Creativity: a window on our spirituality

As part of Bath Quakers’ spiritual journeys conversation series, Laurence Tindall spoke about creativity. Here are the text and images of Laurence’s presentation:

Pictures of Laurence starting at school and ending as an OAP

A little bit about me first. I went to Kingston Art School in London where I was born and lived until 1973. I moved to Bath in 1975 and became an apprentice Banker Mason working for the Bath and Portland Stone Firms near Corsham. In 1979 I joined the conservation team at Wells Cathedral and in 1982 I joined the part time staff at Bath Academy of Art (Sydney Place) as a sculpture lecturer taking evening classes. In 1985 I cofounded a conservation business called Nimbus Conservation which I left in the early 1990s to become a sole trader. So I have made a living as a stone mason, stone carver, and buildings and art conservator, an art teacher and sculptor. This sounds like a lot of things but they all fit together under the umbrella titled community artist. Just to unwrap this further I have sold a couple of things at the very few exhibitions I have participated in and I have had a few private commissions but most of my work has been for the public space often working as part of a team and mostly in a heritage setting.

In this presentation I am arguing that creativity is an essential to every human being and totally hard wired in every single person. Creativity is the bedrock of our communication with each other and the communities in which we live and work. Most of this communication is non verbal.The tabernacle – Holman Bible 1890s.

The tower of Bable – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1563

Making the tabernacle Exodus ch 35 v30 and the tower of Bable Genesis v11 v 1-9.

30 Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. 34 And he has given both him (Bezalel) and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.

Exodus 35: 30-35

I wonder, how do we respond to this idea of divine or spiritual inspiration? Is it really possible for us to separate our creative activities from our everyday lives as specially warranting a spiritual input? Surely the spirit is at work in all aspects of our life including creativity. Apparently much earlier in Genesis this all went horribly wrong and God withdrew his special spirit and confused communi- cation by inventing all sorts of different languages. As a result of this dysfunction in communication the tower of Babel tumbled down. There is plenty in this for a bible study but I will leave it there.

In the Dictionary Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.

The automatic saluting hat

It would be great if this was true, but then every creative manifestation would be original and every solution new. What a wild idea when we know most creativity is second-hand, a repartition or mirroring of other people’s ideas and insights. We hear Beethoven in Schubert, Mozart in Beethoven, Haydn in Mozart and so on. Some things sound original because they just look new but they are built on a huge foundation of received and shared experiences.

Perhaps a part of the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 may help. Here an ape, who now understands that a bone can be a tool, throws a bone into the air where it is transformed into a space craft. Kubrick is describing inevitability; once on the path of creativity the first idea becomes the key to every idea. Repartition seems to be the order of the day; with incremental advancements the bone hammer will become the space craft.

The Vanity of Small Differences is a series of six tapestries that Grayson Perry created while filming in 2012 the documentary ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’. ‘The vanity of small differences‘ is a Freudian term which means that we dislike no one quite so much as our nearest neighbour.

Is our act of creativity mirroring the cultural world in which we live? Are we holding up our insights to each other in our made world as an unspoken language that describes our identity within a culture? Perhaps this language is more pervasive, extensive and unguarded than our words. What is a well-kept house and garden saying in a drab street, or a regimental tie at a social occasion? Do we live in concrete bunkers and dress in bin liners? No we shop at M&S and Primark or Gucci and Prada. Indeed some of us make our own, or decide our shapes and colours from the fashions traded in shops that cater for our tribes.

Grayson Perry would attest to this. In his The vanity of small differences where he parodies Hogarth’s The rakes progress but in describing class mobility he depicts the small differences that make you one thing or another.

Woman hiding a gun

What does spirituality have to do with this? That would depend on what you believe is spiritual and that comes in as many shapes and sizes as there are people. If one person is spiritual then all people must be spiritual. In our mostly subconscious creative mirroring to each other we reveal who we are, what we think about ourselves and others and how we see the world. And perhaps our values and spirituality, be it good or bad. Since we are all both good and bad then our spiritual mirroring must be both good and bad. Here on a conscious level we can do some covering up but in our subconscious creativity we are less opaque. Unlike a gun, a racist view of the world or a rapacious appetite of some kind would be difficult to hide. Sometimes you can be uncomfortable in a place or a presence without knowing exactly why. What are you picking up on? Is it this creative unspoken mirroring?

The map of the face as seen by young children and some people with learning difficulties.

Artists, musicians, dancers, writers and so on attempt a more conscious offering but often a less authentic account. Subconscious creativity certainly reveals us with more clarity and authenticity. This subconscious creativity is hardwired to our shared perceptions and these are hardwired to the mechanics of our brains. For instance we all see the human face as a map from the time we are born until we die. The child’s picture of a circle with eyes and mouth sometimes nose in it and arms and legs attached to the perimeter is a fixed hard wired perception whether you are Joe Blogs or Picasso, six months old or eighty years old. It is essentially present in all graphic and sculptural representation however finessed.

The face has everything to do with the fact that the most important thing for all of us is to understand the eyes and the mouth and there by the demeanour of a person

I have taught all age groups from primary children, teenagers, young adults right through to the elderly and the face mapping is the same in all age groups. How do I know? I give them all a ball of clay on a bust peg (this is the armature used for modelling a head) and the untutored of whatever age will disregard the third dimension and make the map of the face on the front of the ball. This has nothing to do with the skill of drawing, which some of them will have mastered, and some of the efforts will be beautifully drawn. It has everything to do with the fact that the most important thing for all of us is to understand the eyes and the mouth and there by the demeanour of a person; are they angry, sad, happy and so on. It takes a lot of time and effort to find the third dimension and create the face in real space. Now if we look at many art works, in both western and world cultures, we can see how the map is everything and the imitation of the third dimension but a subtle finessing, a layering of artificial reality over the fundamental subconscious statement.

Great portrait artists such as a Rembrandt or Holbein have not negated the face map to achieve the authentic portrait. In fact they are totally dependent on it. They have done both as have West African woodcarvers or South American stone carvers. It is the authentic result that makes the art work worthy not the skill involved in making it. There is no age barrier to this; you do not have to serve an apprenticeship or obtain a degree, perhaps better if you don’t and retain your innocence. However innocence cannot be consciously protected.

In 1969 – 1972 I trained as a sculptor at art school at a time when the traditional skills of bronze casting, stone carving, clay modelling and mould making were still on the curriculum but were being challenged. Rather than embrace this challenge and move into the new ways of making art such as conceptualism, video making, ready maids, and so on I retreated into heritage and the handmade world. I regard this now as a missed opportunity to make myself into an artist but I do not regret becoming a craftsman with artistic pretensions. I was, I think, aware that I was missing my mark, but also aware that there was room for me somewhere else. I wanted to work on a cathedral and after training as a stone mason found a place at Wells where I worked for Professor Baker. There is no room here to reprise the work of Robert Baker, suffice it to say that being in his team and working on the building was a seminal experience for me. Guided by Prof Baker I realised that here was a building made in the thirteenth century by an international workforce that ranged from talented sculptors and painters through masons and carpenters to apprentices and labourers all interdependent to the success of the project.

There is no Leonardo without his teacher and peers, critics, patrons, or even his colour man, and assistants. Creativity is a pyramid of interdependent skills and insights that narrows to a pinnacle. At Wells we know very little about the workforce save that they were drawn into the project from many countries and communicated in some form of Latin, were paid in gold and silver and the masons and carpenters understood Euclid, at least empirically. And in this picture you can see one of the tests, a quatrefoil Angel, for a carving applicant. They worked together to create a spiritual statement within a shared world view of the catholic faith. Today we understand but a fraction of the original intent because the cultural context has been lost in time but we still respond to the authenticity of that creative statement.13c angel used as an exemplar for medieval carvers to copy in order to join the team.

Laurence’s copy made in 1980

When teaching I have found that getting groups of people adults or children engaged with a shared project frees their creativity. It is no longer about them but about a shared idea and destination. I have a project called Story Mountain which involves placing small carved stone buildings on a large rock and then interconnecting them with stairs and bridges. Children carve the buildings and then tell me who lives in them and from there a story is made. When finished the mountain is placed on its plinth and everyone knows the story and the characters. No building is too badly made not to be part of the story in fact the way the building is made is part of the character of the story. Skill has no part in this. I have repeated the project three times, once in a school for special needs pupils, once in a state primary school, and once in a fee paying preparatory school. The result was the same for all; an artefact was made packed with meaning for those who engage with it either as makers or readers.

St Julian’s, WellowAll Hallows, Cranmore

We all employ our creativity in this way most of our lives in a spirit of cooperation to a common cause at home and at work in our recreation. Our faith journeys most of us are bricks in the pyramid mirroring unspoken cultural norms to create a unified understanding of shared goals and expected outcomes. Our tribes are different but mostly complementary. If we prefer classical music most of us will at least give jazz, folk and perhaps even hip-hop a try; at any rate we would not seek to ban other music.

As individuals we perhaps all hope for some recognition and a little fame but we know that originality is really an illusion, and authenticity cannot be made. It just is, and no amount of skill can produce it. Skill is not a sin, to learn something well and make our best effort is important but by itself it is an empty shell. Luckily for us we are filling that shell every day with our unaware authentic selves and this is where our life values count because we need to be filling the void unconsciously with good stuff.

So as Quakers our creativity might be used to make ourselves into the right stuff.

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