Creativity and Imagination

Alex Beard signing Crocodile Tears.

When I was in New Orleans recently, I was reminded of how many creative people inhabit the city. Music famously fills the air as you stroll down the touristy streets of the French Quarter. One evening I saw jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton) perform in a small, crowded theater. The next night walking to dinner with friends, we saw street bands literally in the middle of the street, a solo violinist, a man playing wine glasses, and a one man band with a drum strapped to his back, while high-volume blues and rock wafted out across the sidewalks from inside the bars.

The visual arts too are in abundance. I attended a lovely Abrams reception at Alex Beard’s upscale gallery, lined up for an autographed copy of his children’s book, Crocodile Tears, sipped champagne and admired his oversized, bodacious art. His was just one gallery amongst many (though the only one I actually was invited to). There were artists everywhere with their works spread out before them on blankets or hung in galleries.

Creativity sparks creativity. John Lehrer, in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, tells us that the power of cities, of groups of diverse people interacting is extraordinary when it comes to igniting new ideas. Understanding this, Steve Jobs made sure that everyone at Pixar, no matter how different their roles, had to come in contact with each other in the restrooms and when they ate. Conversely, Lehrer points out that brainstorming, the darling of too many managers, has been proven counterproductive.

He looks at many creative people such as Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Shakespeare and an autistic surfer. He interviews neuroscientists Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins University and Aaron Berkowitz of Harvard who have, “investigated the mental process underlying improvisation” and discovered not only the “cortical machinations” going on in the brain, but the benefits of “letting go.”  He describes the changes in our frontal lobes as we pass from childhood to adulthood and how they inhibit us. There are reasons, he tells us, why we get some of our best ideas while taking a nice hot shower.

I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who works in a creative field such as pottery, to those who want to understand how ideas arise, or those interested in encouraging a more creative culture. Imagine is a wonderful account of the latest scientific research on “how creativity works” thoughtfully explained for the layperson. Do take time out from your busy studio schedule and read it.

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