The beauty of the ordinary and what makes an artist: Spark + Tumble Photography

The connections we make in this life, across continents and across oceans, are nothing less than astounding, I think.

A year ago I read a book review by the incomparable Lisa Ann Cockrel; a review that closes by noting that the book in question left Cockrel “craving latkes with spiced applesauce.” As I was in Malawi at the time, and craving ALL the things I couldn’t get there, especially food things, I found myself craving the very same thing. So I wrote to Lisa — whom I’d written to before to discuss things other than food — and told her how much I liked the review.

And that I, too, was craving latkes.

“What if we got together and made some?” she said.

Well, that seemed improbable. But we did get together, a few months later, and at our first meal together (which did not, alas, include latkes), I met another Lisa — Lisa Beth Anderson — who makes remarkable photographs.

Lisa B-A’s photographs are magical without being corny. They elevate wedding photographs and engagement photographs and family photographs from something one seeks out because it’s obligatory or customary (“I guess we should get some family photos taken…”) to something you can’t stop gazing at, even if you don’t know the subjects in the photo, because the composition and the lighting and all of it is nothing less than art.

It so happened that Lisa B-A was shooting a wedding in Philadelphia just as I was moving (near) there. She came by just to visit. I didn’t plan on her taking any pictures…we were just moving in! With moving clothes on! And wallpaper peeling and curtains we hated still hanging!

But Lisa sees the beauty that is there even when no one else can see it — or so it seems to me.

Which is not, on reflection, a bad way to define ‘artist’: a person who makes manifest — visible, tangible, edible, audible — the beauty no one else can see.

boys jumping 2 Graeme-mama old chair

"Will it look like I am conjuring the power of the sun?" he asked.
“Will it look like I am conjuring the power of the sun?” he asked.

All photos credit {the remarkable} Lisa Beth Anderson — Spark + Tumble.

Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}

How to Nurture Creativity In Children (& in yourself)

I’m far from an expert on the subject, but I think the key word is nurture: creativity is there within our children; it’s not something we need to inculcate but simply something that must be tended, guarded, and allowed to flourish.

I have a new piece at iBelieve on the subject. Here’s a taste. Click through to read it all!

Nurturing Creativity in Children

Rachel Marie Stone

Nurturing Creativity in Children

Many people think of creativity as a trait one either has or doesn’t have, like having dimples in your cheeks, or having brown eyes. In truth, creativity is innate to each one of us, given as a gift by the One who created all things. And like a living thing, creativity can be stifled as well as nurtured.

In a popular TED talk, British educational adviser Sir Ken Robinson provocatively asked “do schools kill creativity?” Schools, he argued often enshrine right answers as preferable to divergent thinking, and many schools reinforce the idea (usually indirectly) that a mistake is just about the worst thing a person could do. Yet creativity “is as important in education as literacy,” he says, “and we should treat it with the same status.”

But how? What can parents do to nurture their children’s God-given capacities for creativity?

Realize creativity might not always look the way you expect it to look.

Many of us immediately think of paints and canvases–or perhaps of musical instruments or poetry–when we think of “creativity.” But creativity encompasses more than just the arts. In its essence, creativity is the ability to make something new–to put words or ideas or foods or colors or Lego bricks together so as to create something that didn’t previously exist in anyone’s mind but your own: a poem, a scientific theory, a new kind of dessert, a painting, a toy spaceship. Scientific advances and technological innovations require creativity every bit as much as painting murals or playing violin concertos do. So if your child shows no interest in arts and crafts, don’t write him off as “not creative.” He’s probably just creative in a way you didn’t expect. Which brings us to–

Give your child freedom to pursue his or her interests.

It’s important that children have some freedom to pursue what they are interested in. This doesn’t mean they should never have to engage in activities that they don’t like, of course–it simply means if your seven year old is content to build new things out of Lego for hours on end, you don’t necessarily need to interrupt him to make him do an art project, because chances are he’s already flexing his God-given creative muscles. Some parents are perplexed to find their children aren’t interested in the same sorts of things that they are, but it’s a mistake to assume that because you love music, your children will, too. It’s important to give children a wide range of experiences, but it’s equally important to allow them to become who God created them to be, instead of trying to mold them in our own image.

Offer your child a safe space that’s free from too much criticism, and too much praise

For creativity to flourish, a child needs to feel safe. She needs to know what she makes, says, or thinks will not be harshly criticized, and that she is not loved conditionally, the condition being she performs well and makes no mistakes. Essential to creative success, notes psychologist of creativity Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, is a high tolerance for making mistakes, and we develop that when we learn a mistake is not the worst thing in the world. We can instill this necessary confidence in our children first by loving them unconditionally, as God loves us, and then by communicating to them that their beings, not their doings, are what are most precious to us. A firm resolve not to criticize or mock their efforts–or to base your affection for them on their talents and gifts–can help strengthen their willingness to explore and take creative risks.

{Continue reading…}

How To Make (Psychological and Emotional) Space to Create.

My children spend more time building with Lego than just about anything else. While they covet and save up for sets like any good little American consumers, they spent most of their time re-mixing those sets (and their thousands of eBay purchased random pieces) into wildly new creations.

Seriously, some of the stuff they come up with is just incredible. They use pieces in ways that I’m sure the designers at Lego never intended. Ons the shelf in the other room there are elaborate dragons with hinged tails, spooky temples, and strange little machines with gears.

Almost always, what they make is surprising, unexpected, startlingly new.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a worshipful paean to my children’s creativity. I’m not saying that their Lego models are going to end up in MoMA. It’s just that I want to share some observations from when a totally different thing enters the picture: the Lego building challenges.

They get these Lego magazines bundles of advertisements in the mail (thanks to my mom, who faithfully ships them overseas) and each features “building challenge” contests as well as pictures of children with their winning creations. There’s a prize of a $100 gift card for some of the contests.

For days after they read about a new “challenge” (build a dream home, build some kind of robot, etc.) they’ll work and re-work a project and pester us to photograph them and worry about whether or not they’ll win…and here’s the surprising part, the part you are not allowed to tell my children:

When they are building for the contest–for that $100 gift card and their picture in the magazine, their creations are startlingly less creative

All of a sudden, they are timid and anxious about their creations. They’ll ask me what I think of them–something they never do otherwise; usually they just present their work to me with the jubilance of people who know what they’ve accomplished is good–and, honestly, their for-contest work is always inferior to their regular work.

Why does this matter?

Because I think it shows us something important about motivation and its effect on creativity.

Most of the time, the kids build with Lego simply because that is what they love to do. They are pleasing no one but themselves. There is no point to the work except the work itself. There is no limit on the time spent working except the time they choose to spend on it.

So most of the time, they build in a state of flow, which is:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

(psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –say”CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”–in a Wired interview.)

If their only concern is the work, their work is amazing, and they work with confidence and pleasure. As soon as there’s a carrot–an extrinsic reward–their creative juices seem to dry up, and they’re building replicas of some other kid’s idea and worrying about whether they’ll ‘win.’

This is not a new idea, or a strange one. It’s the idea that has driven alternative models of education and employment.

“There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.”

(Florian Wagner)

When we were both in graduate school, my friend and I reminded each other to find our “no pressure zones.” For us that involved a lot of intentional non-procrastination and striving actually to enjoy what we were learning. It also involved studying together in pleasant locations and drinking lattes.

Sometimes I am all but paralyzed by the fear of doing what I do badly OR by the desire for external affirmation. When I am in that mode, pretty much everything I write, say, draw, or cook is total crap. It’s when you move into the pleasure and rhythm of the work itself, I find, that things turn out well, which is annoying because I’m basically saying that I think people–or at least I–work best when I manage not to be so worried about how it will turn out, but instead to be absorbed in the work itself.

For me, faith is a part of this, because I find it very, very difficult not to seek extrinsic rewards and affirmation, but remembering God’s grace allows me to offer it to myself and others, and to stop trying to keep score.

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” (Robert Farrar Capon)

Your thoughts?