Saturday, 19 January 2013

The loneliness of creativity

“It must be lovely to be able to paint!” The loneliness of creativity.

Creativity is a lonely business. Hours and weeks of working alone in the studio. Succoured only by habit, by some sort of inner discipline, by the need to earn a living and by the encouragement of each surprising little creative discovery. “Oh yes" (my wife), "he always feels depressed when he’s trying to start a new work”. The fact is that, every time, you feel at a loss to know how to start and nobody can help you. In your desperation you forget that this feeling is a creative prelude. You sweep the floor, drink coffee, procrastinate, wonder why you became an artist, listen to music, mess around with sketches and colours….. until unexpectedly, interesting little things start to appear in the messy kinetic painting. Your coffee gets cold. An hour or two goes by before you discover this, then you realise that you’re in the flow. Read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. It’s a long story, but “flow” is a state of deep satisfaction and drive, brought about by a synergy of factors, experienced from time to time by scientists, street-sweepers, artists, carpenters, writers – you name it. It comes from being totally absorbed in an unrelenting search for solutions, then better solutions. And not allowing yourself to get distracted. There’s no easy recipe of how to get started, but the “flow” is your greatest friend.

Speaking of flow: here’s vocalist Tamara Hoekwater, literally in my improvised flow of “Cry me a River”.

Krishnamurti once said that true creativity can only happen in a “free fall” situation. A unconditional leap in the dark, letting go of the worries about what people will think of this piece, whether it will provide bread on the table next month, what the critics will say. You don’t “know” what you’re doing and the unknown necessitates creativity. That’s actually pretty radical, pretty scary. I can hardly fulfill such ideals. Yet, standing on stage in a concert performance with my overhead projectors, I’m quite close to “free-fall”. Anything could happen! (If you can’t imagine this, watch some of my performances on YouTube). Yes, I do have my visual choreography, a lifetime of painting skills, weeks of practicing, and I’m more or less following the music. Well, which is it? More, or less? (Both, actually). Thousands of people, including television viewers, are wondering - what will he do next? For some split-second moments, I don’t know myself, so I follow my intuition. I have chosen the extreme risk of painting live with music – publicly sharing the moment of creativity. Because the audience can watch how you do it - as the visuals evolve and dissolve - they may be closer to a unique creative moment than they’ve ever been before. I’m exposing my most intimate moments to them, my passion and my vulnerability.

Leaving aside the “shock artists” obsessed with sensationalism, there are hardly any other painters who are this crazy, so I don’t get much advice. Maybe I should talk more with my jazz friends. Why didn’t I ask Ravi Shankar where his ecstatic improvisations came from? Personally, I am so much at one with the music, that I lose myself.

The applause has died down and the series of “very nice” reactions have come your way. You go back to your dressing room and have to scramble to get out, because the hall is closing down. You’re no longer welcome. You’re lucky if there’s a drink afterwards or really lucky if you’re invited to dinner - if the restaurants are still open. Back at the hotel or home, exhausted, the adrenaline drying up (or whatever adrenaline does), you try to remember anything meaningful of the well-meant compliments on your performance. “I don’t know how you do it!” Sometimes you find yourself asking why you do it.

But what I miss is enlightened discussion! I have a need to share ideas on what I’m trying to express. So I write blogs. There seem to be a lot of readers, from Japan to Canada, from UK to USA. But who comments? “I’m at a loss for words”, one sighs. Should I take that as a compliment? Write to me, you readers, performers, writers, artists! How does the creative process work for other disciplines? Nah, you won’t write, because it’s so personal. It’s a lonely business.

The end… or the beginning?


  1. "In the flow" is exactly how I would explain you and your work, Norman! Keep following your intuition, and your paintbrush.