What kinds of problems are you struggling to solve on a daily basis? What areas of your life and work need innovative thoughts? A recent problem I was invited to solve by one of my artistic communities, the central Iowa based Paintpushers group, was to create two paintings with the theme of “Light & Dark” for our yearly group art show. I was given a couple of canvas sizes to choose from and a deadline for completion and exhibition. And, then time, to contemplate and create.
Often times when we are faced with big problems to solve and looking for truly innovative ideas, the project can seem so overwhelming it is hard to even know where to start. I started my creative process by asking myself big picture questions like “How do I visually represent the vast concepts of ‘Light & Dark’? How do I put color, line, and form around such abstract concepts? What comes to mind when I think about light and dark? What do they represent to me?” These big picture questions are a good place to start while grasping vision for innovative ideas, but only the first step.
Over the early months of the project, I let my mind drift around the concept of light and dark. I thought about the concepts of light and dark aesthetically, philosophically, emotionally and spiritually. I read current news reports, ancient scriptures, art history books and novels. I wrote notes in my sketchbook along the way. I spent time drawing what felt like random abstract shapes in my art journal. I had conversations with artists in my Paintpushers group. I worked on other paintings for different shows. I interacted with my friends and family. I went to yoga and took walks. Basically, I call this the “marinating phase”. Like a good steak, ideas need time to marinate. Ideas need time for the thinker to research and to draw connections from a variety of sources.
My thoughts around the topic grew deeper, actually more confused. “Is one painting all light and one all dark? Do they each have elements of both? Who am I to try to paint Light & Dark? What wins Light or Dark???” And, now I was sinking down into the messy middle…cross pollinating ideas, the sorting and eliminating concepts. I referenced my own experiences and I looked for the universal connections. For example, I know that I have personally experienced light notably masked by grayness/darkness-a light marred by dark shadows. I know, too, that this is the experience of humanity-a universal experience for all of us. I know that each of us gets to choose where we will focus in the midst of these complicated realities-will it be on the light? Will it always be on the dark? Will it be with eyes open wide to the reality of both?
I started wrestling through the emotional and spiritual roadblocks to solving my problem. I asked myself “How do I let despair, anger, evil win and block out the light? Do I pretend that everything is sunshine and roses putting on a false front of uber happiness that is unsustainable? Can I acknowledge the beautiful, tumultuous experience of having both light and dark simultaneously appearing in my daily life often times at a mock rate of speed as I do something as simple as scrolling through my social media feeds? And, how on earth, might I somehow be able to translate these larger questions through paint?”
As I was working through my own personal, “why and how” questions, my fellow Paintpushers members were asking themselves similar questions. I find it kind of fascinating to watch this process of corporate creativity and innovation. What happens when you take a group of visual artists with numerous personalities and life experiences and ask them to commit to exploring the same topic-in this case creating two pieces of work with the theme of Light & Dark? What happens as each individual artist lives through the wrestle of how they might interpret these concepts with their own media, personal symbols, textures, and color choices? What happens when we all finally commit to doing the work and start creating?
For at some point in the innovation process, the creator actually needs to commit to the work. Decisions start to be made. Tools come out- in our case…we begin to draw, sketch, paint, pull brushes out, uncap paint pens, order canvases, commit to size of panels, pay fees, sharpen pencils, fret, and plan. We apply the paint, pencil, and charcoal. We start with 1st layers, obsess, stare, avoid, research more. We add more paint, take photos, turn work upside down, paint over, look at it from across the room, and complain about the process to anyone around us. And, then we finish. We declare a painting complete. We photograph and varnish and sign and title and add wire to the back.
But, then this creation, this innovative solution to a problem, this personal interpretation of a theme, needs to be shared, needs to leave the safety of the studio, needs to make its way into the world and the artist needs to let it go. What happens when a group of creators come together and shares this new body of work corporately imagined, but executed in the privacy and quiet of individual studios? My answer to this question is growth-growth is what has happened. Growth and transformation and innovation-new ideas and images have been welcomed into the world.
The process of innovation is fraught with ups and downs, sideways maneuvers, emotional upheaval and uncertain outcomes. But, for each of us that undertakes the creative process, we transform a bit of who we are in the process. Taking invisible concepts like “light” and “dark” and making them visible-that is what artists do, but the process for how we actually do it is sometimes quite a mystery to the artist themselves while in the middle of the process and almost always to those around the artist.
However, this process does not need to remain a mystery.
I read so much about how our culture is deeply in need of innovation, but I fear we have much to learn about where true innovation comes from. The worlds of education, business, government, health, science all have deep needs which will take innovative thinkers to solve.
How does change, transformation, and innovation happen in our communities and businesses?
What if artists become the teachers of innovation and problem solving?
What if artists would teach other people this process of corporately imagining new things- how to ask big picture questions, how to research and draw connections, how to live the wrestle and commit to the work?
What if artistic communities become the model for sharing explorations and incubating innovative ideas together?
And while the Paintpushers “Light & Dark” show at the Heritage Gallery for 2018 is now history, the process we took to achieve the innovating work in this show is something we can repeat over and over again in the many arenas of our lives. And, it is a process you can adapt to your own problems-your own situations in need of solutions and innovative answers.