Friday, April 12, 2013

The Creative Process: The Idiosyncratic

This series is about the cross-over skills and concepts between creating art and doing genealogy. Admittedly, it's all very blue-sky.

1. A structural or behavioral characteristic peculiar to an individual or group.
2. A physiological or temperamental peculiarity.
3. An unusual individual reaction to food or a drug.
(Source: The Free Dictionary by Farlex)

I know that you know what idiosyncratic means, but thought it was a good time to run that in there. We're probably working with the first two definitions but let's reserve judgment on the third because, well, ya' never know. "Peculiar to an individual". Yeah, that about nails it for me. Peculiar. Individual. Yup. Hold that thought.

When I taught art at the local college, and after students mastered the basic skills, the thing they needed to do next was discover their individual gifts in art. What was it about each person that made them unique and able in some special way to contribute something, some statement or perspective, to the world? We were always looking for the idiosyncratic in each person.

When I first presented this concept, student, especially the young ones, looked at me in disbelief. Most of them had spent a young life believing that they were anything but special in any way whatsoever. Some had been told they were really nothing by family or teachers. For others it was the meager circumstances of an upbringing in difficulty surroundings. Even those who had an enriched family or community life found it hard to see that they could have a strong personal voice through their art. Never mind, I said, it will come. And it always did. Always. No exceptions.

Sometimes in a particularly bruised bunch of students I'd do a little exercise that involved talking about their pets. "Do you think you'd know your pet if it got lost and was returned by someone?" Sure! "What if it was returned with another animal that looked identical? Could you tell your pet apart from that other one?" Yeah, sure! "So you're telling me that your pet is that unique and you'd recognize their personality anywhere." Unanimous assertion that they could.

Now I have to say that these were really nice students, for the most part. They worked hard and aspired to the American dream of a family and a job that could support that family or contribute to the extended family they were presently a part of. So I asked them to think of all the people in that extended family, and the people who lived in proximity to them in their neighborhood. And to think of how each of those people was special in some idiosyncratic way. (They all really got into this exercise.) Then I asked them to think of a story about one person, and we shared some of those stories too.

Mostly, this was group work done in small groups of three to five people. Each group would finally pick one story from the group to share with the entire class. You see, much of art is really story telling and the thing that gives these stories that special something that attracts people to it is the idiosyncratic, or that which is peculiar to an individual. Peculiar. Individual. Finally they all got it, even if they didn't know right away what their own special something was.

Not to be heavy handed about the obvious, but let me break down for you what I did with them. First I let them realize that even their pet is unique such that they would undoubetedly be able to pick them out of a crowd. Then they were led to that specialness in the people in their lives, the ordinary everyday people especially. And by that route they were ready to admit that they too were special and unique in some way. All that was left was for us to uncover it.

I'm wondering if telling the ancestor stories isn't a bit like that? We look at the records first to find the narrative, the story: the who, what, where, and when of it all. But we look between the lines to see what's implied about the idiosyncrasies of our ancestor too. What is it about them that makes them individual and peculiar, that made them stand out in a crowd. We like that too, don't we?

Nutshell analysis and the obvious take-aways:
* We are, all of us, unique. So were our ancestors. All that's left for us to do is find the bits and pieces of them that are left in the records and stories.
* You are unique too, so don't forget to make time to tell your own story!

On Fridays if I make a new post in the Creative Process series, I'll also post a painting of mine... just in case you don't care for the post, you might enjoy looking at the painting instead:)

"Torrey Pines Beach"
24 by 24 inches, oil on canvas
Diane K. Weintraub

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