I once visited the studio of an artist living on the Eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. His windblown farm swelled with inspiration and distraction — cormorants were nesting on the channel markers, a farmer kicked tractor dust in a field of soybeans, and a pair of shiny sculls were slung at the ready, their oars curling with invitation. We slurped at a bucket of blue crabs and hosed off the paving stones before stepping into the aerie of his studio. Inside, a dozen canvases waited in mid-stream. Some were thin with oily veils of umber and Hooker’s green, while others were built up in impasto greys, wet over dry. Still others were laid in with their horizons, or swept with a shiny foreground or distant islet. I admired the patient pace of his assemblies. He stood before them in his gardening tan and rowing calluses, a quiet triumph of focus and the fullness of life.
A 2013 brain study by Dr. Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, scanned the brains of 949 girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 22, tracing the fiber pathways that connect the left and right hemispheres. Dr. Verma noticed that the brains of kids under 13 were similar, regardless of gender. It was when the youngsters hit adolescence that the female brains showed a labyrinth of pathways that crisscrossed both hemispheres, while the male brains had forged a path of powerful back-to-front networks within each side. The study raised eyebrows because it seemed to lend credence to some commonly held beliefs about female and male skills: Crisscrossing hemispheres was for analytical, intuitive multi-taskers, while back-and-forth pathways zeroed in on focus and problem solving. It also re-ignited the nature versus nurture debate: What was causing the teenage shift? Was it hormones? Was it cultural? Artists throw a spanner in the findings of typical neural pathways and gender leanings. Perhaps we unwittingly toil to retain the unscathed brain of a preteen. Perhaps, through our individual creative systems, we exploit the brain’s plasticity and so are able to develop new strengths at any age. If, for now, you happen to be thinking of ways to play at several things at once, here are a few ideas:
Design your studio — and the spaces beyond — like a Montessori classroom: Set up a series of “creative stations” that invite discovery of new materials and methods. Add a series of “contemplative stations.” Be hands-on. Be independent. Treat your space as a place of discovery first, rather than completion. Start new things while other things rest. Be promiscuous: try multiple ways and stay unattached. As you creep towards the finish line, notice that a body of work accumulates, and it’s all yours.
Esoterica: In 2014 researchers at Stanford University and The University of London suggested that multi-tasking makes you less productive and lowers IQ. Scientists at the University of Sussex even went so far as to say that having too many things on the go causes brain damage. Whether you are a one-at-a-time finisher or a piece-to-piece bumblebee, being open to tweaking the process is what counts. “Art has to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” (Saul Bellow) “Learning to focus and pay attention, if only for a short time, has been identified as a primary key to the development of human effectiveness.” (Robert Genn)
oil painting by William Marvin, Greater Chicago area, USA
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