What do Pablo Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Rembrandt, and your favorite memoir writer have in common? A lot more than you might think. The book below will teach you not only to recognize patterns in the lives of great artists but to become a great artist yourself–a “life change artist.”
The lives of artists fascinate me. Actually, all lives fascinate me. I hold a secret hankering to be an artist, and this book helped me understand why, inspiring me to use my own life as the canvas and the principles in this book as the viewfinder, paint, and brush.
Co-authors Kathy Jordan and Fred Mandell have studied artist’s lives, searching for patterns, and have emerged with a number of findings that might surprise you and a list of seven creative skills all of us can hone.
The “elevator speech” about this book describes it as The Artist’s Way meets What Color is Your Parachute. I’m not a student of those two books, but I can say that this one deserves as much success as they have had.
Why? Because the authors guide the reader seamlessly back and forth between in-depth biography of artists and into real life stories of ordinary people. Their skills as researchers, psychologists, and coaches combine to create an elegant book with relevance to almost anyone at any stage of life. One of my favorite quotes from the book says it best. “The ultimate work of art [is] a life of meaning and purpose imbued with hard-won self-awareness.”
Three sections comprise the book’s structure: The Process, The Skills, and a synthesis chapter called “The Way of the Life Change Artist.”
The Process (Part One)begins with recognizing when one has come to a “creative dilemma” in life. Dante’s famous description in The Inferno came to mind when I read about this sense between knowing and not knowing, whether to act or not to act:
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself in a shadowed forest.
For I had lost the path that does not stray
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
That savage forest, dense and difficult,
Which even in recall renews my fear:
So bitter-death is hardly so severe!
The fear so powerfully described by Dante affects all of us in transition. The key to overcoming fear lies in welcoming change, knowing that we have an artist’s tool box to create something beautiful from whatever mistakes we have made or whatever external force threatens to overwhelm us.
The rest of the process, after recognizing and entering the creative dilemma, consists of exploring, discovering, and integrating. Each of these parts of the process can produce a variety of feelings, both positive and negative, that require our attention and strengthen our ability to remain open even when we don’t know the outcome of our search.
The heart of the book, however, is the discussion of the seven skills of the life change artist based on the patterns in all great artists’ lives. For each skill, the authors use side bars to describe how individuals follow the four-steps of the creative process to strengthen the skill, an ingenious way to bring process and skills together.
The seven skills are:
1. Preparation–walking, writing, going outside the familiar, listening to music, doing physical chores, soaking in a bathtub, helping others. . .
2. Seeing–the linchpin creative skill. Blake said it: “The eye altering, alters all.” In this section I was reminded of the thrill I felt back in the 80’s when I encountered the concept of negative space in the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
3. Using context. Pay attention to trends in the world around us. Be aware of social identity and how it can bias our thinking.
4. Embracing uncertainty. Recognize that change is constant and don’t rush to resolution prematurely. Adapt, seek, and allow opportunities to unfold. Creating rituals, meditation, are useful practices as we learn this skill.
5. Risk taking. Acting without certainty of outcome. This might mean following our intuition, going against the crowd or even our own friends, managing our fears, and converting mistakes into opportunities for learning.
6. Collaboration. Braque and Picasso invented cubism together. Neither one could have done it alone. Likewise, Renoir, Cassatt, Degas and all the Impressionists. This section was the greatest “aha” for me. Most of us are trained to think of artists as loners, individuals haunted by their own dreams. In fact, they almost always have some kind of supportive artistic circle, often consciously cultivated. Here’s what the life change artist needs in an advisory group:
a. An empathetic listener like Rembrandt
b. A mentor like Pisarro
c. A catalyst like Picasso
d. A strategic thinker like Leonardo da Vinci
7. Discipline. Acting consistently whether or not we feel motivated. This is the “perspiration” part of inspiration. We adopt habits that allow us to overcome distraction, disappointment. We “sit in the chair” as long as we have to to get the job done. Leonardo da Vinci: “You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.”
The end of the book contains an assessment tool called the Creativity Calculator. The calculator told me that I am highly creative in all areas except “using context” and “discipline” where I am a high medium. I find it helpful to see the places I can improve while also identifying with both process and skills that I learned through trial and error, careful observation of others, and learning to listen to the voice within. Among the most important gifts a book like this gives the reader are new names for one’s own experiences and new eyes for seeing the mountains yet to be climbed.
Here’s a final story from p. 125 of the book and Japanese artist Howard Ikemoto. “‘When my daughter was seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college–that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?”‘”
We were all artists once. We all can become great artists with our own lives. Before that can happen we need to develop a deep process that develops these seven skills.
Now, memoir readers and writers, check out these seven skills in the life of the memoirist you most admire. Can you see them–both in the life and in the construction of the life as a work of art?