Art, Living, Writing

Where Art and Storytelling Intersect

It all started with a tag, upon which was typed, a title.

‘A Pear of Pants’ Rick Devin

About a month ago, my aunt and I visited various artist studios as part of HopArts, an open house festival day.  One artist’s bio captured my attention because of his whimsical, surrealistic images. I thought it would be a fun spot to scope out for my children. My aunt and I didn’t need the kids to enjoy Rick Devin’s studio.  The bold, comical animals leapt off the canvases. His fabric sculptures oozed character.  And then we noticed the titles of the pieces. We made a second pass of each piece, pointing out the titles, and laughing once more and more heartily. My aunt asked Devin whether he created the titles or the pieces first. He said it worked both ways. The depth of humor each title added struck me, but I don’t think I knew exactly why.

Then, this past weekend, I took my two oldest girls to Charlestown Gallery. My seven year-old is working on a painting badge for Girl Scouts and was scheduled to visit and talk to the curator/artists at the gallery. I brought my nine year-old along because she is blossoming with artistic talent and enthusiasm. I may have had as much, if not more, fun as they did.

I don’t know why I sometimes separate the visual and written arts. The creative process is much the same, only presented in a different medium. Each piece there was making a statement, telling a story, looking to evoke a feeling. And each was so varied – from artist to artist, even from work to work within one artist’s body. It wasn’t simply an image etched into being, any more than a story is words written on a page.

My girls and I talked about what some of the pieces might mean, what the artist may have intended. When they each gave a different interpretation of the same piece, we discussed how what the viewer brings to the image is as important as the original intent of the artist. My mind whirled on to the reader response school of literary critique. When I peered at another painting, analyzing it as I would a piece of literature, trying to understand its meaning, I formed a vague notion – when I looked at that tag naming its title and an unexpected door opened, leading me into a richer, more detailed room.

'Heading Out' by David Witbeck

                                                                                                                                             “Heading Out’ by David Witbeck

All art is storytelling. The thought processes involved in the creative process bend and stretch the parameters of meaning; forcing the close study of the object right in front of us and how it fits into the bigger picture. Even the ‘simple’ experience of viewing the outcome of the creative process – without engaging in its creation – pays many of the same dividends. One is still engaged. Though my daughters hadn’t made the art, they made their own meaning. The hand of the artist reached through the canvas and provoked a thought process in them that made them view the world through different eyes.

The creative arts help us to interpret and synthesize our world in a way our practical, procedural lives won’t let us. The value of that can be seen no matter which way one looks at it.

Weekend Write-Off, Writing

Polka Dot Penguin Pottery

It’s usually a good sign when the cover of a book on creativity is oriented so that it opens bottom to top rather than right to left. Once I opened the cover of Polka Dot Penguin Pottery by Lenore Look/illustrated by Yumi Heo, I kept waiting for the page where the text would shift to traditional format, but the entire book continues in this way. And what a testament to the creative process it is. And how refreshing that is addressed in a picture book for children.

Though it’s been floating around our house for awhile, I read it for the first time to my six year-old last week – a day or so after reigniting my love affair with writing my young adult novel. How fitting that I should find this story at that moment in time. The “author”, an eight-ten year old girl, introduces herself by her nom de plume, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee, stating that she writes stories “about monkeys and elephants, aliens and robots, and sometimes, about me.” She goes on to elucidate the writer’s process in the way only a child can. I sniggered to myself that I could’ve used this book a few days previous; if only I’d had the secret to finishing a story!


Illustration by Yumi Heo; image from George Shannon 

Alas, even with this fail-proof plan, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee falls prey to the dreaded writer’s block. Her grandparents suggest some ‘chill-out’ time and take her and her baby sister on an outing. On the way to Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, Aspen continues to make lyrical observations despite her writer’s block. “The wind lick[s her] nose and whistle[s] in [her] ears.” Once she enters the shop, [her] words are swirling around . . . and [she] cannot catch them.” A potent reminder of the fact that we are always writing – even when we walk, stare, converse, dead-head blooms in the garden – not just when we sit at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, the crippling malaise of writer’s block transfers to Aspen’s pottery painting project. Luther and Ivy, who sit nearby, tell her “you have to stay super-still and wait for something to happen.” The shop owner suggests she relax and have fun. When she makes a blotch on her ceramic egg by accident and thinks the project is ruined, her creativity soon blossoms because she realizes she has nothing to lose. “You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess,” says Ivy.

Taking risks and keeping at it are the true key to the creative process. Following your monkey mind even if – perhaps especially if – you don’t know where it’s leading.

“And this is the story that began with just hanging out,” Aspen finishes her narrative with.

All too often, I think writers, at least me, are crippled by the blank page or screen. I may have ideas zipping around my head like crazy, but once the word processor loads that blank screen, I feel a constricting band around my throat. Unless I can ‘not think’ like Aspen in this story. When she wasn’t looking for it, the story found her.


Some additional notes about this book:

  • While the format is landscape, find the spreads that have different views depending on which way you turn the book. For instance, the page where Aspen and her family walk the street; her family in relation to the words and the shops and other people on the street.
  • Search for whimsical details like the squirrel 🙂
  • Consider sharing this with other writers in your life – especially those who have trouble living the simple truth it conveys!
  • Expect to enjoy it perhaps more than your children. I don’t know if I love its value to children or the fact that it’s a kids’ book that introduces the concept of the creative process. I sometimes wonder if authors create some picture books with the adult who will be reading it aloud in mind. (Thank you!)
  • Another picture book I’ve come across addressing the creative process is Begin at the Beginning: A Little Artist Learns about Life by Amy Schwartz
  • It is not a coincidence if you find parallels between the creative process and life.  We could all adapt such useful lessons to our benefit.