No. 1: Cultivate a Creative Mindset

My brain told me to paint a tree....this is what happened....

‘Creativity is not just something we do. It is a natural part of who we are’ says Julia McCutchen, author of Psychologies’ first step to creative bliss: Cultivate a Creative Mindset. This is clearly someone who values the creative process. She believes that in order to be creative, we need to cultivate the right internal and external circumstances. The greatest commodities that aid this, she states, are time and our environment.

I put her advice to the test, and set aside a healthy chunk of time in which I could allow my creative juices to flow. I also created the perfect environment; incense burning, tidy space, paints at the ready, soft music playing in the background….I have decided that creative endeavour number one is to paint a tree (yes, that’s right, a tree). And so I begin.

I have to admit that initially I feel a bit stupid. I mean why on earth have I chosen to paint a tree?! That doesn’t seem very creative. Well, even Picasso had to start somewhere and so placing my preconceptions of what creativity is to one side, I start applying paint to paper. The soothing environment definitely seems to be helping and quite quickly I relax into it. Although I have some sort of idea of how I want my tree to look, I go with the flow, mixing colours and adding paint here and there. There seems to be a flow of energy coming from some deeper place within me that’s making me move the paintbrush. I am barely conscious of it. All I know is that I’m having fun. It’s cathartic. My mind wanders and I begin thinking of things related to the rest of my week. Then suddenly it’s back on the painting and I am mindfully creating brush strokes on the once blank canvas.

Half an hour later I am done. Creative effort number one is complete. Ok, so it’s not exactly a work of art. Actually it’s more reminiscent of a pattern on a bedspread I once owned. Einstein did say the secret to creativity is to hide your sources, but I guess I just disclosed mine, so never mind. As a novice ruminating on her own creativity, a few thoughts and feelings come to surface. First, being in that creative zone feels good, but perhaps that is because there was no real pressure on me to perform. Second, I was less worried about the finished article and more focussed on the creative process. And third, setting aside time and being in the right environment does seem to help in some way to allow for creativity to flow.

Kickstart your Creativity…..

Whilst glancing at the magazine aisle in a local newsagent, one feature caught my attention: ‘kickstart your creativity.’ The main feature of April’s Psychologies magazine, the 18-page dossier seemed to suggest that creativity is something that everyone can cultivate, the tagline being ‘how creativity can enrich your life.’ Interesting, I thought. So I handed over £3.80 and bought a copy.

Later, whilst flicking through the glossy pages and sipping at my glass of wine, I was surprised to discover that this article did not see creativity as limited to the artistic few, but as a fundamental driving force within all of us. Three main things were stated to lie behind creativity: the ability to reflect, be curious and most important, be inspired. And thus followed a series of (five) steps which the feature seemed to promise, if followed, would unlock creative potential.

Such an attitude intrigues me. If I’m being honest, I have never seen me, Sarah, as much of a creative individual. I’ve had brief moments in which by some mysterious means I have created something like a painting, or written a song or poem. Sometimes I even surprise myself with a new way of philosophising about my life or research. Yet ultimately, I more often than not think of myself as average. This article appears to suggest that if I just open myself up more, and cultivate certain qualities in my life, then creativity can be mine and I can realise my true potential. So, considering the fact that I am researching creativity for my thesis, it seems sensible that I try to expand on and document my own. In the next few blogs, I will be trying out and commenting on each of the feature’s tips for enhancing creativity, purely to step out of the academic mindset, and focus more on what creativity feels, and looks like. Although the ontological gap between my own creativity, and the creativity of a person living in the Bronze Age is of course huge, this exercise serves as a way for me to broaden my thinking from a purely empirical data driven means of investigation, and to encompass notions of what it means to be creative as a human living in today’s world.

Tradition: A Crystal Ball that shows the Past, Present and Future

 

We are all familiar with the concept of a tradition. It is traditional for many of us to sing happy birthday when our friends and family members become one year older. It is again traditional for us brought up in the UK to have a roast on a Sunday, or drink (too much) Guinness on the 17th March. Traditions can also be more localised. For example, it’s now become a tradition for me to bring home a shot glass souvenir from every new country I visit (of which there have been quite a few in the last year alone!).

Traditions define us as individuals and collectively. They also shift, mutate and sometimes disappear, perhaps more so in the modern world. My exposure to different customs through travel and living in quite a cosmopolitan city have meant that the traditional boundaries in my life are less clear cut and echo my experiences and the social milieu in which I live. Yet the traditions are still there.

 The fascinating thing about tradition is that it acts as a crystal ball in which we can see the past, the present and the future. Tradition mirrors the remains of a past set of practices that have been transmitted over time. This repertoire of past knowledge allows for and directs social practices in the present. If we think in terms of making a pot, often vessels are made traditionally according to the community in which a person is potting in. This practice is based on a combination of how we learn to pot and what is a socially acceptable vessel. But we also have the ability in the present to put our own spin on a tradition. In fact, it is our creativity that allows us to play with tradition and create or do something that adheres to the familiar but is also different. If we think again back to potting practice, it may be that we decide to decorate a vessel in a slightly different way, or add an extra handle. The finished product and the practices that created it becomes the mental mould of the present, but also becomes a template for future practices. In short, tradition is never static but is ever fluid, ever developing and full of social information that can not only give us clues about where we come from, but also about our future.

To be creative is to be connected…

Sometimes I wonder whether the hippies have got it sussed (or if at least they are part way there to a deeper understanding). The other night I was participating in my yoga class, as I do every week (bear with me!). This particular type of yoga is less about attempting ridiculous postures that no-one in their right mind should ever be able to do, and focusses more on the nature of human existence within a more ‘spiritual’ context.  In that particular session our teacher began discussing what it is to be an individual in an interconnected world. He likened us to single waves that belong to a deeper ocean. In essence we are all connected to the source of our life (the earth) and also to each other. Therefore nothing that we do is ever in isolation.

 

 I have to admit that the ocean metaphor struck a chord and started me thinking about my research and whether using the similar but more dynamic analogy of Gaia theory is a useful approach to understanding creativity. Coined by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, this approach is the holistic idea that the earth is an integrated whole and is a complex and dynamic system that self-regulates through a biofeedback mechanism.  Before I continue, I am in no way suggesting that I am an advocate of the Gaia hypothesis; my own academic training limits my ability to comment on the scientific validity of such a theory. However, I do think it has potential as a useful analogy for a discussion of creativity. Just as in the Gaia hypothesis sees the earth as a web of interrelated systems, we can also begin to think of the cultures and societies in which creativity manifests as complex and dynamic structures that are linked to a larger overall system (mankind).

 

Einstein famously quoted that the secret to creativity is to hide your sources. Being creative therefore is integrating existing ideas in a novel or original way. In other words, just like being a wave that is connected to larger body of water, creativity is the act of tapping into a fluid resource of information that resides within a given social environment, but it is also part of that resource, adding new information and ideas to the pool. In light of this analogy, new questions are brought to the forefront of my mind. Does the creativity that emerges within such complicated networks regulate and change social structures? How far does this go; does the action of an individual start off a rippling effect that eventually changes the whole ocean? What enables one person to be ‘more’ creative than another? Whatever the answers may be, I certainly feel out of my depth! Such questions, without any concrete answers as of yet, lead me to believe that there are perhaps boundless facets to creativity. It appears that to be creative is to be connected; to a community, to a culture, perhaps even to the entire world. However, I would argue that researchers of the field have only just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to a holistic understanding of creativity, and my research is just a drop in a vast sea of knowledge.

The fabric of (a potter’s) life

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Lovely lovely grog....

 

Ceramic style varies through space and time and archaeologists often discuss these differences in terms of spatial and temporal trends. Variation in style is also assumed to reflect social boundaries and differentiation. Such narratives of ceramic development however can ignore the role that individuals such as you and I may have played in the maintenance and change of ceramic style. I’m interested in exploring ceramic difference from the bottom-up by investigating the underpinnings of change through the lens of creativity. Through an analysis of the technological signatures left by the potter, I am exploring how creativity played out in these key areas of the crafting process: clay preparation, vessel shape, vessel decoration and surface finish. Within this blog entry, I will share with you my preliminary results of fabric analysis of Bronze Age funerary urns from Surčin.

 

To determine how the clay was prepared, I am in the process of creating a fabric series for the Surčin assemblage. This is useful for two reasons. The first of these is that a fabric series has not previously been assigned to this material. The second reason is that determining fabric illuminates the clay recipes used by potters. Are the recipes varied or uniform? How does this affect the subsequent stages in the potting process? Does variation in clay preparation reflect technological creativity?

 

Interestingly, the fabrics for all of the vessels are fairly standardised. All vessels were made from well-prepared clay that was tempered with grog (crushed up pottery). The advantage of using such temper is that it strengthens the clay and increases thermodynamics meaning that the vessels were less likely to explode during firing.

To my mind these standardised methods for preparing the clay show little in the way of technological creativity; for over 70 vessels there are only seven different fabric types, all of which are slight variations of a similar potting practice. These methods of preparation were passed down from generation to generation over the span of 400 years, from 1400-1000BC. There appear to be only slight changes to the clay recipes used over time; fabrics become slightly coarser for some of the later vessels that date to Belegiš II. Yet my preliminary analysis suggests that there is no linear trajectory for these shifts in clay preparation and I am also conscious not to split hairs when it comes to discussing fabrics; can we be certain that the potter saw the difference between grog that measured 1mm and grog that measured 2mm? Once back in Southampton I will make thin sections of each fabric type to verify the fabric series I have created out here.

 

So what does this standardisation mean for creativity? Belegiš potters it seems did not experiment with how they prepared their clay; over 400 years there was minimal alteration to clay recipes. However, the clay recipes used may have facilitated creativity for subsequent stages of the crafting process. The coarser and therefore stronger fabrics especially would have enabled for more exaggerated vessel forms. This is something that I very much intend to investigate further through the exploration of creativity in vessel shape.

Continuing my travels…..

I am back in beautiful Zagreb and will be spending the next few days with friends and colleagues working in the AMZ. During this trip I will be finishing my data collection for the site of Surčin and will be using my time here as an opportunity to write up some thoughts about the material whilst it is sat in front of me.

 

These are the questions that I shall be pondering (whilst sat in the museum basement surrounded by pots):

 

  • How does creativity present itself in the crafting of these vessels?
  • What is the social significance of this and what does this tell me about the people who were making and using the urns?
  • Finally, what can this bring to an understanding of creativity in the contemporary world?

Some BIG but extremely worthwhile questions…..

 

Not so much a truth, more a possibility….

Yesterday lunchtime I went to a brilliant talk given by Gareth Beale, who is using computer modelling to test different hypotheses relating to Roman Sculptural Polychromy. Essentially he is modelling a Roman sculpure in various different scenarios and according to different polychromal techniques. His aim is not to show ‘what the sculpture would have looked like’ but to test and whittle down the current archaeological hypotheses and interpretations. For more information, visit: http://twitter.com/#!/GCBeale

 

Gareth’s interesting and refreshingly honest talk led me to think about the nature of my own research, and whether or not the search for the archaeological ‘truth’ is actually a futile endeavor. Perhaps we as archaeologists need to start questioning that which we consider as fact, and begin accepting that we are not and never will be an objective discipline.

 

Speaking directly about the Bronze Age, many European prehistoric authors saturate their work with stock phrases that denote a sense of finality to what they are saying. This is particularly true of Central Europe and the Balkans, with authors still grasping at the cosmological significance of material culture and burial rites. Often, it sounds like they are just making it up!

 

Prehistorians need to embrace the limitations of their own subject and not hide behind statements that try to persuade the reader that their interpretation is the only interpretation. There should be nothing wrong with saying something along the lines of:  ‘we don’t know exactly how it was done, but we now know that it didn’t happen like this.’ With my own research, it is pretty clear that I will not be able to pinpoint the creative abilities of one select individual, and nor should I wish to. My research is rooted in possibility and what I aim to do however is to access whether or not creativity is a useful concept for archaeologists through implementation of a methodology, and also see if it can shed a little bit more light on the Bronze Age in Pannonia.