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Only Human

30 Jun 2014

Last night, as I began teaching another painting workshop, I wondered again what motivates people to put up hard earned cash and move their bodies across town (sometimes across the country) to take a painting workshop. For the most part, these are not aspiring professionals wanting to hone their skills, but folks with careers in other lines of work. I used to think that painting was just a hobby for them and a group class was a safe bet for some entertainment and relaxation. Now I'm not so sure. I have given it some thought and I believe that there is a deeper, more fundamental motivation that drives us to want to learn how to paint.

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains by Winslow Homer, 1868.
Artists Sketching in the White Mountains by Winslow Homer, 1868.

We have written before about creativity and the new scientific studies investigating the human impulse to create. It is a fascinating subject precisely because it isn't well understood, and because in some ways artistic creativity has no practical advantage (that we can see) for our immediate survival. For instance, it takes time and resources to make an object such as an essential tool. To then devote additional time to decorate that tool instead of using it immediately for hunting or preparing food, doesn't make much sense when food is the priority. In a tribal context, everyone must contribute to the welfare of the whole for the tribe to prosper. So why do we find elaborate and extensive cave paintings made by Neolithic hunters from 40,000 years ago? These tribes would have had to support those early artists - feed them - while they worked perhaps hundreds of hours to make these large, extensive paintings. Recently, archaeologists have found carved and decorated tools made by our primitive ancestors which are over 300,000 years old. The impulse to express something from within seems to be a very ancient need.

When I think about what motivates my students to be present, I now believe that it is related to that ancient need to create, apart from the other activities in their lives. There is something essential in the act of creation, or in simply learning to create, that answers this need. I can teach them all sorts of useful and necessary techniques which are helpful in the long run. But in the moment, which is all we really have, I try to keep in mind that if I fail to connect to the real reason they are present, then I probably have failed to connect with them at the most universal, fundamental level. It is love of creation that brings us together at these moments, and in that, we are all one big tribe.

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--John and Ann

 


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