Plotting an escape from the box

PORTFOLIO

How can you let your creativity loose? Here's some expert advice.

March 03, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

Alicia Keys, the 21-year-old neo-soul singer, dedicated her five Grammy awards last week to "thinking outside the box." But what's "outside"? And how does one -- singer, painter, writer or otherwise -- reliably get there? It's definitely the place I'd like to be: some wonderful, colorful spot beyond convention, the predictable, the known.

Surely, I keep thinking, there's a secret (beyond simply being brilliant) to being an innovator. Surely there's a way to stimulate the intellect while staying open to new approaches, thereby allowing ideas to germinate and blossom.

I asked Irene Lewis, who last December celebrated her 10th anniversary as artistic director at Baltimore's Center Stage, what fuels her creative spirit. As the theater's artistic leader, she routinely oversees casts with dozens of members, from set designers to actors, as they pull together to produce one creative product.

Keeping an open mind is the fastest way to creative success, the director says. "Ideas come at you from different directions and the most important thing is staying open and not editing yourself at the beginning," Lewis says.

"So, I try to keep open and then surround myself with people who I think are as smart as me -- or smarter -- and watch what happens."

That philosophy is echoed in a recently published book, New Ideas About New Ideas (Perseus Publishing, 2002). Written by Shira White with G. Patton Wright, it explores the questions: "Where does innovation begin? Where does a new idea come from? If you want to innovate on purpose, where and how do you start?"

'Spark soup'

White brings an unusual perspective to questions about creative thinking: She's a painter who earned her master of business degree at New York University. She has taught at the Pratt Institute and lectured at New York University's School of Visual Arts. And she's the president of the New York-based SPWI Group, a new product development consulting firm.

Though the book is aimed at corporate leaders who wish to foster environments in which innovation flourishes, White's artistic training influences her approach. In addition to interviewing leading innovators in the business world, she also talks with painters, sculptors, musicians and architects.

Top executives, she suggests, should hire talented people, then give them plenty of space in which to experiment. The goal is to create something the author calls "spark soup," or an environment in which new thoughts and information flow freely; a space where collaboration is encouraged and ideas follow. For CEOs -- or for artistic directors -- a sure way to squelch fresh ideas, she writes, is clinging to control and custom.

In the book, virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell tells of a conductor who he felt thwarted the creative impulse: "One conductor that I didn't like very much used to say to the orchestra, 'I don't want you listening to each other, I want you following my stick.' Everyone's creativity was taken away. I often like to play without a conductor."

But relatively few of us are CEOs or conductors -- and the path to creativity, it seems, is as diverse and winding as the stairs at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Listening to jazz inspired painter Jackson Pollock. A particular pen puts novelist Mary Gordon in the mood for writing. Books stimulate visual artist Ann Hamilton.

And travel is Baltimore painter Sandra Wexler's muse, but for poet Kim Carlin, sitting in front of a typewriter works best. "Removing yourself from daily routine gives you a new perspective," says Wexler.

On the other hand, she adds, so does solitude.

Tricks for getting started

For Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute and a composer, the secret to jump-starting creative thoughts is -- sorting socks. "I find that misdirection is very important," he says. "I sneak up on the problem. If I have the time and I'm at home, I clean or sort socks. I take a walk or get a cup of coffee.

"The idle mind is not the devil's workshop. The idle mind is where the ideas that were hiding finally surface."

A packed schedule has forced Sirota to become adept at "compartmentalizing," a technique that allows him to accomplish much in the time allotted, no matter how brief. Among other things, he has mastered the art of composing on airplanes and trains.

"Confined, isolated spaces where nobody can get ahold of you are very good. They produce that kind of boredom that leads to the mind opening up. If you can muster the energy to do your work, business trips are great."

Busy schedules offer some artists a surprising an advantage, however: A paucity of time adds what may be a necessary edge to creative efforts.

"You need to give yourself time to listen to your soul and to do that, you need to 'waste' time," the composer says. "On the other hand, if I weren't so busy, I'm not sure I would necessarily compose a greater quantity of music. The desperate need I feel to compose is a great motivator."

Teri Rueb, who teaches imaging and digital art at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, occasionally manufactures a type of artistic tension by allowing deadlines to near. "I don't plan it, but in the back of mind there is something that responds better under pressure, so I think I do subconsciously create deadline situations," she says.

Rueb's most recent show, "Perpendicular Dialogues" (on display last fall at Goucher College), evolved from conversations with choreographer Amanda Thom Woodson and painter Denise Tassin. It included drawings generated by the movements of dancers throughout the city as tracked by global positioning satellite receivers.

For another project -- a sculpture for Baltimore's Artscape 2000 -- Rueb rolled salt into a ball every three hours around the clock for three weeks. "I can think of three things that are tried and true ways for me to stimulating creativity," she says. "Yoga, driving and pulling all-nighters."

I think I'll take up yoga.

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