Is creativity a bad word?
What does creativity mean to you?
For some these are tools of torture: coloring pencils and paper.
Amy's daughter Hannah making collages at the dining room table.
Handspun cotton yarn and weaving tools.
Petra didn't like photos of herself—but Alice, whom Petra was teaching how to weave, was happy for me to take her photo.
In planning a newly added class I'm teaching about designing for tapestry at SOAR 2010, I started thinking about creativity and spinning. When I teach spinning or beading classes, I'm often surprised at how many students balk when they hear the word creativity. When that happens, I remember two incidents from my childhood that gave me the same squashed feeling that I see reflected on the faces of these students as they stare down at the materials of torture: paints, paper, coloring pencils, crayons, rulers, and tape.
Both incidents occurred in school—but in completely different schools, even states. In one, I sat next to a little girl, Maria, who drew the most amazing birds. I despaired—I knew that I'd never be able to draw birds as beautifully as Maria. The more the teachers talked about Maria's natural talent, the more I sank into my self-created pit of despair. I still don't fully understand why Maria's gift and well-deserved praise diminished my confidence. In the other incident, I was merrily painting a beautiful picture of a tree and my teacher came by, took the paint brush from me, and started painting over my work and telling me how I should do it. I was devastated—she turned my beautiful tree into a muddy mess and expected me to be happy with the results.
But I was fortunate. At home, my parents were very encouraging of creativity and self-expression. My mom, a watercolor artist, provided my brother, sister, and me with lots of paint and paper, play dough, chalk, crayons—I even remember one afternoon blissfully marbleizing paper for greeting cards and wrapping paper. I learned over the course of many years that while I didn't have the kind of natural talent that Maria seemed blessed with, I loved creating enough to want to pursue it as a regular activity. This lesson changed the course of my life, literally. Throughout high school and college I had taken art classes as electives—for the pure pleasure of it, but without a sense of purpose or path. I had decided that I was going to be a professor of Spanish when I grew up—art was something I did on the side.
Learning to spin
That was until I went to Costa Rica as a student abroad (nearly twenty years ago!) and lived with a spinner, weaver, and natural dyer in the Costa Rican jungle in a heavenly thatch-roofed, dirt-floor house with chickens running through it. Petra Lazaro Lazaro harvested colored cotton from the trees that grew around her house, pulled the cotton from the seeds, and patted the cotton into fluffy batts. She then spun a strong singles thread on a handcarved spindle with a rubber whorl (cut from a tire). After dyeing the yarn with bark, iron-rich mud, and precious dye from mollusks gathered on rare trips to the ocean, she would warp a backstrap loom. The weavings required strength and patience to create, as well as creativity. I observed Petra deriving the same pleasure from making beautiful things that I did, and I realized that making things isn't a luxury, it is part of being human.
Permission to create
Not only did Petra teach me how to spin, she taught me how to give myself permission to create things for the pleasure of it. While I'll always strive to be better, I realize that it isn't a competition. There will always be someone who can make things more successfully than I can, but that's not the point. I'm not making things to be the best, I'm making things because in the making I find contentment, peace, and a self-sufficient joy that fuels me and gives meaning to my life. Sure, I'd like the things I make to be expressive and beautiful, but it is a journey, a process—and not everything I make will be successful, but I'll learn a lot along the way.
Whenever I talk to Judith MacKenzie, I'm reminded of Petra—they both have a very gentle way of nudging me toward a better understanding of spinning, of my path, of the world at large. Which gets me to an important announcement: Judith's book The Intentional Spinner is being re-released, packaged with a DVD that contains excerpts selected and compiled from two of her DVDs, The Gentle Art of Plying and Popular Wheel Mechanics. What we've done is taken some of the best sequences from the workshop videos and presented them in a fresh new way that complements the book.