As part of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) Vermont Fall 2013 curricular offerings, I am facilitating a group study, Critical Composition: Think, Make, Write. It’s inspired by the teaching and writing of my friend Anne West, whose book—Mapping: The Intelligence of Artistic Work—travels with me as both inspiration and teacher.
As I’ve written before, I’m interested in better understanding the relationship between writing and artmaking. I’m especially intrigued by how our intuitive, usually unconscious, ways of knowing and being quietly influence the content and trajectory of artistic practice. I suspect that greater conscious articulation of our intuitive intentions serves to advance our ability to achieve our imaginative aspirations. By inviting artists to enter into quick, unguarded dialogue with simple but disorienting questions, and by sharing some of our personal reflections, we’re collectively building our intuitive consciousness. As Anne West teaches us, we’re also learning to map the intelligence of our creative work.
During the MFAIA Vermont’s most recent residency, I led a three-hour workshop that began by engaging with two prompts from Anne’s book. The first had to do with silence—literally asking the question: does your work break silence?
Our second prompt had to do with conceptions of the artist: What is the idea of the artist that you are working out of or heading toward? After discussing our responses to those prompts, we undertook a mapping exercise.
As a means of better understanding our current intentions, I started by asking participants, from the perspective of their eight-year old self, to uncover and name some long-standing passions, preoccupations, and obsessions that delight their intuitions. From there, we explored the genealogies of our preoccupations, by mapping how those things that focused our childhood attention symbolize larger interests in adulthood. These insights allow us to connect our long-standing curiosity with the questions that fuel our current inquires, and they allow us to consider who else might be pursuing these same matters. Ultimately, our maps point to the future, asking us to imagine new projects and terrain that might support the next chapter of creative practice.
In my own reflections during this exercise, I recounted my childhood preoccupation with Superman. Although it would be easy to superficially discount or dismiss this interest as a power fantasy or obsession with saving the world, my reflections took me in a different direction. Superman is both rhetorically committed to “truth and justice” and narratively constructed as a lost child of Krypton who is adopted by Earth parents. As an adult, my creative work has been focused on building contexts in which social justice might be possible, and a fact of my existence (and a prevalent theme in my creative work) is my status as an adoptee and “lost child.”
Similarly, when I considered my young obsession with the small patch of forest near my childhood home, I recognized that it represents my need to connect with the non-human world and offers an early indication of my interest in both wildness and ecology. Consideration of these themes, allows me deeper ownership of my current questions, and points me toward metaphors I haven’t yet fully explored.
As the semester unfolds, our group study has convened in response to weekly creative prompts and meets biweekly by video call. Our first prompt asked us to consider the spaces—creative, physical, psychological, and aspirational—in which we undertake creative work.
Next, in dialogue with bell hooks essay, “Art is for Everybody,” we considered our inhibitions by answering the questions, What would you do if you were not afraid? As I write this, the group is considering questions of inspiration, renewal, and considering the nature of creative fuel in relation to graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s practice of taking professional sabbaticals.
In addition to responding to the prompts, students have been invited to apply their thinking to concrete and (at least theoretically) pragmatic goals. In the first week, some of us created micro-lectures intended to help future MFAIA students think about building creative spaces that will support graduate study and professional practice. While thinking about fear and inhibitions, we reconsidered the shape of our study plans and learning goals, conceptualizing new trajectories with greater fearlessness. And this week we’re creating proposals for potential sabbaticals.
Our project is just getting started, but already I’ve learned how seemingly concise questions prove to be expansive. Indeed, I have no doubt that any one of them might expand to fill a year’s reflection and creative work. But creating new and stronger work isn’t the only possibility emerging from our group study. Our reflection is in service to better understanding the multiple contexts—creative, political, social, economic, and relational, to name a few—in which we live and work. It’s my belief that through deeper recognition of context we also develop a stronger understanding of how our creative work can have impact in the world.
Through my participation in this group study, I’m reminded it’s by taking simple questions seriously that we imagine and make change.