Category: Creative superstars

A universe of ideas

As a child, at least as early as I can remember, I believed ideas were absorbed from the universe, that our brains were receivers, picking up on the tangible experiences and events of real beings who lived beyond our solar system or in another dimension. What it meant, basically, was that somewhere in the universe there were elves, gnomes and dragons, but also vampires, werewolves and trolls. In my mind Middle Earth was a real place, which Tolkien had the honour of viewing remotely and the genius of portraying in exquisite detail. I don’t know where this notion came from or how I developed it, but I was so confident with this idea I never questioned it; I always had a conveyor belt of ideas rumbling through my mind and I couldn’t comprehend how my small mind could create it all. As an adult I now realise the hypothesis was quite ingenuous. It couldn’t work. Consider all the half-baked or silly ideas any of us has ever had – the universe would be a mess, with half-baked beings and silly scenaros.

I’m still fascinated with where ideas and innovation originate, but I’m now further away from understanding it than I ever was as a child. I want to understand, but do I need to in order to continue “receiving” ideas?. In my wanderings around the internet, trying to gather information on theories of the origin of ideas, I came across the wonderful Ted Talk by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat, Pray, Love when it came out and enjoyed it, and I recall seeing this talk ten years ago. It resonated with me then and it still does today. In the talk, Gilbert discusses the almost “paranormal” feeling of the creativity process and so it seems appropriate the talk here.

If Elizabeth Gilbert is right, and we “just need to show up”, then I’ll keep showing up for however long I can.

The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher

If you’re looking for a book that is all about visual and creative thinking, but you feel like going on a tour of the unexpected, look no further than Alan Fletcher’s, The Art of Looking Sideways. Unless you’ve already heard of it (it’s been around for almost 20 years) and have one or two copies of your own, in which case I urge you to remove it from its pedestal and appreciate it again. The book is a treasury of artistic expression, a compilation of images, facts, anecdotes, quotes, typology and weirdness, all in one weighty tome. This monster codex should really come with its own lectern and a comfortable chair from which to enjoy it. Its spine is an impressive 6.35 centimetres (2.5 inches) thick, and it contains 72 chapters over 1064 pages. Subjects include everything from creativity to handedness and space-time, and everything in between and besides.

Don’t expect to read it cover to cover over a few days. Expect to spend many sittings, over years, flipping and flicking, reading and pondering, enjoying the fodder that Fletcher gathered for us. These are the kinds of books I love – the catch-all desk companions that require numerous and repeated readings and whose contents renew that sense of wonder for the world, but especially the creative mind. I’ve had my copy for years, yet I still don’t feel as if I’ve finished it.

I love it so much, yet find it hard to describe. Maybe Alan Fletcher can help . . .

On second thought, if you can find a copy, do yourself a favour and grab it. To me, the book is not only a manual for design, but an homage to curiosity, creativity and the pursuit of personal enlightenment.

On being unapologetically eccentric

A short tribute to Jim Henson, a creative superstar

Most people probably know who Jim Henson was. If you don’t know his name you’ll probably know some of his work. He is best known for his creation of the The Muppets (Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Kermit The Frog and many of Kermit’s Sesame Street friends), Fraggle Rock, and as the creator/director of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and creator and producer of the TV series, The Storyteller.

There’s no denying the appeal of many of Henson’s creatures to children, but part of the magic of his imagination is that his characters are accessible to all ages, and across time. They are as diverse in their characters as they are in their appearances, yet some of them have changed very little in the six decades since their creation. They were lovingly developed, complete with back stories, flaws and aspirations, and performed with consistency and reliability. Henson’s creations set such a high standard, even from their early days, that 65 years after his beginnings Kermit The Frog is a celebrity and a legend in his own right, still appearing on talk shows to talk up his recent adventures. Such was the enduring genius of Jim Henson and the dedication of Kermit’s team of handlers.

My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.

Jim Henson

This May marked the 30th anniversary of Jim Henson’s passing, yet his legacy is as far reaching as it ever was. Full disclosure, I am sentimental and crazy about Jim Henson and all he created. As a youngster I recall watching The Muppets every Sunday night and Sesame Street in the afternoons. I still adore the Swedish Chef; I named a dog after Rizo the Rat, another after Ernie, and I now have one called Sweetums. Ten points if you remember which one Sweetums was. I was 13 and a Henson enthusiast as well as a David Bowie fan when Labyrinth was released. I still remember where I sat in the cinema, perched on the edge of my seat, feeling as if the movie was written and made for people like me; I inhabited worlds in my mind just like that, but not as Sarah, or any other character, more as a world-builder like Jim Henson.

As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood.

Jim Henson

I’ve always had a very active imagination, even from a very young age. I’d been writing and illustrating my own stories since I was six and I was an expert daydreamer. The spark of creativity was already ignited in me, as it is in so many children, but I’d always been hyper-aware and self-conscious of it, thus many of my imaginings remained mostly private, even secret. Henson’s work showed me there was a place for world-builders and creators of unorthodox fiction. His work helped fan the flames and ensure they kept burning. His enthusiasm for the imagination gave me permission to let my own imagination off its leash, that it was OK to be that kid with the whacky stories, and that such an imagination was an asset, not a burden. It gave me a foundation upon which I could build that creative power. It was around this time I wrote a story for as part of an English assignment and received my first and only A in English during high school (it was not my favourite subject, despite being an avid reader and writer at the time). The story was nothing like anything Henson did, but it was authentic and unselfconscious and so enjoyed by the teacher she read it to the class and told me I should consider becoming a writer. Naturally my classmates told me I was weird, but I didn’t care anymore. As long as they called me weird, I knew I was being authentic.

I am grateful that I inhabited the world during Henson’s time. I still feel a sense of wonder and gratitude towards him and all he achieved. Henson is as close to a hero as I’ve ever had and it is gratifying to see the legacy of his work continue to inspire young (and not so young) imaginations.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it may be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye.

Jim Henson
Sweetums – my dog looks nothing like him, but he is a sweet and lovable monster, just like his namesake. Image from muppet.fandom.com

Recommended reads: An Illustrated Life by Danny Gregory

If you love illustrated journals, anything by creative superstar and co-founder of Sketchbook Skool, Danny Gregory is a must. A good place to start is his compilation of pages from the sketchbooks and art journals of artists, illustrators and designers. In his own words, Danny Gregory searched for a book just like this since he was a child. Unable to find one, he eventually created one himself and published An Illustrated Life. The book contains interviews of 50 enthusiastic sketchbook keepers, discussing their history, inspiration, methods and materials, along side photographs and/or scans of their private sketchbooks.

I love the unapologetic, raw creativity of the artist’s sketchbooks. Every page is an intimate snapshot in to the minds of the artist that created it, whether they intend it or not. The book is an homage to the brilliance that is the creative mind. At 266 pages long, it is a meaty, and well-organised collection of the eclectic and often messy nature of creativity. It is easily one of my favourite books and I reach for it often, especially when motivation eludes me.

If you’re not already an illustrated journal keeper, I think An Illustrated Life could inspire you to become one. If you’re not convinced, here’s a preview from Danny Gregory himself:

Danny Gregory’s introduction to An Illustrated Life