I’m a firm believer that you never outgrow your need for toys. In a way, I’m convinced that closed minds developed early due to a lack of creative play opportunities. If you can’t explore the universe through play as a child, how prepared are you to explore it as an adult?

For me, this is not a trivial matter. As children, our kids flooded the floors with Brio trains, Legos, Polly Pockets, crayons, and papers. As a result, my wife and I spent carefully on toys that could be adapted to many uses. It was great fun listening to our four children explain the scenarios they had created.
But, adults were also tripping on fortresses, trainyards, castles, and mazes in the dark. Clean-up was “challenging” because there was always something snaking its’ way between the boys’ room and the girls’ room. There were lots of small pieces for a cat to chase. And a cat to be chased away from an active play site.
I know that many people are concerned with media influences on children, which was also an issue in our household. But our response to it was to offer alternatives early on rather than fight a losing battle later.
we did not want our kids turning into little cabbages passively soaking up what was showered on them. Instead, we wanted them to shape what was offered.

So yes, I have a family that never outgrows its need for toys.

How It Works

The popular press and media like to paint human creativity as extraordinary “aha!’ sort of moments. And I guess that some creative insights do fall into that category. But you know that scene in the movie when the light bulb goes on, the music swells, and the artist flies into a creative fit of furtive …well…creation.

I prefer to agree with Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Great things rarely come to us in a celestial lightning show. Instead, it’s a matter of research, careful consideration, lots of playing around to get it right, going back to the drawing board to try again, and finally, you’ve got it. Then, working from what you’ve established, you can create many things from your foundation, make it look easy, and convince the noobs that you are a creative miracle in motion.

Books, magazines, courses, TED lectures, and philosophies promise to show you the path to creativity. “Through furtive physic maneuvers, Swami will tauten you chakras and endow you with the very talents of the demiurge.” Of course, your credit card will be required to enhance the flow.
I’ve found a day at the beach, a boatyard, or visiting a museum to be stimulating. However, doing focus and relaxation exercises never worked for me.
Sometimes play is beneficial. As in play with your art. Give up on the inner censor who complains bitterly about the waste of materials that you’ve ruined. Expending some pigment, paper, pine, or clay is sometimes the cost of creativity. This is why I save odd bits of wood. So I can guiltlessly experiment on scrap.
The downside of this is when the experiment is too good, the materials limiting, and you now wish you’d planned better. That is precisely what happened with the boat portrait below.

I experimented with some techniques on a scrap piece of cherry and some pine. The experiment turned out well, but I’d never planned the overall composition – because it wouldn’t be an actual finished piece. It was, after all, an experiment. The techniques worked, but there was no composition, and I didn’t have enough negative space for framing the work after I decided it was lovely. So, I learned more from this piece than I expected to.
I display this piece in my living room. Whenever I look at it, I like it for the techniques I learned and get frustrated at my failure to plan.
Why keep something so ambivalent around? I like it more than it frustrates me, I guess, and it reminds me of how the creative process works, not all in one burst, but in a series of insights you build on.

Like a River

Creativity is a strange beast. It’s river-like in that it’s dynamic and can change channels, bringing life to one and allowing others to dry up. You are a fortunate person to have more than one viable channel.
This observation came to me when I unearthed sketches and paintings from the very late 1960s. No, they aren’t lost, DaVinci’s, and that’s OK. However, it was refreshing to see that once I could attempt to straddle two areas of art. I was very interested in perspective and depth of field, which probably influenced the complete shift to woodcarving.

Then there was the nude. I was experimenting with woodcuts, and my first wife was laughing at my portrayals of the female form. So I did a Daliesque drawing of her and made a woodcut from it. Unfortunately, the block doesn’t survive – she threw it into the fire, but one print got pressed between two empty sheets in my sketchbook. It was a rather ludicrous woodcut, which was intended. The body drapes and drips over a chair. I was a saucy and bold malapert in those days.

It was a time of discovery. I found drawings for some early sculptings. Jean Arp and Henry Moore influenced me, and I executed and sold one or two small pieces influenced by their styles. Unfortunately, I was so poor that I did not own a camera, so I have no photos of those pieces. The lumberyards were used to me scrounging for scrap to turn into carvings because I had no money. Local artists sometimes treated me like I was radioactive because I lacked any training and had no schooling. It was all just fun at that point, and for some of them, the fun may have fled as art became business.

Years ago, my oldest, then about ten, would go into the shop and pick up the curved scrap of cherry wood that came from cutting spoon, bowl, and spatula blanks. He’d grab a bucket load of those and a hot glue gun and create towers from the curved pieces over the next hour or so. I made sure only to monitor the safety aspects of his work, not what he made. He never became a woodworker, but he found his creative channels.

So creativity is a strange thing. It doesn’t like to be constrained to one channel, made to run in a conduit or become bound. We should take this as a sort of artistic Gospel. Let it flow, doodle, play—Experiment.


Referring to love, the hook on the song Searching for a Heart by Warren Zevin says, “you can’t start it like a car, you can’t stop it with a gun.” Creativity is the same way. It trickles, moves like a pendulum, can’t be put in storage against future needs, and generally won’t cooperate with your demands.

I’ve known people who swear by rituals, regimes, relaxation techniques, retreats, and of course, those perennial favorites alcohol and drugs. But, unfortunately, what works for one may not work for others. Worse, what works for years may suddenly fail you as you create vapid design after vapid design. And off you go Googling creativity stimulants.

What often works for me is to hie off to an exciting museum exhibit, shops, and bookstores for browsing. Then, I’ll wait until I get home, take out an idea notebook, and scribble down anything that jarred an idea loose. It’s not that I’m looking for things to copy, but that looking at great work, good work, and even junk gets me thinking along the lines of -“why not do this instead?” The time between an idea notebook and workshop can be years. So it’s not like you need to rush off and do it immediately. 

I think Raymond Chandler suggested that great stories are distilled, not written.

Creativity works this way; “you can’t start it like a car. You can’t stop it with a gun.”

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