This week, finding myself hungry to read something that would stimulate my mind and spirit, I pulled Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire off the shelf.
In grad school, I had this book as required reading for a comparative education class. But one seldom has time to give readings the slow, close read they deserve in grad school. Paulo Friere is a writer whose every sentence is so packed with meaning it demands reflection and meditation. We spent only one or two classes discussing him, but I felt like I could have spent an entire semester discussing nothing but Freire’s ideas.
Central to Freire’s educational theory was the role of dialogue in the educational process. Education that transforms, Freire believed, could not be a one-sided impartation of information from the superior to the inferior. Rather the teacher must approach as a learner, and the student must also become a teacher. For this interaction to take place dialogue is essential. This dialogue, if genuine (and only if genuine), would have a humanizing effect on both the teacher-student and the student-teacher. He wrote:
As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument which makes dialogue possible; accordingly, we must seek its constitutive elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed – even in part – the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus to speak a true word is to transform the world.
By contrast “an unauthentic word” is one that that neglects either reflection or action, thus is “one which is unable to transform reality.” “Human existence,” Freire declares, “cannot be silent.” And to attempt to silence another is, in fact, “dehumanizing aggression.” Therefore it is only in genuine dialogue, where one both speaks and listens, hears and is heard, that transformation occurs. These thoughts have profound implications on how we teach, not only in our schools, but in our communities of faith, in our homes, and in our charities and other social service organizations.
What is necessary for this dialogue to occur? Freire points to five elements: profound love, humility, intense faith, mutual trust, and hope. Without these dialogue cannot occur. But these deserve their own full attention at another time.
Author’s note: Speaking of dialogue, my blog posts usually flow out of dialogue. This one was inspired not only by picking up Freire this week, but also by conversations with my husband as I read him quotes, and exchanges with my fellow blogger Peter here and here.
As I am researching the development of kiln technology in China, one interesting fact I found was the linkage between the yellow loess that lies in a thick blanket over China and the development of high-fired ceramics thousands of years prior to other parts of the world.¹ The loess in turn was blown in from the Tibetan plateau and the Gobi desert. As I was discussing this with my professor, he mentioned other examples of dust being blown from one part of the earth to another and thus impacting the ecosystems, and thus in turn impacting the cultures that developed there.
As I thought of this, I saw in my mind’s eye dust blowing all over the earth directed by the winds, and I thought of the Western conception of inspiration as breath, and considered both the Hebrew and Greek conceptions of “spirit” which are associated with both breath and wind. It seemed an amazing idea that the earth’s winds blow dust that result in amazing innovation in a culture, and in our own culture the idea of wind is associated with both inspiration and our human spirit, as well as the divine Spirit.
2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit [wind] of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
¹Finlay, Robert. “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History,” Journal of World History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Fall, 1998), pp. 141-187
Around 12 years ago when I had finally realized the dream of having a pottery studio in my house, and was toying with the idea about going back to school to study fine art, I suddenly was interrupted by clear direction that I should move to China. While I knew that China was a genesis point of much in ceramic art history, the opportunity that had opened up to me was not related to that facet of China or that facet of my own life. I surrendered and did not look back.
This fall, I did end up going back to school finally, but my graduate studies are in East Asian Studies, focusing on China. I considered taking art history classes in my program, but there were none that matched my interest. So, I have been studying a wide variety of cross disciplinary subjects from modern Chinese literature to Chinese domestic politics to anthropology. One of the classes was in environmental anthropology. I took the class because my work in China has been in the non-profit sector, and thus I’m interested in environmental issues in China. However, the class does not just examine issues, but also how ideas and innovation come from how cultures interact with their environment. It turned out my professor was interested in knowing more about how dragon kilns came to be conceived in southern China, but said he knew almost nothing about ceramics. I told him I did to which he replied that I should make that my research project then. So, I have.
So, as I do this research I find myself meditating on our dust-like nature which I have written about elsewhere. And sort of amazed that this lifelong love of mine keeps coming back around full circle, just like clay on the potter’s wheel.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently been exploring the beginning of the book of Genesis as a pattern for creative endeavors. My purpose in doing so is not to detract from any religious interpretation, but to focus on the lessons that artists, writers, poets and other creative people can gain from reading this passage. I believe I am only scratching the surface, so welcome others thoughts on this subject.
Rather than tackling this a day at a time according to the Genesis story, I am going to break the 7 days into 3 parts, a simplified version of the steps of the creative process. The 3 stages are:
The Beginning: Emptying
The Middle: Working
The End: Completing
Eventually I may tackle steps 2 and 3 in a blog post, but for now what intrigues me the Beginning stage. This is the stage that many ideas never get beyond.
Day 1: Emptiness
The earth was without form and an empty waste, and darkness was on the face of the very great deep. The Spirit of God was moving, hovering, brooding over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2, Amplified Bible)
In the beginning of every creative endeavor is chaos. We start with an idea, for instance to create the heavens and the earth, but in the beginning the idea is still without actual form. It exists only in our minds. To make matters worse because we don’t have the skill of a God, we often find a gap between idea and execution. We may think this goes away, and certainly there are moments of inspiration where it seems our ideas go directly from mind to paper, or movement, or vocal expression (depending on our art form). But this is the exception rather than the rule. Usually we find no matter how lucid our ideas seem in our head, when we actually go to express them concretely, the form they take at first is chaotic.
This is the starting place for all of us. At this stage there are 3 major problems facing the artist:
A Very Great Deep
Formlessness. Note one of the first things the Creator does as he faces formlessness – He separates light from darkness. Every visual artist knows it is light and shadow that give form. We begin with our broad strokes. What is our story about? What are the themes? What are the darks and lights that we will put in this painting? What is the form of this vase? What is the general emotion I am trying to express as an actor portraying this character?
Does this mean that we always know these things when we begin? Actually no. Sometimes I find that the chaos must be properly explored before I am ready to organize it. Thus when I write, I may at times need to just write regardless of whether chaos comes out or order. Usually I find it is a mixture of both. When I explore a new form on the potter’s wheel, at first I may experience a chaotic collapsed pot or two until the new form flows easily from my fingertips.
Emptiness. I believe it is emptiness that stops many a would-be artist, for emptiness can feel like a kind of death. All art begins with emptiness. You have a blank computer screen. A blank canvas. A lump of clay. Words in a script that do not yet have an audible voice. Steps in a choreography that do not yet have any sense of transcendence. The paradox in art is that we must enter the emptiness in order to deal with it in our art. When I first began reading about the creative process, I found almost every author spoke of this idea of beginning with emptiness. As I explored this idea, I realized that in my most creative moments throughout my life, I had instinctually gone to this place of emptiness. This place has been described as a place of inner quietness, a place of meditation. Eric Maisel in his book Fearless Creatingdescribed it as “hushing”. It is only as we enter and pass through the emptiness that we find the substance of our art.
A Very Great Deep. “Darkness was on the face of a very great deep.” The deep lays beneath the emptiness and darkness, thus it is only through our delving into the emptiness that we can discover the deep. I find it interesting that the word “face” is used describe the deep (this is true in the Hebrew as well as the English). Our face is what hides or expresses what lays deep inside us. Whether our art will be trite or meaningful has only partially to do with our skill. The other more substantive part is how much we can reach into the depths of ourselves and express something that transcends ourselves.
Recently, I was at a workshop where the leader did a number of gestalt exercises. The theme of mountains came up again and again for me in the exercises. At one point, the leader of the workshop asked us “What is the predominant feeling you are left with?” I replied that I felt a sort of “aching longing”, to which the workshop leader replied, “it might be good to find out what that is.” Later as I mediated on the themes that had come up, I realized the longing was something deep within that desired transcendence – that is, something inside me that longed to be extended and expressed outside of myself. This desire for transcendence is a common theme among artists, writers, poets and musicians. We live for the moments when we achieve it.
If this is indeed our aim, what is the answer to achieving it? How do we enter the emptiness, pass through it, and explore the great deep? As the Creator in Genesis 1 does, we brood. The association of brooding with the artistic temperament is so prevalent that it has become almost cliche. But often cliches become so for good reason. We can’t just enter the deep and run back out. We have to stay there. We have to let what is there fully enter our consciousness. I believe it takes an extraordinary person to maintain hope in such circumstance. There is much in the deep to bring us to the point of despair, but if we can persevere until the deep finds expression and speaks to the deep in another, we will find that hope begins arise. For this, after all, is only the beginning.
“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me.” – Psalm 42:7
When I wrote the original draft of my last piece on Art & Fear in 2004, at the end I had this thought: What could be learned from looking at the Genesis account of creation from an artist’s perspective? At the time, I wrote some notes on what happened each day in the Genesis account, including application of these events to the creative process. It was pretty powerful. However, I think the Roaring Lion (See “Art & Fear” article, where I compare the Creative Process to a savage beast) began to scare me, and I stopped myself.
I mean if there is a God, and He did have some hand in creating this Beautiful World we live in, maybe we could learn something from how He did it. Maybe rather than looking at the story of Genesis as something to argue science and religion over, maybe instead we who are artists, writers and creative people are in a unique position to understand what the author was trying to say about the act of creation, and maybe in turn we can learn something ourselves as well as teach others about what it means to be a creator.
Think about it for a minute. Genesis is saying that God is a creator, AND that we are created in His Image! Do you get what I’m saying? We, humankind, all of us, if we are indeed created in the image of God are also meant to be creators!
When I was a child, my parents enrolled me for a time in free schools. The idea behind these schools was noble, and partly worked. The main idea (at least in the schools I attended) was that children start out right, but we (meaning adults) ruin them. I say “partly worked”, because I do agree we do a lot to ruin children, mostly through selfishness, but what the schools failed to understand is that kids do in fact need some structural framework in which to work. Boundaries are needed. We in the free schools were truly boundary-less, and thus we as children did probably as much to ruin each other as any adult did.
Though the experience was a mixed bag for many of us, I learned some things that I would not have in a more traditional school, among these lessons one is that people are all born creative. So, if we are all born creative, what happens?
What happens is we (all of us: adults, children, society) ruin this inborn creative impulse. We do it by laughing at their ideas, by saying “can’t” “won’t” “don’t”. We do it through school systems that discourage creativity. Sometimes perhaps it’s because we too fear the Roaring Lion, and when we see our children roaring its roar, the same roar we stifled in ourselves years ago, we become afraid. Maybe it will devour them just as we feared it would devour us. We may have caged the lion, but it is still not tame.
Even those of us who call ourselves “creative people”, often don’t let the beast totally free. We may call ourselves “lion tamers”, but just as the lions “tamed” by Sigfried and Roy showed themselves not to be truly tame, so is this inner beast we call the Creative Process. While we may not be able to tame the beast, maybe we can at least learn to understand it.
So back to Genesis, as I read the story of Genesis like an artist studying the process that another artist goes through, it hit me that there’s something there – something rich and powerful. So, from time to time I hope to post my reflections on how each of the 7 Days in the Genesis account have something to teach us as artists. It’s pretty interesting what I saw there. I’ve only gotten through Day 3 in my own processing so far, and don’t know if the other 4 days will be as rich in imagery for an artist as the first 3 were, but there’s only one way to find out… keep looking.
What is it in creating that fills an artist with FEAR? The flow of the creative life force is too much. It often feels as if it will overwhelm the artist – i.e. me. Sometimes I feel as if I will be eaten alive, devoured, by this thing inside me that is crying for release. Is it good or evil? Will it consume me? Is it a roaring lion that fools me now into thinking it will be benign, but when I release it will it tear me to pieces.
In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland speak of the fear of annihilation, but they focus on this fear having to do with not creating. There is another fear of annihilation, however – it’s the fear that if one completely surrenders to this creative life force that one will be swallowed alive and will find no way to turn back. The creative force is frightening – terrifying.
The day I first started writing this piece (actually several years ago now), I had a very strong manic episode. I felt like a madman. I was running around and could barely stop myself. I would sit down to write in my creativity journal and then find myself jumping up one minute later to go search the Internet. I went down to my studio to work and suddenly started rearranging my house to display my art. Am I the ONLY one??? Or is it we just can’t admit to anyone that we are NUTS sometimes.
I did get some insight into what this “artists mania” is – and it’s not all good. I think sometimes when creative energy, fear and anxiety mix together they create this kind of weird manic energy. But what happens if we remove the fear and anxiety. I would like to feel the creative energy without the fear, without the anxiety. Would it be more peaceful? I think so. Thinking about it, I’ve had moments when I’ve experienced the creative force without the crazy weirdness. I call it “being in the groove”. Still the Creative Force is nothing to be trifled with. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, the benevolent ruler of Narnia, about which the other animals have a saying: He’s not a tame lion! This creative force is not tame, it can be quite frightening in and of itself even without the inner critics (not to mention the outer ones). It is a bit like a Consuming Fire, yet if one simply surrenders oneself to it, peace does come.
I’ve recently been experiencing the peaceful creative flow without the anxiety as I am writing a novel. I’ve never written a novel before, and I have no idea if it will even be publishable when done. I’m not writing it for that, I’m writing it because I have to. I have been writing for the pure joy of it. Of course, I made the mistake of telling friends about it, and so now they expect something from me, and I can feel the anxiety coming in. I am walking forward anyway, and silencing the voices that seek to silence me.
Anxiety is not a popular word these days. I think few of us like to admit that we have it, but I think most of the time it’s become such background noise in our hearts and minds that we don’t think it’s there when it is – we just call it by other names – usually these days we call it “stress”, but calling it by another name doesn’t change its nature or its dynamics.
So what would it feel like to create without fear or anxiety? Without the voices in one’s head that say “What the hell are you doing, you fraud?” Or whatever else they decide to say in the moment to derail us from being creators, from acting in the image that we were made. What did God feel like when He was moving over the waters, over chaos, over void? What did it feel like, God, when you began to create? It must have been PURE joy.