Creativity Lesson from Zoé and Salomé
Paul Klee wrote: “Man is not finished. One must be ready to develop, open to change and, in one’s life, an exalted child: a child of creation and the creator.”
Last week, my mom exhibited 25+ of her energy-charged and colorful abstract paintings on fabric, including two pieces (on fabric as well) from Andrew James Campbell. The exhibition was outside, in the garden of our country house in the Lot in Quercy, France. The paintings were hanging in trees, in bushes and on the façade of our old house. We also had very large panels on free-standing frames. The whole things looked quite unique and whimsical, art mixing up with nature in a playful and unpretentious way.
Zoé and Salomé, aged 10 and 4 years old respectively, and their parents were on vacation in the area and seeing out posters came to visit us. We had advertised ‘creative sessions’ and a free hand-painted tee shirt for participants bold enough to practice painting on my mom’s fabric. So after looking at the exhibit, Zoé’s and Salomé’s parents asked the girls if they wanted to paint. Looking at one another with a shy smile, they could not resist such an opportunity. My mom set each of them up with a small camping table, each with a square fabric cut to the dimension of a cushion, the color was almond green for Zoé and grey pink for Salomé. She put some paint of different colors in empty chocolate boxes (the perfect palette) and gave them brushes for each color. And while we stayed around chatting with their parents, the girls went to work.
Watching the Creative Artists
There is much that we have learned from simply watching the creative process of two lovely sisters. Zoé, the oldest, methodically started painting red and white flowers, carefully laid out in a gorgeous pattern that seemed designed for the next spring fashion collection in Paris. She was totally focused and full of care, yet one could feel she was still slightly aware of what was going on around her. Her design or pattern had something of the same quality referred to by Ehrenzweig in his book “The Hidden Order of Art:” a pattern that can be reproduced in such a way that the whole is creative and not only the individual parts. In Zoé’s painting, it is the whole that is harmonious while irregularities generate ‘liveness’ and vibrations within.
I was standing slightly behind Salomé and watched in amazement the little one’s creative process. First with an eye toward her sister who had just getting started, Salomé took a brush and seemed to copy her sister’s flowers. She made a few similar flowers, changing the color for each one. When, suddenly and to my amazement, she took a new brush and painted a circle, in complete contrast with what she has done before. With no hesitation, changing brush again, she laid out a square next to the circle and then filled it in with another color. From that point on, she was in the “zone,” completely in her own bubble. With no rush, yet in a non-interrupted flow, she went on, adding colors and shapes to create an abstract painting not unsimilar to Paul Klee’s art pieces. I would have given a lot to find out what was going on in her little mind. What was it that influenced her choice of colors or shapes? In fact, she seemed to have no thought; she was all spontaneity. She simply, intuitively kept on task. Yet, the result was not purely accidental. In many ways, she seemed to have entered into a conversation with her artwork: whatever she had already laid out speaking back to her, “telling” her how to proceed next. Ehrensweig states: “In any kind of creative work a point is reached where our power of free choice comes to an end. The work assumes a life of its own, which offers its creator only the alternative of accepting or rejecting it. A mysterious ‘presence’ reveals itself, which gives the work a living personality of its own.” It seemed that Salomé had given up her free choice to fully accept what desired to emerge. Even small mistakes, like a few accidental drops of paint, became opportunities for creativity, while not a word was spoken, not a complaint, no self-censuring arose what so ever. The result was a unique art piece, with no clichés or mannerisms: “a true achievement of craftsmanship.”
Eye-Opening for Zoé and Salomé’s Parents
At first, we could see an ever so slight sign of embarrassment in the girls’ parents. It is so natural: all parents want to be proud of their children and show them at their best. Even in our convivial and relaxed atmosphere, it was clear that Zoé and Salomé’s parents were wondering what their girls would be capable of creating. So, their early reaction was a slight dismissal of the girls’ work in progress—perhaps their way to lower any expectations; they are only children after all. But over time, while my mom and I started to seriously pay attention to the artwork the girls were making and admiring their focus, as well as their creativity, the parents’ attitude shifted from this dismissal to curiosity. The girls’ mom even asked something like: “Do you really think it’s any good?” and to me after I mentioned how fascinated I was by Salomé’s creative process: “Why are you so interested? Do you do this kind of work professionally?” To which I provided a short overview of the creative retreats Andrew and I co-facilitate and of our interest in the process of creativity in general and the fact that our approach with adults is to help them reconnect in part with the creativity spirit of their childhood.
Toward the end of the process, I called Andrew who had been working, writing in a different room and had not witnessed the whole process. I wanted him to watch Salomé’s final touches. When he saw the results he immediately went to get his camera to take pictures. Again, their mom was surprised and delighted at so much interest. While congratulating Zoé and Salomé for their beautiful paintings, you could see big smiles of pride on the parents’ faces as well as on the girls.’ But this was not the end…
We suggested them to leave their paintings over night so that they could dry and we could fix the paint on the fabric. In the evening and throughout the next day, Andrew spent quite a few hours creating three gorgeous documents presenting the girls’ art pieces at their best. It is he who saw in Zoé’s flowers next spring fashion pattern and created a stylish picture of a young woman wearing a fluid dress. For Salomé, he deconstructed her work a bit, took snapshots, enhanced the colors and imagined Salomé at her first art exhibit. Everything looked gorgeous and highly inspiring so it is not surprising the family was in awe the next day when we presented the documents to them and very touched by so much care and considerations.
Andrew writes, “Someone I don’t know the name of once said that the master-pupil relationship should not be trapped inside a curriculum, a program, a teaching, an ideology, a plan, a goal. The master is not trying to transfer certain knowledge or skills to the pupil. She has no educational goals for him or her; she is not interested in transforming him or her into something. She loves him or her. She has a caring love for him or her. No strings attached. She nourishes hopes about her pupil, but she has no expectations.” We had no fixed expectations for Zoé and Salomé; we did not teach them anything; we did not even think that the experience could be transformational in any way. And yet, I believe there was much learning that took place for all of us present—adults and children. We all attended each other with care, attention and love. We let things emerge and as they did, we responded accordingly.
While leaving our home, Zoé and Salomé’s mom told my mother: “you made me feel better!” I cannot help to wonder what will Zoé and Salomé remember from this experience. Will they dream of future careers as artists? Will this experience change their approach to creativity and life in general? Will they have enough strength and courage to continue on their own path, not letting themselves influenced by conventions and norms? For me personally, it is Salomé’s spontaneity and her ability to not censure her creative process—censuring being a trap I am so easily falling into in my own work—that I will remember and will practice. It is also the fact that much learning can take place in a leisurely way, when one does not expect it or don’t work for it but when one is free to receive openly.
All photographs and photo montages by Andrew James Campbell.
Ehrenzweig, Anton (1967). The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination. University Of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles
For more of my mom’s paintings and creations on fabric, see Evely B’s website: http://www.evelyb.com