Sunday, July 29, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #4: Summer Songs

Song lyrics mix with illustrations
in my high school sketchbook
Music can be a powerful conjurer of memory.  Listening to a favorite song can evoke a place in time, the person who you were with, and reconnect you with past emotions.  Similar to scent, music is a key to unlocking memories and transporting ourselves through time and across emotions, which makes it a powerful creative tool.   
I grew up surrounded by music.  In the kitchen, my mom cooked to country music.  Keeping the boot-stomping-beat with her bare feet tapping against the tile, she listened (and often sang along to) Randy Travis and The Judds, names that I learned from the CD covers next to the stereo.  I would sometimes quietly say the vocalists’ names to myself, Wy-no-na, enjoying the exotic twang of the syllables.

At his picture framing store, my dad would listen to The Gator, the local Florida classic rock station.  He’d cut the mats to Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and clean the glass to Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again.”  The Beatles were also present, the double disc White Album frequently in the car.  My sister told me that the first song that she learned all the words to was The Beatles “When I’m 64” and would often suffer through my dad changing John Lennon’s lyrics to “Everyone has something to hide except me and my Mento®”—a roll of which would always be in the compartment between the seats.   

My musical taste solidified my sophomore year in high school when a long distant love interest sent me a tape of his playing guitar and singing The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.”  My crush only lasted the semester but my relationship with Billy Corrigan and alternative rock had only just begun.  Through the flannel-and-corduroy-filled halls of my high school and through my brother—who took our shared love of these new bands to the next level by teaching himself to play the guitar—I was familiar with the music of major bands such as Nirvana, Hole and Red Hot Chili Peppers.  I found my own niche though within the genre and played obsessively the albums of groups such as Veruca Salt and Belly.  The metaphorical lyrics seemed mysterious and poetic, and matched my yearning to leave Florida to go to college in Boston. 

Looking back, my senior year (1995/96) was filled with musical highlights in the release of albums such as the much anticipated Smashing Pumpkins’ double album, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness and, (perhaps eagerly anticipated only to me) Belly’s King.  In tribute, I spent the rainy afternoons in Mrs. Fazenbaker’s Statistics class inscribing Smashing Pumpkins song lyrics on the rubber soles of my Converse in blue ballpoint pen. 

With my early acceptance letter arriving from Boston University in November, it was these albums that formed my personal soundtrack for my final time in Florida.  The poignant lyrics of “Tonight, Tonight” and “Shakedown 1979” captured that same yearning that came with looking forward to leaving.  Belly’s “The Bees” expressed the sadness and complexity I felt around my personal relationships in the light of the anticipated change.

In August, my family and I loaded up my Dad’s Chevy Tahoe, transferring the pile of plastic bins, bedding, towels, bathroom baskets, must-have-books, keep sakes, and a $29 file cabinet that I had insisted on buying to put my writing in, from the living room to the car.  As my dad and I set out on our drive up to Boston, I put Belly’s King in the car stereo where it took us on the first leg of our journey up 95. 

Around the Florida-Georgia border my dad put in Crosby,Stills and Nash CSN and their harmonies accompanied us most of the way to New England. A staple in my music collection, it wouldn’t be until years later that I would appreciate the way that CSN, an album that I view as “my dad’s music” and filled with songs such as “Carried Away” and “Just a Song Before I Go” that are more poignant now than on that summer drive, can take me back to that long trek up the east coast to begin a new phase of my life in Boston.

All of this is inspiration for the fourth Summer Creativity Challenge: Summer Songs.  What songs formed the soundtracks to your summers past?  When you listen to the songs, what memories come to you?  How did you discover the music or band?  What emotions does it evoke?  

With this as your touchpoint, write a short one page piece inspired by the music of a memorable summer.  It can be memoir or a fictional interpretation.  Or, if you are musically inclined, you could be inspired to write a song.  From creating a new playlist to digging out an old mix tape, record your impressions, inspirations, ideas, and memories in your sketchbook and share here on The Paper Compass. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #3: Boredom

It happens in the first weeks of July, after the summer semester has ended—the final projects graded, the last email conversations to students concluded, my normal work day wrapping up neatly within the confines of banker’s hours—I find myself at odd moments during a quiet evening or slow paced weekend experiencing an unfamiliar and almost forgotten sensation: boredom.

Boredom is a rare species.  It is unfocused restlessness that rides on the hands of a creeping clock.  It hovers, unseen and unnoticed, over your shoulder when you are deeply engaged.  Boredom—or the doldrums—carries with it the stigma of negativity and images of unhappy, sour-faced children waiting impatiently on the world of adults.  As a child, boredom is rainy afternoons.  It is the hour before a friend comes over.  It is tasks that you don’t want to do, like cleaning your room.  It is a lack of excitement, stimuli and adventure.

As we grow up, grow older, and take control of our own time, we often forget what it is like to be bored.  We entertain ourselves, distract ourselves, and make plans.  We consciously and subconsciously rail against boredom, eliminating it from our lives.          

We forget that boredom can have a certain magic to it.  It means a slowness of time.  It is carbonated with possibility. 

Which is why, in those moments in the summertime when my world has slowed down and I am undecided what to do next with the time that lies before me, I revel in the foreign feeling of being bored. 

Boredom is transformational.  It is that rainy afternoon from your childhood—when you picked up a soon-to-be-favorite book.  It is the task of cleaning your room—and finding a treasure trove of forgotten toys.  In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe boredom (and a rainy day) is the precursor to the exploring of the house and discovery of the wardrobe in which Lucy finds Narnia.

Boredom inevitably gives way to discovery, which makes it very important to creativity.  At the beginning of every semester of my Creative Thinking class, I have the students read the July 2010 Newsweek Article, The Creativity Crisis.  In discussion, they always comment on the paragraph which talks about the work of renowned psychologist and creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gary G. Gute, of Northern Iowa University, who in studying creative adults found that creativity flourishes in the space between anxiety and boredom. 

Author Mark McGuinness, in the article, Why Boredom is Good for Your Creativity, that appeared on The 99 Percent the other week (and right when I had started my thinking on this post—synchronicity!), writes about battling resistance disguised as boredom, at the beginning of a project.  He uses special tools to shut off the Internet and even writes at the library to help him stay focused.  “The British Library is a beautiful building, and purpose-designed to be one of the most boring environments on Earth - there are no enticing distractions, and the 'wall of silence' peer pressure from your fellow readers makes it hard to do anything other than sit still and keep quiet.”    

All of this is not to say that boredom doesn’t have its dark side.  As McGuiness explores in his article, and The 99 Percent’s founder, Scott Belsky, also discusses in his book Making Ideas Happen, becoming bored with ideas, right at the time that they need the most work to become tangible, is something that most creatives struggle with.  This is why many ideas never happen—they are abandoned because the work and dedication part is not as exciting as the inception.

Also, boredom by nature should be a temporary feeling.  As a creative, you should know boredom for what it is: an awkward, quiet moment before you embark on another idea or project.  It is a doorway, not a room.  If you identify it as resistance and procrastination--push through! And if you sense that it is beginning to feel like the Sargasso Sea, then I encourage you to add some Artist Dates or new challenges to your work or routine in order to set a spark to the transformation from dullness to exciting endeavor.

All of this is inspiration for the third Summer Creativity Challenge: Boredom.  This challenge is open to interpretation.  You can use it to meditate on boredom—when you last experienced it; what role it plays in your creative process; how you feel when you are bored—or you can use it as a spark of inspiration for a short story or recapture a memory of being bored as a child.  If it has been a while, you can even set up a nontraditional Artist Date to reacquaint yourself with the experience of boredom.  And ultimately new discoveries.   

With this as your touchpoint, record your impressions, writings, memories, or meditations in your sketchbook or notebook.  Record in your sketchbook any inspiration, ideas, illustrations, or thoughts—then share here on The Paper Compass. 


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #2: The Hunt & The Perfect Find

A box of Victorian monogram stencils at Brimfield
Inside the tent it is dim and still.  The canvas walls are hung with shallow shadow boxes in tight and tidy rows.  Inside each is a small storm of objects from arrow heads to lady’s pistols to campaign buttons with hairstyles that date the people in them to my great-great-grandparent’s era.  In a corner there is a tall shelf which is the current home of a handmade Eskimo doll who leans languidly against a bottle of Frigid Fluid Co.’s branded embalming fluid circa 1900.  The bottle is still full.

Across the tent, a man standing behind a table marks him as the booth’s owner.  He looks like he simultaneously stepped off his Harley and stepped away from conferring with J.E.B. Stuart over the Confederate’s next move in order to talk to customers.  He has recognized a previous patron, decked out in a stylish straw hat with a brim which would make the British proud.  He is telling her of his latest finds, the point of his salt-and-pepper beard moving up and down over his solar plexus as he speaks.  He has a voice full of gravel and as flavored with the West as his framed memorabilia.  Concluding business with the wide-brimmed hat, he wishes her the felicitous salutation of the day, “Happy hunting.”

The main street of the town of Brimfield during the show
I am at Brimfield, one of the largest antique shows in the country.  And I am hunting too.  Happily.  So is my boyfriend and our friend Cassy, who has taught us the ropes, being a long-time Brimfield veteran.  Tents filled with everything from fine antiques to collectibles and hidden treasures stretch the length of several (approximately ten) football fields.  Some booths are cluttered with odds and ends--old photos, books, random pieces of china, vintage toys--and as you explore your hands come away dusty.  Others are as pristine as a china shop, with linen covered tables displaying polished silver serving pieces, claw-footed curio cabinets, and full sets of Depression Era glass all vying for new owners while their prices break the hearts of many admirers.  If shopping is now a form of entertainment, then Brimfield is the Comi-Con of antique shows. 
A Brimfield booth filled with industrial items and index card cabinets
Brimfield is a feast for the eyes and a playground for the memory and imagination.  When I browse—stepping from tent to tent, my eyes adjusting from sunlight to shadow; hot, still air to warm, fan-blown breezes, to browse the wares—I enter a state of flow, quickly loosing track of time (and also often of my companions.)  The three of us have what we call in Creative Problem Solving “fuzzy goals” which means that we have an idea (and ideal) of what we are looking for, but are willing to be lead in new directions.  

At Brimfield, we return to an early form of shopping where exploration, perseverance, and even negotiating evoke the thrill of The Hunt.  It is a place where The Perfect Find—a combination of serendipity, memory/imagination, desire, and price—often feels like it finds you. What I like most about Brimfield and the variety of vendors and items is that The Perfect Find is often not a wallet-breaker, but something that speaks to you in that moment.  One of the items that Cassy scored yesterday was a team image of the 1982 Celtics that reminded her of the ones that use to hang on her family’s refrigerator door when she was younger.  It was a steal at $1.

A Brimfield booth specializing in film and photography
More than antiquing, this is a post about the places that we go to “hunt”—to shop, to browse, and to acquire.  We all have them.  For some, it is the local music store where you browse records and CDs.  For others it is the bookstore, where you disappear for hours, cappuccino in hand.  It is also the gift shop, the home d├ęcor store, or that sale rack in the back of the department store that you know just when to visit.  

These places are about more than just shopping, they contain several aspects that create the perfect frame of mind for creativity and embody the Creative Problem Solving Process:
·         You go on a whim or because you have a hunch
·         You are excited and open minded in your approach to the task
·         You have a “fuzzy goal” in mind, which leaves you room to explore alternative solutions  
·         You have to observe and try out all the options in the environment
·         You evaluate the items that have stood out
·         You make a decision and take action (purchase or not purchase)                       
We have these stores, shops or events like Brimfield in our lives because we need environments that we can explore in and mingle with others that share our passions.  Most importantly being on The Hunt consciously (or unconsciously) for The Perfect Find is about being open to unexpected solutions and serendipity (and a touch of happenstance, which I wrote about last week).

All of this is inspiration for the second Summer Creativity Challenge: The Hunt & The Perfect Find.  This week, plan an artist date (or at least an hour) to browse one of your favorite stores or shops.  This is a great time to revisit an old favorite shopping haunt or head into a store that is new to you.  Most importantly, there is no pressure or need to purchase anything for this challenge.  Browsing is a great way to enter a state of flow, which is refreshing for the creative process.  If you have something in mind that you do need to make a purchase for, this is a great time to be aware of the Creative Problem Solving steps and explore how being in an environment where you are comfortable exploring options (divergent thinking) makes you feel, verses an environment where you are focused on getting to a single solution (convergent thinking).  In this challenge, take the time to be aware of how the environment engages your senses. If you don’t have a current haunt in which to Hunt for The Perfect Find, you can use this challenge to remember a favorite place or find a new one.
With this as your touchpoint for this interpretive challenge, record your impressions, memories, explorations, or even the merchandise that you found most interesting in your sketchbook or notebook.  Please also share your thoughts, experiences and ideas here on The Paper Compass. 
Creepy Brimfield Baby Doll

Where else can you find a vintage polygraph machine?

Even the dummies at Brimfield are having a good time

Brimfield railroad glass pieces
All this exploring with the scent of fresh made donuts in the air

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Summer Creativity Challenge #1: The Library

The third floor of the Newton Public Library is a mausoleum for magazines.    

I made this discovery a few weeks ago on a hot and muggy Saturday, on a trifold errand to renew a book, escape the heat, and find an inspired place to do some end-of-the-semester class prep.  Despite the sign on the door that stated that the air conditioning was not working correctly, I marched on and up the spiral steps of the library to the unexplored reaches of the third floor, eager to find a quiet corner to seclude myself in.

Taking a right at the top of the stairs, I discovered a row of unoccupied study desks (thanks to the broken AC) and row upon row of archived magazines in sagging, canvas-covered catalogue boxes or uniform rows of beastly-sized annual editions. 

It was there that I made one of my greatest finds of the summer: an army-green, big-boned volume of House & Garden from 1923.  It sat alone on a shelf, its nearest neighbors a set of volumes beginning in 1963.  Unable to resist, I tugged the mammoth book from the shelf, carrying it through aisles that spoke of different eras (and that I would return to explore in further weeks).  Here was an entire collection of The Saturday Evening Post starting with volumes from 1935.  I passed St. Nicolas Magazine, two shelves of leather bound journals from 1904 to 1912 filled with Edwardian children's stories.  A volume of Harper’s Magazine from 1865, with marbleized cover and gold stamped leather binding.  Which, when browsed, featured current events such as Sherman’s march from Savannah; Sheridan’s operations in the Valley of Shenandoah, “and his junction with Grant’s army, and of the series of actions before Richmond . . . ”  All this news in a size six font on a packed two-column page.  A single paragraph among hundreds of stories of about war and love, many likely read out loud by candle light in the final months of what we would call the Civil War.

The House & Garden volume though was my true obsession.  All other tasks forgotten, I lost myself in the now almost foreign world of 1923.  Articles entitled, “The Electrically Equipped House: In Which Comfort, Convenience, and Pleasure Can Be Increased In Many Ways by the Thoughtful Use of Electric Current,” educated on how many outlets should be in a room.  Advertisements featured maids in crisp black uniforms with knee-length skirts and ruffled white aprons.  There were also ads for automobiles—most from the chauffeured passenger’s point of view.  For “those planning on traveling to Europe and The Orient” there were multiple ads boosting of the being the best cruise ships.  All you needed to do was send a written inquiry and they would mail you a brochure in return. 
"The day of the big, bulky enclosed motor car has gone."
Jordan Motor Car Company
Each individual House & Garden magazine was a fascinating world of black and white photographs of patterned parlors and proper dining room interiors (no intimate spaces like bedrooms and no work spaces like kitchens).  1923 is a prosperous place where the world is full of new “conveniences” and where, in a decorating magazine, the word modern still only means “most current.”  At the time, the Bauhaus School, founded by Walther Gropius in Germany, was only five years old.  The idea of stores such as IKEA, unfathomable. 
"Standard" kitchen sinks, "yard stick high," provide
comfort and prevent back-strain.  How high is yours?
Standard Plumbing Fixtures
What I love the most is that all these magazines and volumes are available to anyone curious enough to look, to get a little dust on their hands.  It is wonderfully straight from the shelves.  No special cotton document gloves, no appointment-only archive room.  It is a perfect exhibit of happenstance, which is part of the magic that is the library.

I am a fan of technology (I have a much-used Kindle) but I will argue that the library is a sacred place.  Not just for readers, but for creative thinkers.  The library offers us the one thing that instant downloads to your e-reader, Amazon reviews, Google searches and StumbleUpon can’t: the tactile act of random discovery.  In the meditative quiet of the library there is no algorithm guiding your search, no SEO, no commercial interest, it is just you and whatever sparks your curiosity.  Who knows why we pick up a book?  It could be the condition of the cover, the typeface of the words in the title, or it could be the fateful mystery of it being out of place on the shelf.  The public library has always been about discovery, education and curiousity, and I would argue that it represents all of those things now, even more than before the "digital age."

All of this is inspiration for the first Summer Creativity Challenge: The Library.  This week, plan an artist date (or at least a half hour) to browse the shelves at your local library.  If you are a student and spend lots of time in the school library, choose a city library, to visit.  Or, if you are a frequent library attending bibliophile, plan time to explore a new-to-you section of the library.  (I still remember my first time discovering the rare book room at the Boston Public Library—it was a holy experience.)  Make sure to bring your library card, or the documents to get one, and a tote bag in the case that you find more than one book you want to check out.  If you are a dedicated eBook Reader, maybe consider switching it up and borrowing your next book from the library.  After all, it is free!
With this as your touchpoint, record your impressions, book lists, or library explorations in your sketchbook or notebook.  If the library sparks memories from another time in your life, feel free to capture your memories in detail.  You can interpret this challenge in many ways, as an artist date, writing exercise, or inspiration to start a book list, just to name a few.  Record in your sketchbook any inspiration, ideas, illustrations, or thoughts—then share here on The Paper Compass.   


Friday, July 6, 2012

2012 Summer Creativity Challenges Commence! Tap into a Season of Creativity

This season marks the third year of Summer Creativity Challenges, weekly activities designed to stimulate your creative process by tapping into themes and memories that make the most of summer.

Summer is a season ripe for creativity, not only do we have more daylight hours but there is also a sense of having more time in our schedules (and hopefully some vacation too).  This is also a season that brings out our natural tendency to play and explore, two of the key tenants of creative discovery. 

I have always believed that there is a certain magic to summer, a thinning of the veil between the past and present.  With our senses stimulated by the scents, sounds, flavors, textures and lush summer landscape, we are more easily able to tap into memories from our childhood or other times. 

Memory plays an important part in the creative process.  We use our own experiences and observations of the world around us to “fill the well,” as author Julia Cameron calls the process of restocking our internal creative resources.  Summer offers the perfect time to take in the world, explore our own memories, and be playful with new ideas.

I feel the spirit of the Summer Creativity Challenges is captured in this beautiful quote by artist Rebekah Maysles, “If I could dream up the perfect summer day, it would be a combination of time and place.  I would be able to move around from Long Island Sound to Harlem, from when I was younger to now, with people who are here and those who are no longer . . .”

For the next eight weeks, The Paper Compass invites you to play and share around these creative activities.  Each week we will feature a weekly Summer Creativity Challenge post on a theme or topic that is open for your own interpretation.  You can think about it, savor remembering it, write about it, create an artist date around it, or do whatever comes to mind.  The intention is that the topic, or something related to the topic directly or indirectly, will spark an idea that can be of use to you in the future—or may just be really enjoyable and inspire some creativity in the now.

Most importantly, feel free to share your ideas, memories, thoughts and feedback around each post.

If you’d like to take a look at previous Summer Creativity Challenges you can review where we’ve been and what we’ve explored:

Week #1 Candy
Week #2 Books
Week #3 Ice Cream
Week #6 Wanderlust
Week #7 Adventures
Week #8 Alfresco

Week #1 The Beach
Week #2 Summer Jobs
Week #3 Summer Camp
Week #5 Summer Love
Week #6 Postcards
Week #7 Time Travel
Week #8 Labor

Also, the Summer Creativity Challenges are not written in stone.  I have an idea of the topics for the next 8 weeks, but if you have a suggestion or want us to return to a favorite and explore it from a different perspective, please let me know!

Check back in on Sunday for our first Summer Creativity Challenge.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Nostalgia: Vintage Patriotic Postcards

Happy 4th of July!

We’re celebrating Independence Day on The Paper Compass with these wonderful vintage patriotic postcards that are rich with history that goes beyond their images.  I found these this spring on at an antique store on Route 19 in Florida, which runs up the Gulf Coast.

The images of the Eagle & Fireworks and Washington & the Army are embossed (in a few places without much precision) which gives the postcards a decadent feel and a creates a depth to the image.  Washingon & the Army, interestingly is printed by a British Company, Raphael Tuck & Sons, “Art publishers to their majesties the King & Queen.”  It is a part of a series entitled “George Washington’s Birthday” and is No. 124.  In my research, I have placed this series about 1910.

Washington’s Home, Mt Vernon was a must-have postcard for me, having visited the historic site this past December.  It shows the house from the veranda side and restored through the work of curator Harrison Howell Dodge who implemented many improvements on the estate that Washington himself had not had time to undertake before his death.  This is postmarked 1914.      

What is interesting about these postcards as a group is that they show the reactionary movement, in the first part of the century, to define and preserve the history of the United States.  This came as a response to the flood of European immigrants coming into the country.  With immigration at its peak in 1907, therewere 13.5 million immigrants living in the United States by 1910.  Rather than embracing the new cultures, the response of many organizations in the US was a push to preserve America’s history with a focus on educating immigrants about America’s founding and what it meant to be part of the new American culture.  While it has taken us many decades to finally embrace and celebrate our melting pot culture, the good that did come from the patriotic push of the 1910s is the preservation of many of our historic landmarks.

Last but not least, is this almost surreal postcard of Hotel George Washington, from my old stomping grounds of West Palm Beach, Florida, postmarked 1948.  I don’t know whether to assume there was a giant sign of Washington’s head outside or if this was created for the postcard image.  (If anyone has any information, I would be grateful for your insight.)

I also really like the seated captain in the foreground with his fishing reels and “For Charter” sign.  I hope that like the captain, you can take some time today to relax, enjoy our country’s history and celebrate your independence.