According to Wikipedia, the now-popular phrase, “thinking outside the box” originated in the 1970s and 80s, in the business world. “Lateral” thinking is about approaching a problem from a different angle, one that changes your perspective and may lead to innovation. There are even some exercises to get you thinking this way. Sometimes, though, a breakthrough can occur without them. Then, it appears, it’s not so much a matter of thinking as it is of intuition.
Maybe it happens on a subconscious level because you need a change. If you are a practicing artist of any kind, maybe you have become a bit bored with your usual approach. Maybe you have been coming to your work more laboriously than eagerly, wondering why you aren’t getting as excited about it as you would like to be. Maybe , if you’ve already started something, you feel obliged to finish it, even though you aren’t sure where it’s headed.
Then, maybe a new idea comes to mind. Maybe you ask yourself, What if I did it this way? Then, maybe you say to yourself, But what if it doesn’t work? Or, I can’t just stop what I’m already doing — it isn’t finished! In that case, you might play the role of self-counselor. “ Look, you’re not abandoning the old way. You can just try this and see how it feels.” Then, if you want to run with it, if you feel renewed excitement in your work, you’ll know it was the right thing to do, after all.
How does this happen? Maybe it comes from having worked diligently at something for a long time. It also comes from looking around at other possibilities and asking, What else have I ever wanted to try, and why haven’t I tried it?
My personal “box” has always been the “box” of traditional drawing and painting — naturalistic/realistic. Over the years I have tried many different kinds of mediums, but there were boundaries I didn’t cross. Collage? Not for me. Digital? Not for me. Crafts involving fabric and paper? Not for me.
Still, I had often thought it might be fun to make a one-of-a kind (OAK) art doll. This involves sculpting, and eventually, sewing, and I am not adept at either. Nevertheless, a couple years ago I decided to give it a try. I viewed a number of online tutorials and purchased some basic tools and materials. However, it soon became clear to me that having started this late, I wasn’t going to achieve even a satisfactory level of skill. Oh well, I told myself, it was nothing more than a distraction. So, better get back to what I had worked so long to be good at. I got busy and completed two more illustrated books, The Mer Musician and The Oak Sprite. I felt good about them, but a little weary. Each of them had taken nearly a year from start to finish, and no new idea had popped up to fill the gap.
Then the pandemic bore down on us. With all the news of illness and death, and my own thoughts about mortality and the transience of life, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice came to mind. Could I do a book on that theme? For some reason I felt that it would need a different approach, and one day, it came to me. Maybe I couldn’t make three-dimensional dolls, but I could make paper ones. I could draw them, cut them out and place them in mixed media “environments.” I could use paper, cloth, objects. I could use photo editing to create the effects I wanted — the mood.
In a kind of fever, I completed Eurydice, and began The Night Dances, a reworking of “The Twelves Dancing Princesses,” a fairy tale I had previously taken up and put aside, expanding on my “new” approach.
There is quite a bit of trial and error involved in this method, but I think it’s probably good for the brain. When I visit Durham’s creative re-use center, The Scrap Exchange, I find all sorts of wonderful materials and objects that can be transformed into something else, and this challenges and stimulates my imagination. Decorative paper could be made into fans, tassels into hair, gilt trim into crowns, fancy fabric scraps into dresses. I started figuring out how to do things I’d never thought about before.
Whether or not these most recent books are “better” than their predecessors I can’t say. They are different in technique, but not in spirit. Creativity is, or should be, a continuum. What’s important is that they offer me fresh possibilities. It’s invigorating to use a combination traditional and modern techniques to tell old stories and make them new. And — dare I say it? Great fun!