Keeping the Spark

Show up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs
Katherine Mitchell, Senior Lecturer, Visual Arts Department


Vol. 11 No. 6
May 2009

Return to Contents

Keeping the Spark
The challenges of staying creative over an academic career

Podcasts: The Challenges of Staying Creative: Stories from Emory

The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence

“When people are willing to get ‘off track,’ that is when I see them at their most creative. When they stop worrying about traditional modes of recognition, they tend to be far more spontaneous.”

“I‘m quite happy to work on a project for a number of years and have it simply not realize itself . . . because I know there are other things that will come to fruition.”

“Having a community of scholars you relate to is important to creativity and important to grooming people to be creative thinkers.”

Show Up and Get to Work
Time, solitude, and creative breakthroughs

On Becoming a Scientist-Advocate
Creative new possibilities for approaching and teaching science

Crazy Thinking
How the most creative ideas get generated and selected


When considering creativity, people often think in terms of inspiration. But Chuck Close, an exceptional painter, has said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us show up and get to work.” He added that if you wait for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike, then you’re not going to get a lot of work done. Inspiration, and the creativity to which it leads, comes with constant working, questioning, and effort.

Looking back, it is hard to know when one has been most or least creative. Certainly 2004, the year I received the Winship Award for Senior Lecturers, was a very high point. One of the great things about the Winship Award is the semester’s leave it provides. It is important for anyone working creatively to have time to think, to enter deeply the world of her own thoughts, and to have the freedom to fail and try again. Jeanette Winterson, author of a wonderful little book titled Art Objects, wrote, “The condition of the artist is a condition of Remove. Work is rooted in silence.”

The Winship was to enable me to prepare for a solo exhibition at the Factory (contemporary wing) of the Kunsthalle in Krems, Austria. Much of the time of the award semester, however, I spent preparing for another solo exhibition, a ten-year survey of my work at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. These exhibitions were followed by a thirty-two-year retrospective as Atlanta City Gallery’s “Master Series” artist of 2007. This was quite a roll of major exhibitions and related projects (including creation of an artist book and publication of a catalogue for the retrospective).

But exhibitions are not necessarily measures of creativity. What interests artists most is the actual creative act and the thought process that surrounds it. Another writer who has been very important to me for many years is the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote, “The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. . . . What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.”

These ideas may seem old-fashioned, romantic, and reclusive. So be it. This solitude, however, produces the source of all communication, even in collaborative works or in teaching, and is in many ways an act of love. Artists from Ravi Shankar to Mozart have spoken of the importance of love—their love of art, of their work.

Perhaps one of the easiest ways to arrange for this kind of solitude and freedom from the day-to-day cares of the world is to participate in a residency program. We are fortunate to have The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences in the North Georgia mountains. The time it provides for true concentration, away from any other cares, is invaluable.

Our highs and lows of creative output are also linked to our emotional states in complex ways. Following my brother’s death in 1996, I experienced a surge of desire just to work. It was a time when everything that wasn’t life and death seemed to fade away. I produced some of my best paintings, paintings that were dedicated to him, in the few years following his death, but I don’t recommend killing off your loved ones to achieve this result. I think the big changes in my work visually were already underway; they would have happened anyway, or at least something similar. There were other very creative periods that were exceptionally happy. How these good and bad times affect my creativity seems to vary. Perhaps the most difficult times for creativity are the relatively flat times—times when too much of the minutiae of life get in the way.

Different artists approach their work in different ways, but often for me—particularly in times of transition—it feels like banging my head against the wall. While I have particular concerns in my work, and they tend to emerge in long series of related works, it is also characterized by what the art historian John Howett described as “ruptures”—times of major change in approach, media, and imagery. During spring break this year, I felt I had a significant breakthrough. I had been working all winter in several areas I was unable to resolve. I couldn’t quite seem to bring anything to successful completion, nor quite get started with the new elements I wanted to use. Finally, it seemed, I found the one tiny puzzle piece that had been missing, and then everything fell into place. At last, I had the means to start in earnest on the new canvas panels I had ordered months earlier. The issue had to do with transitioning the imagery and materials from a drawing format—small and intimate—to the larger works of paint on canvas.

This breakthrough came not just from having a week cleared of other responsibilities. Rather, it resulted from the process of months of struggling to resolve the imagery and holding these elements in a sort of gestation, not quite able to produce a successful result. The break without the months of struggle would have meant nothing. It was the combination of a long, painful gestation and the moment of freedom to be able to resolve the issues. I return to the idea of Chuck Close—that it’s not about inspiration; it’s about showing up for work every day—being willing to undertake the hard labor and then to know the profound joy and to delight in the play.

Now, days later, I realize that the little painting that seemed to open up the process for me may not make the grade for exhibition. It will, however, remain important to me as part of the process. Henry Moore, the revered British sculptor, said, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do.”