Daydream: A visionary creation of the imagination experienced while awake

For me the idea of a daydream illustrates the mental state of mind necessary for creating. An enigmatic shift occurs when your brain is able to detach itself from the stresses and concerns of the more practical, physical world. Transitioning into this dream-like state frees up your brain to fully focus on other matters. Both daydreaming and creating are relaxed, insulated, unhurried, and contemplative.

One experiences a strange feeling of separation, almost like hovering above reality or outside your body, yet your brain is incredibly active. It’s totally awake and alive to new ideas, discoveries and connections. Your mind is inquisitive and deeply curious. You allow yourself to notice and follow the threads of ideas that were previously hidden behind the mundane. This shift in thinking is where the creative process lives and breathes.

Daydream Number Five, Acrylic and mixed media painting on canvas by Heather Elliott
Heather Elliott, Daydream No. 5, © 2017, 12″ x 12″, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

Accessing that detached, daydream mode of thinking is essential to creating, but it is also very delicate and elusive. It can be difficult to shut out the more practical side of your brain. Just as most people slip into a daydream unaware, the shift into creative thought isn’t something you can force, or reliably schedule. Once in the creative mode a small disturbance or distraction easily interrupts the process and creative ideas evaporate back into your subconscious and can be lost. For me it feels very similar to the feeling of disorientation you experience in that moment you realize you’ve been daydreaming and are suddenly forced to resurface in the world.

Daydream Number One, Acrylic and mixed media painting on canvas by Heather Elliott.
Heather Elliott, Daydream No. 1, © 2016, 12″ x 12″, Acrylic and mixed media on canvas

My latest series of abstract 12” x 12” mixed-media artworks play off of these ideas. They started off as smaller monoprint studies concentrating on composition and color. I’ve found that monoprinting works well as a method to encourage my mind to slide into creative mode. The embroidered flowers just seemed to organically grow out of the pieces as I roamed about in thought about my dreams, goals, and purpose.

With these mixed-media paintings I’m offering the viewer a little window of opportunity to experience their own daydream moments – small, refreshing escapes from the world where they find peace, hope, and clarity. The first six in this new series will be available for purchase in my Etsy shop later this week!

The Cold Winter Sky and Aaron Copland

This morning I drove my son to school through the muddled, midwinter streets in east St. Paul. The area has seen better days and I often find it disheartening, especially in this gray season. Lately the melancholy of winter and the dismal state of our current world have pulled on me. It is bitter cold today (-4°F with a windchill of -26°F), but despite the cold the sun is shining brightly and the sky is a crisp, perfectly pale cerulean blue.

We usually listen to MPR on our drive and this morning they played Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I’m always transported by that piece. It speaks to me of the glorious untamed hope of spring, the possibilities of beginning, and God’s creation made new. He wrote it during the darkest days of WWII, perhaps with a deep longing for hope and peace and beauty?

Today the music made me visualize tiny periwinkle wildflowers springing up along a stream, awakened and alive despite the long, harsh winter and pushing up into the world full of courage and anticipation. A little stream of cold water bubbles and shimmers past. Following the water we head out into the vast unspoiled wilderness. The contrast to my surroundings and my mood seemed especially striking today, and the music images together with the beauty of the sky made me tear up.

While wandering around in my thoughts with Appalachian Spring I recalled that Fred Child recently featured Copland’s Billy the Kid on Performance Today. He commented on the disparity between Copland’s urban Brooklyn upbringing and his ability to strongly evoke the feeling of the American West. They seem so foreign to one another. Where did Copland get his inspiration?

I mulled a bit more and made a connection to an article I read the other day – The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life. I’m fascinated by the ideas expressed in the article and just started reading her book. These three quotes are particularly pertinent:

She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.

The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

So while Copland’s urban childhood and lifestyle seem completely at odds with his ability to evoke the spirit of the American West, his third otherworldly self was intimately acquainted with the wilderness of creativity. In his work he lived on the edge of his imagination and pulled ideas into being from the void beyond. This requires the same spirit of discovery that the early American explorers had while moving west into the unknown. Perhaps this is what we are really hearing and experiencing when we listen to his work. He knew how it felt to explore in the wilds of his mind, and that translated into his creative work for us to hear and experience with him.

Today I am thanking God for the beauty of the cold winter sky, the spirit and soul of creativity He pours into each of us, and for the gift He gave the world in Aaron Copland. We’re given glimpses of the eternal in our everyday lives if we look for them. I am hopeful.

Making A Memory – My Quiet Musings on the Origins of Creativity, Part Four

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Last time I shared my realization that we are all given the gift of creativity by God. Even with this new truth to build on, changing my mindset about creativity has not been easy. I continue to struggle with perfectionism, a deep fear that I have nothing of value to share, and the burden of self-doubt. What if I’m not good enough for the work I really want to do?

One way I combat these cycles is to be deliberately mindful of how my struggles with depression distort reality. My negative thought patterns are like a funnel that narrow my perspective and are detrimental to authentic creativity. However, God sees and values me very differently than I see and value myself. One verse that I find helpful is Zephaniah 3:17. It says “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.God finds me worthy of delight and rejoicing. These words are a balm of salvation and healing.

Jeremiah 29:11 is another verse I rely on. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Since I view my artistic gifts as God-given, this verse reassures me. A good God would not give me artistic passions and then torture me by withholding the skills and substance needed to back those up. This knowledge mentally shifts my art making from a desperate endeavor to one of hopefulness. God also gave us the capacity to grow and learn, so that our creativity and abilities do not have to remain static. I must trust that God will provide what I need to do the creative work He has planned for me. This is difficult, but I’m working on it.

A related barrier I’ve had to address is my tendency to compare myself to others. Comparison morphs creativity into a competition that feeds my self-doubts. In His own infinite creativity God gave us different personalities, passions, talents and gifts. He allows us a diversity of life experiences and educational opportunities that shape us and our interests. We’re uniquely designed with inimitable ways that we practice our gifts of creativity. I am pulled to painting and drawing, mixed media, making music, or working in my garden. Other people write poetry, create sculpture, compose music, discover new concepts in mathematics, knit, dance, design a medical device, teach, tell stories, or cook. A group of artists painting the same still life end up with very distinct work because God gave them each their own artistic voice, experiences, and style of interpreting what they see onto the canvas. So really I shouldn’t expect my creative work to be directly comparable to that of anyone else. Rather than treat creativity as a competition I should concentrate on completing the creative work only I can do, and find ways to encourage others in furthering their creativity.

The final tactic I’m examining is to view my creative endeavors as a spiritual discipline. I’ve found that God frequently uses the times when I am actively creating to connect with me. I’ve experienced this in several ways. I often end up meditating on God, scripture, or praying while physically creating my artwork. I’ve also experienced amazing spiritual connections with God and others when making music together. This happens both in a worship setting and elsewhere. Sometimes just one perfect, pure note out of a whole concert or rehearsal strikes me as an extravagant gift from God. The act of creating can open up deep pathways of connection between me and the God of the Universe if I’m paying attention.

These are all areas I’m working on in my creative journey. I’m hopeful that as I cultivate them I will grow both in my faith and in my creative endeavors. Do you have any similar struggles? What do you find helpful in overcoming them?

Next time I will share about my ancestry and the ways it has influenced my art.

 

Making A Memory – My Quiet Musings on the Origins of Creativity, Part Three

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In my last post I mentioned discovering a new way to think about God’s gift of creativity while reading through the beginning of Genesis. I focused on the premise that God is creative (adjective) because I’d realized that this aspect of His character must be important since it’s one of the first things we learn about Him.

Genesis 1:27 is where I found new framework for my thoughts. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Again, I’ve read that many times before. However, when you infuse that verse with the concept of God as creative (adjective) – wow! God is creative, so we who are made in His own image must be creative as well.

Another critical connection I made is that there are no qualifiers. The verse doesn’t say that He made some people in His image but not others, or males in His image and not females. Suddenly my earlier assumptions about creativity as an exclusive gift were completely upended. Instead, I had to conclude that we collectively have a deep yearning to create because we are created in God the Creator’s image.

To me this is a perfect gem of an idea. I’m empowered to set aside my self-doubts and stop feeling apprehensive about whether I’m creative enough or not. Instead I can trust that creativity is an intrinsic component of my makeup. God gave us the gift of creativity and wants us to nourish it. Deep down I know that this is true. I absolutely feel most like my true self, the person God made me to be, when creating.

I’ll share my thoughts about acting on this truth next time.

Making A Memory – My Musings on the Origins of Creativity, Part Two

For me, creativity is deeply connected with my Christian faith. I believe that we’re each fearfully and wonderfully made by God, who loves us, values us, and gives us each unique gifts and talents. Creativity is one of those gifts.  I realize now, however, that I’ve unconsciously assumed creativity is a special, elusive gift that only some people get and others don’t. This assumption framed a large set of limitations I’ve placed on myself. So while I was slowly stitching the circles on the background I was thinking about creativity, wishing I felt certain that I really had this coveted gift, when Genesis 1:1 popped into my head. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Now certainly I’ve thought about that verse before. God created (verb); He is the Creator (noun). My usual perspective on the verse has been as a statement about God’s actions and power, and a cursory explanation of where the universe came from – including people and their gifts. This time though, I was reminded that the verse is also an important assertion about the character of God. He is creative (adjective). Not only that, it struck me that this premise is so important that we’re told about it in the very first verse of the Bible before we learn anything else about Him.

I decided I needed to review the beginning of Genesis, focusing on the idea of God as creative (adjective).  I read through His perfect creative process. God worked at creating, enjoyed the act of creating, was pleased with his creation, and made good things like light and dark, day and night, the land and sea, vegetation, all the varied living creatures, the sun, moon, stars, and seasons. He’s the world’s first and greatest Artist with an amazing body of creative work. It was just really cool to imagine God working away in His studio, creating this beautiful world we live in, trying new ideas, making a bunch of weird, new stuff, enjoying and loving his creation, and finding great satisfaction in what He made.

As I kept reading in Genesis I discovered a new way for me to think about the gift of creativity. I’ll tell you more about that next time.

Making A Memory – My Musings on the Origins of Creativity, Part One

Last fall I started working on this piece. My initial half-baked plan was to create a larger mixed media artwork that incorporated embroidery thread and beads on an acrylic skin. An acrylic skin is just dried layers of acrylic paint or medium. If you paint on a surface that the acrylic doesn’t like to adhere to you can carefully pull the skin up off the support after it’s dry. It’s sort of like the weird flexible film you’d get when peeling dried glue off your hands in elementary school. (I loved doing that!) At any rate, I didn’t have a story or concept of meaning tied to the artwork when I started. I was mainly just curious about taking my earlier, tentative experiments with these materials further, and using them in a more ambitious project.

Stitching and beadwork are labor intensive and pretty slow-paced, especially considering my clever decision to begin by stitching large groups of concentric circles all over the background. To hold back the tedium I would turn on some good music, try to relax into the repetitive rhythm of stitching, and let my mind wander around. I found myself meditating on several questions. Where does the impulse to create come from? Why am I drawn to creating art? Where there any artists in my family tree? Why am I so interested in using these materials in particular?

Over the coming weeks I’ll tell you more about where my thoughts took me.

The Word

As I was creating this piece these verses were brought to mind:

Detail of artworkIn the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. John 1:1-4

The one sitting on the throne was as brilliant as gemstones—like jasper and carnelian. And the glow of an emerald circled his throne like a rainbow. Rev 4:3

Heather Elliott
The Word
Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
12″ x 12″
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