Creative Genes

“It’s a feeling of leaving something behind, of accomplishing something every day! I hate it if I go to bed at night and haven’t done something that’s there that I can look at. I take a lot of pride in it sometimes, but the greatest joy is in creating something out of nothing.” Mort Walker,  Mort Walker Conversations  

Mort is my uncle, a cartoonist and creator of Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois, and other comic strips. Along with genes for dark hair that started turning white too soon, I inherited a similar restless drive for creativity from my paternal grandparents, his parents. My grandfather was an architect, painter, pianist, and twice poet laureate of Kansas. My grandmother was a painter. In the houses where I grew up, we had their paintings on the walls, their grand piano in the living room, a book of my grandfather’s poetry on the shelves, and we heard stories of how their creativity helped them survive the Great Depression. I wasn’t surprised when I followed creative paths as an adult, just as I wasn’t surprised by the white hair. But I always felt a bit of a misfit, or that I had to justify the creative drive I felt and explain my desire to work across disciplines as a visual artist, writer, and songwriter.

Over the Christmas holidays a few weeks ago, while staying with my parents in their new retirement apartment, I found Mort Walker Conversations on the coffee table and began reading: “Besides, I’ve got my doggone, stupid creative juices flowing all the time. I’ll wake up at night and write a poem. I’ll wake up the next day and write a children’s book. The next day I’ll do a comic strip. I just can’t stop it, but that’s the joy in life to me. My father always did it, and I guess I’ve got his genes in me. My father woke up every morning and did some writing or painting or something. He originally was a farmer, and turned into an architect and artist and writer, and he was always up at farmer’s hours. Before the office opened, he would create something. So I grew up in that atmosphere.”

An epiphany!

Mort grew up in that atmosphere. I grew up with evidence of creativity around me, but not with the modeling of creative pursuits by my parents. They always joked that the creative genes had skipped a generation, that they were the conduit for the creativity. (My maternal grandmother was a violinist and pianist, and my mother’s brother a fine painter and illustrator.) I read more:

“My father and mother were both artists. My father was also a musician and architect and a writer. It was a kind of Renaissance family. We were poor, but we sat around drawing and writing, singing and playing the piano. In fact, when I was about fifteen and I found out that everybody wasn’t a cartoonist I was surprised. I just thought it came with the ears and the nose. My father was so proud of me. If I could please  him by drawing a silly idea… from then on that’s all I did.”

Hmmm. I also wanted to please my father, but as I grew up, went to art school, and began exhibiting, it wasn’t the painting that pleased him. A business man, he liked seeing me apply my talents in advertising and marketing—areas that promised more financial security, areas that he understood from his experiences. I’ve always straddled the line between applying my talents to other people’s projects (taking on design business clients for contracted fees) and focusing on my own paintings, books, songs, and other projects (for promise of income or not.)

What would it have been like to grow up in a household where we sat around the table painting and writing? Or where we gathered round the piano singing and playing? My sisters and brother were all creative, and there was evidence all around of their expressions. Sometimes we created together, but most often we produced on our own, in classrooms, our own bedrooms, or in a corner of the basement or at Dad’s tool bench. And we overheard one another practicing the piano. But painting at the breakfast table? Reading poems at dinner? It wasn’t until I lived on my own as an adult and established my own routines that I naturally gravitated to painting in the kitchen, turning main living space into a studio, reciting poetry, or writing songs with my husband, a musician.

I’m still absorbing the revelations in my uncle’s book, and I’m grateful to have found them. I’ve always felt that I could do nothing else, follow no other pursuits than the ones I’m following. Yet, at times, I have doubts, particularly when I don’t achieve the success I desire, whether in recognition, money, or sense of accomplishment in the craft itself. But I now understand without a doubt that I could no more diminish this restless creative spirit than I could diminish my “ski jump” nose (also a gift of paternal genes).

My uncle says that during his early days in New York, while shopping his cartoons to the magazines, he kept a sign on his apartment wall, “I will not be denied.” The sign and this attitude served him throughout a long, successful career. Why should I be surprised to discover that though I’ve never posted those words on my wall, I’ve bolstered myself with that same determination, time and again? It’s in the genes, after all.


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Good Intentions for Art

I intended to write in this blog frequently, but other projects, such as my Read to Write Books blog, have competed. I have also been painting in preparation for a 3-person show at Falkirk Cultural Center in San Rafael, California, with artists Cynthia Jensen and Susan Bercu. The opening reception is June 11, 6-8 pm.

I learn these aspects of creativity again and again: I tend to overcommit; I have more good intentions than I can fulfill. But this is okay. It’s important to keep imagining, keep working. These past several months, I’ve put energy into my painting instead of a blog on creativity — a clear case, in this instance, of right brain winning out over left. Once the work is finished for the upcoming show, I can backtrack through my sketchbook/journal and share some of the process, as well as my continued investigations into nature, creativity and art.

"Come to Me," Oil on Canvas, 52"x44"

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Conscious Encounter

“Creativity is the encounter of the intensely conscious human being with his or her world.” Rollo May

“Art is the quality that makes the difference between merely witnessing or performing things and being touched by them, shaken by them, changed by the forces that are inherent in everything we give and receive.”

“The most characteristic trait of a genuine culture is the integration of concrete, everyday experiences with guiding philosophical ideas.” Rudolph Arnheim

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A New Yorker cartoon I keep at my desk: “If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.”

On January 2nd, I resolved to write in this blog every day of 2010. But already I missed two days. So I re-resolve to make new entries almost every day and, on missed days, I’ll make up by copying entries from old or new journals, in which I still write and draw regularly.

Creativity is all about finding one’s rhythm. I’m not in sync yet with daily blogging, though I am now administering five blogs. I’m discovering that for me there can be “blog brain,” just as there is “painting brain,” “novel brain,” or was once upon a time “baby brain.” They are deep holes of concentration and joy into which I free fall or have free-fallen. I didn’t think blogging could be that way, but with Read to Write Books it is.

Blogging can also be about finding one’s voice. In this way, it is similar to other writing forms, published and unpublished. As a writer, I’m aware of who I think my audiences are: journal/sketchbook = me; letters = friends and family; writing for business and nonprofit clients = clients’ audiences; agent queries = my best guess based on web bios; novels = trusted readers, children’s books = children and adults who are delighted by illustrated stories. The blogsphere is different in that its universal accessibility leaves me less sure of who my readers are, though I’m sure there are few at this point. I hope that number grows over time as I find my rhythm for these posts On Creativity.


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Focus comes from internal prompts, not random external. Listen.

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I learned a new word today: Howdah. It’s a carriage or seat in which people ride on the back of an elephant. It’s not one I’ll use often, but wish I could! 

Not howdy. Howdah. I was at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco with my East Bay College Fund mentee, scholar Emely Srimoukda. There was an actual howdah exhibited, as well as howdahs pictured in art on the walls. You could yell howdy! from your howdah if you had one perched on top of your elephant as you swayed down the road.

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I keep a quote by Anonymous on my desk: “Art is the giving by each woman of her evidence to the world. Those who wish to give, love to give, discover the pleasure of giving. Those who give are tremendously strong.” Right next to it a fortune cookie keeper: “If you wish to, you will have an opportunity.”

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Creation and Destruction

Picasso said, “Every act of creation is an act of destruction.” I don’t think it works vice versa. A client I work with at OneCalifornia Bank in Oakland emailed me today to say that the bank had been vandalized and a front window broken. She wanted information about replacing the large decal of the logo that I had designed. I could easily direct her to that information, but I can’t easily understand the destructive action. The bank was founded by generous, good-hearted people to improve economic opportunity and benefit the Oakland community.

I like to round out these short entries, tie up loose ends, end with an “ah-ha,” but nothing rescues this one.

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Starting Small

A new acquaintance Dani Antman comes to visit my studio and take a walk. She’s wanting to set up a studio in her home and start painting again. I tell her about “starting small,” the way a teacher of mine at the Kansas City Art Institute, Michael Meyers, once suggested: “Do whatever you can finish in the amount of time you have, use whatever you have—your name in script, for instance.” In those days I was holding down several teaching jobs and came home tired every day. I began making one-inch square, colored pencil drawings from cursive shapes. They soon demanded more from me and I gave it; I drew, fueled by the work, while listening for hours to classical music every night. One-inch drawings became six-inch grids became two-feet layered plexiglas acrylic paintings that I exhibited in my first museum competition.  

This is what we can do for one another: inspire the starting small with the belief that deeper engagement will multiply our efforts many-fold.

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Mind Clutter: A Reason to Write

Lately, my mind has been as cluttered as my closet. I needed to sort it out. Keeping up a blog was just one more thing to think about and I was failing. I had too many ideas, too much to say, not enough time, not enough conviction. 

Often it helps to approach a problem directly, to sit with my journal and puzzle it out or take a walk and listen for answers to stumble forth from the rhythm. Sometimes it’s best to sleep on it.

This morning I woke with clarity: a way to use the blogsphere to focus thoughts. The point is not whether anyone is reading this right now or not; the point is the framing that published writing requires and the satisfaction that comes from shaping thought with words. I’d enjoyed making a few posts since opening this blog in August 2008, but I wasn’t compelled to write regularly.

Yesterday, I committed to write daily about creativity. That decision begged questions: What about fiction? What about painting? Gardening? Music? Design? Sustainability? Joy? I love the broad strokes of creative process, but I also love craft and technique, details and story. I didn’t want to give up those topics, but I couldn’t effectively contain them all in one space. So rather than write fewer blogs, I would write more, more often.

Read to Write Books focuses on writing craft and close reading.

A Painter’s Garden digs into painting and gardening.

Earth in Concert revolves around creative collaboration, music, design, sustainable practices.

Wooleycat scampers playfully into children’s media.

Dennis Hysom will also contribute to Earth in Concert and Wooleycat.

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