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Ordinary Sources for Creative Ideas

mail   Just recently I found a competition in Art Calendar, which is a monthly publication that offers business advice and listings of art exhibits and opportunities. The competition was at the Brevard Museum of Art in Melbourne, Florida and had an interesting catch to it. The art submissions had to include a Chinese take out container of a specific size that they provided the artists.

   You may remember Cass Scopino, the pine needle basket maker I wrote about in an earlier article. She  lives in Melbourne, so I called her to let her know about the exhibit.  Of course, it was less than two weeks before the deadline, but what the heck. Cass has made some fascinating baskets, but this was a real stretch. How could she integrate a cardboard Chinese food container into a pine needle basket? To be honest, I knew what I would have made, I had no idea how she would approach it. I also wasn’t sure she’d take the challenge on with such short notice and the stakes of having to go through a jury process. But she jumped on it despite the risk of rejection or more realistically – not being selected.  

 I’d love to go on about risks and fears to submitting work to juried shows, but I realize that I should save that for another day. This type of ‘Call’ from a gallery or museum is an opportunity for a real creative challenge and should be celebrated.

We have a great educational museum near us, The Eli Whitney Museum, which puts out a call to artists each year, in the name of Leonardo Da Vinci. The requirement is  to create art with a specific object determined by the curators. It is about art and invention. One year it was the paper clip, each year it is different.

    Requiring one element be consistent in each artist’s entry by no means causes them to appear in the least bit similar. These are great creative challenges to participate in. Sometimes not having a restriction is more inhibiting or overwhelming than having one.

   Cass worked like a woman possessed to finish her piece and meet deadline for the Brevard Art Museum. She gathered a cheering section of friends and family and I believe went without sleep to finish it.  It was a personal mission just to submit the piece.  She also decided to have fun with. Her aptly named “Chinese Fire Drill” was accepted into her first ever Museum exhibit. Her descriptions of what other artists made proved how differently brilliant our brains are in solving creative problems. The help of a third party imposing an object provides a different kind of challenge.

 So now it’s your turn. I am challenging my tribe to make a creative statement. You may chose any media (2D or 3D which can accommodate poetry or text as well), but you must interject a clothes pin(s) somehow into your design or structure. Everyone has access to and can be inspired by this simple functional tool. By the way, spring action or straight, it doesn’t matter. Cass did her food container challenge in a week, but I want you all to get enough sleep. Photograph or scan your finished art and send an image to me by June 15th at  This challenge is for sharing brilliant ideas and is not being judged. The incentive is to have fun and to share with other creative folks. It also gives you another piece of work for your own portfolio. I will post your work in July to share with the tribe. Now let’s have some fun.

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Creative Journeys & Destinations

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Often it’s hard to start working toward a goal that seems overwhelming. I like to look at the journey as being the more interesting part of the accomplishment and to be honest, the conclusion or destination is never as exciting as how I got there. By approaching any creative project with an open mind to what will happen, I don’t paralyze myself with unrealistic expectations of forced perfection.


    As a painter, I court a theme; get to know my subject through research or observation, then brainstorm with sketches, then prepare materials, which could even include a trip to the art supply store. That always gets me excited to work. Then I paint. The process is so much more than placing wet paint strategically on a surface, because I make constant comparisons to what I wanted at the onset with what changes occur in the process. I purposely do not over think the outcome; I only brainstorm composition and value. The other elements fall into place as I work through the piece.


   What is nice about this approach is that I can move forward on my painting without fear of what will go wrong. I open myself to the mood of the day, the light at that hour and just like I always know when to go as to not wear out my welcome, I instinctively know when to stop painting.


   Everyone involved in the creative process has a method. Mine is like planning a trip with a general location that I can take my time getting to. Once I get there I may linger a little to appreciate where I’ve come to, but I’ll be ready to hit the road again.

   I just completed a book project that has taken 6 years, with occasional stops for reflection and revision. I know six years may seem like a long time, but not when you love what you are doing. The journey was fulfilling for each step and when that occurs, it’s harder to end it than it was to start it.  Creativity is really about putting ideas into action. The outcome result is a bonus. I will certainly share more about that specific project at a later date. 

   But back to process, my dear friend Charlotte is a stone carver. She works all year to fill her studio with amazing sculptures. Once she has enough for a “major” exhibition she sells them all. I asked her once if it was hard to part with her work and she answered,” The affair is over.”


    For your own creative journey- a great way to approach a bigger project is to break it down to chunks with the intention of each chunk being its own accomplishment. If it’s writing, start with poetry or short stories before you tackle the great American novel. You may even find that you’ve woven your shorter vignettes into a full length feature screen play or perhaps simply a journal that tells us you story.

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I never know when inspiration will strike. For instance, aside from reading about the failing car industry and government bail outs, I just saw new energy efficient two passenger cars that don’t even cost that much. They are practically small enough to be Matchbox cars and …. wait an minute…there it is… inspiration for this article.    

        A two passenger car that looks like a bubble on wheels is creative in that it may solve energy problems, about as much as a golf cart would. I can just imagine a tractor trailer tailing me in one of those and let’s be honest, survival is what comes to mind, not energy conservation. But, that odd little car is not what is inspiring me. It’s the Matchbox cars that just provoked a strong memory.

   I remember playing with Matchbox cars with my brother, Kerry, when we were just little tykes. We invented conversations between the invisible drivers of the cars or maybe it was the cars themselves. To be honest, the one thing I know for sure is that our cars were all named ‘Joe’. Now that I look back at it, it was an early sign of creativity for both of us. Others may think that not having a different name for each “guy” showed a lack of creativity, but I challenge that. The right side of the brain isn’t so great at remembering names (that’s the left side’s job) and one name (Joe) seemed to be enough.   

   However, we had the most interesting story lines and adventures for those cars as they whizzed around rough terrain on hand designed courses made of building blocks, up and down pant legs, across an arm or back and through tunnels of paper towel tubing. They defied gravity up the side of a bedpost or under a shelf and parked in their own little matchbox garages. Legos wasn’t even on the scene yet. We had so many different cars including a dune buggy, convertible, police car, trucks, various race cars and hot rods that the story lines for “Joe” were infinite. I even remember how we alternated picks, so we each had the same number of cars. This, of course, occurred ‘fairly’ after my brother skimmed his favorites out of the pile.

   I have two points to this story. One, who ever designed the new energy efficient two passenger car (the bubble on wheels) may be thinking way out of the box here, certainly out of the Matchbox, but did they ever play with Matchbox cars? We may have only had one name, but the cars were magnificently designed with different body types, colors and character. My second point is that Kerry and I started to develop our imaginations early in life through the act of playing. We learned along the way to channel that play into our adult lives. Yes, I did become an artist. My brother, aside from skillfully hiding cars up his sleeve, became a Master carpenter and musician. We chose paths that nurtured our creative intelligence and passions. I guess we’ll find a way to play with the new bubble cars to further inspire the future. We can even call them all Joe, I just hope that they’re the kind of bubbles that can also defy gravity. I’m hunting for Matchbox cars now to draw a picture of them tucked up my brother’s sleeve.

   As you look for inspiration, keep a small notepad handy and when something you come across during the day touches a memory or catches your eye, write it down. It could be in a conversation or a TV ad, you never know where or when it will pop up. Just pay attention.


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ABCs of Brainstorming

scan00022   I am often challenged when I want to pursue a theme, but I’m not exactly sure where to start. One thing that always helps is to brainstorm as many ideas as possible with a list of related images. For example, I love tea and for a time I could set up teacups and tea pots in a still life and I could still paint them until the cows come home. I still could, because I love the shapes and the meaning behind the ritual of tea. But I also wanted to play with the theme beyond a still life.

    I listed the letters of the alphabet down the side of a piece of paper and next to each letter I wrote the name of a tea flavor. Believe it or not, I thought of a flavor for each letter. That was a process of brainstorming and it really does keep the mind sharp. (She says when forgetting things seems to be more common that usual)  Now, how does one go about painting a flavor?  For each flavor, I drew out possible designs for teapots that would describe the origin of the flavor. For example, A is for Apple Cinnamon, so of course there would be apples with Autumn colors.  D is for Dandelion, which opens the door to little yellow flowers or the wispy ghost of the dandelion once it goes to seed. I love that I was able to transition from direct observation creating realistic still life on to more graphic representational drawings of flavors. I also took myself less seriously by having some fun with the theme.

   I make it a habit of starting off any project with a brainstorming session. I know that I have good ideas at the onset, but I’m certain that the more I push them the better they will be. Too often my students will come up with only one idea, their first one. It might be a good one or just an “it’ll do” one. Is it laziness, lack of confidence/ over confidence or just not being aware of the value of the brainstorming process that causes them to stall on their first idea?

   I know a lot of artists who percolate their ideas over time. They think, make notes, sketch, think more, make more notes and then, after enough popping ideas around in their heads, are ready to move forward and create. Often that percolating of an idea is what allows them to go through the actual art making with what seems to be a spontaneous approach, but if you count the thinking time, it only appears that way.

   I knew a water color artist who I’d seen demonstrate in what appeared to be effortless strokes of color on paper to create amazing landscapes of local scenery. I overheard one of his customers ask, “How long did that painting take you to do?”

I’m not sure if the question was to learn about how amazing his skill was or to deem value on the art based on how much time went into it. He quietly responded, “My whole life.”

   I don’t think I could have given a better answer. Artists do spend their lives improving their skills and growing creatively. The thinking process is as much part of that as the technical skill. He was always looking at the land, taking it in, getting to know it and sketching to prepare for painting. That was his form of brainstorming.   

 Try the ABC approach to brainstorming. Choose a theme. Brainstorm it to more specifics. Make an alphabet along side a page and chart as many connecting thoughts that go with that letter. I had several ideas for each letter before I selected one for my illustrated alphabet. You might not even go so far as to create a final alphabet, but just one of those ideas could spark a great work of art on it’s own.      


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Creative Collaborations



In my efforts to educate myself about self publishing, I was directed to Allison Holzer, an author/artist who recently completed her own project, a children’s book “Jenny Makes A Junkyard Friend”.

Aside from benefiting from her generosity of information on self publishing, I learned about her book. The first thing that I noticed was the uniqueness of her illustrations and looking closer realized that it was due to her collaboration with artist Richard Kolb that made this such a unique book. Rich Kolb along with Phil Smith of Louisville, Kentucky design and create critters out of tools and all things associated with tool boxes (nuts, bolts, etc.) The book combines an illustrated character (Jenny the dog) with photos of “junk yard critters”. It’s a fun story created to support a line of products that Rich sells at wholesale markets and galleries across the country.

  Allison is originally from Louisville and had worked with Rich a few years back painting flats for his whole sale booths. That connection evolved into this spirited book that exposes children to creatively reclaiming and recycling materials for art. I encourage you to visit their website and learn more about their products and find out about how to locate a store or gallery that carries them. 

Now as far as self publishing, I’m impressed with the quality of book that Allison and Rich produced. I am even more impressed with the quality of their character, demonstrated by their willingness to share their experience and support the creative process with me, a total stranger.



Ways that you can collaborate with other creative people are unlimited. Start a piece of art using collage, drawing, painting or mixed media. Select a theme and pass it back and forth to each other making additions and changes based on your perception and interpretation of the theme. Play off each others design with an understanding that one may enhance a part you created that you really like or destroy it as the design progresses. Determine up front how many times you pass it back and forth for. Then stop and share your experience with each other. I’ve know many artists who work this way in order to grow creatively from the process and even exhibit a series of these collaborations. Artists often respond to change and taking presumed absolutes into new territory. Bouncing it back and forth forces a response that you didn’t necessarily anticipate and tests you on your own communication strategies. Have fun with it,  make it an adventure. 

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Pine Needle Baskets- Resourceful Art


   I just got back from Florida from a family visit and just have to share what I saw in the realm of creativity and resourcefulness. The pine needle basket you see here was made by Cass Scopino. With a career in Social Work, Cass is also a creative with a back yard full of Pine trees that shed Pine needles. Yes, I know, you’re thinking Florida- you mean Palm trees. Well Florida has its own indigenous species of Pine and the needles are long and splendid for making baskets. 

   Not only is it impressive that she can recycle her ‘yardifacts’, but Cass incorporates interesting objects such as beads, jewelry brooches and dream weavers into her pieces of art. That’s not all. Once she learned how to stitch the baskets, she signed up with a ceramics studio collective and produces bases that show a wonderful contrast of glazed clay against the organic needles. I own two of these hybrids myself.

   Cass has been resourceful not only in her use of readily available materials, but also in her choice to surround herself with other creative people at the ceramic studio and at a co-op gallery who are supportive of each others growth. What was also refreshing was to see how Cass showed appreciation for her teacher, who had amazingly huge sculpted basket forms in a gallery nearby. It sounded like she’d studied with her for years. Based on her perfection of technique and design, I had assumed she had. Considering her natural eye for design, she’s just a fast learner for technique. She told me it was a 2 hour class to start, then one more class to follow up. Yes, creative wannabes, there are places where you can take a one day workshop or Adult Ed class that can get you started in little or no time. Be resourceful and adventurous! Considering her day job and its own rewards, I’ve watched her work on her baskets, moments of Zen.      

   How can you be more resourceful as a creative? Look around to see what is right there at your fingertips. It may be a box of old buttons or a pile of magazines from the1990s that you’ve been meaning to go through again. (Really, some of us do think we will).

    One lady I read about made hundreds of sculpture from her dryer lint. I think she had a lot of laundry and this creative challenge at least made it interesting. What a lovely reward at the end of a long day of laundry, lint zoo animals. Watch out dust bunnies.

    How can ordinary “junk” take the place of traditional media? Try cutting the plastic bags from the grocery store into strips and crochet them into a bag .Even the pine needle baskets can be made from other materials.  If you look around you’ll surely find something.   


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Quilts- A Cultural Arts Exchange



I’m always interested in how creativity crosses cultures and makes the world community just a little bit closer. A recent project with high school students, those people who that can’t function without a cell phone in hand,  really allowed them to be seen as individuals just finding their way in life.

I was asked by a Social Studies teacher to work on an art exchange with the local school and a school in Iraq. Wow. Just thinking of the possibilities I got excited. What on earth do American kids have in common with Iraqi kids? I wanted to select a project that showed how individuals can express themselves and still contribute to a common goal. I also wanted to show that common design in American art could also be seen in art familiar to Iraq.     The geometric designs of the American Patchwork Quilt stood out in my mind as the essential art that we would share. I invited one of our Math teachers to come in and discuss how Math connects to quilt design. His mother was a quilter and he is a collector. I also invited Patti Biller, a member of the community who is a quilt restorer, though she prefers the term ‘rescuer’. Patti talked to the kids about symbolism in historic designs and a storytelling tradition. Did you know that quilts were important communication tools for the Underground Railroad?

The students then went to work, each designing a block to include traditional references to new designs and storytelling. The blocks were then hung together as a group quilt to show a community effort.  They did not use the traditional fabric patches, but instead used cut paper and mixed media. Each block is an amazing personal reflection of each student. I learned more about each kid because of this project than I did talking to them all term.

I learned how close a mother – daughter bond is because her star quilt is about her mother singing “When you wish upon a star” when she tucked her in every night. One girl with anxiety issues works with horses to soothe her fears. Another girl lives with chaos in her life and strives to keep her feet on the ground and her head above the clatter. And then there is another who is mending a broken heart.

   I am very proud to be sending these creative expressions of art to another teacher, thousands of miles away in a country where children probably know as many fears and are more unsettled in their daily lives. I hope as they look around their own environment they will see geometric designs that might remind them of their friends here. Maybe not quilts, but the decorative tiles or architecture and explore design to express their ideas and tell stories about who they are and what they want in life.

   I’m really proud of my students. They take ownership of who they are (yes, cell phones and texting are here to stay until the next great “idea” we didn’t know we couldn’t live without is born). Keep in mind, it will come from one of them.

Study quilt patterns and the history of specific designs, like Log Cabin, Drunken Pathway, Flying Geese. Think of how simple symbols can add meaning to any image. Create a cut paper collage in a single quilt block using whatever cool papers you can find. It’s an awesome way to recycle shopping bags, greeting cards, cereal boxes, etc. Then embellish with stitching, buttons, sequins, glitter , whatever you’ve got. Make a bold statement encrypted in the design code of quilts.



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Word Art


eeping along the same subject as last week, when I wrote about how people can express themselves in ways that words cannot. This week, I think I should give some space to the very things that allowed me to express  those very thoughts – words.

   Clearly self expression can be carried out with words in many formats and styles. The actual collection of words strung into a sentence can convey meaning and take us in to places that imagination may need a guide for. Poetry, narrative, storytelling, correspondence, news, memos, instruction, lyrics, I could go on for pages on how words communicate our thoughts.

   I would also like to note that the beauty of the letters that make the words can be extraordinary in their pure forms. I refer to illuminated manuscript and calligraphy as forms of word making that deliver words as specimens of beauty regardless of their meaning. I imagine that the monks who first graced our world with ornamentation and embellishments of beauty on written language were doing so for holy purposes. Having seen the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin, I can attest to its spiritual effect on at least one viewer.

   In today’s world we are all caught up in more easily obtained fonts. Fonts are styles of letters that originated on small pieces of lead that were painstakingly put into place for use in printing presses and are now available at the touch of a mouse click in a mind boggling choice of styles right in your computer program.   I have yet to see any come close to imitating to the finer qualities of hand lettered calligraphy.

    Just today I had someone ask me to write names on certificates in calligraphy with the sincerest tone of voice as if asking me to do this work was a form of flattery.Well, it is work, but as much out of practice that I am, I could not help but want to accommodate that person. She could just as easily have  printed them out on her computer with a calligraphy font, but she appreciated the hand lettering and so did the people receiving the certificates.  I also made her promise never to tell anyone who did them. (I don’t really have as much time as the monks.)

   My suggestion is to take time to look at illuminated and illustrated manuscripts in what ever source is available.Google illuminated or illustrated letters or the Book of Kells. Religious books are not the only source of those fancy letters. Take time to study the details of the ‘Once upon a time’ in fairy tales. Take a simple phrase or poem and create an illustrated first letter. The H in Hickory, Dickory Dock could lend itself to a lovely grandfather clock to start the story. Remember where the mouse ran? That’s right – up the clock. Have some fun with letters and how their visual presence can be used to enhance the word or story.


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Creative Language

scan0007   I often have trouble finding the right word for something that I want to describe or place a name to. I believe I have a pretty good scope of vocabulary, but maybe I don’t know that word or is it possible that it doesn’t exist. In some cultures, words for certain things don’t even exist and if I knew what they were, I’d tell you.

    I’m also sorry to say that in some cases, it just might be my memory. You know how it is. The word is either on the tip of your tongue or has left the building with Elvis.

   I was in my Pilates class last week and Christina, my instructor, directed us to bend our right knee. No one moved, because our right knees were already bent. She repeated it a sputtering few times only to get the same get the same result. Finally, she motioned her right elbow the way she wanted us to bend it and laughing said – “your other right knee”. Everyone bent their right elbow.  Admit it, we’ve all had those language glitches and sometimes it’s funny, others not so funny.

   What does that have to do with creativity? Well, some things actually do defy words or can at least exist without them. Have you ever had a moment when a scent or an image or the sound of something evoked a memory spasm that puts you in another moment of time for just a flash of a second? There is no way to describe it, because it’s a sensation. It’s physical and emotional and it’s so personal that no one would get it even if you could. Perhaps spiritual? 

   I think a lot of things defy words and yet it’s so wonderful that people continue to pursue ways to communicate when words fail. I’m suggesting that you do the same.

   Chose a medium for communicating that does not involve words. Think of something that evokes a feeling and express yourself. Hum, whistle, draw pictures, put on a polka, well maybe some Motown and dance it out. It doesn’t even matter if someone else is present to bear witness. What matters is that you can extend that idea or feeling beyond yourself. If you come up with some dance steps that you really want to share, then teach someone else. If you put your symbol for life on paper or any other concept that can be pictured without words, copy it on postcards and send them out. There are many ways to express ideas and feelings visually if drawing is not your thing- try collage, photography, rearranging furniture or add to the list.          


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Picasso Said Action


 “It is one’s actions that matter, not one’s best intentions of action”. –Pablo Picasso

Since this is the beginning of a new year, I thought that it was an appropriate reminder of what I believe and try to live up to. As a creative person, it is easy to lose grip on time and energy that other tasks and people require of us each day. When I say I want to paint more, I mean it with best intentions. Then I notice the dishwasher needs to be emptied or I have set up too many appointments all in one week or I’m tired and the couch seduces me into an afternoon slumber. Then I get mad at myself, because what I wanted to do was paint.

    I am aware that my intentions and my actions are seasonal. My energy level fizzles between October and February, but that is no excuse. Maybe it is about the light (or lack there of in the Northeast) this time of year. Maybe it’s that I really don’t have enough time with the demands of the winter months. It’s the holidays, yeah, that’s it. But, if my passion is painting, then I have no excuse.

   I think anyone who has creative rumblings in them hits a slump or a block now and then. It’s okay to just let it be when great things are happening that distract you. By great, I mean wonderful or out of the ordinary or just overwhelming. But ask yourself this, when was the last time you set aside time to act creatively, not just think about it?  

   Each person has their own set of circumstances that interfere with a pattern of creative activity. The key is to look at those circumstances (carpools, jobs, household chores, kids, whatever) and think about how you feel about those activities and compare them to how you feel when you’re being creative. Interestingly, it’s not the circumstances that bog us down; it’s what our thoughts are about those circumstances.  “I have to carpool everyday for my kid’s multiple activities”,  “I have to organize my den before I can set up my art project”, “I have to answer every e-mail before I can write poetry” or at least the very least “I should…”

   With the thoughts  I have to…or I should…consider what that does to your physical and emotional self. How does it feel when you believe that you absolutely HAVE TO do something when you prefer to focus on self nurturing and being creative?

   I suggest that if it doesn’t feel so great to neglect that part of yourself, then you must change your thoughts about it. Example- “I have to carpool each day for my kid’s multiple activities.” Options “I chose to do all that carpooling and I’ll bring a sketchpad and use it while I’m waiting” or “I can alternate with other drivers and give myself one day free to be creative” or ‘My kid won’t suffer with one less day of scheduled activities and maybe will benefit from some unscheduled time”.

   You’ll see that once you allow the alternate thoughts into your head, you’ll be able to change the course of your creative life without cataclysmic damage to your whole world.

It goes like this- Circumstance> Thoughts (I can’t or I can, I have to or I chose to) > Feelings> Action (or non-action) > results (good or bad).

   I can’t imagine what Pablo Picasso would have accomplished if his head were full of thoughts for his best creative intentions without action. His Blue or Rose Periods, Cubism, Fauvism, and multiple perspectives may not be synonymous with his name in history. Speaking of multiple perspectives, practicing different ways of looking at the situation will help to inspire your own action. Try it.

Pick one thing on your “TO-DO’ list that you think is a must and reword it from another perspective. Thinking creatively, might find you time to be creative.


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