Undergraduate Fieldwork: Exploring the concepts of creativity, inspiration and talent from the perspective of the working artist

Art is a universal form of creative expression that is practiced by all cultures throughout the world in one form or another. Art aims to stimulate a viewer on an emotional level and to inspire deep thought and contemplation of the artists’ personal point of view and interpretation of the subject matter. Yet, the objective of the artist is accomplished within the context of the artists own enculturated worldview. As such, artists, and their artwork as a whole, represent the entire spectrum of cultural diversity.

An artist is broadly defined as a person that uses drawing, painting, sculpture, acting, dancing, writing, filmaking, photography, or music as creative outlets of expression. However, artists do share comonalities in experience as a group that spends much of their time developing their individual skills and creating unique works of aesthetic value within their particular craft. They also create in order to make a living and are exposed to various forms of public opinion that serve to evaluate the ultimate value of their work, both individually and as a whole.

 

While much of the writing today on creativity, inspiration, and talent is based on scientific research and studies on the one end, and cultural myths and assumptions on the other, anthropological fieldwork could help to test the efficacy of these ideas in the daily lives and experiences of actual working artists. Learning more about how the working artist describes creativity, inspiration, and talent and how personal experience within the professional art world shapes those definitions over time. The goal will be to offer a cultural critique of prevalent perceptions of creativity and inspiration to establish a foundation for exploring talent from the viewpoint of a professional artist consultant.

 

Artspace is a non-profit visual art center that was founded in 1986 by the Raleigh Arts Commission from a historic building located in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. It is uniquely designed to both provide space and support for established and emerging artists across the entire spectrum of creative media, as well as to provide community arts education and outreach programs to the public. It consists of individual studios to accommodate more than 30 artists, 3 exhibition areas, a large classroom, a gift shop, and administrative offices across 30,000 square feet of space.

 

The center is open to the public and optimized in order to allow visitors an opportunity to observe and interact with the artists in residence. The front of each of the studios are all made up of glass windows for the public to observe the artists at work and the artists name and medium are clearly marked. Many of the artists in residence also choose to post newspaper clippings, meaningful quotes, pictures, business cards, newsletter sign-up sheets and other personally meaningful or identiable items on the doors of their studio to educate the public of their personal background, work, and interests.

Artspace provides a “unique environment where artists can collaborate, where the public can interact with working artists and experience firstand the creative process, and where children and adults can learn to express their own creativity in classes and workshops” (artspacenc.org). As residence, artists must be willing to reach out to the larger community and to entertain the public during community events in order to fulfill the goals of the center. Therefore, Artspace represents a dynamic cultural intermingling between professional creatives and the public with the objective of exposing, engaging, and educating the community about the creative process and the value of art in society.

 

The Wake County Local Arts Index of 2012 has estimated that there are approximately 2,100 independent “artists, writers, and performers” living in Wake County, which is above the national average (Cohen). The Artspace Artists Association (AAA) currently consists of 115 working artist members who have successfully completed a two-stage vetting process, 33 of whom maintain studio space at the Artspace Center (artspacenc.org).

 

I made my initial contact with my informants through an e-mail introducing my project and requesting access to the Artspace Center in order to conduct my fieldwork research. I was contacted by Mary Kay Kennedy, the Development Assistant at the Artspace Center, by phone. We discussed the requirements of my research and what kinds of services they could offer in order to help me conduct my research throughout the semester, such as volunteer programs and other services. I met with Mary Kay a few days later for a guided tour of the Artspace Center in which she introduced me to several of the artists in residence and explained the purpose and history of the Center. We arranged for me to volunteer for an exhibition tear down in which I was able to conduct participant observation and gain first-hand experience of the cultural practices within the Center.

 I also created a Google survey that Mary Kay posted in the artists’ weekly newsletter inviting artists to fill-out and participate in the project. The survey included questions about family history and personal background as well as questions that gave participants an opportunity to articulate their worldviews and to respond to observations and assumptions regarding the culture of the working artist. Kiki Farish, an artist in residence, responded immediately to the Google survey and carefully answered all of the questions.

Kiki Farish is an artist in resident, who works primarily with graphite, but has experience in watercolor, acrylic and oil painting and has an MFA in drawing and painting. Her mother and siblings all dabble in the visual arts, but her skills as an artist were recognized early while she was still in gradeschool. She describes the working artist as a group of individuals who are driven by curiosity, influenced by surroundings, and relentlessly creating. For her, talent is a skill whose development is often encouraged through persistent, positive reinforcement beginning at an early age. She explains that in first grade “I was given the bulletin board to decorate so I was able to experiment and build experience with decision making in the visual system of communication.”

 

She describes the creative process as a “process of solving problems. Just as the scientific method articulates a process, so can creativity be described: raising questions, defining a problem, researching, exploring and reaching conclusions.” As an example she describes the development of Cubism, “When [Picasso] and Braque developed Cubism, they were no longer trying to record the world with realism, but to record the passage of time and movement. The influence of African masks inspired a means of solution.”

 

However, because creativity can also be said to exist largely in the realm of the abstract: the stroke of a paintbrush, human emotions, and the interpretation of philosophical questions in everyday experience, Kiki has also explained that many artists feel a sense of inadequacy in the verbal communication and explanation of their visual solutions. “When I write about my work, I want to do it quickly and it takes much discipline to allow myself the time to create a verbal product through a process with much better results.”

 

This communication gap has made it harder for many in the public to fully comprehend the creative process and goals of the working artist. This frustration may originate from the focus and priority of the artist in non-verbal communication, but, consequently, creativity is often mistakenly shrouded in mysterious notions of divine inspiration and innate abilities. Kiki explains, “I use Betty Edwards example in Drawing on the Artist Within. She offers if we taught children to read the way we teach them to draw, we would hand out books and give no instruction because that would stifle creativity. When a child showed a ‘talent’ for reading, we would say: well, literacy runs in her family or her mother could read really well.”

 

Working artists, as a group, develop “skills to define and solve problems,” but they are also predisposed to open-mindedness: “Working artists stay open to possibilities and can appear indecisive.” While this can be misconstrued as indecisiveness, it actually serves the larger creative process of discovery. This process is central to the development of the artist’s solutions and personal voice, as in the example of Cubism, which sought to more creatively represent and accentuate the passage of time and movement. This can be described as an intense exploration and experimentation that serves as cogitations commonly associated with creativity, imagination, and association/creation of ideas. 

 

Despite the genius that we bestow on great artists, creative expression does not happen in a vacuum, it is made up of found opportunities, new associations and unique ideas within and between ideas that have been cultivated and amalgamated within the artist through an involved, personal accretion of knowledge and experience. To put it another way, the working artist doesn’t simply imitate ideas, but explores the concepts and context of a wide diversity of ideas in order to develop creative solutions and ultimately, cultivate a unique personal style. Therefore, while experience with craft and research is important to the process of creative expression, by definition, creative thinkers must also cultivate that experience into new forms of creative expression through exploration, experimentation, and interpretation. Rather than bolts of lightning or other notions of divine inspiration, this is the basis of creative discovery and the development of personal style for the working artist.

 

This process plays a significant role in the cultural consciousness as well by harnessing well-established cultural traditions, values, morals, beliefs, and symbols that signify a shared and negotiated system of meaning. In this way, art is highly contingent on culture and exists within the framework of the larger cultural system. However, as a form of creative expression, art also shapes and defines its culture by drawing on memory, creativity, and imagination in order to expand the realities and uncover new possibilities. Much like the traditional function of marriage and family in culture, art is important in defining cultural identities, forming community cohesion, and maintaining social relationships. Ultimately, successful artists make an impact through their creative interpretation of culture and their art serves as a force that excites, inspires, and informs members of the culture to take part in their communities, discuss their own worldviews, and endeavor to pursue positive futures for their society.

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Replies to This Discussion

Field Questions:

  1. What is your background, for instance, what medium do you practice, how long have you been practicing it (both formal and informal education), and is there anyone in your immediate family that also practices your medium?
  2. How would you define creativity?
  3. Where do you think it comes from?
  4. What is your relationship with creativity, for instance the challenges you face concerning your personal creative process?
  5. How has your concepts of creativity evolved over time, for instance since you've become a working artist?
  6. In interviews with other students, they have described creativity as an ability to look and think about things in a new and unconventional way (conceptualization and innovation). What is your experience communicating with the public about the concept of creativity?
  7. How would you define talent?
  8. Where do you think talent comes from?
  9. What is your relationship with talent, for instance your personal background and journey in regards to talent?
  10. How has your concepts of talent evolved over time, for instance since you've become a working artist?
  11. In interviews with other students, talent was described as an ability to express ideas in an inspiring display of uniqueness and character, as well as an above-average comptency in a given medium (originality and mastery). What is your experience communicating with the public about the concept of talent?
  12. Can you describe your beliefs regarding the working artist as a group?
  13. Can you think of any shared social conventions, utterances (language), beliefs, traditions, or customs that artists practice as a group? What do you think these reflect about the group?
  14. Is there anything that you think the public should seek to understand more about the working artist as a distinct group from an anthropological point of view?

Brandon, 

These are questions that you want to answer. They may not be the best way to elicit the answers you need. Consider using more open-ended questions, e.g., "Can you tell me a bit about your background?" Ethnography's greatest value is discovering things unanticipated in your research design. So building in openness, both in relation to new topics and in the kinds of questions you ask is crucial.

The fact is that "ethnographic" research with closed questions is just bad survey research without a big enough sample. And to get the most out of your research you need to get people to talk about what is important to them, which may not be what is important to you. Besides, you can always circle back to the latter when paraphrasing or asking clarifying questions to be sure that you've understood them correctly.

Thanks John, I see what you mean. A lot of these questions suggest the interest of the larger study to allow for assumptions to form in both the consultant's and the studies responses. The survey was never actually reviewed by the professor until after the final paper was submitted, and then only because my professor was interested in reading the responses that it got. However, I could have asked broader questions regarding the artists personal development within their craft starting from an early age and teased out their beliefs through time concerning inspiration, creativity, and talent. Instead many of the questions come straight out and ask what their beliefs are, which I recognize now generates a number of personally held biases and assumptions, ultimately resulting in the artists own immediate critique of the main topics, instead of an ethnographic study of their shared system of meaning in regards to the main topics.

However, I was surprised by the depth and diversity of the responses despite their directness and was able to develop a reasonable ethnographic study of their worldview that met all the requirements of the assignment. That said, the well-developed approach and capacity of anthropology to explore and document alternative realities is something that I greatly enjoy and admire and, if given the chance, I would hope to further my understanding of the field.

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