Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

Creativity is a discipline of learning

Creativity is a discipline of learning
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After our wedding, Amea and I decided to visit Prince George for a weekend. We hadn’t been able to spend time with my brother and parents in some time, and I really wanted to take a break with them. I also wanted to see my dog, Torr, one more time. I knew that he was feeling more discomfort and didn’t have much time left. My time that weekend however, was mainly spent addressing storage issues relating to my first years as a painter. This bit of housekeeping lead me to an insight that I hadn’t expected to arrive at that weekend.

The long road to design (or, the back-story)

Like many others, I arrived at design in a round-about way. During art school I found it difficult to choose a practice to focus upon, but eventually gravitated to painting. For some years after art school this remained my focus.

During this time, I came to believe that creating many images would help me gain an understanding of my strengths and weaknesses. As such, I created thousands of drawings, paintings, and experiments over approximately ten years. I still believe in this approach, and find it useful in design efforts as well. Working through a large number of experiments seems to break down the restrictions that set-in when we focus too closely on one piece.

In these first years of concentrating on my painting, finances became a concern. So, to pay for my supplies I took on an evening job at the local newspaper. For the next five years I would spend the day painting, head over to the newspaper’s prepress department for a full-shift, and then return home to paint until two or three in the morning.

There were aspects of this routine that I loved. I enjoyed having a large space to work in, free of any typical limitations. I also found it very enjoyable to spend hours working and listening to music, uninterrupted. With time however, such a consuming schedule started to wear thin.

I was working with a gallery that seemed reluctant to look at my work as anything other than decoration for corporate clients and film sets. On a couple of occasions they asked things like, “We really like this one–could you do it in pink?” Additionally, I started to feel removed from the company of other humans. I often worked on weekends in the evening–a time when the office was typically quite deserted. Time in the studio was equally insular, aside for the company of my dog. (Who I must say was quite excellent.)

I was feeling frustrated, and started to consider the notion of merging my love of making things with the desire to work on projects that allowed interaction with others. It was at that time that the idea for smashLAB began to gestate.


While in Prince George last month, my parents asked me to deal with the many paintings that were stored in their house. These images represented one part of my learning–particularly the years from high school to approximately a year after I completed studies at the Emily Carr Institute. I also house a large number of paintings and drawings in my brother’s basement, not to mention the pieces that are in private collections and art rental programs.

With my parents planning a move however, the former group had to be dealt with. So, after many months of dreading the process, I climbed up to that loft in my Dad’s workshop, peeled away the protective plastic, and started to weed through what felt like an endless collection of paintings.

Sorting through these images left me nostalgic. It was fun to reminisce about the process involved in the work, and it was also nice to be reminded of some of the stronger pieces.

There were however a large number of items I didn’t entirely know what to do with. For example, there were many sketches from foundation drawing classes and the like, as well as some images from my first years in Emily Carr’s painting department. It’s interesting to reflect upon how strongly I felt about some of these pieces, while my instructors felt they were poorly realized. I remember being very defensive about the work at the time. I took the critiques overly personally and emotionally.

Really, really bad

I then chose to burn some of the images. (You may be cringing now and I can understand. If someone told me that they destroyed some of their past work, I likely would too.) The idea of that effort being erased does seem rather displeasing; however, I must stress that the pieces I discarded were bad. I’d go as far as saying that some of them were quite awful.

As I stared at those stacks of images, I kept asking myself what to do with them. Although I suspected that some were saleable, I couldn’t escape the feeling that many were just plain embarrassing. It struck me that I would be happier knowing that they would be forgotten.

Of course, I did hold on to a large number of the pieces that either were personally symbolic, or felt stronger than the rest. My Mom however, seemed quite perplexed by the whole thing, and continued to ask if I was really sure about what I was doing.

I reasoned that the decision made a great deal of sense. The work was not the end-product of the effort; instead, the payback on that effort was the knowledge and command of craft that I had gained through the exploration. I can’t imagine that athletes wax poetic over every sit-up they ever did. Why should some poorly executed drawing be any different?

We love to love our crap

We all fall in love with our own work. I think this has something to do with the idea that all personal expressions of creativity are deemed significant. This is in many respects true; nevertheless, such expressions can still suck.

Most of our parents looked at our first drawings and congratulated us on our efforts. Their encouragement kept many of us going; plus, it probably did seem great to them–their little one was really starting to express him/herself. This however, may have made things more difficult to deal with in time. After all those years of believing that we might be some kind of “creative geniuses”, coming down to earth felt harder.

I think this is what makes a young creative’s career so difficult. After years of loved ones telling us how great we are, some know-nothing Instructor or Creative Director rudely challenges us on the effectiveness of our work. What a horribly rude awakening! Of course, this results in a great number of young creatives shutting-down, as their mentors simply don’t seem to “get it”. I was one of those kids–and not accepting that I didn’t have all of the answers became my Achilles’ heel. Even in the light of all of my commitment and effort, it slowed my growth greatly.

I love music, and as such sing my lungs out when driving around town. At no point however, do I confuse myself with a musician. It’s just fun to sing, and that’s okay; however, once we choose to commit ourselves to practice, this has to change. We have to let go of our egos and seek the guidance of those who can help us learn and grow. As I look back, I think it’s unfortunate that it took me so long to figure out that I didn’t need to be an island.

As I stood in that workshop and looked over all of those bad drawings, clumsy paintings, appropriations of painting styles I admired, and scraps of heavy-metal inspired poetry, I finally accepted how much of it was bad. Surprisingly, with that, I felt a little more content. It wasn’t bad without reason. It had lead to a better understanding of the craft that I practice. It was simply a necessary part of my growth.

Hollywood’s mythology

During art school, I believed that one’s ability to generate good creative was pre-ordained. It seemed something that was determined by fate, and then dependent on passion, personal sacrifice, and seemingly some level of eccentricity. Sure, this sounds silly, but perhaps it has to do with the fact that I was 17–hardly an age known for reasoning or practical thought.

I suppose that I had simply watched too many movies about artists. That one about Basquiat was great–Julian Schnabel mythologized him so poetically. It almost made heroin addiction and inappropriate behaviour seem like the necessary ingredients in a creative person’s life. (I should note that I am quite a fan of Basquiat’s painting, as well as the film; yet, I do feel that I should have been more critical of it than I was back in 1996.)

Additionally there was Nick Nolte’s performance as a tortured painter in Scorsese’s short piece in New York Stories. It had an equally inspiring message: creativity is dependent upon destructive relationships and unhealthy obsession. A few years later we were all treated to perhaps one of the most powerful films made about an artist: Ed Harris’ Pollock. I appreciated that movie as well.

All of these films had a reliance on the idea of the tortured-soul. Although this theme makes for great stories, I have to wonder if these myths really confuse our understanding of what good creative work requires. I now trust more in focus, persistent work, and inquisitiveness over erratic behaviour and passion.

We don’t start out as “creatives”. Few of us have such gifts at birth, and frankly, I’m unsure that creativity is something that is naturally ingrained. I do believe that these stories work well in film, and tie-in to the mythology which Hollywood is so renowned for; however, I’m convinced that good creative comes from training, just like good athletes become so as a result of focused coaching and hard work. Some may have a greater propensity for creative work than others; yet, I tend to believe that this rarity is overemphasized in our culture.

I firmly believe that those who are built to last in this vocation are so because they enjoy the work and the process of learning.

I’m starting to get there (?)

I’ve worked towards being a capable “creative” for about 17 years now. In the past few years, I believe that I have made some of my bigger steps in meeting this goal. It’s a strange vocation however, in which I always feel as though I am catching-up. It always seems like I am just starting to get there. To date I have never felt as though I was competent enough to rest on my laurels.

About a year ago, I acknowledged that much of my design work simply wasn’t good enough. As much as I wanted to believe that I was on par with some of the people I admired, it simply wasn’t the case. This was a liberating sensation. By acknowledging my weaknesses I was free to learn more, push harder, and seek growth more honestly. In design you are never good enough. In fact, I feel that when we start to believe that we have sorted things out, we may simply be out-of-touch with our practice.

I suppose that is what attracts me to this kind of work. There’s always a new challenge, or a new problem to solve. That really helps to cut the amount of boredom which can arise in jobs where one becomes more of a “box-filler”. Design continues to challenge, and forces us to solve new problems. I think that’s a really healthy characteristic of this particular career.

Most recently I have found myself asking if this vocation can move further, and lead us to create good in our world and communities. Can we do things beyond helping companies communicate? Is it possible to make lasting change through our efforts? I’m still unsure of how to answer those questions, but they are leading me to a whole new set of challenges, and that’s quite exhilarating.

A learning studio

We’ve tried to bring some of the same thoughts regarding learning to our studio as a whole. This of course comes with its challenges. Most would rather be content with where they are at, than being forced to struggle and grow every day; yet, we continue to push our designers, and ourselves, to go further.

In the past year, we’ve had some real struggles. My business partner and I are just starting to learn to how to manage staff, and adapt to growth; likewise, our staff have all experienced taxing days and faced new challenges here. I believe that with each year that we struggle to learn and improve; we become more powerful designers and subsequently a stronger company. I’m quite proud of both Peter and Javier, who have recently worked through some of these challenges and come out at the other side with some powerful design solutions.

I like to think of smashLAB as an environment of learning. I often worry that this makes our studio difficult for new staff; however, it does serve as an excellent way of weeding out those who aren’t committed to growth. The first year that a new employee spends at our studio generally results in as much struggle as growth. On occasion, this seems daunting, as it reminds me of the feelings I had when I was first really challenged in my foundation year at art school.

It is often tough, but I make no apologies, and can no longer imagine working any differently. Learning is what we do. If we stop, we will be a dead company.


Two weeks ago, I revised the website that documents some of my paintings. As I look over the site, I sometimes see things I’d like to change; on other occasions, I am just tempted to start painting again. If you are curious, please feel free to take a look. (I’ve tried to limit the images on it to some of the better ones.)

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