It was never a happy time for me to return to school at the end of summer as a child. School meant hard work and avoiding bullies. It meant submitting my wild nature to a rigid factory of cog manufacturing. I never wanted to be a cog. I knew I couldn’t be.
Summer was different. Summer was a wonderful time. It meant running through the woods unsupervised, building tree forts, playing in the creek, and rarely returning to the house during daylight hours. The woods. That is where I was free. Whole universes of imagination were created each day. We kids ruled the forest.
But as it always did, summer would come to a close. We would go to the department stores, shopping with our mom, getting our hair cut, and doing all the other “back to school” work necessary to reintegrate with civilization. Like the waning summer, entering into adulthood was a departure from that youthful world of imaginary kingdoms and entry into a life of work in the world of reality. Much like Adam and Eve being ejected from the garden due to partaking of the fruit, one can never return to childhood. The innocence can never be recovered.
There are but two aspects of adulthood that seemingly allow for a brief and happy reunion with the good parts of childhood: spending time in nature and the exercise of creativity. Both are deeply related in my opinion.
As I entered graduate school to study architecture, I lovingly derided the first year as “pre-school for graduates.” First year architecture students are subjected to a myriad of odd and seemingly ridiculous projects that have no apparent value in learning the profession of architecture. One of my most memorable projects my first year at Virginia Tech was being handed an 8 inch long landscaping nail with a sheet of paper, largely blank with 12 point Arial typeface written on a single line saying: “Make this intelligible.”
“What the heck!?” Is all I could think. We had three weeks. No other assignment in our studio class. Just this. What was I supposed to do? I knew I had to do something. I mean, this was school. It’s a project. You don’t just come back in three weeks and say, “Yup, it’s a nail.”
My classmates and I all dove into the project with a fervor that was unreal. None of us had any idea if what we each started doing was remotely right or wrong. How could there be a right or wrong? After drawing, sketching, sculpting with clay, writing, and researching, I still had no idea what to do. What I did know, is that the metal shop at our school had a really cool 3-axis Cad-Cam metal milling machine. I knew I wanted to use it. What the heck… why not.
Taking measurements of the nail, I drew a three dimensional model of the nail on the computer and then generated a random “rocky” surface using cloud map generator on Adobe Photoshop. Taking that cloud map generator into Rhino (a 3d modeling software) I used the cloud map to generate a 3d topography and embedded the computer model of the nail into the rocky surface. With a solid block of aluminum, I set the 3-axis milling machine to work carving the aluminum into this bizarre creation of mine. It was exhilarating.
Still having no idea of my creation would merit a good grade or not, I arrived at the designated critique at the time and place chosen by the teacher. With my 20 or so classmates, we all marveled at the wide diversity of creations on display. Every single sculptural piece was like artwork and was not only highly creative, but beautiful. And all we were doing was playing around for three weeks on an assignment that we each would have been technically right had we just returned with a typewritten page saying: “This is a nail.” But instead, we had each created works of art.
It is a humbling phrase to say that I am the creator of the future. Yet, every single one of us is a creator. Humans have the amazing capacity to create. But the very act of creation causes a heavy burden of responsibility upon the creator. What the creator creates is his or her responsibility.
My journey into the wild world of creativity did not end at school. Nor does it end with each architectural project. The lessons learned from each project, even the seemingly non-creative ones such as building a lawn sprinkler system in my yard, provide insights into the very nature of the creative process.
It still never ceases to amaze me how taxing the creative process can be. Yes, there are bright and exciting moments when inspiration descends upon the mind seemingly from heaven and the whole soul is filled with energy, excitement, and the work flows as natural as a mighty river carving a gorge out of the mountains. These times are rare, however. Most creative work is the result of relentless courageous battles confronting the work to be done. I say courageous because each time I am commissioned to create a work for a client, I have to get to work. You can’t just wait for the inspiration to come. You have to get to work and try. Then you keep trying. Making the nail intelligible required daily confrontations with trying. Many of the attempts failed. Not by any particular metric. After all, how can you fail making a nail intelligible? No, failure was when you looked at the work you created and thought, “no, this isn’t right yet.”
Toil and repetitive trials to create, that’s what refines the block of marble into Michaelangelo’s David. Masterpieces are not the work of geniuses. Geniuses are the result of relentless hard work. We call them geniuses because they created something so beautiful and sublime—- yet they are mere mortals still. Fallible and prone to error just like the rest of us. The difference is, they didn’t quit at a typewritten sheet of paper saying, “This is a nail.”
Yes, creativity is a taxing endeavor. Those not actively engaged in creative professions probably have a hard time understanding why so many creative professionals struggle with mental health, depression, drug or alcohol abuse, or other maladies. The relentless effort is very taxing on one’s mind, body, and spirit. Rest and relaxation are vital.
One of the annual joys of the summer now as an adult is accompanying my son at summer camp. Whether or not the leaders need me there or not, having the excuse to be free again in the woods is too valuable an experience. This is one of my means of recuperating from the toils of creativity. Communing with nature through hiking, boating, fishing, and just sitting around the fire is a necessary component of my creative process, and my mental health.
As the summer wanes, the fire of creativity continues to burn within my soul. It is a never ending pursuit.