I have an app on my phone called Oblique Strategies. It’s the digital version of a card-based method for promoting creativity that was jointly created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in the mid 70s. Subtitled “Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas,” it was intended to help artists (musicians at the time) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking (an indirect approach to problem solving that uses reasoning in ways that are not immediately obvious and involves ideas that may not be obtainable using step-by-step logic).
Once in a while I tap it. The screen on my phone goes completely black and a few seconds later small white words appear, as if floating, in the center. I just did it while typing this last sentence and the sentence that appeared (void of punctuation) was “You are an engineer”.
One of my favorite oblique strategies were the words “Start differently,” which came to me last summer while I was wrestling with a painting in my studio. It seemed counter-intuitive to me at the time because I had developed a very specific style of working, of building a painting, that was process-driven and negated certain kinds of decision making. I was (and still am) attached to this way of working, but there was my oblique strategy offering me an alternative possibility for approaching my work. I tucked the idea away in the back of my mind where it floated, just like the words on my screen, occasionally to the surface.
In August, a friend of mine passed away. Henry was also an artist, one who had been at it much longer than myself, and I had interviewed him for a short essay titled The Wave of Creativity published in Maine Art Journal the summer of 2018. After a gathering in his memory, I revisited that article. I found myself wishing I had pushed him more on how he used photography in his work to help him solve problems, but it still felt good to read his words and to remember how just as the idea for the article was coming together, I had bumped into him on Congress Street and we had stood long past the end of my lunch break chatting about art making and the creative process, him with his ever present scarf and his stuffy nose and vest and the torrent of f-bombs he was prone to dropping on a dime.
Just below the section about Henry’s work, was my interview with painter Ingrid Ellison. I remember that I found her candor about the artistic process refreshingly honest: “Frequently she experiences a period in which she feels as though she has explored all her options in a particular body of work and were she to continue, she would begin repeating herself. This is usually followed by a series of unsuccessful paintings that she keeps making until something new reveals itself, and then she is off following that tangent. It’s a very experimental phase, she says, and one of her tricks to moving through it is to force herself to start differently.” There it was again. Sometimes we need to hear the same thing over and over before it breaks through our resistances.
I frequently advise students of my most important rule, one I first heard from my friend Kim Bernard in a workshop many moons ago, ‘no masterpieces.’ When students spend time in class trying to make a great painting, they miss the opportunity for a pure exploration of materials and process. It’s a hard rule to observe. There is so much satisfaction in resolving a piece; in having something to show for your efforts. But if one can stay in beginners mind, if one hold the question “what if” in their minds, they can have an experience that is more deeply satisfying over the long terms than the immediate gratification of finishing a painting.
From time to time in the studio, I practice this myself. I tell myself to forget about the value of the materials I am working with and to forget, too, the pressure to make work for upcoming exhibitions. I place a panel on the table in front of me and I start differently.