On the humanness in our creativity
Finding our way back to ourselves (and each other) in our art
Creative Fuel is a newsletter about the intersection of creativity and everyday life. There are essays, prompts, Q&As, and more. Sometimes they’re somewhere in between… like this one, which started as a prompt and then went kind of everywhere so it’s getting sent out to all of you. Paid subscribers have full access to the prompt archive.
Back in December, I was helping my mom sort through and clean out her art studio. In the process, I found a photocopy of a magazine article titled “64 Questions.” It’s marked with the year 1993, and to my best sleuthing I think it originally came from the Surface Design Journal.
The intro says: “Some questions are to be answered; others are to be lived. Here are some questions I have put together with some artist-friends over time which I hope will provide some stimulation to you in your work.”
And then after that comes simply a numbered list of, yes, 64 questions.
It now sits on my desk and I refer to it regularly. One question that popped out recently was this:
#14. Is making art separate from the rest of your life?
This one has stuck in my head since reading it. And of course, if you start paying attention to a specific thing or idea, you start to see connections everywhere…
In the first session of Lindsay Stripling’s longform workshop Yellow Brick Road that I started last weekend, she said, “what we are doing as artists is being human,” highlighting the humanness of art. We are not robots, or machines, or AI chatbots for that matter (the songs they write happen to be “remarkably mediocre”). We are messy, imperfect people.
Then a day later, I cracked open Emma Gannon’s book Dis-Connected which had arrived from the library. “Our softer skills, such as creativity and irrational human messiness are what will make us stand out in the future,” Gannon writes. “It’s never been so important to lean into what makes us human.”
More embracing of the humanness.
Then in a writing workshop with Heather Hansman, my friend Kerri Anne Stebbins (facilitator of a very cool seasonal writing group) noted the power of words for connection, pointing out that, “writing connects us to what is human and universally known.”
In simplistic terms, I started thinking of it like this:
Humanness —> Messiness —> Art —> Connection
Embracing our humanness is what makes us connect with other humans. We like identifying and are often drawn to those messy, complicated parts of other people, because in them, we’re reminded that we’re not alone in being messy and complicated ourselves. The glitzy, glammy, cleaned up version of being human (which is often the one we see in digital spaces) is at first tempting, alluring, a touch inspiring, but usually just ends makes us feel worse about ourselves.
We can’t separate ourselves from our art, and if we did, we’d lose the opportunity for connection.
Not that all art is, or has to be, a concerted attempt at deep human connection. Some art is made simply because it’s fun, or because it’s beautiful. Although, isn’t experiencing fun and beauty part of being human?
When we make art, we are inevitably infusing it with our humanness, which in turn, causes someone to have a connection to it. Yes, there is of course the longstanding assumption that artists are inherently selfish and self-centered, which might lead us to assume that they’re rather incapable of connecting. #13 on the 64 Questions list, which I think is worth contemplating, is: “What is the relationship to other people? How does it cease to be self-involved or self-referential?”
But even some of the most self-referential work can resonate with someone else. You never know what someone else will be drawn to. Creativity and art have the ability to bridge a gap between two individuals, and there’s compelling research on how powerful the arts are as a catalyst for empathy.
So where are we in this individual/human collective dynamic? I would argue that in our social-media centric world we’ve managed to narrowly focus on ourselves and forget who we are all at the same time. Which doesn’t serve us in a creative or connective capacity.
It is easy to fall into the trap of making work that we think other people will like or want, particularly if there’s any money or finances tied to what we create. We chase an external source of validation. We think about what will do well instead of what we want to make.
I think the frustration, the aggravation that we can often feel as artists and creatives (particularly those doing so for a living) stems from not acknowledging who we are in the first place. After all, our art is us. That doesn’t mean that it needs to be all of us, but the way that we connect with each other is when we see each other, and that requires us to know and express ourselves.
What is our creative practice after all but a practice in seeing ourselves?
Connection stems from the acknowledgement of our humanness, and that’s what I want us to focus on this weekend. This isn’t a project or a specific call-to-action, it is just a question. We spend a lot of time in our culture seeking and offering up answers. But our humanness is living in the gray space in between.
Prompt: What makes you feel like yourself?
In other words: when are you YOU?
Is it a moment?
Is it a smell?
Is it a food?
Is it a place?
Is it a conversation?
Is it another person?
What is your humanness?
Over the past month and a half, I had to take a little winter break from papercutting. Mostly because I had spent a little too long in that “output/what do other people want and need” mode. The first piece that I made this year wasn’t one I thought too much about. One day a scene popped into my mind, which is what turned into the papercut above.
It’s based on being in this place:
This is where I feel like myself.
In those brief moments in cold water, it’s like every single part of myself aligns. It’s a reset. It’s no wonder that shows up in my creative work. It is a glimpse into my own personal humanness. It is me.
If you’re feeling a little lost, a little misaligned, a little disjointed, a little elsewhere, take this prompt as a welcome to find your way back to yourself.
What do you need right now to feel like you? To remind you of who you are?
If nothing else so that you can return and make deeper human connections.
ps: I’m a fan of both Lindsay’s newsletter and Emma’s newsletter, highly recommend subscribing.
SOME CREATIVE INSPIRATION
“I have the pictures within me, but how would I communicate them?” — This video about Sámi textile artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, whose work is all about sense of self, culture, and place.
Creative Fuel with Anna Brones is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Other ways to support: buy something my shop, buy one of my books, come to a Creative Fuel workshop or free Wednesday session, or send this newsletter to someone who you think might enjoy it!
10% of my shop sales and paid newsletter subscriptions this month will be donated to International Rescue Committee and Syrian American Medical Society in support of aid efforts in Syria and Turkey.
Love this reflection Anna! My creative practice is centered on building and fostering community. I believe creative endeavors can bridge and create belonging, and thorough our practice we can create meaningful connections when we are authentic.
"We can’t separate ourselves from our art, and if we did, we’d lose the opportunity for connection."
This is the key to me. I teach workshops occasionally, and I teach poetry every year for multiple classes of elementary students on the CSKT Reservation. Regardless of who I'm with, I explain that in the spirituality of my people, the Anishinaabe people, to live an Anishinaabe life, every footstep becomes a prayer. In turn then, I make the point that poetry – and I really consider poetry to be any kind of writing, any kind of art, any kind of Thing – is a way of observing, of looking at the world, of invoking, of evoking, of immersion, of being ... and that to live a life of poetry, every footstep becomes a poem. So I try and live that way via the work I do, which is my life, in making every footstep a prayer, a poem. That is how I stay connected to the world in the face of so often wanting so badly to withdraw from it. Some days are better than others.