A message in hands

A creative journey through art and story telling 

I am your servant,
I am your slave,
I obey your command.
And never once do I question your demand.

Food I bring and drink I serve
Often more than you deserve.

Like a clock I can change with time,
Yet unlike a clock I am able to mime.
Though words I can’t speak
I can say a lot.
Things I can feel,
Though feelings I have not!

What am I?

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This was the riddle I showed my class of 28 on the Monday of our school art & storytelling week.

It took a lot of logical thinking from one particular girl to finally answer the riddle correctly. She analysed every part of the riddle and justified her answer in such a beautiful and reasonable way and to everyone’s astonishment her answer of ‘a hand’ was entirely correct.

Our theme was hands and over the week I took the class on a whistle stop tour of some famous paintings, sayings and stories of hands. We began with a pair of the most famous and unfortunately commercialized hands throughout history. Albrecht Durer’s ‘Praying hands’. I story-told the famous, but untrue story of Albrecht and his brother Albert’s almost unobtainable dream to become artists and study at art school. Read here for a version of the story.

Albrecht Durer Hands or ‘The Praying Hands’

On day two we looked at our own hands and then grabbed ipads between pairs and went out into the sunny spring garden of our school and shot some gorgeous photos of our hands. The children had two tasks, first to find an intriguing natural object and photograph their partner holding that object. The second task was to get together into groups of 6 or 7 and put all their hands into interesting positions and take photographs of them. Here are just a few of the photographs the children took.

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Before we looked at any art works we discussed how hands could have meaning. The children thought together in pairs and groups of all the ways they could think of that hands convey meaning. They thought of mime and sign language but strangely did not link the communication they do with their own hands on a day to day basis as part of hands having meaning. So we did some drama and acted in silence short scenarios that use hands to communicate something to someone else. The sudden upward shot of hands when something or someone is about to hit us, the outstretched hand when we want someone to give us something or help us and shaking someones hands to say hello were just some of the situations we explored.

Shaking Hands: My children,son and daughter, shaking hands, used for a buddy program for school age kids. Comments Welcome :)

I taught the children how to do what I call ‘scribble drawings’. A sure way to free anybody feeling constrained by having to get everything right. The children have not been trained in observational drawing and as a result have quite negative attitudes towards their work. Scribble drawings in pen are so free and fun that they forget the tiny details and look for the big shapes and shadows. Here are a few of their ‘scribble’ hand drawings and some foreshortened fingers.

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Encouraging children to annotate their drawings, saying how they would change them what they don’t like discourages pessimism and them crossing out work. It get’s them to think in a practical way how they could improve it. The drawing below shows my favourite annotation ever! Having drawn a hand that she wasn’t too happy with, this young lady commented quite accurately that it resembled a turkey!

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We discussed the work of Kate MacDowell, in particular her sculpture titled ‘in the hand’ and we story told another beautiful folk tale from India called The answer is in your hand. The children were amazed that Kate MacDowell’s sculpture linked so much with this Indian tale and they listened entranced as I told it. Kate MacDowell ‘s sculpture is so delicate, detailed and yet sparse with it’s crisp white porcelain finish and the children found it really interesting.

Having viewed images of many artworks involving hands we discussed together what the different artists might be saying through their art works. We learnt that some artists have a hidden message behind their art work and some have a message that is more obvious (like this Sudarsan Pattnaik sand sculpture). The children talked with each other about what was important to them and decided on their own title or message that they wanted to convey through their art work. They all created punchy titles that help their message to come across. By this stage they knew that they would be creating a 3D hand sculpture later on in the week and their message would need to be reflected in their sculpture.

Two particular titles I thought were brilliant. One was ‘Nature’s Hand’, the girl whose title this was, wanted to convey her love of nature and her desire for people to help conserve and look after nature. The other was ‘Soft, gentle Mom’, this was a boy who was stuck for any ideas, yet when asked: ‘What is important to you?’ he immediately answered, ‘My mom’. He described his mom’s hands as soft and gentle and so this evolved into his title.

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Nature’s Hand

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The children have completed their 2D designs and the plaster of paris hand casts have been created. Liquid plaster of paris was poured (by adults) into gloves that the children bought in, the top was then securely sealed with a rubber band. Then we then bent the fingers very sightly and pressed into the palm of the glove to give it a realistic feel. Quickly the plaster set into the new positions and then children were able to peel the gloves off and sand off any lumps and bumps. More information about how to do this. For health and safety risk assessment. You can also make balloon sculptures in this way.

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Below are some of our 2D designs, some children have also written about why their message is so important to them.

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Be Happy

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Save Tigers

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Stop Pollution

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The Nature Hand

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Racism & Violence Don’t Belong in Football

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For children who have little experience drawing and sculpting, this is a nice way to bridge the gap between 2D and 3D work. The plaster hands can then be scratched into with different objects in order to create the creases and details of the hand. This must be done in a ventilated area because of the dust and goggles should be worn just as a precaution.

Our next task is to paint our 2D designs onto the plaster of paris glove/hand casts. I will post more photos of these as we get them painted. And of course, use some E600 glue to stick a couple of broke fingers back on!

Here are the some of the completed hands. We added PVA over the top of the paint to give a soft sheen and protect them a bit.

Be Happy

Be Happy

Nature's Hand

Nature’s Hand

Save the World

Save the World

Violence and Racism Don't Belong in Football

Violence and Racism Don’t Belong in Football

Help Snow Leopards

Help Snow Leopards

Soft Gentle Mum

Soft Gentle Mum

Save Animals

Save Animals

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Ten year old ‘s view of art-Amazing!

At the end of last term I received a hand made card from one of my Yr 5 pupils thanking me for teaching them.

The card said ‘Thank you for giving me a new perspective on art’, I was intrigued and found the young lady who wrote it to enquire as to what this new perspective was. She elaborated in great detail so I asked her to write it down for me, and this is what she wrote.

I used to think of art as just a drawing but now I can see it in a new perspective. It is not just a drawing, there are things and facts behind the painting and the artists, art is both a skill and a way of life. I have learnt to see and experience art in a new way and enjoy looking at it and seeing the story behind it.

 Yasmin, aged 10.

I was blown away by her eloquence and deep thinking. Art is definitely a way of life, a way of seeing the world and a way of capturing that experience in an art form. I could definitely see this in her approach to her own art and in our art history lessons.

It confirmed to me that no one is too young for art history, in fact it is essential for the growth of a young artist to learn to appreciate and critique the art of others. What is important is that it is presented to the young artist just one step ahead of them so that their interest and ability is pushed and stimulated.

When I was in school I was only taught to learn facts about an artist’s life, or copy their painting technique. But it was only at degree level that I was taught to look for symbols, patterns, meaning, trends, habits, and the psychology within an artist’s work. It was such a shame that I had to wait so long to actually be exposed to this critical and searching approach to art. I think if I had been shown this earlier it would have enhanced my own creative process as well as sparked more interest in the art of others.

Here is some of Yasmin’s work.

The orchid below was worked on by Yasmin and Grace. You can see the development of colour and vibrance from day one (below) to day two (below that). These two girls made a great team, Grace had a particular concept which she communicated to Yasmin who then put it into action on the mural. Grace wanted Yasmin to paint the dying, crumpled flower on the left to show how the rain forest is full of life and death. That things dye and new things are born.

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Here you can see the finished orchid within the context of the whole mural.

What I would like to emphasize is that Grace and Yasmin used the dying flower as a symbol for a very grown up concept, the natural cycle of living and dying. Very often children like to show nature in its perfection, and I expected them to omit the dying flower and show the orchid in its full living glory.

I believe that the study of art history, and the analysis of other artist’s work has influenced how Yasmin and Grace approach their own work and whetted their appetite for deeper, thought provoking art.

You might argue that too much analyzing and critical thinking will spoil the natural innocence of a child’s approach. And I agree with that on some levels, however it’s all about the natural disposition of the child and about the way the critical thinking is introduced.

It is natural to see an image and want to know more about it and yet so often we look at a painting and just accept it for its face value.

For example if you present a year five class with The Scream by Edvard Munch it might be quite inappropriate, they would be less able to empathize with the emotion and desperation intertwined with it. However if you presented the class with the painting below by historical artist Graham Turner you could bring in relevant historical, conceptual, compositional and symbolic analysis. Children could compare the bright use of colour here with this older etching. You could ask why it is effective today to use these colours (Turner’s) and his style of depiction rather than those used in the earlier etching. Or ask which one the children feel is most effective, take a vote and ask them why.

The Battle of Bosworth – King Richard III’s Charge Painted by Graham Turner

Questions such as why did Graham Turner portray this particular moment in the battle and not another are interesting. The children could compare other depictions of the Battle of Bosworth and ask why it is that none of the artist  focus on Henry Tudor in the same way that they feature King Richard III?  (Richard is the last plantagenet king, the last King of England to be killed in battle, a king who was never given the burial of a King but was instead stripped naked and paraded over the back of a donkey to the people of Leicester.)

You can ask why is it significant that Turner has depicted Henry Tudor’s Herald and flag bearer (William Brandon) falling so dramatically? What do they think happened to Brandon after he fell? What is the symbol of a flag and therefore the flag bearer? (Just after K. Richard blasts into Brandon and kills him, the flag nearly falls but at the last minute is restored by one of Henry’s body guards).

Ask why Turner has angled the two flags in the way they are? What do they do to Richard? (they create a frame for him, so making him stand out, clever composition). Ask who they think the men are in the distance behind the rearing horse of Henry Tudor. This question can then open up the story telling of The wealthy Stanley brothers, the corruption, hostage taking and deceit that went on during Tudor times.

The Stanley brothers were a very wealthy family that commanded an army of 6000 men. They were loyal to King Richard III but decided not to commit to either side at the Battle of Bosworth. Needless to say both Henry Tudor and King Richard wanted them on their side. Richard went to meet Sir William Stanley and ask for his loyalty, but Stanley (who is married to Henry Tudor’s mother by the way) would not promise his loyalty. To help persuade him Richard kidnaps William’s son but apparently William replies to the news of his son’s kidnap by saying: ‘I have many more sons’. William Stanley and his army spent a large part of the battle of Bosworth waiting to see which side they would join. However they made their important decision just after the moment depicted in Turner’s painting. The Brothers chose Henry Tudor’s side and attack just after William Brandon’s death so sealing King Richard’s Fate and Henry Tudor’s succession to the throne.

Well chosen and fascinating, art history, with relevant analysis and critique is essential to the artistic creative process. It not only whets the appetite of the young artist but is essential for all of us to experience because it informs and assists us in reconsidering our own art. This is what I have discovered through teaching and as an artist myself and Yasmin’s card has reconfirmed this for me.

Second steps to painting a rain forest mural with kids

Here is the second of the promised posts describing the step by step, week by week progression of art work that built up to the mural. Please note that each weekly session was generally one and a half hours long. This post covers the second and third sessions with a focus on: insects and bugs, birds and frogs.

To read The first steps to painting a rain forest mural with kids, click here.

My Learning objectives.

I rarely tell the children what they are learning in a formal way such as a LO because I like to avoid too much teacher talking time during art. I feel that the more of an art lesson that is spent in right brain activities the better. A formal LO also implies that someone must be successful at it, in order to achieve that LO. This is inappropriate for creative flow and confidence building.  However, I’m always  very clear of pupil learning targets, and often share these with pupils in order to help them improve.  I find it is very important to clearly explain what is required of them and why, as this sets the scene for the lesson.

Learning objectives: Session 1

  1. To use mixed media to create informative sketches of insects and similar creatures.
  2. To understand the difference between information sketches and a finished painting/drawing, and to begin to decide when to use each technique.
  3. To use observation skills to perceive small details and to choose suitable materials to capture that information quickly.
  4. To be able to objectively observe own work and begin to assess the areas that need improvement.
  5. To adapt, change, adjust the areas that need improvement incorporating any advice given by adult.
  6. To begin to use descriptive language to describe a colour in more detail. e.g. olive green, lemon yellow, warm red etc.

Session 1: Drawing insects/bugs from dead specimens-large scale

I contacted our local Natural History Museum and asked if they had any rainforest samples for us to borrow. They were marvelous and provided us with a box of goodies which consisted of: a very long python snake skin, lots of trays of butterflies, a tarantula, a black scorpion, a small monkey skull, a centipede and a couple of beetles. I am ashamed to say that I never actually took any photos of the samples, we were loaned them for a week free of charge.

The lesson began with ‘scribble’ drawings in pen for the first five minutes, to warm up. I then encouraged them to use the insect specimens to create accurate but large scale, sketches on A3 paper using chalks, water colour, charcoal and pen. I demonstrated the technique of drawing with charcoal first (as any inaccuracies could easily be rubbed away), then using chalks to put in some colours and adding water colour paint to other areas.

Here are a few examples I did before the lesson which I pinned up on the white board to  give a clear idea of what I was after. Below is a ‘scribble’ butterfly, done be holding a handwriting pen at the end and without resting your wrist on the paper/table. I then worked over this one with chalks.

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The one above is black chalk pastel (over charcoal sketch). Water colour for the orangey brown parts and yellow-white for the spots.

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The one above is all chalk pastels over a charcoal sketch.

I noticed that some children did insist on drawing a butterfly from their heads, even though there was the most beautiful butterfly in front of them. These children just needed encouragement to actually look at what they saw and use some proportional measurement techniques to assess how long the legs were, or how fat the body was. Children who were naturally confident with drawing the insects were then asked to look very closely at a leg, or the colour of a wing. Often they would notice a tiny detail/colour that they hadn’t seen before. Here are some of their sketches.

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Every child had a piece of work good enough to be put up on the wall. Every one engaged with the insects in an amazing way and produced what I would describe as very mature work. ( 9-11 year olds produced this.) I managed to display it in such a way that one person’s success could cover up another person’s less successful area, leaving the especially good bits exposed.

If you have no museum from which to borrow samples then why not book a trip to a natural history museum and make a day of it? Or even a zoo? Alternatively collect creatures from the school gardens, or borrow pets maybe? As a last resort you could work from photos and pictures but there really isn’t anything to be compared with working from real insects.

Session 2: Birds and frogs-from photos (unfortunately)

Unfortunately I was not able to borrow a pet parrot or any live creatures. However I did get my hands on 30 feathers. Fifteen were the large quill feathers from plain birds, the others were those colourful packets of craft feathers that you can buy in craft shops. So we began the lesson by observing and drawing feathers. The children were quite accustomed to the mixed media techniques from the last lesson so I invited them to choose what ever medium and technique they felt they were good at and was appropriate for the feather they were observing. Here are just a few sketches they did.

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I reminded the children that birds are covered in feathers ( an obvious point, but actually an important link when drawing birds). We then looked at a quick power point about toucans. I chose toucans because they feature in Tim Viner’s book The Tree and because they are typically inspiring rain forest birds. I then chose a picture, printed out and laminated several resource pictures of toucans and asked the children to begin sketching in charcoal, pen, pencil chalk pastels and water colour (their choice) the toucans.

In all my art lessons I encourage the children to think of ‘mistakes’ in their work as not mistakes but areas that need adjustment. They even use that term now too. It shows them that there is no real thing as a mistake but rather something that just needs a little more work or observation. I strongly encourage the children not to cross out their work but rather to write a little comment about what it is that needs adjusting in that particular sketch. This process allows them an opportunity to: self assess, to show me their improvements in observation, and show their friends that they realize that something isn’t right yet and gives them a chance to correct it. Here are some of their toucan sketches, the first one is a perfect example of a child who is self assessing in a positive way as they draw.

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As children began to improve and practice their weak areas on the toucan I then allowed some of them to branch out and try a tree frog. These were entirely independent with no help from me. Others continued to try a toucan on sugar paper with chalk pastels. Here is a display we put together.

IMG_1238 IMG_1239The chalk drawing below is one of my favourite. I love this boy’s sense of colour, the bird looks like an edible sweetie and I just love his comment next to the bird on the right…’needs to go on a diet’.

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I hope this post is helpful in giving some ideas about painting and drawing birds. I found that giving clear instructions, demonstrating techniques and reminding the children of skills they learnt in previous lessons worked really well. This lesson set them up fantastically for painting their actual mural which featured a toucan. Do contact me with any questions, comments or if you need any further help with lesson plans.

Paper Clay, Bog Roll and the Terrible Stench.

Paper clay is a fascinating substance and one that I’ve been exploring recently. I mixed up a batch using part recycled clay and part bog roll (toilet paper), it was so enjoyable playing with the mucky slush, squelching it together with my hands to get any lumps out. After mixing it for quite a while I then pasted thin layers of it onto a lime stone slab to dry out a little and scraped these off which eventually gave me a lump of workable clay.

The rest of the slush I stored in a airtight bucket and returned to whenever I required slip (clay glue) or needed to make another lump of working clay. The only awful thing was that when ever I opened the lid off of the slurry the most horrific pong drifted around the studio and I frequently needed to reassure others that I didn’t have a bad stomach that day. Apparently a splash of dettol would solve the problem but I haven’ t tried that yet. It seems that the pong results when the organic matter (loo paper in this case) begins to break down.papr clay explorations

paper clay explorations

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papr clay explorations

paper clay experiment
Above are some explorations in paper clay that I’ve been working on. The spheres are inspired by a fascinating object I discovered in Pit Rivers, Oxford which has to be my favorite object in the whole museum. Below is an image of it and click here to find out more about the Pit Rivers museum.

A carved ivory Chi ball from China.

(This is not my image-I do not claim it as my own)

Once I’ve mastered the process of making different sized balls then I will experiment with creating a piece that has a ball, within a ball, within a ball, within a ball. The great properties of paper clay are that it is light, very strong, shrinks less than normal clay, and can be added to itself in its wet, dry and fired forms. Yes that’s right, I can make part of a piece, fire it to bisque, then add more to it with wet paper clay and fire it again. I don’t know yet how many times this process can be repeated but it gives more possibilities for building sculptures that are structurally impossible to build with conventional ceramic clay and that is very exciting.

So far, these pieces are like three dimensional sketches. In order to understand a new material I often need a certain amount of ‘play-time’ to explore, experiment and enjoy that material before I narrow the work towards a final piece. These are my ‘play-time’ sketches in paper clay.

Do leave your feedback and comments. Its always helpful to see the thoughts of others.

A busy weekend.

I have been building up to this week end for the last few months and finally it is over. I can rest now and bask in the remembrance of all those wonderful compliments, comments and connections I have received and made.

Most of my artwork is created in solitude at the dead of night when the house sleeps and time slows down a little. So when I emerge into a huge open space surrounded by other fellow artists and crafters the sense is of awakening from a surreal dream of personal thought, creativity and rush of ideas into a fresh and exciting reality.

Huge fairs like the Green fair in Oxford that I attended on Saturday are a fantastic place to expose one’s creativity to an audience so varied and unique that it leaves you spinning and contented at the same time. I spend so long in my own head, at home with the thoughts, creative processes and ideas about my own work which never get questioned until the work is seen by an audience.

Although absolutely exhausted I feel a satisfying sense of calm after weeks of building up stock, counting immeasurable amounts of tiny beads, testing glaze recipes and sketching in lunch breaks at work. It is over for a while and it feels good!

Here are some pictures of my stall at the fairs on Saturday and Sunday in Oxford.Flair Creations at the Green fair Oxford

Flair Creations at the Green fair Oxford

Flair Creations at the Green fair Oxford

What is the essence of creativity? An artist’s enquiry.

What is the essence of creativity? A question I encountered on twitter and ironically have never considered until now, even though I am regularly engaged in the creative process. I would like to establish the terms that my enquiry will be based upon and any relevant points.

Firstly this will be my understanding of ‘essence’ (which I have taken from here).               ‘In philosophy, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity.’  Secondly the creative process is a result of creativity itself so perhaps it is important to take a look at the creative process in order to understand creativity. 

Rabindranath Tagore asks, ‘What is Art? It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.’ So what is this ‘creative soul’ and What is its essence?  To these questions I have no fixed and final answer but can only explore them as best I can, using my experience and intuition to inform my judgements.

From a theological perspective, if man was made in the image of God and God created the Universe: then this Divine, macrocosmic creativity must be reflected within man on a microcosmic level. The creative impulse within man is therefore essentially a Divine quality, in that man was created by God and created in his image. The ‘creative soul’, as Tagore calls it, is then perhaps this microcosmic creative impulse. So the essence of creativity, weather it manifests itself in the microcosmic or macrocosmic realm is Divine.

The creative process, and creativity itself have been discussed and re discussed by many philosophers and psychologists throughout history.  These ideas range from Plato’s belief that creativity is a result of the influence of outside forces upon man, such as the Muses to Kant’s ideas that the creative person is able to allow his imagination and his cognitive ability to work freely together without the constraints of rules and regulations. Jung believed the creative process to be one of five instincts which is particularly interesting because I find myself compelled to create and cannot avoid that urge.

Creativity was for Jung in a class by itself. His descriptions of it refer specifically to the impulse to create art.

Though we cannot classify it with a high degree of accuracy, the creative instinct is something that deserves special mention. I do not know if “instinct” is the correct word. We use the term “creative instinct” because this factor behaves at least dynamically, like an instinct. Like instinct it is compulsive, but it is not common, and it is not a fixed and invariably inherited organization. Therefore I prefer to designate the creative impulse as a psychic factor similar in nature to instinct, having indeed a very close connection with the instincts, but without being identical with any one of them.(…) [“Psychological Factors in Human Behaviour,” CW 8, par. 245.] The above quote was taken from here

So far both the ideas above capture some elements of my experience of creativity and the creative process. There is an aspect of some creative moments that are unplanned, spontaneous and inspired and it is difficult to explain how those enlightened moments come about without ascribing a higher influence to them. Other artists have described times where they have had clear minds, no thoughts and the creativity just flowed through them as if they were simply a vehicle, it is these moments I am referring to.

There is something more to the essence of creativity that I think only the Dalai Lama has spoken about, and when I heard it I felt immediately released. He states that ultimately we pursue creative activities to bring about human happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is what humans are ultimately occupied with and creativity is one of the means to this end. When I create a piece of art work and someone else appreciates it I feel happiness. When an idea is transformed from a technical drawing into the finished piece it brings joy and satisfaction.  Of course this pursuit of happiness through creativity displays itself in rather misconstrued and twisted forms too, but ultimately weather it is through My bed or the Primavera it is for the sake of happiness and is an essential part of human creativity and the creative process.

To conclude creativity is an essential part of human nature and whether it is because we are a vessel through which the creative force flows or because it is instinctual, seems less important in the face of our desire to be happy. In addition the creative force may have unhappy results for some, or may lead to merely temporary happiness as mentioned by the Dalai Lama (in the clip above). So the search for happiness, although not an essential attribute of creativity itself, is however very closely connected to the essence of creativity and cannot therefore be ignored.

I feel it is important for me to mention that I am not an expert in philosophy, psychology or theology and that this enquiry is my own attempt to understand the creative process. I imagine that as my experience as an artist increases further, as I discuss these questions with others and as life waxes and wanes my thoughts may change. If you have any thoughts/experiences or have considered this topic yourself then please feel free to comment below.