Impulse to creativity begins in infancy

September 29, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

FROM WHENCE springs the creative impulse? It is a question that has puzzled poets, musicians, philosophers and artists themselves from time immemorial.

On one level creativity is the process by which the self engages the world. On another it is a marker for the self's struggle to overcome early childhood pain and trauma.

That, at least, is the suggestion of Barbara Young, whose dual careers as psychiatrist and photographer have led her to conclude that creativity is an innate and universal characteristic of human development that is evident in earliest infancy.

Creative engagement with the world, Young believes, is no more the exclusive province of artists, writers and musicians than is breathing.

The art of creative living is available to every person, she insists, if only we can step outside the daily hurly-burly and take time to listen to ourselves.

The fruits of these moments of introspection in Young's own life may be seen at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, which has mounted a major retrospective of Young's work that runs through Oct. 20.

The exhibit, which is on display at the Gormley Gallery in the college's Fourier Building, includes 60 photographs taken over a 30-year span that document the artist's exploration of her own creativity.

Young's work as a photographer eventually led her to collect photographs by her contemporaries as well. In 1994 she donated her collection, which includes works by Duane Michals, Mario Giacomelli and Joan Myers, to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The BMA will display it in its Benesch Gallery through Nov. 3.

In recent years Young has begun to speak about her life as a photographer in relation to her psychoanalytic work.

"Most of what I have to say has to do with the creative potential present in each of us," she writes. "I see the beginnings of the creative self in the early mother-infant relationship."

In her talks, Young uses case studies to illustrate her points. One story involves a little girl named Cai, whose mother was an artist.

Cai's mother was extremely attentive to her infant's needs and desires. For example, a few days after giving birth, she noticed that Cai already seemed bored by the designs in "Packets and Pockets" that hung over her crib. The mother changed the

designs and the infant resumed her fascination with the new pattern.

Within weeks of her birth, on awakening Cai began to engage the world around her with her fingers and eyes. She stroked the blanket in her crib, inspected her hands as she turned them and watched the dust motes dancing in a shaft of light from her window.

"We could say [this was] the beginning of the creative self," Young writes. "Already she has the rudiments of two lives; one in relation to [her mother], and one in relation to herself."

At six weeks, Cai was being held by her mother when she spontaneously reached her arm toward a window through which she could see branches of a huge elm tree waving in a storm.

"At this early age she was having her own experience," Young writes. "Mother was non-existent for her, necessary only as the ,, one who held her."

In analyzing this apparently commonplace incident, Young suggests that Cai's mother's "natural interest in and encouragement of Cai's curiosity and pleasure and her appreciation of her beginning growth as a separate person nourished Cai's love affair with the world."

Yet many things can happen in childhood to impede the development of the individual self, which includes the creative self.

A mother who suffers from depression, for example, often cannot offer adequate support to her child, who then must use up his or her coping skills simply to survive the trauma of neglect and abandonment.

Between the crucial ages of 6 months and 3 years, the death or prolonged absence of the mother can have a lifelong impact on a child's development.

Young suggests that the extent to which the child is able to internalize the mother during infancy determines how well he or she will be able to cope with a subsequent loss.

"Under normal circumstances, we think of three years as the time when this crucial maturity is reached," Young writes. "A loss after that time will lead to grief, despair, depression, self-blame, problems in trusting and loving others, as well as one's self, but the person will not disintegrate or stop growing to avoid disintegration. However, my own clinical experience leads me to believe that many children recover even if they have reached the age of only 18 months."

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