Learning Creativity

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This article is from Issue 88 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Let limitations set you free!

By Michael Kehs

I recently attended an art exhibition opening that included a piece of mine. It was a maple, cherry, and ebony teapot festooned with six carved, painted monarch butterflies and a single caterpillar. Removing the lid revealed a green painted carved chrysalis hanging from the underside. The work really tickled another attendee, who asked to hire me to teach him “how to be creative.” Now, I’m not sure creativity is something that can be “taught,” but it got me to thinking.

What is creativity? I think it’s simply the human ability and desire to express our thoughts and feelings the best we can through art, craft, writing, math, science, or whatever we’re passionate about. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that your chosen palette, like mine, is wood. But since the medium offers such a wide world of things to make, where do you begin? How do you jump-start the flow of ideas?

It might seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found that one way to spark the imagination is to begin with limitations. These might be integral to the nature of the piece, or they may be arbitrarily self-imposed. For example, a cabinet or box may need to be sized and compartmentalized to accommodate particular items. A bowl may need to be a certain diameter or depth to suit a certain purpose. Or, a restriction can be as loose as a simple shape or perhaps a title of some sort.

In the case of my gallery piece, the subject was dictated by the show’s theme: Teapots. I thought I’d base the design on the title “Tea Fit for a King.” Right. A monarch. I had been wanting to do something with butterflies, so maybe this was the right project for them. But how to treat them? Stylized? Abstracted? Maybe just incorporate the colors of monarch butterflies?

Let your imagination play off of the things you love. For me, it’s nature. On the other hand, I have a friend who is enamored with numbers and geometry who makes beautiful multi-sided, mathematically ornamented projects. A Vietnamese man I once knew often incorporated into his work dragonflies, which he delighted in seeing on his beloved Mekong River.

What fascinates you? Maybe cars. Then let that be your limitation. You don’t necessarily want a cabinet that looks like a Corvette, but perhaps you can integrate that clean fender curve into the door rails. Beautiful! Or how about turning tiny headlights for the door pulls? Run with it. Do something—anything—to start the flow of ideas. Even if you don’t use them all right away, put ‘em in your pocket for next time. Practice playing. Make quick sketches or mock-ups in modeling clay, styrofoam, scrap wood—whatever. Venture into the unknown; learn that new technique that will help you bring your next piece to life. And don’t worry. Embrace failure as a teacher who helps you learn what doesn’t work.

As to whether creativity can be taught, who knows? But I’m convinced it can be learned if you stay open to it. Go forth and limit yourself! You might be surprised at the results.

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