On Becoming An Artist, Part 2

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“Order To Disorder” by Matthew Courtney

“All it takes to become an artist is to start doing art.” 

With these understated and at the same time profound words, my friend Dr Ellen Langer began her 2005 book ‘On Becoming An Artist”. It is an instructive and inspiring book I have read through cover to cover about four or five times now. Dog-eared and underscored, this book provides a reflective conversation that lives up to its subtitle: “Reinventing yourself through mindful creativity.”

I first met Ellen in Toronto back in 2007 when attending a conference at Rotman Business School. Roger Martin who I knew from attending the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship had invited me to participate in a conference he was convening about thinking. I knew there were great thinkers in Toronto before I arrived for that conference, but it was when I was attending I saw how alive that city is with fresh thinking, design and creativity. It was for that reason I decided to run there during the 10 City Bridge Run, and especially why it will be included as part of the Design Forums that will follow later this year.

Ellen is a big thinker, but not your usual academic or thought leader. She is an elegant woman who would seem to be more at home at Largerfield’s next Chanel showing in Paris, but she is just at home with big ideas and the opportunity to ask you to stretch your mind more. I was fortunate to spend time with her again in Melbourne in 2011 at the Australian Davos Connection ‘Future Summit’ which I am alumnus to.

She is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and is qualified to speak on matters concerning the mind. The book is a case study of her own experience from picking up paint brushes through Untaught Art and becoming an artist. She uses the writing to paint metaphorically a discussion beyond her earlier writing about how rampant and costly living a life mindlessly can be, to address how mindful creativity enriches and enhances your life.

Re-reading the book now, I find at this is our intention as we set about the Design Forum for the 10 City Bridge Run to ask “how might we use our networks to improve the delivery of child survival?” We will together tap into a process of engagement that will enrich our own lives, and through doing so we will be helping to literally save the lives of millions of people over the coming decades as part of a broader collective effort.

The photo is from a friend in New York, Matthew Courtney. He too is an artist with a colourful past I know little about. He lives in Brooklyn, and travels into SoHo to sell painting and drawings he has made. Most people are too busy to stop and look or to talk. Much like existing conversations that sometimes overlook dysfunction in making change happen in child survival, Matthew experiences a phenomenon that Ellen writes about observing people and critics flocking to “official art” with excessive emphasis on evaluation. Ellen writes:

“People don’t give up their current preferences or ideas easily.”

These are big ideas Ellen is playing with. It is not suggesting you throw away your bible, figuratively or literally, and I for one would encourage you to hold onto your values and beliefs. But importantly, learn to look anew, see with fresh eyes, and think again. This is the process we will embrace during the Design Forum. Please join us on this journey!


Standing In Front Of A Blank Canvas

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Pity, Rider of the Unicorn
Pity, Rider of the Unicorn: My work currently exhibiting at the Peacock Gallery in Auburn

Did you hear the news? I am now an artist, officially!

Yes, I have my first public work displayed in an exhibition at the Auburn Peacock Gallery which launched on 21 February. It is a wonderfully curated exhibition, and a great collaboration to be part of. I’ll return to this point about collaboration a little later in this post.

In actual fact, anyone can be an artist. This was the emphasis placed on understanding art by our professor when I studied Art History back in the day during my undergraduate studies. Taking Art History happened by serendipity, and the opportunity arose only because I was quota-ed out of my primary choices of studies. It was an influential and instructive time for me where I learn a new way of seeing. It was the stepping stone to other opportunities in learning and education, including picking up studies in English Lit a year later where I first met my good friend Fay.

The professor in his opening address for the beginning of the Art History course urged us to look beyond just studying because it might lead to opportunities in curation, or because of some romantic dream to study at the great galleries of Europe. He instead placed more emphasis on making a difference wherever you found yourself, and in a very local context. He said that if we were able to subsequently engage with and appreciate art at even a local gallery and find the joy in doing that, it would be his measure of success. It was a profound statement, although I don’t know if I fully appreciated this at the time.

My perspective of the 10 City Bridge Run has changed since it began in 2010. It is a circuitous story of how I came about to engage in this epic quest, and sometimes I wonder whether it is more a fools errand because of the personal risks I am taking. Even so, I move ahead. My perspective has changed, and with it my ability to communicate has changed as well. When I first commenced this initiative, some might remember a couple of monthly newsletters I emailed out to supporters at the time. I look back at those as cringeworthy productions, but that was where I was at then. Now, I am wiser for the experience, and have an epic journey behind me with the recently completed running stunt all but finished in New York in early January this year. I have written this elsewhere already, but it took longer than expected, and in every way I took on much more than I had bargained for.

Now we have began the next phase of this journey. I say we because this current phase of the Design Forum is about us. I could do the running alone, but I can’t do the collaborative designing on my own. Now, it is about us, and the conversation has began. This email is part of that conversation, and you reading it is another part. All of these small parts will all add up, like droplets of water forming a pond that then runs into a much larger river and eventually into a sea of activity. In that metaphor, individually and together we are like the droplets that make that pond, and the pond to some degree defines our efforts through the Design Forum. In order not to stagnate, the pond needs to connect to the existing rivers of experience that flow into and shape the great sea of activity. It is a bit of a dramatic metaphor I know, but it is a way of saying that the Design Forum is not ‘it’. There is much to learn and some amazing work going on around the world to help improve child survival, and our aim is to contribute to that somehow.

My last post continued thoughts about The Hero’s Journey and shame. It is where I find myself now. Shame is not the same as ashamed. Shame is an expression of how we view our own sense of adequacy, and it is the entry point to experiencing vulnerability. I know there will be some tough guys out there who might want to say “just suck it up , buddy”. If that is your response, I think that you still have some distance to travel on your own road in order to explore your own personal limits of vulnerability. We all have them, and that is where true courage and invention is found. Vulnerability in that space which requires us to draw upon our immense reserves of imagination, creativity and innovation to find a way through a situation that is inherently difficult. Of course, there is one special group of people in society that experience no shame. These are not super-soldiers, but in fact psychopaths.

It is actually good and healthy to experience shame because it lets you know you are human. And it is what you do with it that matters most too. If you (like me) are paralysed by shame into inaction that leads you to not engage media, that is not such a good outcome, but all the same it is an outcome. We live and learn. Much like my journey with the 10 City Bridge Run, it has been a learning journey. To be honest, I don’t know that I was fully equipped to lead a global conversation about child survival until now. If I had attempted it earlier, there still would have been an outcome, and that outcome might have been great, but it still would have been premature.

And so now I am back in this familiar place. Standing in front of a blank canvas again. Actually, this time we are all here. But for me, I sense that there is some reasonable expectation to shape the conversation to get this work underway. It is a familiar feeling, and I’m sure we have all been there before commencing anything of significance. I felt it last year when finally drawing on the blank canvas which my friend Anoop gave to me to draw on. He asked me about nine months after he gifted the canvas to me: “so what has happened to that canvas?” I know he was asking casually as a friend, but he also pushed me into action. I painted that canvas, and it lead to the work that is currently being exhibited in the Peacock Gallery.

When I first visited the exhibition and saw my work on the wall, I had a wonderful insight into the collaborative process which had in fact begun with Anoop’s prompting. During the making of the work for this exhibition, I engaged with Penny and Nicole, the two curators for the exhibition, as well as Dani who helped to get my image formatted digitally. That was also all in context of being part of a holistic expression of what the Centenary of Anzac meant for the Auburn community. It was a real awakening to collaboration, and in some ways provided an opportunity to better glean what the professor of Art History had been hinting at all those years ago.

Similarly, I am inviting you to be part of this collaborative process as the Design Forum unfold. I can’t say what your part will be, and in fact I think to some extent serendipity will be our guide as this opportunity unfolds. It is not a singular experience, there is no ownership, and it will involve the flowing of many ponds of inspiration into a river of experience to flood that great sea of activity ahead.