Struggle can result in great art.

I recently designed costumes for The Crucible at The University of California, Irvine which opened last weekend. Most of you have heard of it. Its that dated story about a bunch of pilgrims and some witches- nothing to do with our modern life, right? That is what I thought I would be designing this winter as part of my masters program at UCI. But in walked director Beth Lopes with a radical idea to set this play in modern times. This won’t work, I thought. I researched past productions and couldn’t find evidence of a single production with a modern setting. My conclusion- maybe they know something we don’t. The time just can’t be changed.

My first steps in this design process were to analyze the text very carefully, and begin pulling images of modern clothing and fashion inspirations. I hit a wall. I couldn’t see this town in modern dress. The girls didn’t make sense in jeans and t-shirts, and the whole thing seemed way too literal. Where in modern day America are we hanging witches? Our team met, and we met, and we met. We wanted to create a language for our designs that made sense of what is a truly a beautiful text (when you see past all of the Pilgrim garb and read it for what it truly is- a metaphor).

With this new appreciation for the text and characters of the play- I set out to explore this idea of community and create a certain timelessness and metaphorical design, both of which are technical impossibilities. What I eventually designed was modern clothing, with a certain 1950s sensibility, and a dash of Puritanism. For the metaphor- I developed a color palette (that made shopping incredibly difficult- my assistant can attest to that) which stepped from red and orange, to orange and green, to blue and purple, to black and white over the course of the show. This allowed me to create an arc where the audience could see visually the life of this town draining as time went on. I was nervous about how we would accomplish this lofty goal, and leery about how it would all eventually read, on stage.

What I believe we have accomplished is the most beautiful telling of this story I have ever witnessed. It is also, frankly, the most dramatic and profound piece that I have had the honor of being a part of. From the director, to the other designers, to stage management, to the cast, and crew- everyone came together to create a very moving piece of theatre. I am incredibly thankful for the struggle that I experienced in my this process and the opportunity I had to be pushed to reexamine how I design.

Check out samples of my work on my online portfolio.

Afterthoughts can be the best kind!

Just had a quick one to share today. Joe came home from school and was showing the rest of us some of the work he’s been doing in his watercolor class. It was so neat to see the steps he had gone through to practice the technique. I absolutely love watercolor, and I understand it is pretty difficult to master. We have one acrylic painting in our house that Joe did years ago. It is a perfect, simple red flower that we ended up scanning as a screen for one of our Ransom Paid women’s t-shirts. We also once took rough pen sketches Joe had drawn and cut them to fit tiny gilded frames on our mantle. But I would love to have the whole home filled with his art, not these lame Target elephant and giraffe prints from about seven years back – do you know the ones?

Luke, of late, has taken to taping up every pencil drawing, coloring page, or painting of his on the walls and halls throughout our home. We are proud to celebrate his work this way. But when Joe showed Luke and me one of his watercolor exercises from class, and Luke heard me begging Joe to let me frame it, he caught on to the idea that very special works are sometimes kept in frames. He immediately wanted his artwork displayed that way, too. I found an empty frame in the closet that just fit Joe’s work, and we put it up on the mantle this afternoon. It catches my eye every time I come in the room and I can’t help but admire the depth and light in it. (The photo doesn’t catch the detail of richness, unfortunately). By happy coincidence, while Joe returned some things from his show at Target later, I took the boys over to the $1 section where we discovered these kid’s frames designed to look like a baseball, football, soccer ball…oh I forget the fourth one. We picked out two, brought them home, and Joe found a painting Luke had done in December, sitting next to his Grandma Cheryl while she crocheted and we all chatted. A great memory and beautiful work all around. So now we have two new pieces of framed art in our house, and only one day after visiting the art museum. Fancy that!

Art is a Place.

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This thought struck me about three quarters of the way through our family visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). At the time, of course, art was quite literally a physical place. An inspiring place. A place, perhaps, that could conjure the creative spirit in just about anybody. The boys were spinning and dancing with wild abandon to raucous music booming from the stage set up on the patio breezeway. They had recently finished painting in the children’s art room, where Seth giggled with genuine surprise every time his brush hit the paper with a new splash of color and Luke worked hard to copy the elaborate painting of a dragon on the art room wall. Luke had already sat down three or four times during the day to pencil-sketch the art he saw in the many exhibit rooms or outside. He’d begun the day by grabbing my camera, as we know he is prone to do, and framing up great shots of the antique clothing his Daddy was studying. I so appreciated the museum for its inclusion of children, from the exhibit planning to the patient and considerate staff to the stunning parks and grounds where kids could take a break (and we were smart enough to take several of those with a two and four year old.) But it wasn’t just that – the physical place.

I believe art is a spiritual place, too – the specific frame of mind we employ when appraising or creating art. I heard a pod cast several months ago that stuck with me. In it, one of my favorite pastors contended that no human artist is actually creating anything unique. This was a jarring thought, initially, especially for a “creative type.” Most of us are familiar with Solomon’s wise words; “there is nothing new under the sun.“ In acknowledging God as The Creator of the universe and all its inhabitants, and humans as “made in his image,” the understanding follows that we not only are given our ability and desire to creatively express by God, but that since he himself actually created everything that ever was created, we are really only rearranging the elements of his creation. I found seventy-one million definitions for art in my internet search. This one stood out; “Art – creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature.” Plants and animals don’t make art. Not on purpose, anyway. It makes sense that humans have a universal desire to be known for something they’ve created, in light of all of this. God put it in our DNA. Of course it must be noted, too, that we have the (God-given) choice whether or not to honor him through our expressions.

Anyway, being there at the museum, taking in the many outstanding creations of humankind, I realized that art, for me, has also been a place – in time. When I took art appreciation in college I viewed a heck of a lot of slides on a projector before visiting The Art Institute of Chicago with my class. I darted through that place dead-set on my mission – to identify which artist I thought made the most beautiful paintings. Desperate to declare a winner, I was all but incapable of appreciating anything but beauty then. I quickly became a fan of impressionist painters because they expressed beauty through those many complex little strokes that are just multicolored blobs of paint up close. The work is barely short of miraculous. I also remember seeing some work by Picasso and not only dismissing it as “ugly,” but feeling almost offended that an artist would paint something so unrealistic and garish. Now, many years later, I again marveled over the workmanship of the impressionists and realists, still appreciating an artist’s ability to communicate what is beautiful with such grace and undeniable talent. And then – I turned the corner into his room. Before I was fully in the room my heart leapt up in my throat. I felt an incredible stirring well up in me, honestly almost inspiring tears. I shook off a shudder and glanced around to see if others had noticed my physical reaction. Yes, these people in the paintings were ugly. Distorted. Difficult to comprehend – no, incomprehensible. It seemed to me then that Picasso was speaking to – or about – a place in the human soul that is very complex. And even though I can’t begin to wrap my head around what that might have entailed, for him, I appreciated what it did in me. When Joe entered the room and caught my reaction, he said “I never knew you were a fan of Picasso!“ I am in a different place than I was at 19, to be sure. My two sons are at equally different places; one now sets out to develop the skill of copying the detail he sees in an object while the other belly-chuckles at his ability to smear a blob of red paint on a clean sheet of paper. It made me think that no matter what place we find ourselves, art is there.

Portrait of a four-year-old

It was an ordinary day. Joe’s brother Ben was visiting, which always means a perfect mixture of some great adventures, laughs and down-time for us grown-ups along with fun times for the boys with their uncle. Uncle Ben sat in the front passenger’s seat, Joe sat in the back with the boys, I handed him the digital camera I bring everywhere, especially when we have out-of-town visitors, and I drove. We stopped at Albertson’s for the elder brothers to hop out and pick something up. Unbeknownst to me, Luke had already started snapping away. He loves to snag my camera.

I have often wondered at his subject matter; the inside of his mouth, a messy bedroom floor, a building block on the dining room table, the patio railing. Sometimes his pictures inspire me; portraits of the beauty found in the ordinary. Sometimes they startle me, reflecting images I find ugly or un-photogenic. These latter images are, of course, more provocative than the first because they force me to consider how staged every photo I take is – how staged, then, is the life I chronicle? Home photographers a decade or two ago couldn’t afford to document and store the everydayness we do now. So when I find the camera after Luke has had it – again- I’ve come to realize that I have the unique opportunity to study what catches his eye, at three, now four year’s of age, and that is both enlightening and refreshing, if not bewildering at times (eg “he took seventeen snapshots of the cat‘s tail? Really?”)

Anyway, the snapshots I later pulled from the camera that day with Ben in town, tell a story; baby brother in a car seat. Two shots. Daddy’s “butt” as he climbs back in-between his two sons, one shot. One shot at condominiums through a kid-smeared-with-what?-window. Luke’s own legs dangling from a booster seat alongside his Dad‘s cramped knees. Three shots. And then there they were; eight self portraits.

With each photo, I marveled at Luke’s ability to turn the camera on himself to begin with, even centering himself quite well. (Frankly, I still can’t get the darn thing to aim steady after years of “self-portraits.”) Then I noticed what has captured my imagination ever since; a different expression in every single photo. Each shot, taken seconds apart, caught a completely different emotion than the last, totaling eight separate emotional states.

The first picture is a close-up of his smiling eyes and the bridge of his nose. I can even see the tiny hairs and lines on his face that are unrecognizable to the naked eye at a normal distance. This picture is on par with his usual “still life” shots or studies of the extraordinarily-ordinary. Most adults would not want a camera focused so closely on their faces, and it’s equally understandable that a child would not mind. Noting that, it is refreshing and beautiful. He has captured every God-given detail. He’s not mugging. Not hiding. Just himself, like kids are if you take time to know them.

In the next seven shots he ranges from pensive or unsure to delighted, destroyed, hopeful to genuinely happy to bewildered or distraught, until the last shot, where he once again shoots up close, smiling, happy. Everything he needs- to be what he will be – is contained in the tiny frame I hope very much not to underestimate. No person should be summed-up at only a first glance, I have known that for years. But the layers of that truth, itself, are as deep as the heavens of stars.

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“Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.”
Psalm 139:14 (New Living Translation)

 

 
 
 

 

Opening Night…Sort of!

Tech week on Joe’s show, The Crucible at UC Irvine, officially ends tonight with my attendance at the “invited (final) dress” rehearsal. I can’t wait to see the fruits of all his labor! He’s already gotten some great feedback from friends who have seen the rehearsals.

I’m surprised, as this week ends, at how physically and emotionally drained I am (and know Joe is, too). We miss each other, and the kids miss their Daddy. I worked on posts for this blog every night this week, but somehow at the end of the long day, or with the pressures of tech week, or for some other reason, I didn’t like any of them enough to post them as they are. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the extra time alone with the boys. Luke is becoming quite the photographer and a blossoming social butterfly. He took his camera to Trader Joe’s twice to get snapshots of the elusive Peter the Anteater, whose discovery leads to lolipops for the boys. He also took pictures of his favorite employees, who are always happy to see the Kucharski boys roaming the aisles. I found this snapshot he took inside his mouth recently, and thought it seemed somehow appropriate for tonight’s post. Ha ha!

I’ve learned this; being really, really busy drains the creative juices.

And this; writings on a blog don’t always have to be awfully creative and well-edited. It’s a very special night for us, and I am soooo ready to celebrate the opening of a great show and the close of a tough week. Congrats, Joe! I already know I will be so proud and inspired by your absolutely incredible work. You are a formidable talent, darling!

Assigned to Creativity

“You can’t force creativity.” Whether or not you believe in this conventional wisdom, chances are you will have to – force yourself, that is, and repeatedly – to summon inspiration when she is not naturally gracing you with her presence, if you hope to make a living as an artist or writer: Maybe even if you don’t.

Last Monday was Joe’s first day back in class after two weeks’ family vacation in Virginia. My second agenda for Virginia (the first, to have fun, memorable family times of course) was to be inspired by the change of scenery there. Alas, I have been creatively stuck. Again. Joe and I know we’re heading into a couple of crazy weeks with his new classes and tech on his next show opening January 14th.  The Crucible at The University of California, Irvine  So we steal moments to hang out together. After his first day of class, the kids and I rode along as Joe did some last-minute shopping for the show, and I got to participate by searching for a particular type of red blazer. I felt very useful when I found it. Then we headed to an art supply store where Joe shopped from the professor’s list and our boys, predictably, tore up the place for forty-minutes while I tried to channel their creative energies and finally resorted to holding one tightly by the wrist, the other almost over my shoulder while I sort of rocked back and forth, muttering “I can’t take another minute of this!” But I did. Kids have a way of robbing you of your romantic notions. This affects creativity.

Coming home, Joe was excited about the artistic opportunities he will have in one of his new classes. He told me about an upcoming painting exercise with incredibly wide parameters and a single song as the source of inspiration. I don’t paint, but I wanted to do it desperately just then. Earlier I had run across another screenwriter’s blog. He was talking about how he gets twelve-week deadlines whenever he is asked to write a script. Asked. Hmmm. I suddenly, passionately, earnestly wanted someone to give me a creative assignment. A prompt. Tell me what to be creative about, please!

When I taught creative writing, I tried to create prompts that had “bones,” but very generous parameters. I thought this would inspire my students. Some appreciated it and ended up exceeding not just my expectations, but more importantly, their own. Others would approach me, frustrated. This “inspiring” prompt actually inspired crippling fear, and they wanted their teacher to hold their hand and walk them through the valley with assurances that this great unknown force that has a life of its own and can hardly be contained at all by its holder – creative inspiration – could be controlled, if not squashed. Not everyone is a writer, I understand. Nor does everyone choose to nurture their creative side. But for those of us who do, inspiration is a bird we hope will alight on us with some regularity. Can we go searching for that bird? Google says “yes!” The second listing in my “sources of inspiration” search, Sourcesofinspiration.com, listed these categories; people, events, places, music, literature, and visual art. It’s a start. For many of us, it’s the new and unordinary – or extraordinary- that inspires, and we do well to search out new; to us, anyway. Now I’m very disappointed that I can’t afford a trip to Paris, or even Arizona for that matter. My kids and my bank account offer me many excuses for not being creative. But I don’t want excuses, I want that sweet little bird to sit on my shoulder and whisper me an incredible story, poem or scene.

Back home in Virginia, I was not inspired by the scenery this time; a true anomaly. In fact, the day after Christmas I got the flu and was laid out on the couch for four days straight. Gone were my plans to hit the creative reset button via restful rejuvenation and the stimulating spark that only historic sites and new adventures can ignite. In my desperation, I appealed to my first teachers, my parents, for a writing prompt. Tell me what to write! Tell me what genre I do best. Give me an idea. Help me! They indulged, thank God! We reflected a bit on my strengths as a writer. I reminisced about the joy of writing my first screenplay, which was inspired by a very old book I found in an antique store. And then, inspired by my story, my Dad retreated upstairs, returning with yet another very old book; A collection of children’s stories that he loved and knew by heart growing up: passed down by his father who loved them and knew them by heart. I held the delicate piece of family (and American) history in my hands for the first time, marveling at the pages, brittle bits of porcelain paper crumbling from the edges. A child’s drawings on a blank page turned out to be my grandfather’s, whom I could only ever imagine as an old man. Words put together beautifully by a truly great writer leapt from the pages, compelling me to turn another as carefully as my eagerness would allow. A conversation was started and an idea for writing was born.

When Joe first entered grad school a year and a half ago, he was assigned to read The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp. Eager to gain new insights as a creative person, myself, I snagged the book when he wasn’t reading it. Unfortunately, I treated it like I probably do too many books; I skimmed enough pages to determine that I got the gist, appreciated it, even absorbed it – and set it down. It’s probably a much better read than what I took from it; that it is critical for any person who seeks to develop their creative “muscle” to set the clock and make time every day for their craft. A year later, I am finally doing that, and have more hope than I have ever had as a writer. Now that I’ve recovered from the bug, I realize that as incongruous as the ideas seem, creativity and calculation are bedmates, at least for a time.

Educated Out of Creativity?

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Pablo Picasso

Joe and I were first introduced to TED talks almost three years ago, through this very presentation by a fellow educator and creative thinker. It had a profound affect on us then and has sparked many thoughtful conversations between us and with others about the kind of educational experiences we hope to offer our own children. I’ve also had time to reflect on my own years as a public school teacher; both the opportunities I took to spark creativity in my students and the impact of the system as a whole, including my role in it.  Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation is funny and thoughtful; well worth your time to watch him illustrate his contention that “We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it – or rather, we are educated out of it.” As a creative thinker myself, I experienced both moments of profound joy in seeing my students take the risk to be innovative as well as moments of profound frustration when I saw evidence of how the system seems to work against students who are “different” in comparison with the goals and values of the system itself.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, so please feel free to comment.