Monday, July 13, 2009

wandering mind, crafts and creativity

Last year, I was at a conference with Stuart Rosenthal director of Regional Technology Strategies and we discussed the approach through which to enlist corporate support for crafts education. There are obvious mental health benefits from being engaged in creative "diversions," but Stuart suggested that those mental health effects are not a compelling enough rationale, from the corporate perspective. Corporations and human resource professionals want to know how crafts education will more directly affect corporate success. The bottom line. But how do we see success at the bottom line when our gaze is fixed too firmly upon it?

Despite what we all learned in Geometry class, the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line and this is particularly true when it comes to human creativity. If you think of real creativity, you realize that it can only be nonlinear in nature, a thing beyond the most obvious natural progression. If creativity were the "obvious to all next step," clear enough for your uncle Bob, it wouldn't be creative. If creativity were easy, direct and obvious, it would be nothing exceptional. True and exceptional creativity involves pulling disparate objects, concepts and techniques into relationship and this process was the subject of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, on June 19, 2009 A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight by Robert Lee Hotz Researchers Map the Anatomy of the Brain's Breakthrough Moments and Reveal the Payoff of Daydreaming
It happened to Archimedes in the bath. To Descartes it took place in bed while watching flies on his ceiling. And to Newton it occurred in an orchard, when he saw an apple fall. Each had a moment of insight. To Archimedes came a way to calculate density and volume; to Descartes, the idea of coordinate geometry; and to Newton, the law of universal gravity.

When Arkansas architect, E. Fay Jones was interviewing contractors for building the world renown Thorncrown Chapel, here in Eureka Springs, one of the questions he asked was, "What kind of nail gun do you use?" Of course, every contractor will tell you that Senco is the best, most reliable, and that their efficiency is based on it. But Jones hired the contractor who said, "I use a hammer." Is there an important lesson we can draw from that? Jones was looking for something more. His question was not just about nail guns, but concerned how the contractor thought... whether he or she went with the flow, consistent with what might be expected from others, or whether he or she was able to step beyond the box that restrains our thoughts firmly and depressingly to the mundane and predictable.

Another good interview question is, "Do you fix your own car?" The answer has very little to do with auto mechanics, but it does tell about confidence, problem solving, and intellectual curiosity. Can you imagine hiring someone whose knowledge of the world extends only to what they have seen on-line or on television, or consists only of what they learned in the classroom? Of course not. The curiosity and confidence that it takes to fix one's own car is an expression of engagement in things far beyond popular culture and illustrates a willing committment to real problem solving.

Thinking outside the box requires that "outside the box" become a place frequented and well known. Engagement in crafts offers that. When a man or woman dips regularly at the well of creativity, direct problem solving becomes a primary attribute of personality. Creative problem solving requires a wide range of diverse real world experiences. It is actually a no-brainer, the understanding that we artists and craftspeople have in our bones that our concrete engagement in making real things, expands our relationship to the unconscious mind, gaining for us, access to thoughts and creativity denied through a more direct approach.

I am attempting to create a graphic representation to explain this, but in the meantime, readers might be interested in Seymour Cray, founder and director of Cray Computers, once the maker of the most powerful super computers in the world.
“It seems impossible to exaggerate the effect he had on the industry; many of the things that high performance computers now do routinely were at the farthest edge of credibility when Seymour envisioned them.”— Joel Birnbaum
We make discoveries, understandably, when we are at the edge, when we have taken that first step outside the box. While I can't say whether or not Cray fixed his own car, or used a hammer in preference to a nail gun, he was regularly engaged in digging a tunnel from his basement to a nearby forest. Some would have considered such a thing to be an indication of insanity, but for Cray, it was the opportunity to do his most creative work. When the conscious mind is brought to clear focus on unrelated objectives through the use of the hands, the unconscious mind is energized, bringing forth solutions to the challenges with which it had wrestled in vain. It is why they call what happens, "a brain storm," or a"stroke of genius." Providing the means and encouragement of employees to engage in crafts is an important means of professional development, and I hope that by discussing it, we at the Eureka Springs School of the Arts will be able to develop a strategy for engaging area corporations in support for arts and crafts education. It is one important way through which they can invest in their own success.


  1. Doug, I find that too often the "bottom line" in education is the "test." I don't think one can effectively "test" creativity, yet that is a quality that many employers ask for from those they hire. I think our music students are "creative." Can I prove that or measure it? Nope. Sometimes I observe it, but it usually comes out of them when they are on the job someplace...or working on their houses and yards...or wherever.

    I'm reminded of a saying: "Not everything that can be measured counts; not everything that counts can be measured." Your linear analogy is perfect, as it describes the linear path from so-called "learning" in our schools to "testing." It just never really happens that way!

    BTW, I have enjoyed reading about Dr. Sax's book on the plight of boys in education. In fact, I sent the link to my two daughters, both of whom have sons. Of course, these little guys are brighter than usual (oops, that's Grandpa talking, not reality :), but I think there is something there.

    Have a great time with your box class (always enjoy the pix). I have the great privilege and joy to attend a boatbuilding class this Saturday and Sunday at the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort. I cannot wait!!!



  2. Very thought provoking post, as always. I particularly liked your observation that "Thinking outside the box requires that "outside the box" become a place frequented and well known." All to often we remain secure in our comfort zone, a place we all need to step out of on a regular basis.

  3. JD. I would love to see pics of your boat building class. I will have more from my box making class to post during the week.

    On learning in schools, we know that children are hard wired for learning. Learning through observation and experience is the most instinctive and basic of human functions. But through interference and quest for control, we have students who don't care. I had one student tell me, "I hate learning!" but I suspect the problem wasn't with learning but with "being taught."

    On the plight of boys in education, we know that when they are actually asked to grow up, they do. So perhaps our greatest problem is that we have failed to ask enough of them... no chores, no responsibilities. As long as they are playing quietly with their thumbs on game boys, parents are satisfied with the situation. But boys would be better off beating on drums in the garage, or perhaps better yet, hammering on boards with real nails and making stuff.

  4. Keith, we think of a box as being a simple thing, 4 sides, a top and bottom, but I begin my box making classes with a discussion of the full dimensions and qualities of a box. There are thousands of individual choices regarding the characteristics of a box, from type of wood, dimensions, types of corners, hinges, decorative techniques, etc. So one of the things I think is interesting about box making is that you can be incredibly creative by thinking within the box. But the creativity really grows when you bring in other things. Yesterday I gave my students the assignment of finding objects outside the classroom that could be used to decorate a box and give it greater meaning and narrative purpose. We will see what they come up with.

  5. Doug,

    When push comes to shove, learning is a desirable, enjoyable activity. Show me a 3 year old who won't grin and shout with glee at the discovery/learning of something new! But by 13 it is a different story. I think you hit the nail on the head (oops, sorry...) with the difference between "learning" and "being taught." I think young people do not get excited about "being taught." I suspect, however, that nearly all love to learn, whether they admit it or not.

    As one who has been brought up in the tradiitional education system, Dr. Sax's description of the boys-only classrooms is fascinating. As educators we have been beaten over the head with issues of classroom management, meaning "sit down, shut up, and be still." Goodness, I cannot do that myself at 60 years old!!!! After about 15 minutes of a meeting I'm ready to move on...

    I am becoming more and more and more convinced that learning through the hands, through the feet, etc., provides opportunities for students to learn a great deal of what it is we think they should know, e.g., reading, math, science, etc. I once sat down and listed out all the mathematical concepts I thought could be taught in wood shop. It is amazing, but I'm not telling you anything new!

    The concept of spending time "out of the box" is critical, but I fear it is just not part of our current educational model.

    Ok, enough...I get very, very concerned when I think of my own grandchildren going through this process. I just want to take them with me to the woods, to the shop to save them from school...

    Will try to get some pix of the class this weekend...

    Happy box making.