Approach Things In Many Ways

Triple Goddess, Aneth, Utah, 1996

This image was born out of synergy. It took multiple media to resolve this image and each one contributed something unique to the final result.
During a brainstorming session I used word associations to search for new possibilities. Only a few word pairs and phrases stood out of the hundreds that were generated, only some of which seemed related, including ‘floating stone’. What was it that made that pair stand out from all the others? Perhaps it was the reversal of expectations it contained, stones don’t float they sink. Perhaps it was something else, something less easily explained and more personal.
I slept on it. Shortly after midnight, I woke up in the middle of a dream of a floating stone. Dreams are rich sources of insight, which is why I make sure to always have something close at hand to record them. I quickly sketched the image. Why a sketch? I had already written the words down. In this case, an image would be more specific. And I went back to sleep. In the morning, when I woke up again, I saw the sketch at my bedside. It helped me remember the image in my dreams. I sketched many variations of the image, generating many possible compositions of the same subject and even found a few new ideas along the way.
That day, I went to my photographic archive and searched for the best material to bring this image to light. Along the way, the photographs I sifted through stimulated many new related ideas, which I also sketched. In the end I decided to use a stone that was much smoother, a sky that was more complicated, and hills that were smoother than the ones in my dreams. Even as I was compositing the three images into one, something new ideas emerged when I decided to make the mounds symmetrical. Influenced by everything that I had experienced between discovering the seed of the idea and its final resolution, the image had grown richer and evolved. Discovery can happen at each and every point in the creative process.
When engaging in creative challenges, if you approach things in multiple ways you’re sure to find a shift in perspective. Whether we’re looking for new ideas, solving problems, or seeking feedback about what we have produced, we often enlist many people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences who each have something different to contribute to our understanding. You can do this for yourself, by trying different things that will bring you a variety of experiences and new perspectives. Doing this is part of being well-rounded, well-informed, and thorough. You never know what you’ll discover, until you try it.
How many ways can you approach researching a challenge?
How many ways can you approach solving a challenge?
What unique contribution does each approach make to your understanding?
What unique contribution does each approach make to the final result?
Which is the best mode to start with?
Which is the best mode to end with?
What mode is best for a given stage of development in a creative challenge?
Is there an optimal order for mode shifts?
How long is it best to stay in one mode before moving to another?
When is it better to stay in one mode?
When is it better to move to another mode?
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Make Your Inner Critic An Ally

Enchambered, 1996, Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

The symmetry is marvelous, but it would be even better if it was rotated a few degrees. The color is rich, but it could be a little more saturated – not too saturated. The shadows are a touch too dark; they need more detail. The space in the center is too empty. What should go in it? A stone? It blocks the entrance. A bone? It brings unwanted associations of death. A tooth? Don’t give Freud the pleasure. How about something non-material like light? That’s it. But a little irregular. Now the environment needs to reflect the new light source. How light should the surrounding walls become? A little lighter, no that’s too light. And lighten only the central arch so that the source of light appears to be in not in front of the canyon walls. That’s it. Are you sure? I’m sure. Are you really sure? That’s enough. So it went, my dialog with my inner critic as I made this image – Enchambered. My inner critic would have been either maddening or demoralizing if I hadn’t come to trust it so much over the years.
Your inner critic can be a terrible adversary or a powerful ally. Which one it becomes depends on how you relate to and use it. Like any animal, proper care and feeding can work wonders while neglect and abuse can produce monstrous results.
The inner critic’s powers of analysis and forethought are truly exceptional. It’s a protective mechanism. Its job is to help you avoid potential dangers. It’s excellent at identifying weaknesses or shortcomings that if left uncorrected and allowed to continue unchecked may have adverse affects. It can quickly identify potential areas for improvement. It can provide all sorts of extremely valuable feedback.
But, the inner critic has its limitations. The inner critic speaks from a point of fear. It motivates with fear too. It’s a pessimist. It’s often accurate, but never infallible. Because of this, it isn’t good at being supportive, but instead may create doubt and insecurity. Its criticism may not be constructive, if its feedback isn’t placed in a useful context. If it goes too far astray, its affects can produce negative results and even lead to paralysis.
So how can you turn this powerful voice from enemy into ally? It’s all in your attitude. First consider the inner critic a trusted ally – one with limitations. Call on it whenever you need a good dose of tough love. Give it free reign to speak candidly and fully, for a limited time only. Weigh everything it offers appropriately; remember it’s wearing the opposite of rose colored glasses. Whenever you hear the voice of the inner critic unbeckoned, ask if what it has to offer is helpful. If it is, use its feedback to improve your results. If it’s not, calmly acknowledge it. Tell it you value it as an ally both in the past and in the future, and clearly state the reason(s) you’ve decided to make the choice you’re making. Tell it you will continue to consult with it in the future. You might even give it an alternate project to work on. Stay calm; it can feed on negative emotions. Once you’ve made your decision, be firm. Remember, like a child having a tantrum, there may be times it needs to be silenced; give it a time out. It can take a lot of energy to manage your inner critic well, so afterwards (There must be an afterwards; giving the inner critic free reign 24/7 is a recipe for depression.) you may need to take a break or even engage your inner coach to reenergize yourself and return empowered with new perspectives.
The inner critic is most valuable at certain stages in a creative process. The inner critic has little to offer early in the creative process; it’s the kiss of death during brainstorming sessions but it’s very useful afterwards when sifting through the wealth of material that’s produced in them. It becomes increasingly valuable further on in a creative process, particularly at key turning points when evaluating results – identifying and rating strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and performing cost benefit analyses. Often, towards the end of a creative process, it will provide just the thing you need to pull it all together or help you take it up to the next level.
When are evaluative questions and statements most useful?
When are evaluative questions and statements not useful?
What is the most beneficial attitude to approach them with?
What’s the most productive way to ask and state them?
When are they energizing?
When are they enervating?
How do you reconcile conflicting results that are sometimes generated?
How long should you stay in this mode?
When should you stop?
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Look For The Element Of Surprise

Budh, Goblin Valley, Utah, 1996

I knew instantly that something new had happened when I saw Budh appear on screen. A clear outline had been introduced to the symmetries I was creating, which were previously unbounded, changing planes into volumes. While many of my images have qualities similar to environmental sculpture, this image and the series of images that it started create sculptural forms made from the environment. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a whole new series. I was working on another series when this happened. This could be a distraction or a breakthrough. So I was faced with an important decision to make, stay the course and finish what I had started, based on previous successes, or pursue a new direction, one I didn’t fully understand but might lead to new successes. Which would be the most rewarding course of action?
I walked away. I weighed my options. Though it might take some time, I could return to the other series later. This new work was unexpectedly fresh and exciting. I had a feeling that if I ignored this call I would not have been able to return to it later with the same intensity. I gave the decision some time. I slept on it. The excitement hadn’t faded. The mystery was still there. So I trusted my instincts. I moved forward and made new images. I continued to hold the question of how long to pursue this line of inquiry, until I had enough repeated successes to know it had legs. After six successes following similar lines, I knew I had made the right choice.
What I didn’t know then is that doing this new work would help me better understand the work I was developing; and much of the work I had already done; and the reason I work at all. Doing this work clarified ways of thinking and feeling that are essential to what I do and why I do it.
The landscape this image was drawn from had a presence. The symmetry more strongly suggested a presence – a living presence, perhaps one with a unique kind of consciousness. Many people see this image and feel as if the landscape is looking back at them – I do too. The working title for this piece Unseen Watcher lead to the final title Budh, the root of the word buddha, which means awake. Treating all of nature as something that is alive is my basic impulse and perhaps primary message of my life’s work. The sacred mindset this attitude brings with it increased awareness of, respect for, gratitude about, and wonder by being a part of it all.
It happens to me time and time again. I find that if I’m open to surprises and trust the process, I discover new things – properly guided, important new things. This is part of what it takes to move beyond conventional thinking and uncover new things about the world around us and as yet unclaimed inner resources.
One of the things I hear repeatedly from other artists is that the work that surprises them most is often the work that satisfies them most and the work that is most highly celebrated. The French writer Andre Gide remarked, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” The creative process is a process of discovery. You can’t have discovery without the element of surprise. As a defense mechanism we often resist surprise and try to reduce the number of times we are surprised; some surprises can be both unpleasant and unfortunate. Instead, we need to embrace surprise – and the changes it can bring. Surprises can be magical and transformative.
When is it best to pursue a new direction?
When is it best to stay with your current plan?
What can you do to evaluate the merits of both old and new directions to help you make the best choice?
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“The stunning presences, within the series Allies, reminiscent of Native American totem poles, African sculpture, or Hindu figurines, had been pursuing me for months. There were, and still are, dozens waiting to find homes. While the majority of the images I had created featured solitary figures, I was drawn to explore the effects of many within a single image — group dynamics …  Most leading actors need supporting actors, all save the soloist need accompaniment. But, when supporting actors compete with main actors, the thrust of the drama is confused …”
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