Moments of Creation by Taryn Strauss

Raise your hand if you are an artist.

We are going to take you through two stories of creation, and together we will discover the conditions we need to reach that holy, egoless ecstasy of creating something where there was nothing.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend the Atlanta Press Club’s annual induction into their Hall of Fame.  Tucked in amongst the more visible faces in news television, was one inductee who had been invisible to me, and to nearly every one of his readers.  The political cartoonist Mike Luckovich, two-time Pulitzer prize winner, has worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nearly forty years, sending one political cartoon in to his editor each day and two on Fridays.  They played a montage of his work, and I was shocked at how intimate his cartoons were, how crass for a Southern daily, how edgy and brutally honest.

After the montage and the editor-in-chief’s sweet introduction, a formally dressed middle aged white man who I would describe as “spry” approached the stage, and immediately burst into tears.  When he looked up from the podium at the room filled with colleagues and strangers, he radiated the effusive combination of joy and shock that can come from someone finding their true vocation, and receiving the gratifying recognition that even when he thought he was alone, his creativity is understood.  But it was immediately clear that he needed no award to understand the gift bestowed upon him. “I can’t believe they let me do this,” he said.

He started to talk about his work.  He told us about his profoundly messy desk, and how his office is a pigsty, and how he goes into work at 9:30am and basically procrastinates until 3pm each day, with a 6pm deadline for his cartoon.  Describing his day, he broke down in tears again, simply awash in gratitude. The crowd, dressed in business attire, responded awkwardly to his powerful emotional display. It was one of those public moments when people don’t quite understand what’s going on. I experienced that as a Divine moment.

He looked up once again, and told us the AJC was a funky office, with a disco ball, and that he wanted us to know how funky it felt to be a part of that crew of writers.  He gestured to the DJ, who started to play Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic, echoing throughout that hotel conference room. And then the 58-year-old cartoonist Mike Luckovich walked over to a 1980s era overhead projector, and he started to draw a cartoon.

As he drew, he allowed the music to enter into his spirit, and then he began to dance while he drew.  His dance was indeed funky, and jerky, completely unique and wholly unrestrained. This was a joyful dance. His performance was full of risk, humility and joy.   He was trying to show something mysterious and hidden. He was inviting us in to experience, or at least understand his moment of creation. Watching Luckovich create his cartoon on stage, I was struck by the duality of complete focus and the complete lack of effort at the same time.  The lines on the screen flowed out of his hands, forming something we could not quite see. The dance flowed out of him in the same way, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Meanwhile the image became funnier and kind of dirty too and there he was on stage, uncensored.

I want to take you to another moment of creation I was honored to witness.

Earlier this morning we saw a brief video of a public art piece called the Gramsci Monument.  This was a temporary monument to an early 20th century Italian philosopher, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci.    The Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn designed the monument to be built in quad in the middle of the Forest Houses, a high-rise public housing community deep in the Bronx.   For two and a half months one summer in 2013, a museum paid for residents to work alongside the artist to build, curate and staff the monument, which was built with low quality, ramshackle materials.  I spent one balmy July day at the Gramsci monument, and I never wanted to leave. The project exemplified the glorious, innovative chaos of community. Everyone who lived in the Forest Houses felt ownership, that the Monument belonged to them.  Each day, someone was cooking, or painting or giving a philosophy lecture, or reading, or making a sculpture. According to one critic, Whitney Kimball, the writings of communist philosopher Gramsci seem to resonate with every part of the monument, its reception, and how it was made: Gramsci’s concept that “all people are intellectuals,” though society doesn’t allow for all people to assume intellectual roles;; that landlessness breeds a psychology of political powerlessness and isolation; that pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; and that the intellectual must take “active participation in practical life as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator.” Gramsci’s most significant contribution of all was the idea that cultural hegemony is imposed upon all people by the dominant social strata.

According to the artist Thomas Hirschorn, the “Gramsci Monument” is a new kind of Monument, and it’s a new form of art—concerning its dedication, its location, its output and its duration. It is time-limited. It’s not a Monument which understands eternity as a question of time; it’s a Monument which understands eternity as ‘here’ and as ‘now’.

At the Gramsci monument, every minute of every summer day was a moment of creation.  I sat in a plastic chair through a philosophy lecture I couldn’t understand, with Forest House residents who had sat through a philosophy lecture each day at 2pm, and tried to help me make some sense of what I had just heard.  They were practiced at reading and learning philosophy, by this point. I spoke to a man who was working on some Marxist graffiti on one wall, who said he had never done any kind of art until this summer. Then he picked up the paint can, and it all just came out of him.  One elderly man working as curator of the Gramsci altar displaying some of the combs and personal items from the philosopher’s time in an Italian prison, said he didn’t even know why he was working at the monument. It just feels good to me, he said. I like to see the kids learn about a different way of thinking.  I like to watch the teenagers work on the daily newspaper in the newsroom. All of creation all around me. As a viewer, the monument was a completely immersive. Time seemed to stretch out, we completely lost track of time, until it started getting dark. We were deep inside this magical day of communal innovation.  Where there had been nothing, there was now an incredible network of creatives and intellectuals, formerly just people, now they were artists.

Artist and writer Julia Cameron tells us

“Because artists work from their inner core, many of us have experiences of inspiration, which I would define as conscious contact with the divine. I believe we achieve the same transcendent state making art that meditators achieve when they meditate. Time and space drop away. We are utterly absorbed by what we are making. Painter Robert Motherwell talks about the “brush taking the next stroke.” When we are acting on inspiration, we lose our sense of ourselves as individuals. The art moves through us as our ego stands aside. For a writer, the word seems to find the next word. For an actor, the gesture seems to find the next gesture. This is why writers learn to “drop down the well” and let go. This is why actors learn to be in the moment. What is being in the moment but being in touch with God, who might also be called the Great Now?

Try letting a creative force work through you and see if you don’t work more freely than when you consider yourself to be the “author” of your art.  It’s just an idea.”

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard neuropsychiatrist who suffered a mid-career stroke, developed profound insight into our brains and their potential for connectedness and creativity.  She is now a brain researcher, and a stained glass artist.

She says:  Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. We are all siblings on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.

Taylor urges us to choose to cultivate a relationship with our right brains, to lead with our right brains.  While this is often viewed as a solo project, with the famous image of the artist alone in her studio for hours on end, it may be more about our connectedness after all.  The creativity is perhaps in how to inspire each other, how to make artists out of each other, building a world we envision.

So here’s where I’m coming around.  We need to create something that never existed before.  Individually, and collectively too.

What conditions will bring us to this divine, eternal experience that I call holy synchronicity?

  1.  From political cartoonist Mike Luckovich, we learn that you must be uncensored.  Freedom of thought is paramount to accessing the divine moment of creation.
  2. From Luckovich we also understand that urgency is a condition of holy inspiration.  There is an edge of panic at the corners of creation.  Even God only had the six days!
  3. From Swiss artist Thomas Hirschorn, we learn that we must have access to art and new thought.  We must bring our positive, appreciative sides of ourselves to the work, and exorcise our demons of skepticism and pessimism.  The call to create is more powerful than mere enjoyment.
  4. From Julia Cameron, we learn that discipline, repetition and time are necessary to access holy synchronicity.  Without discipline, we cannot stretch out and become fully absorbed.
  5. From Dr. Jill Taylor, we hear the call to lead with our right brains throughout our lives, to feel and sense the thrilling collage of the present moment, connecting to the energy all around us.

For many of us, the dark of winter is a deeply creative time.  We stay indoors more, we venture inward, we attune ourselves to the creativity of the winter holiday season.  The church has always been a creative expression of human vision. Maybe you can’t spare the time or muster the energy to make art.  Is anyone else daunted by this? What if making art is not separate from life, but a part of it? Do you make dinner? Do you make jokes?  Do you decorate your home for the holidays?

When was the last time you lost yourself, or you lost part of a day?   You know when you’ve come through the feeling of letting go, and allowing some other force to guide your hand towards creation.  That is my advent wish for you. That you, like the cartoonist, like the artist, can find spaces and people who will encourage you to discover your urgent vision, embrace joy, creative discipline, intellectual freedom, and surrender to the divinity of creation.