Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dreams and Radical Creativity

A few years ago I had a dream that challenged my opinions about the human capacity for creativity.

Now, there is not much more offputting than listening to someone trying to recount their dream, but I ask you to bear with me as I share just this one scene:
I am visiting my old college art professor at his home studio, the one where I worked so many hot afternoons helping to prepare canvasses. As we catch up, I am casually flipping through his stack of recent artwork. Pausing briefly to reflect on each image, I comment on perhaps eight to ten paintings, lithographs and other prints. Overall I view perhaps twenty works, before he and I wander into another room, and the dream takes me elsewhere.
None of the works were ones I had seen before. All were done in his style. I was dreaming in full color, because I remember remarking on his use of color in several pieces.

None of the works actually existed, except as instantaneous, fully completed creations of my dreaming mind.

The reason I even recall this dream is that once I woke up, I was struck by the fact that for the most part when I would try to draw or paint I would get completely stuck. Before I even started, all these doubts and judgements would arise about the final product. And more often than not, no matter what I wound up creating, I was unsatisfied with the result.

So how did that square with a dream where I could and did create what to my own critical eye were complete and satisfying works, twenty in a row, in the space of a few moments? Whether I had the skill technically to create them by hand myself is immaterial. The vision was there.

What this dream -- and indeed the entire human facility of dreaming -- points to is that the human mind is capable of absolutely astounding creativity. And what stops us from accessing that creativity are mostly our own ideas, fears and stories about our limitations, and about what makes an acceptable final product. Ideas which also don't exist except in our minds.

For the purposes of this post, I am only talking about visual art. But I believe that everything stated above just as easily applies to any other type of human creativity, be it music, choreography, narrative or what have you.

Attempting to work with what I learned from that dream, I have tried to retrain myself when faced with a blank page to just dive in and start making marks. To just see what comes up. Sure, I will continue to draw an occasional still life. But I find it a lot more satisfying these days to start without any plan at all and see what happens.

Turns out this is a lot more fun, and more often than not, I am satisfied with the final product.

What is circular for me about all this is that "just dive in and see what happens" is a lot of what my college art professor was trying to teach us so long ago.

This sums it up, from ZenDot Studio:
If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic and just keep one quality necessary to create art, I would say it’s trust. When you learn to trust yourself implicitly, you no longer need to prove something through your art. You simply allow it to come out, to be as it is. This is when creating art becomes effortless. It happens just as you grow your hair. It grows.
--John Daido Loori from "The Zen of Creativity"


  1. ha, ha, so funny to find a quote from Loori that I posted because as I read your post I thought, wow, I have come home! Here is someone writing and thinking about art like I do! And then came the quote, so funny! That said, this is a dynamite post, rifling through ideas I often contemplate but can't quite crack, the art koan, how to let go.

    As I read the part about your dream I was reminded of Peter London's book "No More Secondhand Art" where he poses this question, asking why do we have so much trouble "creating" when we are awake, when in dreams we conjure up perfectly formed images, no problem. We never say about our dreams, "you know I didn't really like how that woman turned out" All images are accepted without question.

    1. Well and that's circular too because that's how I felt when I found your blog -- a great comfortable familiarity of outlook (can't recall if it was via Pigasus or Dalai Grandma). It was the Loori quote that made me remember the dream and decide to write this up. I was not aware of Peter London's book but will be sure to check it out. Confirmed my sense that surely I couldn't be the only one who'd ever had this thought about creativity and dreaming.