Inspirational Voyeurism

Spark How Creativity Works

A first year teacher joined our grade level team after the winter break, and she cuts her teeth creatively with songs, puppet shows and skits. Despite a small faction’s daily efforts to sabotage her lessons, most of the students respond well, in large part, thanks to her creative energy.

In the foreword of Spark: How Creativity Works, Kurt Anderson explains Daniel Boorstin’s concept of “The Amateur Spirit,” applied by a novice teacher in the classroom next door. “It is the curious, excited, slightly reckless passion of the amateur that we need to nurture in our professional lives, especially if we aspire to creativity in the work we do.” Julie Burstein, the author of Spark, offers readers a glimpse into the minds of renowned contemporary artists maintaining that curious and reckless passion.

The creator of NPR’s award-winning program, Studio 360, keeps a finger on the pulse of the creative world, thanks to over a decade’s worth of interviews. Spark delivers a sampling of “some of the most creative and interesting people on earth,” culled from “more than a thousand conversations.”

The thematic universality of chapters such as “Going Home,” “Mothers and Fathers,” and “Getting to Work,” offer some common ground for readers outside the art world. The book opens with a chapter titled “Engaging Adversity,” a familiar exercise for any educator.

Painter and photographer Chuck Close shares a harrowing story of overcoming a learning disability through art. The subject for Close’s large-scale paintings is a result of prosopagnosia, or face blindness. In his own words, “I don’t know who anyone is and I have essentially no memory at all for people in real space, but when I flatten them out in a photograph, I can commit that image to memory in a way; I have almost a kind of photographic memory for flat stuff.” Close goes on to describe his ethos, inspiration and process, which unfold into an exemplar of inspiration overshadowing a tale of tragedy.

Another reason for Spark’s accessibility is its aesthetic diversity. Open to the table of contents, and a handful of familiar names pop off the pages, including Yo-Yo Ma, John Irving, Allison Krauss and Robert Plant. But it isn’t the well-known icons’ stories I find the most captivating. Instead, I stop to jot down the names of unknown artists and works I suddenly identify with in some curious way.

Take the fusion of science and art, by landscape architect Julie Bargmann. She revitalizes industrial sites such as the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, through a process called “phytoremediation,” when plants “stabilize or extract contaminants from the soil.” To Bargmann, her craft is so much more than land sculpture. “I think public artists, environmental artists, have recognized that in using the landscape as a medium, it’s not just a medium. It’s not just the material. It’s a social context. It’s political context. It’s complex context.” I recently visited the ruins of a derelict paper mill in my hometown, and where I once saw the horrors of industrial contamination, Julie Bargmann’s ethos now brings hope for revitalization and for the future of similar locations.

Chuck Close and Julie Bargmann are the first on a list of creative souls I plan to research further over spring break. I also hope to find video of choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s (literally) bone-breaking performances of people flying and crashing, and images of disappearing America by photographer David Plowden.

Landscape architect Julie Bargmann teaches at the University of Virginia, and says, “I teach because I like to think there’s gonna be an army coming, and they’re going to be able to build some pretty amazing things.” From a fellow educator’s perspective, reading about the incredible feats of expression detailed in the pages of Burstein’s debut book reinforces a belief in exposing children to the widest possible range of creative outlets, in hope of finding the spark that ignites their lifelong passions.

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