Creativity: Author and Artist Jalina Mhyana

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Jalina Mhyana is an American artist and author of three poetry books, one of which won publication in Pudding House poetry chapbook competition, as well as the hybrid collection Dreaming in Night Vision. Mhyana holds an MFA in literature and creative writing from Bennington College. Her poetry, essays, and prose appear in or is forthcoming from The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, CutBank, The Roanoke Review, Structo, and many others, and she is currently collaborating with artists around the world to illustrate her most recent collection of prose. Learn more at www.jalina.co.uk.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte?

Mallarme wrote, “Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; the interconnections; the puns or bridges, the correspondence.” I’ve always found connections between disparate elements and created something completely new from the juxtaposition, whether that’s art, poetry, or some kind of revelation.

Rough drafts motivate me; how forgiving they are, how they offer themselves up for violence under my pen or my knife. At the end of several hours’ work I love that I’m ankle-deep in discarded words and confetti from my papercut artwork. All the discarded negative space from my composition and all the words that have gone unsaid is just as important as what I choose to leave whole and choose to say. In that sense, every work of art and every book has so many conversations going on beneath the surface, so many lives before they reach the cover or the frame.

These early iterations urge me on and give me confidence.

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What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte?

As a writer and artist, I’m always looking for the “underglimmer” – what the Japanese poet Basho described as deeply meaningful or poetic moments hidden in the mundane. My attention is always attuned to these discoveries, being a beachcomber in everyday life, filling my pockets with scribbled passages in lieu of seashells. Like Pippi Longstocking being a Thing-Finder; I’m without a doubt a thing-finder, though my “things” are usually ideas put in motion by my experiences.

What strength do you admire in others?

I admire integrity and honesty. Artists and writers who strip their souls to the bone. Billy Chyldish, Gide, Forché, Oswold, Dickey, and Thoreau, for instance.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it?

A well presupposes a finite and individual store of creativity. I don’t see it as a well but rather I feel that inspiration is as ever-present and communal as rain. In that sense it can never run dry and it’s accessible to all.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have creative problems.

My problem is, I have too many ideas. I’m in a perpetual state of rhapsodic inspiration which is a curse if you ever want to get anything done. My studio is filled with half-finished projects that I’m desperate to share/ publish/ send to contests/ show, but halfway through I’m already flirting with the next idea, the next project. My roving eye is truly the bane of my existence. I have countless canvases and manuscripts everywhere. It’s such a tease.

What fills me up? Hmmm. My journals fill me up. I’ve written journals since I was twelve – they’re the one place I can be as honest as the writers I admire. I often draw upon my journals, not just for inspiration but also when I’m writing lyrical essays. After being deported from the UK, my journals helped me chronicle my three-year exile in Italy for my memoir A Natural History of the Sky.

Curiously, editors of literary journals most often publish my rough drafts and journal entries over my more polished work. They tend to be enthusiastic about the pieces that my self-consciousness hasn’t had a chance to ransack yet. The pieces are feral and wild, even sort of mortifying, actually – but their acceptance in the better journals confirms what I believe; that what we need is honesty over artifice.

Do you have techniques you return to?

When I’m having moments of self-doubt, which happens to me often, the best cure is to hide, to burrow into my books and journals and my imagination, which is partially because I’m agoraphobic and have difficulty leaving my apartment in the first place. But artists are known for being highly sensitive – we need to escape the chatter, noise, smells, sounds, temperatures of the outside world in order to wipe the slate clean and regenerate. To make space for new ideas. Otherwise I become so saturated with the world, I feel I’m disappearing beneath the weight of it.

I stay in my apartment for months on end. If you look at my social media pages, you’ll notice months at a time when I just go missing. My friends and I call it “falling off the edge of the earth.” Which is apropos, because when I’m creating, I always push myself off the edges of my comfort zone. Without this rest cure, being able to hibernate or go fallow and create, I wouldn’t be able to cope. The body and soul know what they need. They demand it.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice?

That’s a good question! This circles back around to my response to question one and the artists and writers that I love. They aren’t bound by any trendy moral conventions and you can pick out a line from their painting or writing and recognize their voices instantly. I like to think that I push myself until I feel mortified and totally exposed – that’s when I know I’m doing it right. It can be paralysing, but I’m very bold when I’m alone in my writing studio. Ask me to explain my work face to face and I’d probably crumble, but behind my keyboard I’m like the great and powerful Oz.

Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

Though I’m all over the internet in one way or another, I have to say that nothing stops me in my tracks and makes me doubt myself like social media. It’s been said a million times, but it’s true: the way people present themselves in a perfect light on social media makes it difficult to be authentic and flawed. I tend to adopt an insincere voice, and as I write I’m thinking of all of my “friends” who might read it, and so my posts are censored by dozens of people before they even reach the keyboard. It’s so much easier writing for strangers in literary journals. On social media I am not the great and powerful Oz. It draws the curtain aside and reveals me as a self-aggrandizing coward.

I really miss the idea of writers and artists being unpredictable renegades and rock stars of sorts leading glorious, fever-pitched lives. It seems to me that artists and writers these days are expected to be perfectly responsible business people who print out charts to organise their weekly social media posts in advance in an effort to publicize their latest book or show. It seems such a shame to me. I try to do the publicity thing too but ultimately feel like an impostor and can’t stand myself.

I’m definitely more the old-school type of artist – the eccentric, awkward one that’s always a day late and a dollar short, whose life is stranger than fiction. On social media I tend to tone myself down and hide anything that’s sacred and real. My voice suffers for being hidden.

I can think of several people who are engaging and witty on my feed, though – they have fantastic conversations with people and they manage to be completely genuine. They’re endlessly followable and likeable. I don’t understand how they do it nonstop, day in and day out, 24/7. I just feel stifled and bewildered by it all and can’t take more than an hour a week or so.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way?

I won an art contest when I was nine. This was the first time I was singled out and given recognition for anything. When I was seventeen I won poetry competitions and was encouraged by the poet Bob Arnold, who made me believe I had promise. Even back then my writing was very visceral and shocking and it was this self-awareness that won me accolades. By then I had the itch. I had to create.

But I had no idea how to make a career as an artist/writer so I had many false starts and my creative work became relegated to hobby status. It wasn’t until I was thirty, living in Japan, that poet Laurie Kuntz took me under her wing. With her encouragement I went on to get my MFA in creative writing and my manuscript won an international poetry award. From then on, my loyalty to my artistic impulse has remained steadfast and passionate but it was subjugated for a long time.

I often regret that I didn’t pursue my art more diligently through the years, but I was busy raising two incredible daughters, volunteering, and adjusting to living in new countries all of the time. Now, for the first time in my adult life, I can concentrate on my artwork and writing.

Were you encouraged and supported by your family?

My family always supported my writing; for instance, my grandmother bought me a thesaurus when I was a teenager with an inscription that read, “To help with your writing career, Lina Girl!” My parents have always nurtured my creativity and built me up. When I’m down, my dad reminds me that with my creativity, I can create a whole new world for myself, a better world. This reminds me of Anais Nin: “I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live.”

Does your national identity influence you?

After living overseas for over twenty years I don’t feel that I have a national identity. I envy writers and artists of place who have roots in a specific culture or tradition. I’d give anything to feel rooted in that way, to have my voice be a product of the terroir or ancestors. To be the voice of a specific place and time in history.

But instead my itinerant lifestyle makes me feel that I’m a perpetual visitor in other people’s cultures. Last year when I was homeless I went on a solo pilgrimage across Europe from Canterbury to Rome, alternating walking, hiking and train travel. This journey was the pinnacle of my peripatetic lifestyle and my rebellion against exile. If I couldn’t have a home, I would live in monasteries, hostels, and on church floors. I’m writing a sort of nomad’s poetic travelogue called Vagabond Reverie– a pillow book of poems, journal entries, texts, emails, travel lore, saints’ miracles, and mythology that recounts my journey.

At Canterbury cathedral as I was receiving my pilgrim’s blessing, the Deacon told me not to expect any pillow softer than stone on my trek. These were the words given to The Archbishop Sigeric who started the via Francigena pilgrim route in the year 990. So, I decided to make my own pillow – a “pillow book” filled with scraps, brochures, receipts, musings, and poems. The makura no soshiliterary genre brings me back to Japanese culture – Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Bookas well as Basho and his search for underglimmer on his pilgrimage through northern Japan.

My cultural identity is tied up with being a wanderer and being in exile. There is strength in numbers and in heritage, without which I often feel alone. But I like to think that my writing addresses this issue and that maybe it can give a voice to other uprooted people such as myself, people who long for a home they once had, or long for a home they’ve never had. That feeling of sehnsucht, or nostalgia for home is at once bittersweet and vicious.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I lose my identity and become depressed. I also become jealous of other people who have found the sweet spot of purpose in their lives. Of course, envy is ugly but I like to think of it as an indication of what’s missing and use it as a signpost. Whenever I feel a pang of envy, I know that I’m not being true to myself. Envy exists for a reason and isn’t bad in and of itself; it’s what we do with it that defines us.

It fuels me.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

No writer or artist is unilaterally applauded. Having been a member of writers’ groups from Vermont to Heidelburg to Oxford to Florence, I can honestly say that criticism doesn’t bother me like it used to and sometimes it proves really instructive. I usually need to let a critique sit for a few months before I act on it, though, because it’s too raw.

I used to be too easily influenced by my peers so these days I take time to weigh the voices in critiques against my own. Sometimes people can give revelatory feedback but at other times there can be too many cooks in the kitchen. If I go against my intuition, my writing comes out timid and disjointed, a Frankenstein’s monster kind of hybrid that has nothing to do with me anymore.

My favorite authors have been dragged through the mud again and again. Gide, for instance, collected his bad reviews – hundreds of scathing attacks of his writing and his character – but went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Public favor waxes and wanes. I don’t take much stock in it. The same goes for praise – it makes me happy, but I know how terribly subjective it is.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

My husband and I are currently collaborating on a monograph of his self portrait photography. I’m writing responses to his gender fluid images which are visually as provocative as my writing. He is a strange boy and I like to think of him as my own personal Frida Kahlo, so I delight in passing my hand into the frame of his photographs and poeticising him to the world. This is only possible because he believes in me and there is a total absence of ego between us. There aren’t many people I would be able to be so open and vulnerable with.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this?

This follows on nicely from the last question because just this month my husband and I started a graphic design business in our studio here in Florence, which is the ultimate collaboration. It’s hard work but also great fun. The opportunity to harness my artistic skills and have people pay for the things I create is an enormous pleasure.

Last year I started an editing business that was going pretty well, but the work was sporadic and I wasn’t able to make a decent living. On a lark, my husband and I branched out into design, and we were astonished by the reception we received.

We don’t mind living on meager artists’ income. We usually work for several hours, then take naps or play ping-pong across the studio space with a balled sock. Playfulness breathes life into the creative process and lets us escape the feeling of having been glued to a computer screen all day. We overcome the struggle of 16-hour workdays by breaking them up with naps. Our clients are international, so we nap between time zones, working on our contracts in Amsterdam, Paris, etc all day, then communicating with the USA around 3 pm, and around midnight, Australia gets going and we can interact with our clients there. We usually have our biggest nap at around 5 am, sitting in bed together gazing out at the hills of Fiesole just as the market vendors trundle by with their stalls below.

It’s a lovely, gentle workday and work environment that accommodates my chaotic and taciturn nature. I could never work in an office, so being able to make art for a living is a dream come true.

What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I’d say to cultivate a love of small pleasures. No one can take these away from you. A modest wish list will allow you to sustain a life centered around your art. Other than that, I don’t have much advice. I can only say that my writing and art sucked for about twenty years. If I’d given up I’d be really unhappy today. Don’t do that to yourself.

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What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being an artist is to be awake and pliable, in an eternal state of learning. My dad lovingly jokes that my husband and I spend our days in a fort under the table together, creating art and playing games by candlelight like children. This is astonishingly accurate. Playfulness permeates all aspects of my life. The artist in me refuses to grow old, and my childlike sense of wonder has helped me survive grievous episodes in life.

How do you view the role of the arts in society?

Virginia Woolf wrote, “We need the poets to imagine for us. The duty of Heaven-making should be attached to the office of the Poet Laureate.” Similarly, a housemate once told me that poets are “engineers of the soul.” I confessed to her that being a poet feels insignificant in the modern world, that I sometimes feel silly when I tell people I write poetry. Her occupation – green engineering – struck me as so much more beneficial to mankind than metaphors.

Ever since she mentioned engineers of the soul, I’ve noticed it in myself; how my soul is patched together with a rich brocade of poets’ words, or the poetic images of artists. Poetic gestures, too – some of the best poets I’ve known never wrote a single line of poetry. They don’t have to. They live and breathe poetry in the way they move, the way they make connections, the way they see things. They have a bit of magic about them. These things have engineered my sensibilities.

I remember reading Sartre’s The Words twenty years ago and thinking that he was writing my own thoughts, that he was a more articulate and brazen version of myself. He and so many others became my literary family. Sartre felt he knew the great authors personally. I share that sentiment, that sense of possession – the artists and writers I love are my tribe. I loathe talking about literature and art because I don’t want to muddy my affections or to whore my loves around. I think it was Ayn Rand who wrote that what we hold dearest to us we keep from promiscuous sharing. Art has the power of making us feel that it was made for us alone.

I believe that the arts allow us to be deeply human. I’ve cried so many times over books that spoke my secrets and reminded me that I wasn’t alone. This is sacred work. We have to approach it, as Casanova wrote, “with the knees of the mind bent.”

What is the role of the artist?

To expose the vulnerabilities and folly of humanity? To be a sort of cultural barometer, maybe?

But really, there’s no prescribed way of being or expectation or yolk the artist must wear. We’re all artists in our own unique way – if our path were defined, there would be no artistry, no seeking. We must set off into the wild and stamp down our own paths and create our own expectations of ourselves.

That said, in my own writing I sometimes explore charged issues, to be a spokesperson for this or that. For instance, I write a lot about mental health disorders, gender fluidity, open marriage, childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, drug addiction, exile, and poverty. But I don’t write these things because I feel I have a responsibility to make a statement. I write about these things because they’re part of my life and have shaped who I am. It would be strange not to write about them. But if someone told me that I have a responsibility to do so? I’d balk at the enormity of the burden.

One of my readers wrote me a letter a couple of years ago saying that my book saved her life. I would have never imagined such beautiful feedback, especially since I didn’t set out to save anybody. When we share our deepest selves, we connect. It happens accidentally, serendipitously.

The pieces that move my readers most – the poems, essays or prose pieces that they recite to me in letters or what have you – are almost always throwaways. Things that would have never made my favorites list. We never know how our words will be interpreted and how they’ll help someone.

Another reader wrote to me, saying that he felt understood for the first time in his life. It was revelatory to me that I was beginning to do for others what Sartre, Rilke, Mavor and Exupery, etc. did for me – that I was making people feel less alone. I’m so happy that my writing has a ripple effect. But if I set out to achieve any of this, my writing would be tedious, wooden, and unforgivably dogmatic. I leave it all to fate and coincidence.

Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I believe that as humans we all have a responsibility to stand up for those in weaker positions and to demand justice.

The literal meaning of responsibility – the ability to respond – is inherent in the artistic process. In essence, responding is what artists do – they respond to ideas, to culture, to the environment. That is our entire creative act – responding.

But the idea of artists “having a responsibility” is dangerous. I always bristle when this question is raised, as I believe the only thing artists should be concerned with is being honest to themselves. This may sound indulgent, but the minute artists and writers feel the need to be responsible, we start to question ourselves. We become preachers and advocates rather than artists. Or we just seize up under the weight of expectation.

The artist’s debt to society or moral code or intention is irrelevant. Art is a vessel to hold viewers’ emotions. Schopenhauer wrote, “Something, and indeed the final thingmust always be left over for the (beholder’s) imagination to do.” We all bring our own visions and humanity to artwork and literature and invest it with our interpretations. It’s a lot like Rorschach tests or cloud-busting. The artist’s sole responsibility is to make art – to do more is to deny the beholder the gift of completing the work themselves, of collaborating in the heady process of soul-engineering.

One of my favorite aphorisms goes something like: “Two girls find the meaning of life in a single line of poetry. I, who wrote the line, don’t know the meaning.” My teacher read that aloud in 10th grade and I’ve repeated it a thousand times since. Funny that one of my favorite quotes is about a quote that wasn’t intended to be meaningful.

Another approach to this question is artists’ ethics, though I bristle at this as well: when people expect artists to lead lives beyond reproach, sometimes to the point of boycotting their art if they fall short. “So-and-so was a chauvinist, so I’m not going to read his books/ watch his films/ listen to his music.” This feels so wasteful to me, since art inevitably takes on a life of its own and shouldn’t be constrained to or defined by a single fallible life. Art transcends the individual.

Besides, how would we judge ancient writers? How about Homer? Ovid? Catallus? Fast forward 1,600 years to Marlowe, Shakespeare, Tintoretto. Were they chauvinists? How could we possibly know for sure? Honestly, we would have to disavow the entirety of the western canon if we were to judge artists and writers by their scruples, held up against modern social norms.

Speaking of fallible lives, the fabulous historical fiction writer Christine De Melo and I recently gave a reading at St. Marks for Florence Writers entitled THE FLAWED PROTAGONIST – a glimpse into the lives of two very different fictional women who tell their shocking stories without apologies; one a modern American expat living in Germany, and the other a 14th century Veronese woman. The talented writer/translator Lori Hetherington asked us questions that really got to the bottom of the flawed heroine stereotype, and we decided that being flawed is being human.

At the end of the month I’ll be interviewed by a NYC journal called Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics, and Culture – about my experience of deportation from the UK and subsequent exile in Florence, from the perspective of a writer and artist. I’ve been writing a memoir about my experiences here that is a bit of an antithesis to the popular “middle aged woman comes to Florence and kisses an Italian man on Ponte Vecchio” sub-genre. It’s much grittier than that, and examines my personal exile in the context of today’s immigration climate, Brexit, Trump’s wall, etc. as well as historical instances of exile (Dante, Ovid, etc.). The personal becomes slightly political. The first chapter of my memoir, entitled “Prospecting,” if forthcoming from The Southeast Review.

I hope my experiences as a flawed protagonist in my own flawed life might shed some light on the brutality of draconian immigration policy and make people think twice before drawing lines in the sand designed to keep people apart. My husband and I are finally living together after three years apart, but Italy is the only country that will allow this. Our own countries – England and the US – won’t allow us to live together, despite spending tens of thousands of pounds on bureaucracy that has come to naught. Though Italy was never where we imagined ourselves living, or even wanted to live, we will be eternally grateful for the welcome we have received by the local government as well as the wonderful community of artists, writers, and friends in Florence.

These past three years have been really fertile for me as a writer and artist, though – and I’m just beginning to share my work again after going feral or fallow for a long time. I’m pleased to announce that my book of poems – ECHO BOREALIS – one such project completed here in Florence – is available on Amazon. I’m excited to share my collected works, some of which were originally published by Bad Moon Books and Pudding House Publications, as well as various literary journals. The Echo Borealis book cover seen here is an example of my artwork – and an art magazine recently asked to feature my work! So I feel that after a long hiatus in exile here, not knowing which way was up, I am finally reclaiming my creativity and getting it out into the world. It feels fantastic.

Here is a sample poem that will actually be included in my book-length narrative poem about my solo pilgrimage from Canterbury Cathedral to St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican last year. I walked about 500 miles and took a motley assortment of trains, bikes, random rides, etc the rest of the way. As the requirement to obtain a pilgrim certificate of completion is 100 KM, I managed 5X the average though I was incredibly ill-equipped, hadn’t practiced hiking, wearing a pack, and had no map or guide or plan…The following poem, A Piedi Nudi, begins in Lucca and follows on through San Gimignano.

A Piedi Nudi

I shed pilgrim footprints
like a medieval sinner
within Lucca’s city walls.
Is this exorcism
or penitence
dragged along Roman roads?
This is my survival: all
candles burned low
between soul
and skin. This is my demon
suit, my body hell.

I double back in spirals,
trace my steps to
a cathedral portico where
a thumbprint is chiseled
in stone like Borge’s
Labyrinth in a column
of Carrara marble.
The maze is smooth
with caresses, Cretan
helix worn by Theseus’
fingertips and all of us
pilgrims following his
lead to the demon
inside us.

Double back,
retrace your steps.
Listen for the roar,
feel its tremor
in city walls.

You’re getting closer.

In San Gimignano
I may as well be
a piedi nudi,
despite my well-worn shoes.
My feet are strapped with gauze,
prayer, and bit-lip bravado.
They shred and peel,
bad fruit.

With torch in mouth
I tend them: antibiotics,
lighter and safety pin
under a tent of paper sheets
at the convent.
I trail blood from
cot to shower as if
nightmares followed
me out of bed.
I kneel and scrub my wound
from Tuscan stone.

My body molts without
shade or shame,
no private pain or modest skin.
I break apart; a burst pod
or seed, a village spectacle.
Tourists with selfie sticks
and African bracelets
can scent me.
Sense that I am feral
and ripe, sweaty,
all blood and nipple.

Slightly crippled, my swagger
leans on a limp.
There should
be flies and young men
alert to this sweet
pitch of musk, slanted
sun and dust motes
dance through pheromones.
In an hour
I’d turn
and be no good.

Keep going.

Downward dog eyes
roll soft, gentle gaze
lets the world
be the world. It gives
me wilted flowers for my hair
and soft-sand river
banks for burying my
feet. Screams
fill with silt
up to the silent ankle bone.
Water sighs with me,
lets itself go lax and dally
whereit will. Path of least
resistance. I envy
its faith in gravity,
in deltas and tributaries.
Its belief in the sea.

Villages become neverlands,
all imagination.
Italy is one long vineyard.
I meet no one,
don’t speak for days save
curses and prayers.
Maybe curses are my prayer,
my savage fear:
rapists in every cave
and abandoned
building along
the forest path.
Straps hold me to this pack
and this parcel
of land.

If a man came at me
I wouldn’t shed
my gear fast enough—
breast buckle, shoulder hitches,
waist cinch;
the rucksack a built-in
bed, ready-made—
duct tape and sailor’s knots.
I’m more attached
to this pack
than my own skin
that sloughs away like the landscape
as I crest horizons.
I clench stones in my hands
to double my fists,
just in case,
and will myself
a kilometer farther
into this madness.

On lonely treks
I follow footsteps
of pilgrims who came
before me:
treads with leaf patterns,
diamonds, spirals.
They come and go.
When they reappear
I greet them, say hello
old friend, where
have you been?
Like inmates talking to spiders,
all the heart spilling over
to connect with
something outside
ourselves. I step in
their footprints, my tread
on theirs, like dancing
on my father’s toes.

Another day closes.
I climb a metal bunk ladder
in a monastery,
all squeaks and painful insoles
beneath the rung campanile.
I walk in my sleep, miles
of sheets,
looking for pilgrim
emblems
on sign posts
leading the way
to Rome.

Creativity: Sculptor Jason Arkles

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

 

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I have two answers to this question, I think. At a larger scale, I suppose my forte is also my motivation – I have an unending thirst to know more about sculpture – how to make it, why to make it, the history and future of it, what it means to myself, to the culture, and so on. I’ll never stop learning because there is just so much to learn – I’ll never be master of it all. That motivates me to learn more, and thus my forte appears to be that I approach the question of sculpture a little more holistically than others might. I’m an art historian and commentator on sculpture as much as I am a sculptor; my broad interest in sculpture has led me to become concentrated on the broader questions and the bigger picture of what I do.

On a more practical level, my forte is marble carving. It’s a bit of a niche these days to carve marble figuratively, especially in the field of portraiture, in which I specialize. I know a lot of people who can model a good clay portrait bust, and I know a lot of people who can carve marble, but very few who can do both. And what motivated me to do what I do is simply a love of the process. I am a sculptor because I love to sculpt, more than I love just about anything. It’s a joy I am fortunate to experience daily.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Well, it never really has run dry. It’s not like I am a creative genius with a thousand ideas, it’s just that sculpture is a long process and it’s not always possible to get things done right the first time — I am still experimenting with ideas I first formulated ten years ago or more. The way I do it, I only need about 6 good ideas to riff on to fill a career’s worth of work. I have no problem with redoing an idea over and over until it’s right. Most of my ‘real’ work never leaves the studio, because I am content to wait until I’ve nailed what I have set out to do before I let it go. I am fortunate in that I don’t depend financially on constantly producing work; I teach and do private commissions to pay the rent, and get to spend the rest of my time on working ‘my’ ideas out in clay or stone.

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How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

This is a difficult question for me – because I don’t really ever worry about authenticity of voice. Self-expression is not really high on the list with my work, in terms of what I value. I would rather find creative ways to tell stories about other people with my work; I am an unabashed narrative sculptor, and I think there are a million more interesting stories out there than the story of who I am or how I feel about things. At the same time, I’m not a robot, and how I feel about things is just going to come out in my work even if I don’t want it to. That’s the same for everyone too – I think it’s a mistake to overly concern oneself about self-expression because it’s so easy to overthink it, and then what you get isn’t true self-expression, but something a bit forced, maybe even subconsciously edited. As for social media, I find it to be a bit of a motivator to keep working when I see all the fantastic sculptors out there doing so much good work.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

Gosh, I have been doing it all my life, it never really was a conscious decision that I made. I grew up in a household where my parents were always working with their hands, whether it was woodworking or quilting or cooking or carpentry, so it was natural to me. My parents have always encouraged my pursuits and are quite proud of me, for which I am very grateful. I can’t say being an American specifically has affected my work, though I think that perhaps Americans might have an appreciation for traditional figurative sculpture than many Italians, or at least Florentines, do not seem to, simply because we didn’t grow up surrounded by it all the time.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

I get antsy. Working in the studio takes me out of myself like nothing else, and after a long day’s work I feel tired and at the same time more centred, focused, and in some ways energized than when I started the day. I don’t like going for too long without that, the way others might feel restless or rudderless when forgoing meditation or prayer for too long.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Failure is an opportunity to learn, I truly believe that. Half of getting better is making every mistake you can make, then remembering not to do it again. It’s not the idea that fails, it’s my lack of understanding the key to make that idea work that’s the issue. So I approach the idea in a different way, and maybe I make the idea succeed in a way I never would have imagined at first. People think creativity is a matter of having lots of different ideas – that’s maybe half of it. The other half is opening yourself to the possibility of taking your work down paths you didn’t initially intend to go.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

I’m a very selfish worker, I want to keep all the fun to myself, so I almost never have had an assistant or co-collaborator. I got my start in the arts in the theatre, and the thing I disliked the most about the theatre is its collaborative nature. A production is only as strong as the weakest link – sometimes I was a strong link and sometimes I was a weak link, and I found both experiences to be unsatisfactory. I like the solitary nature of the sculptor. And as much as I don’t concern myself with self-expression in my work, I greatly value each piece I make as a record of my personal interaction with the world and with the craft, undiluted by the ideas or desires, or skills or limitations, of others. Sink or swim, it’s mine. Everything I make is a record of my limits as much as it is of my talents and I am content with that.

Having said that, I would love to develop a professional relationship with a like-minded architect. I have an interest in architecture and architectural sculpture that I cannot give voice to on my own. If I ever find the right one I think it would be a very stimulating experience.

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Tympanum for the Church of Our Saviour, Los Angeles 2012, marble

 

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

What have I done to overcome struggle? I haven’t overcome it. I endure it. You just push on and suffer until you are no longer suffering, or until you decide that it’s not worth it. There’s no secret to it, really. I have achieved a certain level of success, but each level has its own set of problems. About success, though – Every successful artist I know arrived at their success in a fairly novel way. My advice to those starting out is that emulation of the career paths of others will only get you so far. A huge factor of success is doing things in a way no one else is, and so looking to others for guidance, following a well-worn path, can be a hindrance. Because you will be walking that path alongside plenty of others all trying to be successful in that same way.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Being creative, when I am really in the flow of things, doesn’t feel like working, even if I’m spending all day sweating under a large marble sculpture. It’s such a luxury to have a job that, when you are doing your best and working your hardest, doesn’t feel like work at all. I also appreciate setting my own schedule and trying different things, taking risks and setting my own priorities. It’s been a long time since I have been someone else’s employee, and I don’t miss it.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

It’s an interesting question these days, with the new awareness of ‘fake news’. Propaganda almost always comes packaged in art, whether it’s a political poster, music, a film, or a Civil War memorial. I think the responsibility of every artist who is commissioned to create a work of art is to be cognizant of the client’s motives in commissioning that work. Commissioning a work is an act of expression, as much as making that work is.

Creativity: Photographer & Book Artist Bob Blesse

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

For more than thirty years, American Bob Blesse was the director of the Black Rock Press, an internationally recognized book arts program in the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno. He taught undergraduate and graduate courses in traditional and contemporary book arts—letterpress printing, bookbinding, and papermaking and lectured extensively on the history of printing and the book arts. He directed the publishing activities of the Black Rock Press, producing hand-printed, limited edition books and broadsides; he has also designed over fifty award-winning trade editions of contemporary literature. Recently, he has been focusing his artistic activity in the field landscape photography, traveling extensively in Europe and particularly Italy, where he and his wife, Victoria Davies, live in Florence.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I love the natural world and having the opportunity to connect with nature through landscape photography. I am constantly learning and am motivated by the challenges of making creative and insightful images, which show nature in all its diverse moods and emotions. If I am successful in creating an image that elicits a powerful emotional response then I’ve achieved some success. I am motivated by the sometimes long journey that leads to a rewarding image; preliminary planning and research, and the on-site search for essential light and a cohesive composition. Finally, I am motivated by the challenge of taking a raw image and giving it my artistic interpretation in the digital darkroom.

Whatever success I’ve had as a landscape photographer has come through hard work. I spend a great deal of time looking at the work of the most successful and creative photographers, from Ansel Adams to present day professionals. I read and study the techniques of photography through books and online resources. Most importantly, I learn by constantly evaluating and critiquing my work and seeking the opinion of others.

 

BOB BLESSE PHOTO

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

First of all, I try not to worry about it, because I know creativity will eventually return. Sometimes I get very frustrated when nothing seems to work, I can’t find the right composition, the light just isn’t good, or the bloody weather won’t cooperate. Sometimes part of the answer is to put my camera down, so I can intimately and quietly observe my surroundings. Often, as if by magic, a previously unnoticed composition appears. For a landscape photographer, it is also important to put oneself in a venue that will stimulate creativity. It is also helpful for me to go back and study the images of the great photographers. At other times, if I can’t seem to make a good photograph myself, I try to look at great photographs others have made to give me some inspiration.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I believe that my authentic self/voice is constantly changing, shifting, blending into different areas—that’s exciting. I’m always trying to think of new ways to approach photography, I’m not interested in producing pretty “postcards,” so my individual style is always developing.

The social media sites, e.g. Instagram and Facebook, are filled with beautiful and creative landscape images. The development of the digital camera over the past twenty years, along with processing resources such as Adobe Lightroom, has placed tools in the hands of the masses that enable a multitude of people to create images, some good, some bad. Every day I see dozens of images on FB and Instagram, which I view with a critical eye, seeing them as an opportunity to learn and grow in my own work.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I have been involved with creative processes since I was in high school when I took many art classes. I have always been interested in photography and took my first photography course in 1978, learning to compose and process black and white film images. I will never forget the magic of my first image appearing in the developing tray. In the following years I always had a camera and was forever taking photos, though more snapshots than thoughtful images. I do remember in the mid-1990s standing on the valley floor in Yosemite capturing images of the sunset on El Capitan—a seminal moment? In 2006 I a fantastic 5-day landscape photography workshop at Lake Tahoe in California which really ignited my passions for the work I’m doing now. In the past few years I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to beautiful places in Europe to take landscape images. I enjoy new venues and also returning to places I’ve photographed many times.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

For me, it is very frustrating when everyday life gets in the way of creative practice. I feel a lack of fulfilment and accomplishment. For the most part, however, I’ve always had different creative outlets, so there seems to always be something imaginative to do.

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How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I believe that for all artists there are always more failures than successes. This is particularly true when learning a new craft. Fulfilment comes with study, persistence, and hard work. In any artistic craft, basic techniques must be learned and practiced diligently for them to develop. It is only when a certain level of proficiency is achieved that true individual creativity will occur. As someone who taught studio art for almost thirty-five years, I know first-hand how frustrated art students can get when they are starting out. Critique sessions can sometimes be particularly devastating when constructive comments seem more like criticism. I always advised them to take small steps, go slow, and don’t get frustrated. Small triumphs will begin to occur. In my own work I understand that the vast majority of the photographs I capture won’t make the cut. A few excellent images from a week-long workshop is an outstanding success when I’ve taken several hundred photos.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

Landscape photography is rather individual, rather than collaborative work. In my other creative field of artist bookmaking, however, I’ve done a great deal of collaboration. The synergy of working with another artist can be fantastic as ideas are developed and shared.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Making a career as an artist and of supporting oneself with one’s art is admirable goal. Over the years I have counselled dozens of talented art students who wanted to do this. My advice has always been to find some means of support while you develop as an artist—you can’t make good art if you are starving. Get a decent job and create art; if you are a visual artist approach galleries; put your photography online; if a writer, submit your work to magazines and journals—establish yourself before you try to find an agent. Another approach is to follow an academic career path by working toward an MFA or other graduate degree with the ultimate goal of both teaching and creating art. I was fortunate that my career as a university professor enabled me to both teach and practice my own creative work.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

For me, photography and my work as a book artist and designer has been extremely fulfilling. To bring joy, thoughfulness, and emotion to others through my work is quite rewarding. Creating art gives my life focus and purpose, which motivates me to concentrate on producing art I believe is significant. It also gives me the opportunity to meet and interact with other like-minded artists to share work and experiences. I feel fortunate that over the years my work has enabled me to meet and develop friendships with so many talented artists and writers—such an enrichment to my life.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I believe that art and artists make a hugely significant contribution to human growth and our society. Without art, music, theatre, creative and fictional writing, our society would be without a soul. Art gives natural beauty and emotion and to our world and fills it with inspiration and imagination. It fosters thoughtfulness along with social and political awareness. Art can be something we all relate to, but it can also challenge us and be a catalyst for change.

I believe that people look for art they can connect with, artwork that will touch or move them on an emotional level. If my work can make this emotional connection with someone, then I have succeeded. Given this, I believe it is my goal or “responsibility” to try to take my work to a deeper emotional level than just a “pretty picture.” I believe the emotional element of a photographic image is its most important aspect, so if I am staying true to the concept I want to convey in an image, I must create a composition that conveys this.

Creativity: Designer Dominique Simmons

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Born in Germany and raised in Texas, Dominique Simmons is fashion designer with ambitious plans to inspire the world by using fashion as his platform. After graduating from Texas Woman’s university with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design, Dominique moved to Florence, Italy to continue his journey as a designer. While living in Italy, Dominique began his own company which specializes in high end dresses and handbags. The name of his company is GWENIVX (representing Great Women Evolving Nations and 1 Peter 5:10 (IVX)). Dominque is currently working on his handbag collection which will soon be released on his website.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I am motivated by the pure joy of creating something that never existed. The power of creation excites me to the point where an overwhelming sense of happiness overtakes my entire body.

After I create a beautiful design, I thank God for blessing me with an idea and the skill to construct an amazing work of art. I then show my newly created design to my parents and their excitement propels my excitement to another dimension. At that point, I am overly excited and as a result, I usually run for miles to release my energy that has come from the excitement of creating a beautiful design.

My forte is the confidence that I have gained from the encouragement and the support from my parents. Their consistent support over the years has given me a strong sense of security and freedom as a designer. In the world of design, I believe that there is nothing compared to a designer who is free and secure in who they are. I admire others who through support and encouragement of loved ones, leave the nest of fear and soar into their destiny.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Fortunately, I am blessed to say that over the years, my creative well has begun to overflow to the point where I tend to draw new ideas from old wells. Many of my current designs are actually inspired from ideas that came to me years ago. Recently, my mother found an abundant number of sketches that I completely forgot about. There were so many amazing sketches, that between her admiring my innovative designs and categorizing all of the sketches into different piles, it took her quite some time to store everything away. I have a large amount of new designs that I am excited to produce, however, in the future, I am definitely looking forward to going into that storage to produce many of my old sketches as well. Creativity is a gift that every human being was born with. As long as we have air in our bodies, I truly believe that our creativity will never cease.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

Ever since I was a child, my parents constantly empowered me with encouraging ideas and positive words to the point were truly began to believe that I was special at an early age in life. Birthmarks are amazing features of the human body, however for some people that can cause issues of insecurity. I was born with a birthmark on my hand and my parents constantly told me that the birthmark on my hand meant I was special. It worked and I actually believed it! My parents always found a unique way to empower my brother and me when we were younger. Now today as an adult, I truly believe that I am special not only as a designer but as a human being. As stated before, this consistent support has given me security and freedom as a designer.

I know who I am as a designer and as a human being. Many times, people will want to change who you are through their own personal ideas or beliefs, however, if you are grounded in what you believe in, you will never change. I can honestly say that I don’t pay any attention to things on social media, so thankfully I will never have to worry about comparisons.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influences you?

Growing up with my older brother Marcus, his playful spirit inspired me to use my creativity on a daily basis. We would invent games to play and create characters to act out when we would wrestle in the house. My brother and I viewed objects, environments, and circumstances from a creative perspective when we were younger. If we were in a store with our mother while she was shopping, we viewed the clothing racks in the store as a great opportunity to play hide and seek.

Many people associate creativity only with art, however, for my family, creativity was a way of thinking and viewing a situation from another perspective.

On family trips, my mother and father wood invent games to play while we were travelling on the highway. My dad would create a fun game, and my mother would adjust the rules to make the game practical. We would see a sign on the road, and then my dad would spontaneously create a game to see how many words we could spell from the words ‘grocery store’. It was always fun competition, therefore you had to think quick and articulate your words correctly. I later learned that these games that were created by my family was actually training me to view things from a different perspective Now today as a fashion designer, I can look at a scrap of leather or a yard of fabric and see an amazing design.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

For me, a creative impulse is a blessing because it is my body telling me that it is time to create something inspiring. I love what I do and I am at my best when I am doing it. I am the best version of me when I am sewing, sketching, or using my hands to construct a design. The atmosphere of a creative environment is alluring to me. Hearing the revving of a sewing machine and watching an idea come to life on a dress form never get old to me. Therefore, when I receive an impulse to create something inspiring, I get excited!

Living in an inspiring and amazing country such as Italy, I am constantly bombarded with creative impulses. Florence is overflowing with so many talented and gifted people, that it is difficult to ignore any creative impulse that comes to me. On one street, you will see a band giving a live performance, on another street you will see an artist painting something interesting, and then on your way home you will see a performer entertaining a large crowd of tourist. For me, when I see people creating, I want to run to the studio and turn on the sewing machine and create something amazing.

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How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

As a designer, I believe it is how you view the problem that determines the outcome of your idea.

If you view a problem as a failed idea, it will be so; however, if you view the problem as a platform for a greater idea, the door for opportunity is instantly opened. A stain on a shirt can be viewed as a problem for most people; however, that small stain can also be a large opportunity for someone to create a way to remove stains from shirts. Furthermore, I tend to look at obstacle as an opportunity of creative something innovative and majestic. I love feedback, especially honest feedback that will improve an idea or design. Iron sharpens iron and I love been around people who will not only sharpen me as a designer but as a human being. When negative feedback comes around, I smile, wave, and then politely walk away from it. I am extremely competitive and most of the time when competitive people hear negative feedback, our first response comes in the form of” I’ll show them!” Competitive people usually use the source of the negative feedback as motivation to prove that source wrong. When I played football, I would use negative feedback as a source of motivation to train harder and lift heavier weights. Fashion design is a completely different from the gladiator based world of football.

Instead of thinking about who I am going to out muscle on the football field, I no think about what type of fabric will look best with a new design that I have created.

When I design, I cannot use negative energy as a source for motivation. My process of designing is so intimate and spiritual, that I can’t allow negativity to infiltrate into the atmosphere of my design process. If my design process is infiltrated by a small particle of negativity, my final design will have absorbed some of this negativity and instead of rejoicing over another glorious creation, I will be constantly reminded of the negative feedback that I received regarding that particular design. Furthermore, it is best for me to resist negativity and keep the purity level of my design process at a high level.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

I was raised in the state of Texas and close to Texas is the state of New Orleans. New Orleans is known for a lot of great recipes and one of its most known recipes is an amazing dish called Gumbo. Gumbo is usually cooked in a large pot and anything you can think of is floating in that pot. Shrimp, crabs, chicken, rice, vegetables and plethora of appetizing ingredients are all being cooked in this one large pot. The aroma alone is enough to make you want to give it a taste.

Gumbo would not be what it is without the vast assortment of foods collaborating together. Our entire planet is in constant collaboration every second. Seed is collaborating with soil, plants are collaborating with water and humans are collaborating with other humans to create life. I love the power of collaboration!

I produced a large art exhibit a few years ago that featured dancers, musicians, painters, photographers, and writers. The experience of working with some many creative artists was exhilarating. One of those most amazing things about producing an art exhibit with a diverse group of artists was that it brought so many amazing human beings together for something positive. Art is not just painting or drawing but true art is created when people come together and show love and kindness to one another. To see people from different cultures and backgrounds come together for a positive art exhibit was certainly a beautiful piece of art that I will never forget.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

As a designer, I believe that you can never truly put a dollar amount on art. There is no amount of money that can replace the excitement that I feel when I create a beautiful design. To transform an idea into a tangible object that will inspire millions of people around the world is a sacred feeling that should never be replaced for the lust of financial reward. This belief is what drives me to continue creating beautiful designs, not just the money. Money will come and go, however, passion, inspiration, and the love of creating art will last for a lifetime.

I love visiting shops to observe older artisans working on their creations. There is one artisan here in Florence who inspires me every time I walk past his shop. Observing him hunched over on his chair and passionately focusing on the masterpiece in front of his eyes, is one of the most inspiring sites to see. Even though he is up in age, his passion for creating is still burning.

The formula for a designer who wants to sell their creation is complex but simple; if the design that you create truly appeals to a customer’s eye, then they will purchase it. We are inquisitive human beings and our eyes are instinctively attracted to beautiful things. Our brain constantly reminds us of the beautiful things that we have seen and as a result we have frequent impulses to obtain these things. Therefore, my advice to someone starting out is to focus on creating amazing work and eventually the financial rewards will come.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

The best thing is that I am able to see the joy and excitement of a woman who wears one of my designs. The amazing thing about being a fashion designer is that I get to create art that people can wear. Not only do I view myself as a fashion designer, however, I also view myself as an author. Each design that I create, has a story and the woman wearing my design continues to spread the story to other people. Every design idea that I receive, comes from God. I construct every design from the passion that dwells within my heart. My message in all of my designs is love. Love your neighbour, friend, enemy and most of all, love yourself. The fact that I can use my gift of creating inspiring designs to spread the message of love is what enriches my life. The purpose of my brand is to empower millions of women through fashion. Each time a model wears one of my designs, I always encourage her of how amazing and inspiring she is. Everyone needs to be encouraged and it brings great joy to my heart when I know that my words of encouragement made a difference in a woman’s life.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

As a designer, I have a great amount of influence which requires a great amount of responsibility. I have two precious nieces that I love very much. I recently designed two dresses for them to walk in during a fashion show. At a young age, they had an amazing opportunity to model in a fashion show and to be able see themselves as elegant young girls. My older niece was empowered by walking down a runway in an amazing dress and encouraged by a crowd of people who cheered her on. Her inner beauty glowed so bright that night that it was seen on the outside.

A dress will not make a woman beautiful, all woman are beautiful. An amazing dress can only compliment a woman beauty; therefore, my responsibility is to continue to create amazing designs that empower and compliment the beauty of all women.

I also have a responsibility in the way I operate my company and how I portray the image of my brand. Young and older woman are constantly bombarded with images in magazines that have a major influence in their lives. I have a responsibility of how I portray each woman wearing one of my designs for an ad. Photos live for generations, and they spread to various parts of the world with one click of a button. I want my fashion ads to be used as tools for parents to show their daughters how they can still be stunning and not have to lower their standards for anyone.

Creativity: Book Artist and Printmaker Patricia Silva

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Born in Brazil but raised in the United States, Patricia Silva received a BFA in Art History/Studio Arts from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. After graduation, she worked for 10 years as a graphic designer and art director in the publication industry before her interests led her to pursue further studies overseas. She traveled to Italy to study in Syracuse University’s graduate program in Italian Renaissance Art History and while completing her research in the historical archives of Florence, she became enamoured with bookbinding and the art of the book.

She began her studies of bookbinding with a local Florentine artisan and, eventually, returned to the US to complete an MFA in Book Arts and Printmaking at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She interned in the book conservation labs of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and of the Library Company in Philadelphia. She has also worked as a book conservation technician at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifact in Philadelphia.

Currently, Patricia lives and works in Florence, Italy where she runs a private studio specializing in custom bookworks and limited edition artist’s books. Her work may be found in private and institutional collections in The US, Italy and Brazil. For the past 20 years, she has taught courses in Book Arts, Printmaking and the History of the Book with several universities and institutions. Patricia also organizes and leads private bespoke workshops for individuals and small groups.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

One of the reasons I gravitated to the field of Book Arts is that it allowed for the exploration of a variety of techniques and media. I think it is this “license to explore” that truly motivates me in my craft and, within that, my forte is my sense of curiosity and desire to try new things. If I feel an artist’s book I am projecting would benefit from the inclusion of gilding or embroidery or beading, then I will joyfully research and immerse myself in learning those techniques.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

All creative people go through the highs and lows of creative inspiration. What helps me most to get through the drier moments is to be in contact with other creative minds. Even if these others work in completely different fields, the below the surface hum of the flow of their creative thought is often enough to nudge me to new endeavours.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I find that social media is a two-edged sword. Though it can be a wonderful resource for connecting with other artists and creators, viewing innovative work which otherwise would be inaccessible and dialoguing with like-(or not)-minded people, to me it is also at times a source of anxiety because of the subtle game of one-upmanship that often suffuses social media. There are moments when I just need to unplug and focus on what is on my workbench.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

I don’t think I can point to a single moment or period of my life when I was suddenly aware that I would pursue a creative life’s work. From a very young age, art was my chosen road and, fortunately, I was raised in a family which supported that choice.
Though this might date me a bit, I do recall the moment when I entered an MFA program in the US and for the first time I was asked to address my professors by their first names. The sudden realization that with that small gesture they were essentially acknowledging my right to dialogue as an “equal” with them was liberating and empowering. To this day, in all the classes I teach, no matter the age of my students, I insist they address me by my first name.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses e.g. if you don’t practice for a while?

Considering that I juggle my own artistic work with my teaching practices, it does not often happen that I find myself ignoring my creative impulses. There may be moments when I spend less time on my own art, but at those times I am usually funneling my creativity into my university classes, private classes or commissioned work. I find that each type of work feeds the others and, I often receive inspiration from one that leads to exploration in another.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

I guess I never really consider an idea as failed. If it is not working, or I receive negative feedback, I return to the drawing board (literally) and try to re-work the idea. Ultimately, if it does not come together to my satisfaction, I pack it up, label it and tuck it away in my “work in progress” cabinet. I have faith that its moment will eventually come.

The Dreamer, the Doer

The Dreamer, the Doer

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

From 2014 to 2016, I worked on a series of collaborative artists’ book projects with the artist and writer, Lyall Harris. The projects began as exercises to motivate one another to explore a variety of avenues of expression. By the end, we had produced a series of 12 artists’ books (each in an edition of 2) dealing with topics as diverse as women’s identity, motherhood, loss, organ transplantation and the immigration crisis in Europe. For both of us, I believe, the experience was extremely fulfilling, challenging, revelatory and highly satisfying. For myself, I was pushed to explore new uses of language and media as well as to delve into topics outside my comfort zone. I feel the experience allowed me to grow greatly as an artist. Lyall and I have been so satisfied with the collaborative process that we have continued working together on newer works which have been exhibited in various venues in Italy and the US.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Like many other artists, I too have a “day job” to help with financial needs. I am a professor with several American university programs in Florence. I began teaching after my daughter was born thinking that teaching a class once or twice a week would be manageable. Little did I expect that I would truly enjoy teaching and the exchange of ideas and viewpoints with my students. My advice to my students who are just starting out in their artistic endeavors is to work on their art as much as feasibly possible and, if they need to get a “day job,” to try to find something that enriches them creatively and not just monetarily. A job in the arts is the obvious choice, but any work undertaken with a sense of curiosity and engagement can add to your creative reserve.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I guess that best thing about working creatively is that one quickly learns that there is always more than one way to look at things. In a painting or an artist’s book or a sculpture, there is never the ONE correct solution to how it should look or be resolved. The same can be said for many of life’s problems.

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Re-member

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

That is a loaded question, especially in the current times we live in. In my opinion, the role of the arts/artist in society is to question. To focus a light on an issue, a moment, a situation or an object, which causes the viewer to pause, if only for a second, and to consider. I am not an artist with answers, I do not feel that is my responsibility or my gift, I am an artist with many, many questions.

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Creativity: Stylist and Designer Jill Anderson

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Jill Wilde is an Irish designer, stylist, and costume designer with over twelve years of experience in the Fashion Industry. Frustrated by what she saw as a lack of choice, she decided to use her skills to create a unique offering for alternative brides and Wilde by Design was born. Through Wilde by Design, she offers bespoke wedding dresses, veils, and cloaks to suit individual looks and personalities Jill’s background as a stylist means that she sees each bride as an individual and crafts her pieces with an eye to the total effect. Her latest venture inspired by her daughter Mia is called La La Wilde which produces vintage clothes with organic fabrics from authentic vintage patterns.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?
I love creating beautiful designs. There is something magical about creating an item of clothing that people get joy from wearing.  If someone feels that they look good it gives them a great confidence and I hope that in some small part my designs have helped them achieve that confidence.  
I suppose my strength would be bespoke designs; meeting my clients listening to what they want and then making their vision become a reality.  I have always been interested in people, hearing their stories, knowing what makes them tick and I think that it is this that means I really listen to what they want and do my utmost to give it to them.  Yes, I feel sometimes that in today’s society we are all a bit too self-centred. I know you have to look after yourself but too often when we meet people we are too driven to tell them what is going on in our world that we don’t have the time to listen to what they have to say.  
When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to? 
My designs are always character driven.  Be that from a book or a film.  I have to say that when the creative well is dry I pick up a good book or snuggle up on the couch with a film, anything from the glamorous Hollywood musical era to fantasy films.  
I get a lot of inspirations from fabrics as well.  Sometimes it is the feel and the flow of the fabrics that give me my ideas.  You will often find me whiling away an afternoon walking around the fabric shops in Dublin. 
How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this? 
I think as I am getting older it is easier to maintain my authentic self.  I have more confidence in my own vision and am not constantly trying to recreate what is on trend.  My style is very much my own and I am not swayed by the catwalk or the current fad.  However, I do feel sorry for young designers as while social media brings a vast research resource to your fingers it can be overwhelming.  If you find yourself needing the validation that social media brings, having so many likes on one of your designs, you can be easily pushed over the edge. 
When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you? 
My family have always been very supportive, especially my grandfather.  I remember spending many Saturday afternoons sitting at his kitchen table while he taught me how to use his sewing machine.  I always loved fashion, clothes and fabrics but it took me a while to find out that my love was for designing.  My career started more as a hobby than anything else when I worked as a stylist. Unfortunately, in Ireland, fashion styling as a career is no longer viable as there are too many people offering their services for free.  However, this led me to costume design, which I loved.  It is the perfect way for me to express my creativity as you are not shackled by the need for clothes to be wearable every day.  You can really let your imagination run wild.  I suppose that is why I have ended up in Bridal Design, which is my true passion.   A wedding dress is not practical in any way shape or form rather a completely magical garment that is the epitome of romance. 
What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while? 
To be honest I never have – that I suppose is a failing in itself as it means that I am always working. However, for me, it doesn’t feel like work. 
How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?
I am a sensitive individual and I do find it hard when an idea fails or I get strong negative feedback.  I always admire individuals who seem to let everything roll off their back.  Again as I get older I am getting better and try to take the learnings out of what happened and move on.  However, that is not to say that I don’t disappear with a large bar of Dairy Milk chocolate and nurse my wounded pride for at least an afternoon!!! 
Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile? 
I have recently started collaborating with a jewellery designer for my new collection of wedding dresses.  It is so exciting as she brings a completely different dimension to what I am doing.  
Always on shoots, I would work with a team of make-up artists, hairstylists and wedding stylists and I love to see what vision they bring.  I always leave a shoot brimming with ideas for more designs. 
Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out? 

Am sure everyone has heard the saying “if you do what you love then you will never work a day in your life.” While on the one hand, it is true, on the other hand, if you are slaving away working every day and a lot of the time late into the night for little or no financial reward then it very definitely seems like work.  Some amount of payment is important for your own self-esteem. However, I don’t know any designer who would give it up to work in an office 9 – 5; the personal satisfaction you receive is second to none.  

As a trained drama teacher,  I am lucky as I can always dip into my drama teaching for some extra money if a month is particularly hard or if I need extra money to finish a bridal collection.  I am happy to say I haven’t needed to do this for a while but the first few years it was very tough.  

I would recommend that anyone starting out should have some money set aside for marketing and promotions.  This is one area that I completely overlooked.  It doesn’t matter how amazing your designs are, if no one knows about them no, one will buy them.  This is soul destroying.  

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

I suppose I never have the Sunday night blues.  But simply put it makes my life better.  I don’t feel that I am wasting my time in this world. Rather I am filling every day with what I love to do. 
How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?
I  feel that the arts are so important and the importance they have in our education system is overlooked.  I have seen artists work with children with special needs helping them to express themselves and the enjoyment the children get from the classes is incredible. 

Previously I worked with an Irish clothes designer and he used to tell me that it was his responsibility to create beautiful garments for everyone to enjoy to bring some happiness into the world.  I kind of like that philosophy! 

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Creativity: Poet Annette Skade

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

 

Annette Skade lives on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. Her first collection Thimblerig was published in 2013. She has been published in Ireland, the UK and the U.S and has been successful in international poetry competitions. In October 2017 she won the Florence Writers and Irish Writers Centre‘s writing residency with St Mark’s English Church. She is currently doing a PhD on the poetry of Anne Carson at Dublin City University.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at/curious about this aspect? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I have loved poetry all my life, though I came late to writing it.  I love the way it distils language and demands that no word is used that isn’t absolutely necessary. This love of poetry means I get massive enjoyment out of reading or hearing the work of other poets. In my own poetry I try to see things differently, to make unusual connections and to give simple words new energy. Every word has to be thought about, placed just where it needs to be, every line break needs to be considered – but it should look effortless. Due to reading so much I have a wide vocabulary, and very rarely use a thesaurus. I’m more inclined to check examples from an old copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (complete with magnifying glass), which I was given as a present. The sound of the poem is really important too, and I read my poems aloud many times as I write. I love rhymes and chimes but wouldn’t force a line or phrase to include one. I scan all my poems too, sometimes using a formal structure, sometimes not, but always thinking about the rhythms, whether the lines sound heavy or light, whether they reflect meaning, whether a pivotal word needs a change in rhythm, like a faltering step, or snag. Finally, form has become more and more important to me as space around lines and stanzas can allow a poem to breathe. I respond to ordinary things in the environment around me, or to what people tell me, because there is something about the objects or stories that fascinates me, that I want to explain to myself. My feelings or memories might be shown through a common object or process. My poem “Knitting a Father from Nettles” is an example of this. Others do this so well: the modernist poet, Basil Bunting; contemporary poets such as Paula Meehan, Lavinia Greenlaw, Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Mark Doty and , further back in time, George Herbert who explores his belief in God through descriptions of a pulley, or the church floor.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I read poetry, when I can’t write it. Reading some great poems can spark something or can make me want to try harder. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sleeping Standing Up”, for example, made me think of a situation in my experience when the world made a quarter turn, and resulted in my poem about vertigo, “Rooted”, which appears in my collection Thimblerig. I also edit work I’ve already done. Every poem needs to be looked at and worked on so many times that this task is always available. I might also focus on the ‘business end’ of poetry, submit some poems, plan a workshop, update my website. Basically, I think it’s important to keep a link with the work. To get myself writing again, I take some idea or image I’ve been thinking about and I just write, without thinking too hard about it, and in, maybe, three pages a few words might give me an in, or a good idea to take further. As I always start with a notebook and pen, sometimes I look back through old notebooks for ideas or starts. This can be a painfully slow process, and you have to be patient with it.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

It seems I only have one voice, which modulates to some extent according to subject, rather as ordinary speech might. Rather than maintaining it, I have to be brave enough not to disguise it. This was a big problem for me starting out, when I was daunted by people saying “What are you on about?” or “Why do you make all these references to Greek myths?” Over ten years ago I did a weeklong workshop with Paula Meehan, which taught me many things, but the most useful one was to stop attempting to disguise my voice to fit in with what I think other people expect. I felt released! Shortly afterwards I began to get published.

I first went on Twitter and set up a website at the behest of my publishers. Personally, I have to be feeling strong to use social media, not because of comparisons- I love the access it gives me to the work of others- but for the negativity you can encounter. I don’t mean personal attacks or criticism, but a general pulling down: when, for example, a well-known person like Mary Beard has spoken incautiously and is attacked, and has her views twisted. I have also felt tremendously supported through Twitter and have actually met people who have changed my creative life through it. It’s also a great way to share work that has been published on line. The main thing to remember is that it’s not obligatory and you can take a break from it whenever you like.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Did/Does you national identity influence you?

When I was at school I was exposed to so many great poets ranging from Plath to T.S.Eliot, Wordsworth to Wilfred Owen, and at university I saw an amazing but baffling John Cage and Merce Cunningham collaboration, and read Sappho and Homer. I remember once trying to write some poems but I soon got frustrated with how lame they were compared to these greats and I gave up.

Much later a friend asked me to go to a poetry workshop with her and, very slowly, I began to get some poems together. Starting out, I think I felt embarrassed by my poetry and kept quiet about it. In 2010, as I started to get published, my immediate family were supportive enough but not really interested in reading my poems or going to readings with me. I think they picked up on my embarrassment! An exception to this was my daughter, Aoife, who was very encouraging and helped me to believe in myself. On the whole, I think friends have been really supportive. When, in 2013, Thimblerig was launched in Bantry by Ruth Padel so many of my friends came. I was on top of the world! Also, when I read in Manchester, my cousins and my older son, Mike, came to hear me read and I was really happy they were there. It was a great night! My mum was very proud when my collection was published and all my Manchester relatives bought extra copies! These days my family in Ireland come to more readings and my younger son Cormac, has collaborated with me for a project where my poems are set to music. He also records me reading my poetry for audio projects. I think we’ve all got over the embarrassment.

With regard to nationality, I’m Mancunian first and English second. I think your body learns the geography of where you are brought up at a young age, like young swallows learn home territory so they can make it back there. This geography is hard-wired into you. I’ve lived in Ireland for nearly thirty years and many of my poems respond to what I see around me and I like to stay present in that environment. However, when I go back into memory, my upbringing comes back to me. It also influences the language I choose and might explain my preferences for plain words in my poetry. It’s my bedrock.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while?

It’s been a long time since I’ve ignored my creative impulses, but there has been a recent period of several months when, due to a bereavement, I stopped writing, or even reading, poetry. I couldn’t open my heart to it. Even then, after the first few weeks at least, I was writing, but it was academic writing I turned to. In my opinion academic writing is still a creative act, requiring a lively mind, and leaps in intelligence. For real ground-breaking work it’s necessary for your mind to occupy the same space as it does when writing poetry, for some of the time. For those first few months of grieving I confined myself to the dogged persistence required for recording and interpreting. Finally, after meeting with a poet friend who urged me to start submitting again, I began to send out work I’d been writing over the previous two or three years, editing as I went. What actually got me writing again properly was a WomenXBorders event at the Irish Writers Centre and going to a Dublin-based writers group, the Hibernians, which I hadn’t attended for a good while. Both these events were so supportive, so inspiring in the work I was privileged to listen to and read, that they gave me the jolt I needed. It’s so important to meet with other writers, but equally important that you come out of those meetings feeling ready to write more. If you don’t, go elsewhere! It’s so easy to have your creative spirit crushed. On foot of those submissions which my friend advised, two poems of mine were published online and another was accepted for an anthology. This was an affirmation just when I needed it – a reminder that if you don’t submit work, you can’t have it published!

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get a bad review? How do you cope with the negative feedback?

There is some complaining on Twitter of the “nobody writes negative reviews anymore” variety. I can only say that it must be soul crushing to get a negative review, and I’m very glad I’ve never had one. I’m very grateful to those who have reviewed my work: Bernard O’Donoghue, Paula Meehan and Joe Woods for the cover of my book, and Christine Murray on poethead.org, Billy O’Callaghan for the Irish Examiner and Tom D’Evelyn in Ohio. However, my poems have been rejected by publishers many times. The only antidote for the let-down, is to send different poems to more than one place. If you have other poems on-stream with other publishers, it’s easier to move on if some are rejected. After all, it may not be that the poems are bad, although its always good to have another look at them, but that they just don’t fit the publication you’re aiming for.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

In 2016 I collaborated with Cormac Mac an Fhalla, a composer and graduate in Music Technology, on a work called Compartments, three of my poems set to his music, which was sited on the Dursey Island cable car as part of the Beara Arts Festival that year. I had no input into the music and it was fascinating to see how he responded to my voice saying the words. I’ve done live performances of the poems with this music in the background, which gave them new energy. Later this year, I’m collaborating with a fellow poet on a project. I’d love to do more collaboration.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I gave up a fairly well-paid job which left me little time to think, in order to write more. In 2012 I took a year off, did an MA in poetry studies and wrote most of my debut collection. I did take on some work in that period but it was the kind I could forget about once I left the office. When I went back to my normal job towards the end of 2012 it felt like a straight-jacket. I left work late in 2014 and think it was the right choice. I’m now doing a PhD on the Canadian poet Anne Carson at Dublin City University and I’m close to finishing a second collection. At first I looked into government schemes and council bursaries but the process was painstaking and frustrating. There are so many writers applying for these bursaries, some with a long track-record, and many schemes survive at the whim of Government departments. On the whole I’ve found it easier to take on just enough work to survive, in a field which doesn’t use up all my head space. I think that having some kind of income stream is important. It’s hard to write when you’re frantic about paying bills.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Writing poetry has helped me look more closely at the world around me. I have no patience with the idea of transcendence, My aim is to grub in the muck like a child with a stick. That means I have to stay out of my own head and use my eyes and ears. The other great gift it has given me is that, when I’m indoors writing, I’m constantly in dialogue with myself. I recently went to Sicily for several months. It was only when I’d stopped writing and started editing that I felt lonely. Suddenly, I asked myself, “Why am I in this foreign country on my own?”(A fact that had eluded me for about six months).

How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

I think it is true that no-one was ever saved by a poem, but it is also true that they have been comforted and helped to go on, to feel less isolated. Sometimes this may be because an idea or image sparks a recognition, sometimes it’s because the beauty of the words are uplifting, even if they deal with a dark subject. However, if you want to use examples of other people’s suffering in your work, I personally believe it’s necessary to think long and carefully about how you do it. The last time I wrote such a poem, which was based on my own experience, I thought about it for about a year before putting pen to paper.

With regard to the arts in general I think that, at this time, when Governments are only interested in getting their money’s worth, and people are commodities for social media giants to sell, creating something is a revolutionary act. The very action or process is like a banner saying that another way is possible. If you can engage another human being in this process, by sparking a response in them, so much the better.

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Creativity: Landscape and Portrait Painter Tom J. Byrne

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Tom J. Byrne began as an artist 30 years ago by working as an assistant in art schools and making art on commission. He developed a following in Ireland and after a number of busy years decided to move to Paris. He stayed there for ten years and though a struggle, managed to study with some fantastic artists, ran two art galleries and met a lot of very interesting people. Finally one of the artists on the Ile Saint Louis convinced him to study in Florence Italy with his master. This is where Tom met John Michael Angel of the Angel Art Academy in Florence, Italy.

Tom chose to focus his diverse artistic interests on landscape, one of the more difficult forms and with a lot to offer in terms of challenge. Landscapes are a celebration of nature’s diverse and complex beauty, and are ever changing and vibrant even in the depths of winter. Tom draws and paints the human figure for pleasure.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at/curious about this forte? Do you admire this aspect in others?

The first is simple, I’m motivated by the fact that I don’t have a choice. Art makes me the person I am and if I stray from that path for too long, my body and mind get out of kilter. I’m passionate about humanity and nature and although my drawings and paintings look quiet realistic I’m very interested in the abstract. My intuitive awareness is expressed when I draw and paint. I can see that in Egon Schiele, Klimpt and many other artists of the past.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Yes it does happen, especially if you’ve worked very hard. This winter it rained a lot. It had been a very busy year and my batteries were flat. I didn’t paint anything. I explored, read and spent more time with other people. To recharge I experimented with writing, finished one short story and began others. It gave me the opportunity to intensely research things I’m interested in and test concepts.

Writing is a great way to recharge creative batteries and words are powerful things. Their dictionary meaning doesn’t reflect the power they express in the spoken form so I like to be around writers discussing their works. Thankfully that’s possible in Florence.

Singing is also an amazingly creative energy. Again it’s the power of words being expressed and I’m glad to be in a choir here.

Teaching drawing is also extremely inspiring and when I see someone developing their abilities quickly it’s great feedback.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I maintain my authentic voice by searching for it all the time. It’s very hard because it’s meant to be. You have to leave society to return to it in a relevant way. It’s all about context.

Social media is such a double-edged sword. It’s done a lot of good but people are disconnected by so many points of reference that may or may not, be real, making a sense of place and purpose fragmented and pliable. For some, social digital media is their only point of reference and they aren’t connecting with themselves or things that matter. Most sense this but few can get off the merry go around.

So, in my opinion, social media stifles authenticity but gives you an idea of where the rest of the world is coming from. It gives you a point of reference regarding how people from different cultures might interpret your voice.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Were you encouraged and supported by your family? Does your national identity influence you?

Exploring my creativity gave me a way to escape my family. From a very young age it was clear I didn’t fit in but I didn’t know why so I would escape by working hard in the family business, read a lot and was always drawing. I foolishly believed what I was told and couldn’t come to terms with the way people rarely lived up to the standards they set for others. I may have had a screw loose. We had an average, large Irish family and although I was the eldest I think I got lost in the cracks as I was the most independent and healthy child. As I didn’t need a lot of attention I had to learn to be extra independent as the others all had various ailments. That was a double-edged sword for sure. It took me years to realise I needed to let other people help me from time to time and I am still surprised and deeply appreciative of people who give me genuine aid.

Ireland is an incredibly inspiring place and very beautiful. Yes, it has influenced me. There’s something in the air.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while?

It’s incredibly unhealthy and I don’t like it at all. After a short while the creativity can’t help coming back and starts bubbling up through the cracks. Usually, it’s expressed in art that could be described as deeply moody and my conversation becomes peppered with double meanings.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get a bad review? How do you cope with the negative feedback?

Ideas fail all the time and that’s fine. They’re an important part of the process. Some element that needed exploration but didn’t fit in the context of a finished painting will come back to help you later.

I like good feedback. If a person’s eyes light up on seeing my art, that’s real. If another becomes quiet and demands to purchase a painting, that’s genuine and assertive. If a person loses their sense of presence and is completely taken up experiencing the art, that’s wonderful. There are lot’s of different kinds of positive feedback and I’m just as familiar with the negative.

I love to hear criticism from people whose opinion I respect. It’s a wonderful learning opportunity. People who have no skin in the game are sometimes very free with their points of view and I’ve come to realise that that sort of negative feedback is often a reflection of the person giving it. So I watch them carefully, observing their body language and learning where their more flamboyant expressions are coming from.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

I’m always doing that but it generally is more in terms of organising events and exchanging information, advice and bouncing concepts off each other. I love it. There have been a few projects where I worked on the same painting with other artists. Notably, in 2013 I worked on several paintings with Matthew Rose (Paris) and Johanna Halford (Britain) without being in the same place. We each did one element and couriered the work on, to be worked on by the other artist. The paintings were then sent to Canada. I currently collaborate with Trinity Mitchell to promote drawing in Florence. We organise events through the facebook group “Firence Drawing Club”. I also work with Cultural Salon Firenze in their arts program, organising events for people interested in developing their artistic skills in a very liberal environment.

Was it worthwhile? I learned how to work with other creative people and met a lot of people involved in art so yes, it was. Working together is a very healthy thing.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Make a fortune first 🙂
That fortune can be a richness of experience, skills, knowledge and friends. Not everything can be measured in financial terms. The greatest resources an artist has are the ones they carry inside themselves. It’s what keeps them creating forever. When someone realizes that value, they’ll want to build up that storehouse as it’s a source that grows by giving the contents away.

Learn to improve your memory and to put things in context. Do all your work in relation to art, even if it’s not making the art itself. I’ve run art galleries, published art books, organised art events, worked in collaboration with various cultural groups and all of those processes have given me resources that I can tap into. Value money for the space it gives you to think unencumbered. Anyone who wants you to invest time into something needs to be paying you or providing resources or knowledge that you can apply to being free to think for yourself. Look after your health, it’s your greatest wealth.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

In my experience, it gives you an enormous edge. You develop tremendous focus and patience. I’m a visual artist so I make 2d and 3d art. My skills are in seeing things finished in my mind before they exist. Writers, I imagine, see things finished and then sneak up on them with words to give them flesh and meaning.

Creative people find solutions faster, combining intuition and logic and the way they communicate them can be in a variety of contexts depending on the situation they find themselves in.

How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

With great power comes great responsibility ??
Yes, sometimes I do think that and sometimes it’s scary but when you think about it everyone has a great responsibility because every single person has immense power. Rocking the boat used to be a very valuable part of culture but that was whittled away and really doesn’t exist any more. It’s often only faux rocking the boat as part of a good marketing campaign now.

So yes, we do have responsibility and great power. Especially in an age when people don’t read as much or as deeply as they used to. In an age where people don’t have time to grasp more than an image that speaks a thousand words, the content of that image can have a huge influence.

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Creativity: Author Christine de Melo

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists in all fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different in each art form. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists (in the traditional sense) and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

After obtaining an Art History degree from UMASS Dartmouth, Christine de Melo was hired by an American university to coordinate educational programs throughout Italy. In 2007, she settled in Florence to work as a tour guide. Visit her Amazon page for info on all her books, including Allegra, her latest set in 16th Florence.

What about your craft motivates you and what would you say is your forte? What do you think makes you good at this/curious about this aspect? Do you admire this aspect in others?

I love a good story. My Portuguese grandmother could keep me enthralled for hours with her fantastic tales. Luckily, I inherited her gift. When I worked as an educational tour guide in Florence, I performed “CPR” on historical figures and recounted facts in the form of exciting stories. I definitely admire anyone who can tackle topics like history, science, math, etc. and present them to the general public in a way that’s not only informative but also entertaining.

When the creative well is dry, how do you fill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

Writer’s block—the bane of every writer’s existence! I’ve learned to simply walk away whenever I get stuck. There’s always something brewing in my creative cauldron, so I have plenty of other work to do. For example, right now I have two audiobooks in production, I’m negotiating deals with bookstores, and I’m writing a new novel. I also do my own marketing and personally respond to each email received from readers. Sooner or later inspiration strikes—it always does. Also, I take a lot of walks in the countryside to clear my head.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I have finally arrived at that point in life where I’m comfortable in my own skin. This being the case, it’s natural for me to infuse my female protagonists with many of my personality traits, the most notable being rebelliousness and an aversion to patriarchal/religious oppression. “Write the book you want to read” has been my motto from the start of my writing career, so my writing style reflects my taste as a reader: concise rather than verbose, and clever dialogue to show rather than tell (keeping in mind that what isn’t said is as important as what is said). I also like suspense. Ultimately, maintaining consistency in voice and style is what makes an author’s books identifiable to readers, which goes hand in hand with branding/marketing.

Social media, when used correctly, can be a good thing. Featuring creative people on my professional C. De Melo Facebook page brings me pleasure (as many artists, sculptors, poets, musicians, writers, and dancers already know). Positive Karma is definitely a boomerang! On the flip side, I think social media can potentially harm new or young writers who haven’t yet developed their voices. They may be inclined to compare themselves to experienced authors or—worse—attempt to copy them.

When did you know that you had to use/explore your creativity in some way? Did/Does your family support/encourage you?

Despite being an extremely artistic and creative child, I was neither supported nor encouraged. The fundamentalist religion that I grew up in forbade college or any other “worldly” pursuit. At the age of 27, I finally took Shakespeare’s advice to be true to myself and never looked back. Today, many people in my family are proud of my accomplishments.

What happens if you ignore your creative impulses, i.e., if you don’t practice for a while?

Bad things happen—insomnia, depression, anxiety, to mention a few. When I get inspired to write a story, it’s like there’s a beehive inside of me and hundreds of swarming bees are demanding to get out. That’s the best analogy I can muster to illustrate my need to “release the creative kraken.”

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get a bad review? How do you cope with the negative feedback?

Learn from it, brush it off, and do better next time. Legitimate criticism is actually useful because it fosters growth and sharpens skill. The secret to dealing with negative feedback and bad reviews is to distance yourself from your work and view your book as a product. Bury your ego in the backyard. If you want to be a professional writer, you need to develop thick skin and not take things personally. Everyone is entitled to an opinion of your work, and it’s none of your business what they think of it. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are crucial to authors, but I don’t obsess over them and I never engage with reviewers.

Have you collaborated with an artist in your field and/or in another art form? Was the experience worthwhile?

In addition to being a lone wolf, I’m an obsessive-compulsive control freak and a total workaholic. Unsurprisingly, I’ve never collaborated with anyone on writing projects. As far as my artwork, my pieces have been showcased in a few group shows in US art galleries.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What have you done to overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

I wrote as a hobby for nearly two decades while working jobs that stifled my creativity. On a fluke, I self -published my first novel (SABINA) on Amazon in 2011 while working as a tour guide. I wrote other books, too, all the while keeping my “day job” for money. To my surprise and immense delight, SABINA hit #1 in Renaissance Fiction in 2014. A few months later, a literary agent found my book online and contacted me. I was briefly represented by a big NYC publishing house and, although it didn’t work out with them, that experience provided the push I needed to focus exclusively on my craft. In other words, I finally felt “good enough” to go for it. My advice is so cliché, but it’s true. Persevere. Keep writing. Dream big. The road is far from easy, but it’s so worth it.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

Is there anything better than doing what you love and getting paid for it? To me, that’s the epitome of professional and personal satisfaction. When you love your work, that positive energy naturally spills into your personal life. My husband and I travel frequently and I am so grateful that I can write from anywhere in the world.

How do you view the role of the arts in society? The role of the artist? Do you have a “responsibility” as an artist?

My degree is in Art History so I see “the arts” as a visual language. Art and Society are mirrors reflecting each other, so it’s crucial for artists to express themselves honestly and—more importantly—freely. Historically, censorship and bleak societal landscapes go hand in hand. Political or religious oppression kills creativity as well as the spirit. The arts, in their various forms, are vital to the overall good health of humankind. The open exchange of ideas (verbal or in material form) stimulates the intellect and prompts conversation, which is the hallmark of a civilized society. My responsibility as an artist, a writer, a storyteller is to express myself in a manner that is truthful and, hopefully, poignant.

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