Bumps In The Road

Something about my creative practice which often fascinates, and sometimes confounds and frustrates me, is the unpredictable nature of the output. I often start to make without any idea of what it is I am seeking, other than to make something. Even when I do have an idea or two – the process often deviates me from the vision in my head.

Increasingly, the art you see is a result of layering, and overpainting. The art work I submitted to the RA Summer Exhibition underwent some serious changes along the way. You can no longer see the earlier layers of paint – but they are there, bumps in the road informing the final piece in their own way. Here’s an example of a recent before and after piece.

You can make out hints of the earlier design, and if you take a closer look you can see how previous paint effects are visible in the final piece.

This process is part of what makes creative practice so exciting, the uncertainty, the being open to the possibilities.

In my organisational development work, something I often see and which I am cautious of, is a desire for certainty. If we ask question x, then we expect answer y. If we make decision a then we expect outcome b. We seek to exercise control over a situation in order to minimise risk, but in allowing (or is it coercing?) ourselves to do so, we often increase risk, as we blind ourselves to a wider set of possibilities. in the book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull writes:

There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right.

I know that keeping this curious mindset open and functioning is hard. At some point we need to start refining what we are learning and take some action, without falling into the trap of making haste in the formative stages.

Later this week I’ll be taking part in the Workplace Trends Spring Summit. I’ll be making art during the day in response to what I hear and feel at the event, before bringing things to a close with a session on creativity at work. Among other things, I’ll be referencing the Age of Artists framework, which is a suggestion developed by the Age of Artists research institute in Germany, of how we can approach our organisational development work from an artistic perspective. The framework has flexibility – the design shifts and reshapes at times, here is a version of the framework which I drew and painted for the event.

Once the conference is over, I’ll come back to this idea of layering, overpainting, being more accepting of the bumps in the road. For now though, here are two further thoughts from Mr Catmull:

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.

Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. If you don’t always try to uncover what is unseen and understand its nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.

When Creative Thinking Meets Creative Practice

The most interesting and challenging work I am involved in, often arises when I’m engaging with people looking to think, feel and act differently in what they do. The business world often applies labels such as innovation and creativity to this work. As the work unfolds, I observe the need for us to be creative in our work is often focused on by people as a thinking process.

Thinking creatively and differently is a necessary part of change, but what about how we feel, and how we act too? People often struggle to talk about feelings at work, seeing them as something to be boxed up and left with security at the front door on the way in, and collected from lost property on the way out.

And when it comes to taking action, people often dream up bold strategies, to which they harness grand intent, before applying the faerie dust of meaning and purpose. Often when we peek behind this visionary curtain, everything appears a bit blurred. I can’t quite see the detail, everything is…specifically vague? Matthew Crawford writes about this notion of organisational opacity in his book ‘The Case For Working With Your Hands’, asserting that corporate vagueness has become intentional, in order to prevent people (typically those hierarchically senior enough to have architected the strategy) from actually being responsible for anything. How depressing.

So how might we take the good intent behind creative thinking, and activate it, give it a better chance of becoming useful? One answer could lie in partnering creative practice with creative thinking, taking the work out of your head and into your hands?

I recently spent time with a group of people who came together to imagine what the future of their workspace (aesthetics, form etc) and workplace (culture, behaviours etc) might look like. The group asked for guidance to create an invitational, encouraging environment for us to make, as well as think. My part in this was to share a few basic principles of creative practice, invite folks to get making, then to a great extent, get out of the way.

As a facilitator, I need to be clear about my role – whilst I am in the room and therefore a participant, I take care not to exert and impose undue influence. This post by Meg Peppin contains some excellent ideas about facilitation design. Before we got started in the room, I spoke about this with the people who hired me, because sometimes my apparent lack of guidance and direction can signal…a lack of interest? Far from it. What I’ve learned is that people are extremely capable, and too much guidance can quickly become patronising. This process may feel uncomfortable at first, indeed one of my sponsors reflected this back to me, saying ‘when you made the invitation for people to get started – we worried, and wondered…will they?’ They did. Trust me, trust the process.

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As the day unfolded, people were asked to think about and discuss a series of workplace related questions – and the art continued to flow. This was not prompted, people simply chose to continue to offer artistic interpretations into the mix.

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These examples are visual representations, and it’s worth noting the art of storytelling became a big part of the work too.

Afterwards the group reflected on what they’d done, and acknowledged the richness of the conversation, enhanced by feeling encouraged to bring creative practice to bear alongside creative thinking. For me – part of the challenge is keeping the practice going, which is one of the reasons why I continue to love my free art project, despite it now being in its 95th consecutive week. Practice, practice, practice. If you want progress, if you want change, you need to keep turning up, keep working.

As a closing thought, I offer you this excellent piece by Rich Watkins called Dignity, Resilience, Vision: The Value In Creative Practice. Rich wrote this after a conversation with myself and several other RSA Fellows, and he asserts that the notion of creative practice in its own right is something we can all benefit from. I agree, and I’d love to hear about your creative practice, and how it shapes you, and those around you.

A version of this post first appeared over at HRExaminer.

Feel The Fear : And Do It Anyway

The Brook is a lovely community arts venue, bar and restaurant, owned by Andy and Thea Brook. As a family we started visiting The Brook about two and a half years ago. Since then Keira has had a birthday party there, I’ve hidden free art there several times, and we’ve enjoyed food, drink and music more times than I can remember.

On June 1st 2017 – having dithered over the idea of performing live there for several weeks, I delivered my first faltering open mic night performance at The Brook. I survived week one, and came back again, and again, and again, having resolved to persist, and over time, to experiment with an ever expanding body of songs.

Since that first performance in June, there have been 32 open mic nights, and I’ve only missed four of them. Despite being a nervous performer, I’ve persisted with this project largely because of the welcoming atmosphere, nurtured by everyone in the room, and led chiefly by Dan Smith. Dan takes care of sound and set up – and is a master cajon player, regularly providing the beats for numerous acts. The crowd offers encouragement, any criticism is left to the performer. As the weeks progressed I noticed I became more accepting  of this encouragement and began to use it as building blocks for more adventurous work.

Life has been pretty up and down (in some ways much more down than up) over the past year or so, and open mic night has served me well as a safe and encouraging place, sometimes just to relax, other times to go nuts. I’ve enjoyed the experience enormously, and while I felt sad when hearing the news of the closure – I quickly decided to make the most of the time left, rather than mourn the passing of something I’ve grown to love.

On December 28th 2017, I and many others, played there for one last time. After serving the local community for five years, The Brook in Wallington closes its doors tonight (Dec 31st) – before reopening in Hackney in January 2018.

This has been an excellent adventure. I’ve grown to enjoy performing, I’ve made some good friends and listened to lots of amazing live music, thanks everyone. This chapter now closes, and we are looking forward to what promises to be one hell of a New Year’s Eve party.

Photo above by Peter Ball

Footnote: Songs I can Remember Playing.

  • When I Grow Up* : Tim Minchin
  • Where In The Hell Did You Go With My Toothbrush* : Reverend Horton Heat
  • Bankrobber *: The Clash
  • Wreck Of The Old 97* : G B Grayson, Henry Whitter
  • I Met A Man : Various Artists
  • Midnight Special* : Traditional (I played guitar, accompanying Keira)
  • Royals : Lorde (I played guitar, accompanying Keira
  • Sound of The Suburbs : The Members
  • Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour : Lonnie Donegan
  • Watching The Detectives* : Elvis Costello
  • Speed of The Sound of Loneliness : John Prine
  • Pretty in Pink : Psychedelic Furs
  • Green Green Grass of Home : Curly Putman
  • City of New Orleans* : Steve Goodman
  • Good Year For The Roses* : Jerry Chesnut
  • Down In The Tube Station : Paul Weller
  • Bela Lugosi’s Dead : Bauhaus
  • Top Of The Pops : The Rezillos
  • Wallington Prison Blues* : Johnny Cash
  • Highway To Hell : Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Bon Scott
  • It’s A Long Way To The Top : Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Bon Scott
  • Pablo Picasso : Writer Unknown (I played as guest guitarist on this one)
  • Disco Man : The Damned
  • Dozen Girls : The Damned
  • Sound of The Suburbs : The Members
  • Peter Pumpkinhead : Xtc
  • Ever Fallen In Love : The Buzzcocks
  • Wait For The Blackout : The Damned
  • There Ain’t No Sanity Clause : The Damned
  • White Christmas : Irving Berlin
  • Sign Of The Times : Harry Styles and others (I played guitar, accompanying Keira)
  • Stay Free : The Clash

* indicates a song played on multiple separate occasions over the seven month period.