Telling my story . . .

April 16, 2012

I was so touched by Donna McNeil’s address to the Juice Conference (a conference about the creative economy that took place in Camden, Maine), that I got her permission to print it here.  She began by showing a film clip of Phillipe Petit walking on a wire between the twin towers in New York.

. . . Petit’s action resonates as a quintessential metaphor for risk . . . He embraces the unknown, finds invention and discovery, his own invincibility, and, if you will, his divinity. He gauges, then laughs at fear, conquering it with exuberance, exhilaration, defiance and joy. . .

Artists are some of the most courageous people I know. They live in RISK, resonate with it, use it. They choose a life that provides virtually none of society’s safety nets and they deliver a product that is so taken for granted, so impregnated within the fabric of our everyday, that it has become like air. Abundant, everywhere and often expected to be free.

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Can creativity be taught?

December 12, 2009

I don’t believe that creativity itself can be taught, but there are many other things that can:

  • Getting un-stuck (to release that creativity within).
  • Finding inspiration and vision
  • Technique (useful when creativity strikes)
  • Rhythm and persistence (we need to keep working, even in “dry” periods)
  • Balance and ease (so that we can receive critique, and change)
  • Social aggregation (satisfying our need to be with people, seeking honesty from them)

We had an affectionate connection to our Quaker meeting house in Portland, but it didn’t work very well.  The circulation was poor, so that after meeting for worship, visitors had a hard time finding refreshments, and we had a hard time finding each other.  There was no handicapped accessible bathroom.  And we knew that with our growing population of young families, we’d need more space for children’s programs.  We could imagine adding more space, but not any natural way to cure our building’s problems.

Than misfortune hit us with grace.  Part of the plaster ceiling in the meeting room had detached from its framing, and so we hired a contractor to remove and replace that ceiling.  They had just started the demolition face when the whole ceiling fell — exposing framing that was dangerously weak.  Luckily nobody was hurt. At one point in our history, there had a been a removable partition dividing the meeting room into separate area for men and women, and when that had been taken out some important structural members had been compromised as well.  Luckily the pending failing of these beams was announced by the falling ceiling, and we were able to put up temporary bracing to make the space safe.

But now there was no putting off major work on our building.  We engaged as one of our meeting members, Chris Wriggins, as  architect for this project.  His recommendation to us was startling and disturbing.  Chris noted that our meeting room was a long rectangle, and that by simply removing one end of that room and turning that space into a wide hallway, we’d have excellent circulation right through the core of our building.  There would be enough space to create a new wide stairway to the lower level, with a power lift riding alongside that stair.  That would make the already large bathroom accessible to all.  Finally, we could put a modest addition on the rear of the building, creating new classroom space.

What was disturbing about this plan was that it entailed cutting off part of our meeting room — and that room was our reason for existing.  It seemed unthinkable that we’d diminish that space — at least until we thought carefully about it.  But we realized that the meeting  room, even without that end, was large enough for almost all our gatherings.  And for those events where we couldn’t fit, the space in question wouldn’t make any difference.  (Very large funerals were typically held at another church in town.)  Finally, we tended to arrange chairs in a circular formation, so making the room more square might even feel like an improvement.

We decided to go forward with this plan, and have found that the renovation turned out to be an improvement in every way.  The meeting space feels more comfortable, circulation is better, the addition does provide important new space, and the overall project was not as costly as many of us feared.

I tell this story to illustrate some key points in this design thinking:

  • Chris Wriggins, the architect, was able to put aside emotional reactions and look clearly at the space and circulation issues presented.
  • His solution represented a new paradigm for how to deal with the building.  (Rather than just add the spaces we said we needed, he changed the whole building’s circulation.)
  • While the solution seemed obvious once it was put forth and argued, it was “out of bounds” to most of us before that.
  • The solution was remarkably simple.

What enabled Chris Wriggins to see this simple solution, while the rest of us couldn’t even imagine it?  He’d never seen exactly this problem before, or even one that was very close.  He had no special tools, and no advanced technology.  As a member of our community, he shared our emotional connections to the space and how it was used.

Clearly, something in his training led to a kind of design thinking that led him to a crucial idea that was the key to this solution.  I wish I could explain — actually wish I could fully understand — that design thinking.  But suffice to say that it is distinctive, that it’s of special value, and that it’s relevant in most aspects of our institutional and individual lives.  Design thinking is central.

About creativity

November 24, 2009

Creativity requires the courage to be free!  You don’t look for a creative idea, a great photo, a wonderful tune.  You look, look inward, and see what you find.  What you find may be your own creation.

This must become a discipline, a practice.  It will never be perfect.  But, once in a while, a great creative piece may emerge.


Last weekend I was co-leader of a workshop on “Photography as a Spiritual Practice”.  This is how Woolman Hill (a Quaker conference center in South Deerfield, Massachusetts) listed the workshop in their program:

Arthur Fink and Tony Stapleton are both Quaker photographers who carry their photographic work (or play) as a spiritual inquiry or expression.  They invite you to join in this weekend of photographing from within, which will include time for worshiping together, making pictures, sharing our work and process, and just enjoying Woolman Hill.  Our goal is to broaden our vision, open our spiritual awareness, and, in the process, learn how to take more expressive pictures.  This will not be about technical photography instruction, and all photographers are welcome regardless of technical knowledge or experience.

The most important news to report is that we had no trouble finding an energetic  group of participants who agreed with this theme — that photography is part of our spiritual lives.  It’s about discovery and expression, about worship and reverence, about self and other.  Images are metaphors for deeper understanding, even as they are clusters of silver particles or digital pixels that we labor with as we craft our art work.  But these are my words — not theirs.  What I’m reporting is not a manifesto from the group, but my own distillation of what I saw going on.

Sensing that this might workshop might not fill Woolman Hill, the director had scheduled another workshop to share the conference center with us.  We were paired with “The Wisdom to Know The Difference: A Weekend on Discernment”, led by Eileen Flanagan.  I’d strongly recommend her new book, “The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change and When to Let Go” — available at and at other bookstores.  It was wonderful to be constantly reminded that the process of photography is a kind of discernment, as we choose to put our frames around very select portions of the visual world that we experience.

I’m excited about running other similar workshops, as well as more programs on creativity and spirit in general (not tied to a particular artistic discipline, like photography or dance).  I’ve run these in the past, and was always touched by the gifts that each participant shared.

My main message to our  group this weekend — Look and see, before you photograph.  This may sound trivial, or obvious.  It’s not.  The process and technique of photography can easily absorb us, and distract us from sensing where we are, what we feel, and what we have to say and share.

Interested in this dialog?  Please respond here, or contact me.

I wish I could copy the entire text here, but more properly I urge you to read the Adam Goipnik’s short “postscript”article about Penn at the New Yorker web site. Here’s the concluding paragraph:

photograph by Irving Penn

photograph by Irving Penn

Penn’s subject—as in “Woman with Long Black Neck” … —is not performance but inner poise, and the dignity of appearances became his central theme. His work is a memorial of a specially privileged era, where the duties of a fashion photographer and the ambitions of an artist could coexist in one serenely realized surface, an age that in retrospect seems to have been one of fine silver, coolly applied

Also on the web site is  a slide show of some of Penn’s best work.

This issue of the New Yorker also has a compelling article by Malcolm Gladwell about the dangers of football.  Gladwell doesn’t call for us to abolish the “sport”, but it’s hard to imagine any other conclusion from the data he presents.

Why Design Matters

October 4, 2009

“Design Matters because it is the essence of how we move our bodies and souls throughout our lives; the invisible hand that guides us through our day; predicts whether we move effortlessly through our process, or are encumbered by the obstacles.  It is part of us when we live, eat, sleep, work, laugh and cry.  It is the unspoken intimate sparkle, smile and gift of our shared existence; with the beauty of a system, building, artwork, or of nature’s undisturbed serenity.”

Written by Deidre Johnston in response to a query I posted seeking help for an article I plan to write on this subject.

This poem answers the question so beautifully that I post it here (with Deidre’s permission) as a statement by itself.

In Defense of Difficult Art

September 9, 2006

Some may say I’ve got it easy.  As a photographer, one of my main subjects is dance — beautiful swirls of energy and passion that most people find graceful and uplifting.  Rarely does that subject offend.  My fish portraits — photographs of dead fish on ice at local fish markets — can bring a more squeamish reaction.  Some viewers turn away, to avoid experiencing these images that I found so visually exciting.  But none of my work has been subject to such condemnation as the paintings of Thomas W. Manning, shown until recently at USM.

Art is not always beautiful, comfortable, easy to experience, or simple to understand.  Artists may take on difficult topics, produce disturbing images, probe the failures of our social order, highlight the erotic in ways that offend some, or graphically depict the violence or deprivation that some of us may wish were hidden.

Indeed, some exhibit spaces have asked me not to display any nudes, or any fish portraits, or any homeless people, or even anything that might be disturbing.  Artists are asked to contribute to the “creative economy”, but not in ways that might be unsettling.

But the uproar over the Thomas Manning exhibit has raised this reaction to a new and frightening level.  A recent editorial in the Press Herald asks that we judge the moral character and behavior of the artist before even looking at the art.  “When a tax-funded institution of higher education exhibits art created by a man convicted of murdering a policeman, that’s more than ‘cutting edge’… When the hand that wields the brush is covered in blood, it indelibly stains whatever it touches.”

According to this editorial, “It’s almost meaningless to ask whether Manning’s work meets objective standards of artistic merit.”  Evidently Manning’s past actions, and his statement that he is portraying “political prisoners”, should be reason for us to close our eyes and not experience the message his art portrays.

What a remarkably shortsighted view!  I’d encourage everybody to take a more careful look at what this artist is saying, what truth it might represent, what visual appeal or expressive power the work may possess.  Or … I wish I could.  I didn’t make it to the USM gallery in time, and now the University has relented to conservative pressure and taken the show down.  Now the work is much less accessible.

We don’t dismiss out of hand the artistic work of slave holders, or Nazi’s during the 2nd world war, or other artists whose views or other behavior many of us would judge harshly. Why this sudden rush to judgement — without even a look a the work itself?

Hanging the work of Thomas Manning was not an endorsement of his views or of his past behavior.  It was an affirmation that at least one curator thought there was something of value in his art, and that we should have a chance to see it.  What a shame that this chance has been denied.

I wish that USM could have simply issued a clear and strong statement reiterating their condemnation of Mannings past actions, and the fact that the messages in the exhibit are HIS messages, and not those of USM.  Let the USM students who view the show, and other visitors, decide for themselves what to make of the art and of the social history that led to its creation.  A university should be fostering dialog — not removing access to the primary source materials that can inform that dialog.

Portland wants to foster its “creative economy”.  Of course, that requires creating more housing and work space for artists, more spaces for exhibit and performance, strengthening the already solid arts programs at USM and at the Maine College of Art.  But it also requires educating a community that the response to art we don’t like, or to art by artists that we don’t like is not to have the exhibits taken down.  I thought USM already knew this.

This was written as a column for the Portland Press Herald.   The show was taken down at the request of USM’s president.