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On Geniuses and Creativity

This Journal entry was prompted by an e-mail from my friend, the talented artist Michael Kaluta. We briefly traded humorous reflections on the disadvantages of aging and what was going on with our work and then I suddenly got all serious about it all, especially in regards to the creative process. What follows is an edited version of what I just sent Michael.

The whole Process of creating art is a never ending mystery. I’m finding now that the more playful I get with it, the more “fun” it is, the more access I have to my creativity.

Like last month: I had done a very slick oil portrait of blues great Robert Johnson. It was based on a smaller ink & watercolor portrait I had done a year and a half ago. I had a looming deadline for my California Art Club Gold Medal Exhibition entry and knew I could knock the oil version out in time. Even though it was better drawn the second time around, the slick oil version did not rise to the quality and feeling of the original version. I knew this but didn’t know why — or how I could fix it.

I was moving a bunch of work in my van. The Johnson oil portrait was on top of a stack of framed pieces. I had to hit the brakes at a light and everything slid forward. Framed works fell on top of the unframed Johnson portrait, putting a small gash through the unprotected canvas.

I was sick (and at that time, momentarily broke, too). I called around and found a reasonably priced (but still expensive) archival painting restorer. I took the painting over to her and left it with her. She said she could get to mending it in two weeks. Fine.

During the following week I began to think about the painting and what bothered me about it (primarily, its slickness). I went back to the restorer and retrieved the picture before she could repair it. Then I beat the hell out of the painting; more rips, more tears. Then I coated one of my tires with black oil paint and drove over the lower left portion of the canvas, leaving a nice tire tread on the picture.

The result was a treatment and surface condition much more befitting and reflective of this hard scrabble bluesman. The damage wasn’t the problem — it was the solution to my problem. Take a minus and make it a plus.

My good friend Overton Loyd and I were discussing this. He and I are at the age in our lives, our career and the level of success in our career when it is time to play. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are still some dues to pay — there always will be, I assume (Sir Doug Sahm said it well in his great song title: “You Never Get So Big and You Sure Don’t Get So Heavy That You Don’t have to Keep Paying Some Dues Sometimes”).

Overton had already determined that our playfulness now will be the key that continues to unlock the doors of creativity for us.

I rarely use the word “genius” to describe people, mainly because I’ve been lucky enough to have met and worked with two real ones. A true genius is a person rarely encountered; it is a humbling (yet, for me, a truly inspiring) experience. The aforementioned two geniuses I befriended and worked with are Ron Cobb and Jean (Moebius) Giraud. They share some things in common. They are both like fountains that gush great ideas all day long. They are both very childlike (not childish) in their delight with the world. They don’t prejudge. By not prejudging anything their creative flow is completely unblocked.

I initially observed this connection to creativity on my maiden trip to Antarctica (I first went there as a tourist in 1989). Also on board our cruise ship was the talented Atlantic Monthly cartoonist Guy Billout. Guy was constantly drawing (which was great; it shamed me into producing more work). In our conversations Guy delicately confronted me with my prejudices towards some of the other guests on board. It was a deeply needed observation and wake-up call on my part and I’ve strived ever since not to prejudge. I’ve found that attitude extremely helpful in unlocking my creativity. The more you play without preconceived notions, the more you leap off the edge, leaving your fears and preconditioned anxieties behind, the more you discover new and uncharted artistic realms and territories.

Coincidentally (or not), it makes the creation of art more fun and exciting….and in some ways easier (we can all use easier).

That’s pretty much what I sent to Michael. I thought it was well worth sharing with you guys, too.

4 thoughts on “On Geniuses and Creativity

  1. This was timely for me.
    It seems I’ve made a point of focusing my eyes elsewhere while the obvious smacked the back of my head so much I grew used to it. I appreciate the turn around.


  2. Bill;
    One is only sure of what is supposed to be, that is, what occurs, not what doesn’t, i.e., the road not traveled, because we can never know what that is, it is not allowed to us. We can only delineate what happens and it is always for a reason, everything is for a reason as our lives move forward. It is great that in your later years you are allowed to be child-like, and sometimes to return from whence you started, to visit it again. It always happens for a reason, we just don’t always know what the reason is.

  3. Hi William, I’m writing from Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. We have a very popular beer that we release every year called the Lake Erie Monster and are looking for a permanent label for it. I came across the logo you did for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists who held their 2008 conference in Cleveland; we know that Dunkleosteus is a popular fossil in these parts and thought he would make a great “Lake Erie Monster”. We were wondering if there’d be a way to work together with you on modifying that logo for our beer label. This beer is only released in our pub and about 1000 bottles are hand-bottled and hand-labeled; if it continues to grow in popularity, it might become a seasonal bottle for us.

    Since it’s only a pub exclusive at this point, we’re not looking to spend tons of money on the label; but, because the Lake Erie Monster is famous, we want to give the beer a permanent look and feel. I hope you’re the one I need to be talking to about this! Please let me know your thoughts. I’ve attached some of our other labels to give you an idea of the look and feel of our brand. Look forward to hearing from you soon. Thanks!

    P.S. I emailed you on 3.13 and tried emailing again today, but it bounced back to me. Look forward to hearing from you.


    Kami Dolney
    Marketing Communications Manager
    Great Lakes Brewing Company
    2516 Market Avenue
    Cleveland, Ohio 44113


  4. I’m glad I read this. I had come to loath drawing (possibly because of the freelance assignments I’d been given over the years) and oddly, it may be because I’ve misplaced the childlike wonder that made it magical. After reading this I’m going to just draw for the sake of drawing and damn the torpedoes. I want to have fun and fall in love again with those lines on the paper. Thanks for sharing this with us. It makes a difference

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