Sunday, November 20, 2005

Expressive urges

Cathy bravely picked me up from the airport at 5am and I spent the rest of Thursday night and Friday night chez Cathy and Stu who run a delightful bed and breakfast. I enjoyed seeing them and their place and was inspired by their sense of humor and the unique and beautiful collection of objects in their home.

Stu works in a museum and is a fan of folk art or "outsider art" (he himself being the great papier maché artist). It is difficult to separate art from consumerism these days, but something about that drive to create, no matter what, is so compelling to me. Especially now.

Some quotes from a book I found next to my guest bed called John Maizel's Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond I think are worth sharing in a blog (blogs, after all, being their own form of creative self expression done mostly by “outsiders” or “nobodies,” alas!). The book begins with a discussion of what has been called "the art of the insane." As early as 1857, doctors and psychologists were collecting and discussing the art that came out of various mental institutions. First this was done to try to understand more about mental illness, but later it was used also to understand the drive to create.

One of these doctors, Hanz Prinzhorn, published an influential book in 1922 called Bidnerie der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) where he detailed his theory of the creative process. He ideas were based on his collection of visual art made by patients in institutions. He was convinced that "visual creativity was to be found not only in the realm of the cultured or the educated, but was an undeniable human trait, present within each of us from childhood onwards." He then came up with six basic human urges or tendencies that in combination could manifest themselves as different forms of artistry: the expressive urge, the playful or active urge, the decorative or ornamental urge, the ordering (rhythm and rule) urge, the copying urge, and the need for symbols." Prinzhorn rejected previous ideas that the art produced by those considered to be mad could somehow have different roots from the 'normal' creative process, arguing that all artistic expression stemmed from the same sources. ...He used the following analogy: As groundwater seeps to the surface and flows toward the stream in many rivulets, many expressive impulses run in many creative paths into the great stream of art. Neither historically nor according to psychological theory does there exist a beginning point. Instead there are many springs which finally transcend all life."

This caught my eye because there are certainly many creative impulses flowing through our house these days. Between the kid's drawings and creations, the house construction, and my own and Greg's thwarted attempts at creating papers or music or things, we are just one big, sometimes dammed up, river of creative energy. I like to think about this theory of six basic impulses and really give these urges the priority they are due, much in the same way that we value sleep and food. I like to think about expressing my urge to be decorative or ordered, or just expressing my expressing urge. It seems so necessary.

Another idea I noticed in the book is how soothing or calming this creative expression can be. There must be something about being in touch with these deep sources and creative urges that is fulfilling. One wood carver, who suffered paranoia and megalomaniacal delusions and had a violent streak, described how he followed some deep intuitions in his work: "When I have a piece of wood in front of me, a hypnosis is in it—if I follow it something comes of it, otherwise there is going to be a fight.” The word “hypnosis” is striking to me. It is the opposite of fighting. It is about following an intuition, an inner form in the wood, not necessarily planning or controlling, but “going with the flow.” That seems so soothing and productive to me. Something to strive for in many parts of life.

Then there is the story of Adolf Wolfli who lived from 1864–1930 and was institutionalized most of his life. When confined, he began drawing and made elaborate books with detailed, compulsive illustrations that told stories about his life. The drawing calmed him.

I was fascinated how his life story changed as he drew. I learned that in the first volumes of his autobiography he describes himself as a “naturalist, poet, writer, draughtsman, composer, farm labourer, dairy-hand, handyman, gardener, plasterer, cement-layer, railway worker, day-labourer, knife grinder, fisherman, boatman, hunter, migrant-worker, grave digger, and soldier of the third Section of the third company of the Emmenthal Battalion. Hooray!" By his last series of volumes, however, he has become "St Adolf II, Master of Algebra, Military Commander-in-Chief and Chief Music-Director, Giant-Theatre-Director, Captain of the Almighty-Giant-Steamship and Doctor of Arts and Sciences, Director of the Algebra and Geography-Textbook-Production Company and Fusilier General. Inventor of 160 original and highly valuable inventions patented for all time by the Russian Tsar and hallelujah the glorious victor of many violent battles against Giants."

Wow, that is quite a transcendence! It seem you can really redefine yourself through creative expression, even if only for a pretend audience.

Finally, to all you bloggers and others with creative urges, met or unmet, I'd like to point out that you do not have to be insane to be creative. Though Wolfli and others were both creative and afflicted with mental illness, that does not mean one is a necessary part of the other.

An alternative theory is that their confinement in institutions allowed them the time and opportunity to express a creativity that was there all along and that this expression calmed them and gave them feelings of purpose and empowerment. Elka Spoerri, curator of Adolf Wolfli's works concludes, "Although Wolfli was not active as an artist before the onset of his illness, he must be viewed as an artist who happened to become afflicted with psychosis. The illness did not awaken any creative capacities that were not already part of his personality. His social origins, however—his life of great poverty and social regimentation as an orphan, hireling and labourer—never permitted him even to think of becoming an artist. His entire life story proved as fateful as his illness and internment."

I am inspired by the ideas in this book. I am inspired to be an "outsider." I'm going to try to notice and to nurture and express creative impulses whether they be to draw, sculpt, organize, compose, write, dance, parent, garden, act, sew, play, build, etc. etc. I like this idea that different people have different combinations of urges and impulses, though we usually don't have the time or the freedom to express them fully. I also like the idea that it doesn’t matter who sees them. The bottom line is that indulging in these impulses feels good, balancing, and fulfilling, so I'm thinking I will try to notice them more and give them a higher priority and a little more expression in myself and in others: Rees' desire to move, Kadin's drawings and stories, Greg's music, your blogs, and so on.

1 comment:

Dais said...

Hello Jen!

A few thoughts:

1) Creativity gets stuffed down by other things in life...I felt more and more dense with stuffed creativity all the time until I stopped working and had the time to "download" all of my creative urges. It was SO freeing! I had felt like an over-inflated balloon - filled with negative energy. Creative expression is a need like any other.

2) I truly admire your creative self! =)