IN A CREATIVE PROCESS
In my Masters thesis for an Art Therapy degree, I asked artists of every sort - painters, potters, photographers, even a poet - to describe the highly personal experience that artists often describe as "an immediate and felt sense of freedom" that comes from immersion in their art forms.
The article printed below is a synopsis of my research. It will review and analyze five stages of the immersion experience and draws references from interviews, psychology, philosophy, and poetry.
My hope is that artists will find affirmation for the values of immersion in their work that are often difficult to describe to people unfamiliar with the artistic process.
*To view a 25 minute video of this Paper illustrated with Pottery, click on this YouTube link:
THE CENTRALITY OF
FREEDOM AND PLEASURE
IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS
There are two kinds of subjects which a society discusses very little: those things it cherishes and those that it cannot understand. Art seems to fall under both of these categories. Ask any artist why he or she goes through the discipline, aloneness, sacrifices and often frustration of creating art, and the answer, accompanied by a look of incredulity, may well be something like: “because I like doing it” or “because it gives me pleasure”.
When questioned further, artists have also said that their work sets them free. “Freedom” is sometimes described as the condition of being without constraints. But beyond conceptual freedom there is a kind of freedom that can actually be felt. In fact, the feelings of freedom and happiness that artists feel while immersed in the creative process are the central reason they keep going back to their studios.
Artists frequently emerge from their studios after hours of focused work feeling more centered, happier and lighter. The feeling is sometimes described as a distinct and immediate sense of liberation. It has colloquially been labeled a “rush,” a “high” or perhaps a “flow” experience. Whatever the designation, creative people know that their work changes and uplifts their consciousness, at least for a brief period of time, and they know that the experience is pleasurable.
Beyond the simple acknowledgment of pleasure, however, there tends to be a void of understanding either of freedom or the sense of pleasure that artists and other creative people derive from immersion in a creative process. Precisely because there are few words that adequately describe the highly personal and individual feelings of freedom and pleasure endemic to the creative process, these feelings are often trivialized by society and even by artists themselves.
In my work as an art therapist, a potter and a teacher, I have conducted over a decade of research into the very nature of pleasure and freedom during immersion in a creative process. I once asked a group of eleven artists from different disciplines – pottery, painting, photography, music, writing, poetry, and sculpture – to respond in detail to this question: “What is your experience of freedom while being immersed in a creative process?” Their responses, while by no means exhaustive or conclusive, are interesting and revealing. A deeper examination of the psychological components of the art process reveals patterns that may shed light on the nature of art itself.
Creative immersion can be seen as having five stages, each following the other consecutively.
Phase 1 – “The Urge to Create”
In the first phase, artists described personal feelings preceding the creative experience. Nearly half of the respondents described a drive or urge that compelled them to go to their studios.
Artists sometimes described escaping conflict in their outer lives. A painter said; “one night, too upset to sleep, I went to my studio to find some peace.” Robert Grudin, author of The Grace of Great Things, described this process as using “conflict-filled passion to make sense out of a crisis-ridden life.”
Sometimes artists described visionary drive or the need to satisfy some inner restlessness. Art therapist Shaun McNiff, author of Art as Medicine, wrote: “artists often need gnawing and goading demons to stir emotions and provoke primal expression.” Potter M.C. Richards, author of Centering, said: “there lives a creative being inside of all of us, and we must get out of its way for it will give us no peace unless we do.”
These expressions corroborate the findings of Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, said succinctly that “creativity is a hunger”. Eugene Gendlin, author of Focusing, described the artist’s search for expression as follows: “you may be troubled by the failed sense of some unresolved situation. Notice that you don’t have factual data. You have an inner aura, an internal taste. At some moments the felt sense of what it is gets so vague that it almost disappears but at other moments it comes in so strongly that you feel almost new.”
Phase 2 –“The Nesting Phase”
Artists often noted a period of cleaning and arranging their workspaces. Many artists go into a “nesting” process, conducting routine chores such as cleaning tools, wedging clay, sweeping the floor and other seemingly mundane tasks. They frequently described with great feeling the sacredness of their workspaces.
Our creative self is restless, and the urge to prepare one’s space may be quietly compelling. McNiff noted: “we do not have to be psychotic in order to create from the soul, but the depth of an art work corresponds to the psychic environment in which it is created.”
Aloneness and vulnerability are key ingredients in preparation for the creative journey. American painter Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit, wrote: “you have gone into isolation to find yourself. If you go through this winter, you will come out strong!”
Phase 3 – “Creative Immersion”
Entering the immersion stage is a distinct shift from the nesting phase. The artist begins to create and find a rhythm. The work itself may take on a sense of “otherness”, and the artist may actually be surprised and entranced to be participating in this process. As if a doorway were suddenly opened, a painter exclaimed: “then forms took place, out of chaos, and a dreamy serene landscape just emerged.” Another artist said: “I often cannot remember how I ‘did’ it.”
Carl Jung named this process “imaginal dialogue”, during which images or shapes come to mind. He said that success in allowing this process to occur was dependent on a “deliberate weakening of the mind and its inhibition effect.”
The immersion stage is where the artist transforms emotional energy into art. The degree of letting go varies by artist and circumstances. An artist may struggle with his or her hands and mind to create art that has what McNiff called “psychic authenticity”. This is the creation of art from outside of oneself. Such “pure” art may not be entirely possible but attainable only in small degrees, and the aloneness of the experience can either exacerbate or facilitate the letting go.
Deep immersion can be physically and emotionally demanding, and intuition is always the best guide. Artists frequently described time during this phase both as a “speeding up” or “standing still.” One artist said: “I like not knowing the time! It is relaxing and easy. My mind is not racing but flowing.”
Phase 4 – “Freedom as a Felt Sense”
This is the point where the art process seems to undergo another transformation. Artists recognize this shift. A potter said: “there comes a point in working when everything starts to click. My hands and the clay begin to cooperate instead of locking horns.”
Freedom is the unintentional side-effect of dedication to a process larger than oneself. The key to the experience of freedom is that it is an end in itself, but it cannot be pursued. It must ensue. Freedom as a felt sense is not an automatic by-product of immersion. Like a sought-after spiritual experience, it can elude the artist who seeks it directly.
It is at this point that the art activity which has consumed us can become intrinsically rewarding. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, calls an “autotelic experience” or a self-goal. Most activities, he says, are “exotelic” or performed for external reasons and lack the quality of intrinsic reward.
Completion of the art process can bring a sense of transcendence. A poet in my study wrote: “when I am absorbed, I feel free from the connections to physical life.” A painter noted simply: “the space I was in was very liberating.” A writer said: “at this point I got lost in my work. It is the feeling that I associate with freedom. It is not a lonely, aimless lost but a very productive wandering through my mind.”
A potter gave this poetic description of her experience: “the inside of me opened up like a lily and everything just escaped. It flowed out through my eyes and my toes and my cheekbones. My eyes felt cold like fresh air. It felt good, like after you cry.” A painter wrote: “creating is a choice I make, and it makes life worth living. Most important, it gives me joy.”
Freedom invariably feels good. Gendlin wrote: “it feels good to have something come directly from one’s felt sense. It shifts the feelings, releases the body slightly. It gives one a sense of process, free from stuck places.”
Phase 5 – “The Return to Linear Life”
The final phase of the immersion process is the “coming back” or return to the everyday. This is where the ego resumes its control over thought processes. Time once again becomes a linear progression of minutes, hours and days. The aura of creative excitement yields to the ordinary nature of one’s familiar world as the “Muse” slowly departs.
This process can result in a kind of bitter-sweet melancholy, akin to a post-partum reaction. One artist described an experience of abrupt interruption of her immersion process. She said: “I can remember when my little children came into the studio and asked me questions when I was at work. It was with difficulty that I slowly switched back to the verbal to answer them.” Another artist described the need to consciously re-call her normal mental processes. She noted: “I must now call back what I describe as my logical side.”
In the “return” stage, one’s personality can seem fragile, broken or simply worn out. The artist may be somewhat edgy as if pulled in two directions. The experience of freedom usually abates and much of the newfound joy can go with it.
But there can also be sustained positive feelings. One artist said: “when I come away from this type of experience, I feel very calm and satisfied, deeply relaxed.” Another said: “the creative process heals me of stress and my clacking brain shuts up for a while as if I’m in a good meditation.”
Sometimes the experience of freedom can be re-stimulated just by recalling the feelings. Robert Henri wrote: “it is the nature of all people to have these experiences; but in our time and under the conditions of our lives, it is only a rare few who are able to continue in the experiences and find expression for them.”
Once experienced, however, artists long to return to the freedom felt during creative immersion. The feelings are powerful and memorable. Fortunately, “recovery” from creative immersion is never total. Each experience touches one’s inner core, and the urge to return is fueled by the bodily memory of good feelings.
Art may be one of society’s few condoned arenas for directly exploring our innate spiritual roots. Consider pottery for example. The studio is the potter’s sacred realm; the pots are the tangible evidence of the transpersonal journey.
The question might be asked: “if the clay and the studio await our presence, why do we sometimes hesitate and procrastinate in going there? Why do we sometimes experience creative lapses or “blocks”? The answer seems to lie with our ego’s tenacious hold on our thought processes.
Our egos hate to relinquish control. One of the ego’s two primary roles is to insure psychological survival of the individual by protecting his or her worldview. The immersion process itself can seem to the ego to threaten the status quo of ordinary linear thinking, and it may try to protect against too rapid expansion by providing excuses not to do the very work that provides our growth. Ironically, however, it actually takes ego strength to let go to our own deeper unconscious resources.
The second role of the ego is to insure growth and adaptation that attend our long-term survival. The resulting structural tension between “grow’ and “don’t grow” can be like driving with one foot on the gas and another on the brake. At such times one’s higher consciousness or informed intuition can be invoked to mediate the conflict.
It may seem odd, but an artist might actually mentally ask his or her ego to relax its inhibitory role to permit the immersion process to yield its fruits. The individual is the navigator, and artists with healthy egos have had plenty of practice slipping into imaginal reality with the assurance of safe return. We’ve done it time and time again, and there is plenty of basis for the ego to trust that the artist’s command “Open Sesame!” will not lead to disaster. Indeed, psychologist Milton Erickson constantly urged his clients to “trust the unconscious” as an ally which never brings harm, only good. As German philosopher and poet Frederick Nietzsche (1872) said: “Here, when the danger to man’s ego is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing.”
The artist, like everyone else, is pushed and pulled by desires. Unlike most people, the artist uses these desires as art elements. Then he or she synthesizes these elements into a style, and the practice of this style provides a sense of freedom.
Psychologist Rollo May, author of The Courage to Create, noted that what makes creative immersion a courageous act is precisely its spiritual nature. By approaching truth through creative expression, he said, the artist enters an “active battle with the gods (of conventional wisdom)”. The artist, in his or her efforts to relieve the pressures of indwelling creative urges, unleashes the healing power of the deep feminine onto the outwardly unreceptive social fabric. The result is growth and freedom, both for the artist and for society.
The immersion experience has been described as numinous or spiritually elevated. It has been acknowledged as deeply pleasurable, often ecstatic, and among artists there is widespread recognition that immersion in a creative process is salving in a soulful manner unlike most other daily pursuits.
Think about it, outside of the societally condoned practice of sexual release, we lack a tradition of ecstasy in our culture, and even sexuality has become culturally prescribed and distorted through mass marketing. The creation of art offers a rare and safe opportunity to achieve an elevated state of awareness.
Creativity is not an easy process, and the feelings of freedom and happiness are by no means easily replicated. Robert Henri said: “The pursuit of happiness is a great activity. One must be open and alive. It is the greatest feat man has to accomplish, and spirits must flow. It takes wit and intelligence and energy to be happy.”
Artists, poets and other creative people may represent a collective bridge between the day-to-day world and the vast untapped realm of the unconscious mind, the source of new ideas and tomorrow’s visions. But precisely because the immersion process takes artists into non-ordinary realms of consciousness, these experiences don’t translate readily to those who are unfamiliar with the creative journey.
M.C. Richards noted that the path to artistic freedom requires surrender of normal awake consciousness to experience one’s deeper essence. Freedom, she said, is a state of being in which one’s relatedness to life is unobstructed.
Potter and dancer Paulus Berensohn, author of Finding One’s Way in Clay, claimed: “the freedom I seek is not one that lets me do what I want to do but rather a freedom that equips me to do what I need to do.” Freedom in this instance is at the very core of self-expression.
How does an artist prepare for the journey of self-expression? Perhaps the answer is to simply leave everyday concerns at the door to one’s studio. Zenmaster Shunryn Suzuki wrote that only the empty mind is free of the ego’s tendency to hold onto its version of reality, blocking newness and spontaneity.
Poet Robert Frost claimed creativity to be a heroic process, demanding complete and blind immersion into the experience of physical life. The fruits of creative immersion, according to Frost, relate to the soul’s journey and, as such, are beyond human understanding.
Even if creativity and the soul’s journey are indeed beyond human understanding, perhaps we should still strive to understand our internal landscapes if only to heighten our respect and appreciation of the creative abilities we possess. By the law of attraction, what we put our attention to grows. By focusing on freedom and happiness, we direct our creative unconscious to expand in these directions.
Remember, however, that this discussion is about an internal process the artist undergoes; it is not about turning art into a mind game. Our focus is the art we create. Writer D. H. Lawrence cautioned against over-analyzing and losing what he called “pure relations” when one’s relationship to the art ceased to be direct. As Carl Jung also noted, during analysis of a phenomenon, “the bird has flown.”
The creative process can be a difficult journey, yet the artist’s drive to create is fueled by “pushes”, such as creative tension, and “pulls,” such as the hunger for freedom.
To achieve freedom, the artist must persevere beyond thinking into deep body sensing to tap the mysterious power of the unconscious. Under these conditions intuition replaces thinking, and even linear time tends to fall away.
Freedom is the great reward of immersion in a creative process. It is illusive yet real. It is neither a predictable nor readily describable. Its roots lie beyond the mental, perhaps in the transcendent realm, although it impacts both the emotional and physical body.
The attainment of freedom through creative immersion may be difficult, because it requires surrender of the mind’s iron-fisted control over thought processes. But the letting go is not without its rewards.
D. H. Lawrence said: “You’ve got to lapse out before you can know what sensual reality is, lapsing into unknowingness and giving up your volition. You’ve got to learn not to be before you can come into being.”
Rollo May poses an absolutely intriguing question: “What if imagination and art are not the frosting at all, but the very fountainhead of human experience?”
Creativity is its own reward. Freedom and happiness are gifts from the Muse sometimes given for diligence and surrender to inner callings. Yet we are not entirely alone in our pursuit of freedom. McNiff writes: “we artists support emergent expression, whose destiny is to appear and die, and to forever repeat this cycle. This is the point of it all – to do it again!” And again and again.
© 2007 by James G. Young
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
“FREEDOM DURING IMMERSION IN A CREATIVE PROCESS”
Crystal Bridges Museum
Professional Development Workshop
September 22, 2018
Presented by Jim Young
The artist’s drive to create is fueled both by “pushes,” such as creative tension and desire to escape conflict, and by “pulls,” such as visionary drive and the hunger for freedom. The creative process is a difficult journey. It frustrates the mind, rewards vulnerability and demands aloneness. The artist must persevere beyond thinking into deep body sensing to shed the bonds of normal awake consciousness and tap the mysterious power of the unconscious. Creative immersion requires release of the absolute control of the mind. It draws on unconscious and emotional reserves. Intuition then replaces thinking, and even linear time falls away.
Freedom is the great reward of creativity. Illusive freedom is a deep, abiding feeling of release that can be experienced as a result of creative immersion. It is neither predictable, however, nor even readily describable. It’s roots lie beyond the mental, perhaps in the transcendent realm, and it impacts the emotional and physical bodies as well.
The mystical or spiritual nature of art and the experience of creative immersion can best be expressed poetically or metaphorically. Grudin (1990) says: “human creativity may be seen as the ultimate extension of liberty. Creativity drives the evolving external context and remakes its world.” Henri (1923) claims: “All manifestations of art are but landmarks in the process of the human spirit toward a things but as yet sensed and far from being processed.” The spiritual gains lie beyond thought, as is expressed in James Elroy Flecker’s poem:
Awake, awake, the world is young
For all its weary years of thought
The Starkest fights must still be fought
The most surprising songs by sung.
The attainment of freedom through creative immersion is difficult, because it requires surrender of the mind’s control over thought processes, and it places corresponding demands on the precious psychic energy of the artist. The letting go is not without its rewards. “You’ve got to lapse out before you can know what sensual reality is, lapse into unknowingness and give up your volition. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to learn not-to-be before you can come into being” (D.H. Lawrence, 1950).
What keeps artists striving for breakthrough and discovery in their art is the peace, joy and relaxation that are often obtained during creative immersion. Perhaps one artist in the research project most succinctly depicted the drive to create as follows: “it is a choice we make, and it makes life worth living.”
Implications of Freedom
In my research the co-researchers were artists. The implications of one’s ability to experience freedom during creative immersion, however, has a much larger potential context than the arts. Freedom, not as a concept but as a felt sense, can be the result of life experiences that are entered into deeply, with abandon and in the spirit that transcends one’s personality.
Freedom is the reward of action informed by passion. It can come from artistic immersion, sexual immersion, physical immersion or any authentic surrendering of one’s individuality to deep passion.
Our society tends to value freedom as a concept. What would be the result of great numbers of people discovering personal freedom as a felt sense in their daily pursuits? Artists know that peace and joy are derivatives of creative immersion. What if there were a broad revival of the folk arts in which masses of people experienced deep and abiding peace with themselves? Would it not change our society?
It is the hypothesis of this researcher that freedom is our natural, indwelling heritage. Just as creative immersion in art demands sacrifices of aspect of our personality-based lives to plumb the reservoir of the unconscious, so it is in everyday life. Only when we are willing to find balance between our conscious and unconscious selves will we gain a true sense of freedom. Freedom it its own goal, and perhaps only those who know freedom as a felt sense can truly champion freedom for others.
May (1975) poses an interesting question: “What if imagination and art are not the frosting at all, but the fountainhead of human experience?” What if the experience of freedom during creative immersion were a taste of our spiritual source that inspires us onward to discover who we truly are? Cameron (1992) acknowledges that the artist uses his lifetime “to find his original face, to awaken his own voice, beyond all learning, habit and thought: to tap life at its source.”
Creative freedom can be a communal experience that grows if it is shared (Grudin, 1990). This is what NcNiff (1992) implies in his description of art as medicine: “it is art’s desire to connect psyche, the dream, the suffering soul, and the daily lives of other people.”
Fundamentally, creative immersion is a solo experience that challenges the individual artist to temporarily leave his social setting and enter into direct discourse with paint, canvas, clay, metal and the myriad of images that come to his mind or emerge in the art itself. The rewards are intrinsic in the art process itself, and rare moments of freedom are the occasional by-products of the solitary pursuit of something felt but never fully known. The work can be frustrating precisely because we “lack words to ask for a nameless grace” (Leonard, 1972) to transform our condition of constant discontent and dis-ease.
It is helpful for the artist in his aloneness to take comfort in knowing that his efforts are not merely egotistical wanderings. It may, indeed, involve the making of soul. Whatever grows soul enhances life for the artist and all who interact with him. MCNiff (1992) regards this as a noble act by the artist who becomes a “psychological servant” of the community.
When artists come together to practice their art, McNiff says, they are forming little societies in which art is returned to “the ultimate tribe with its shared rituals and beliefs.” In this age of soul-less communities, corporations and shallow individual relationships, the return of intimacy through authentic practice of personal (folk) art would be welcomed indeed.