Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Where Did They Come Up With That?

            When Thomas Edison needed ideas for his brilliant inventions, he dozed with ball bearings in each hand and pie plates at his feet.  As his fists unclenched, the balls crashed, awakening him to write down what he was thinking at that instant. How do artists come up with their strange and wonderful ideas? In fascinating interviews, I learned some of their secrets.
            The world is full of ideas, they told me.  Picking the right ones is the hard part.  “I have more ideas then I can do in a lifetime.  I wish I could stop it sometimes,” said Mary Edna Fraser, Charleston’s premier batik artist and painter.  She takes hundreds of aerial photographs and might choose just one.  Mark Down whose company Blind Summit Theatre is bringing the show The Table to Spoleto this year said, “Inspiration for a puppet can come from anywhere…a book, a commission, television, in our sleep.  Once it came from a magic tree. Sometimes you have this big puppet and you don’t know why you made it so then you start a journey of discovering what to use it for.”  That was actually the genesis for The Table.  The main puppet character was created for an earlier commission.  Later, it led Mark’s curious mind along a path that meandered from Moses to Samuel Beckett and eventually to this show.

      Sometimes a compelling message is translated through their genre such as in Hillel Kogan’s dance piece     We Love Arabs at the Spoleto Festival.  “Usually I do have an idea before I start the creation.  Through improvisation I discover the way to talk through the body.” His piece is a depiction of how Jews see Arabs and the social codes in Israel. But artistry made it approachable.  “Regarding ethnic conflict, especially in the Middle East, the approach is very serious, melancholic. Humor is a tool to enable us to take some distance. The effect is that it holds down the hard feeling.  Humor is my language.”  After the Mother 
Emanuel tragedy, local artists called Cookie Washington helplessly asking, “What should we do?” “Go make art,” she replied.  She sewed her grief into a provocative quilt. David Boatwright has created.  
      Sometimes commercial interests initiate the project as in many of the commissioned murals.  “My responsibility is to come up with an image that’s not aggressive marketing.” On Queen Street, the mural “Wine” began as an advertisement for a wine distributor but the finished image, a mural David is most proud of, is the result of “being hemmed in by good taste”: the wall backed up to the Gibbes Art Gallery.  A parody of Renoir’s “Boat Party” and an homage to the Charleston’s culinary community was the creative result.  
             Ideas are elusive so the artists need systems to capture them.  Hillel Kogan decries videotaping as he improvises because it “destroys something”.  He trusts what feels right and uses assistants to give feedback.  Charleston’s poet laureate Marcus Amaker always carries a notebook of unfinished poems; Blind Summit puppet theater uses workshops of “brainstormy, anything goes, chaos” to get feedback from colleagues. Despite her excellent visual memory, Mary Edna catalogues every photo and location she shoots.
            And then there’s the hard won element of artistic intuition.  Sometimes too much time is spent on what turns out to be a bad idea.  “My whole life is like that,” quipped Mark Down of Blind Summit Theatre. Cookie Washington calls these “UFO’s:  Unfinished Objects under the bed”.  Hillel Kogan describes the culling process:  “The largest part is the unused parts.  Very little of it will stay.  It’s all about looking for something you don’t know what it is, like fishing.  There is more water than fish.”  As Marcus Amaker edits his poems he’s learned “… to keep those ‘scraps’. There’s beauty in that process.”  Abstract painter Susan Altman said, “I live in a dream state. A lot of art is not making it happen but recognizing when it does. I let the painting direct me.”

            Success often comes from combining ideas.  “The big work is to connect, to link the ideas” said Hillel Kogan.  “The search for unity is much more demanding than the search for good ideas.” Mark Down agreed: “I always know something is good when ideas are kaleidoscoping into each other.”  Marcus Amaker’s poem The New Foundation “…was birthed when I saw a direct parallel between architecture and personal growth. Sometimes a poem will take me where it wants me to go and I just have to be open and listen.”   
            “It’s a discipline,” Greg Tavares of the “The Have Nots” said of his quick-fire ability to instantaneously come up with improv skits.  What audiences enjoy is the result of years spent acquiring skills and honing intuition: competency. Greg describes it as “The difference between learning the steps and waltzing.”

For More Information:

Spoleto Festival: May 26 to June 11 https://spoletousa.org

Marcus Amaker, poet: http://marcusamaker.com/poems/

Mary Edna Fraser: studio open by appointment http://maryedna.com/

David Boatwright: http://www.luckyboyart.com/

Susan Altman: http://www.susanaltmanfineart.com/

The Have Nots: http://www.theatre99.com/

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