I got a note via facebook from Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker saying she would like me to come and give one of a series of ten-minute talks about creativity and barriers. Other speakers included Elvi Gray-Jackson, Anchorage Press Publisher Nick Coltman, Nina Kemppel, and Julie's dad Don Decker. I got to see most of the talks which were, on the whole, thoughtful and inspiring. And as a bonus, Architect John Weir played some nicely phrased music on his clarinet. My talk appears below.
Hello, and thanks for having me. For a person who made a living over a quarter of a century regularly giving his opinion in the newspaper, it's a thrill to have someone actually ask for it.
Julie's initial contact message inquired how I stay motivated despite outside barriers
And Stephen wants to know how I make change.
It's counter-intuitive, but limitations, barriers, deadlines, budgets, whatever holds you back, are the source of creativity. No barrier, no need to be creative. If all is going smoothly you won't have much to inspire creativity or apply your creativity to.
Let me illustrate with an example. Creativity is about overcoming limits. Parkinson's Disease is about imposing them. When I reached the point in my Parkinson's progression that it became painful for me to draw a line on a piece of paper, I talked to my doctor. He said we had done all we could do, he was out of ideas. He was telling me the career I loved, and that fed my family, was over. Talk about motivating!
I got creative. I thought about how other people at work who had ergonomic problems had been coached to sit with their spines "stacked" and their arms in a relaxed natural position. It occurred to me that I could approximate this posture if I were to use an electronic tablet at a computer. When I pitched this idea the doctor brightened and said it would work, which it does to this day.
From there it was a simple matter of getting over my intimidation at using the computer, and mastering photoshop to the point where I might recreate my old paper and ink drawing style. After months of intense frustration, bitter struggle and countless tips from my photoshop ace wife, I finally managed it. With great pride and soaring relief I went to the printer where my masterpiece was emerging in a volley of electronic buzzes, clicks and beeps. And in that shining moment of victory, in that incandescent paroxysm of pride, I realized that I had done something truly stupid. I had just spent months turning a late 20th-Century tool, a tool that cost well over a thousand dollars, a tool engineered with the most updated materials, and equipped with latest powerful software, an incredible modern wonder into a simple ink pen, a throwback to the time when monks spent their lives hand-illuminating ancient manuscripts.
I'm all for limits, but that was ridiculous. There was so much more that a person equipped with such a tool could do. Color, sound and motion could all be incorporated relatively easily into a drawing. My visual vocabulary was expanded vastly, and my ability to express myself forcefully and precisely was multiplied beyond what I could do with an ink pen. The barrier of pain forced me to find a new way to make images, to create a work-around, and that paradoxically unlocked a sea of possibilities that keep me occupied creatively to this minute.
But let's return to that simple ink pen for a moment and consider what such a rudimentary, limited tool can do when attached to something powerful as the human imagination. During the legislative tobacco wars of the 90's the leaders of the State House refused to release a bill increasing the tax on a pack of cigarettes from a committee where it was trapped, I did a series of cartoons heaping scorn on the House leadership for their intransigence. I was told by a sponsor of the bill, Con Bunde, that the Speaker told the committee chair to let the bill go because the cartoons had to be stopped. The bill went on to pass both houses and was signed into law by the Governor. A real Thomas Nast moment for me. Little drawings made of old-fashioned materials proved in that instance to have more juice than the Speaker of the House.
Was the House Speaker correct in concluding that the cartoons had undermined her enough that her legitimacy was at stake? Well, she was the one with the pollsters and pr staff. I'm just a country cartoonist. What was important was that somehow, on this point The cartoons convinced her she had to reverse course, and she did.
This is a tribute to the imagination. Not mine, the imagination of the House Speaker, who saw the cartoons depicting imaginary scenes undermining her real-life legitimacy. If she hadn't imagined some disaster from the drip, drip, drip of ridicule pouring from my ink bottle, amplified a thousand-fold by the ADN printing press, she never would have budged, and the bill would have suffocated to death in committee.
This illustrates for me a quirk of power that was identified by Hannah Arendt, and too often goes unnoticed. The power that a person or image has over us is largely the power we give or invest in it. If we withdraw that power, the curtain is pulled back and the Wizard of Oz is revealed. Think of what we call powerful imagery, even dangerous, the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, for example. Pat Robertson sees them, and with a sudden bang, his head explodes. The next viewer is completely unfazed, by some miracle, their head remains intact. If the power were inherent in the imagery, wouldn't everyone be damaged by the picture? The fact is that Robertson makes his own head explode, investing in the image a mighty power.
This also explains why religious extremists find it their duty to kill cartoonists they believe have profaned their prophet while at the same time feeling no compunction about destroying the images of the deities of others.We feel no pain at threats to the sacred beliefs of others, but are unhinged when our own are on the line.
So the way to have power to effect change is to convince, trick or seduce people into giving you that power. The way to keep it is by proving over and over that you deserve it.