Time and Enclosure
The creative process is not all bells and whistles and light.
“Time and enclosure"--this is the unofficial mission of the MacDowell Colony for the Arts. Founded in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1907 it is the oldest artist colony in North America drawing 250 residents each year from the United States and abroad. The Colony is a place where artists can go, free of any expectation or obligation, to create and to do their work. It's website, www.macdowellcolony.org notes, "When it began, the Colony was an experiment for which there was no precedent." Almost 100 years later, more than 5,500 artists plus have graced it’s grounds and the impact has been stunning. Works in part or whole written at MacDowell include Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Leonard Bernstein’s Mass to name a few. Why do I tell you this? Because modern business has consistently moved away from creative thought and MacDowell with its rich history of innovative expression has lessons to teach that can be applied by any leader.
Artists at MacDowell (and most in general) know that to look for multiple answers, even when an apparent way through seems obvious. This is in contrast to the tendency today to seek only one answer. The polarization of American thinking has begun to influence our problem-solving strategies, and one has only to watch any of the major news talk shows to see a paucity of creativity. MacDowell artists time and again show us it is in the unexplored possibility that the greatest creative energy and breakthrough resides. In this regard, the continued asking of the questions are as important as any one answer.
MacDowell also responds to the business motto, “Time is money”, instead believing that the pressures of time and speed are usually not conducive for true creativity. If you want innovation, then it requires making sure space and quiet are available. This breathing room engages our creative energies, and makes us more open to possibility. It allows us to see more.
An interesting story is told about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was secretary to the sculptor, Auguste Rodin. At one point he temporarily lost his ability to write. For Rilke this was a disaster of monumental proportions. To Rodin, all it meant was that Rilke had stopped seeing. He suggested that the poet go to the Paris Zoo every day, sit quietly and look at one animal until he saw it. Seventy-two poems later, all about a panther, Rilke could say, as he later said of the painter Paul Cezanne, "Suddenly one has the right eyes.” MacDowell knows that it is from the time taken to disengage that we rejuvenate our creative abilities.
Additionally, nothing helps expansive thinking more than nature. MacDowell sits in rural New Hampshire, on hundreds of wooded acres. The resident artists, many of whom live in fast-paced cities, immerse themselves in the rhythms of this setting, which in turn reflect the larger rhythms of the natural world. These rhythms are not fast paced, but slow to medium, and as such can deepen creative thought and inspiration.
The Colony also knows that great innovation happens in environments in which there is no hierarchy. MacDowell encourages a culture of egalitarianism. Cheryl Young, Executive Director says, "Every artists feels they have an equal voice. At MacDowell emerging artists and master artists are treated the same." For example, an evening reading can be composed of a Pulitzer Prize winning author, a Hollywood screenwriter, an unknown poet and a painter's journal entries for a new concept piece. This is an essential part of the creative process because in a free-flowing artistic environment one never knows where the next great idea will come from. Lack of hierarchy emboldens the possibilities while minimizing the trappings of fame or ego.
Finally, MacDowell teaches us that innovative thought can be enhanced by balancing solo time with time in community. It is not one or the other that produces breakthrough but a combination of the two. At MacDowell, artists often spend their days in solitude, doing their work in individualized studios. However, most of the meals and evenings are a shared communal experience. This creates feedback and insight from a larger, interested community that often informs the next day’s work. I think this is a fascinating notion…that great creativity comes from a balance of individual and community time, and it is in the flow back and forth between solitude and community support that makes for the best innovative environment.
It was well said by the poet Rumi:
The mystery cannot be answered by repeating the question, nor can it be bought by going to amazing places. Only until I have silenced my eyes and stilled my heart. Only then can I cross over from my confusion.