip-hop music

and a lot of R&B and a lot of Motown.

Or I put a film on that I really like--

sometimes it's nice to just have some audio,

because it can get really crazy when you're alone

and you start talking to yourself.

And you need another voice or another person.

If Stevie Wonder is telling you it's OK,

it's going to be all right, it feels good.

It feels good inside.

It touches my heart.

And I can move on.

But most of the time I just try to work through it, actually.

I try to just kind of think, this is just a temporary thing.

Take a break.

Go take a walk or something, and then

come back and look at it with fresh eyes.

So now could be the perfect time

to drag out whatever it is you abandoned months or years ago

and dive back in and finish it.

Maybe Stevie Wonder can help.

Excuse 4-- "My kids get in the way."

Now, taking care of young people can be an obstacle for many

who might want to make art, even when schools across the world

have not been shut down.

One obvious workaround is to make art

with the kiddos you're legally and morally obligated

to supervise.

Children are extremely inventive and really good

at finding materials and transforming them

into miraculous objects.

Go along for the ride.

Make art with them, and see where it takes you.

Or you can take a cue from artist Lenka Clayton

and make your children part of your artistic practice.

Here's what she shared with us in 2015.

LENKA CLAYTON: I made a piece called 63 Objects

taken from my son's math.

My son, Otto, is one of those children who's just always

really trying to kill themselves in creative ways.

And he'll put everything in his mouth for a very long time,

still does; he's four.

I just collected for a period--

I think eight months.

I collected every single object that--

the rule was, I had to have taken it out

of his mouth by myself and have been afraid

momentarily for his life.

So anything that adhered to that rule

became part of the collection.

And he was a really wonderful curator, I found.

He had very interesting taste.

Not only did Lenka find a way to make art

while also being a parent, she made her art

and her life one and the same.

The parenting was not something she had to escape from in order

to do her work.

They were folded together, one informing the other,

in a way that is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious

and beautifully vulnerable.

Even if you're not a parent,

there are lessons to be learned here.

What are you already doing that can be reframed

or reorganized as art?

Instead of focusing on creativity,

think about making art as a way of paying attention

to the things you already like or spend time doing.

If art is a creative practice, think about the practice

as much as the creativity.

And then there's our last excuse--

"I don't know what to do."

If you don't know what to do, find a prompt or an assignment.

There are a ton of great resources online,

including this channel.

When I interviewed Robyn O'Neil,

who, as it happens, does have amazing drawing skills,

she told us about an assignment she was given in school.

ROBYN O'NEIL: The best assignment ever is--

this happened in college, but still, we were only freshmen,

and our drawing professor asked us to-- he just came in

and he's like, "I need y'all to draw air!"

And we all just looked at him, needing more help.

And so we kept asking him.

He wouldn't give us any help.

So at the end of the three hours,

we all had really beautiful, weird drawings.

I mean, this is in a class where you're normally

drawing cow skulls draped with your mom's towel or something.

So to all of a sudden draw air was absolutely bizarre,

and the best assignment, and one that I would recommend

anyone do at any given moment.

A prompt is just a prompt.

It's a way to start, a first step

to seeing if you like the way a material or technique feels

in your hands.

It can also be a really good way to connect

with people from afar.

Decide on an assignment with a friend who's far away.

See what you come up with separately,

and then meet up, perhaps virtually for now,

to show each other what you've done.

I think creativity is overrated, because it places

too much emphasis on accessing some part of yourself

that is always already there.

You're ready.

I hope you stay safe, stay home, if you can,

and that art can help you through this crisis.

Humans have always made art,

even during the hardest times, which is a good reminder for me

that art is not optional.

Art is for all of us, and you are part of it.


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