Some time ago I was making short documentary films of artists I admired. My quest had taken me to a place thirty kilometers south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to a painter by the name of Freddie Martin. His studio was a charming complex perched high above the roaring surf. On the agreed day I gathered my movie equipment in my rented Jeep and went there. Freddie told me that before we could get started he had to consult the I Ching to see whether today was a “good day.” Kneeling, he threw some coins and then looked up the results in “The Book.” They weren’t good. Dejected, I went back to my hotel. The next day I tried again, but it was still no go. It never was. After a few days of driving back and forth I decided that a guy who needed the I Ching couldn’t be that hot.
At the same time I’ve forever been devising all manner of random or specific cards or project notes in order to simply ask for a livelier dance with the goddesses of creativity. It always seemed to me that some simple system like Freddie’s might just hold a secret or two. Perhaps a magic pill might exist.
Creativity guru Eric Maisel (website, books) has invented just such medicine in the form of a deck of cards. There are thirty of them in a snappy little box. They can be dealt randomly or in order, by the day or by the hour. Each card presents a concept with an invitation to put the concept to work. Silence, Mystery, Surrender, Intend, Discover, Confidence, Commit, Wildness, Intensity, Astonish, Experience, Desire, etc., headline the cards. Just the sort of things we often talk about on our website. The material on each card gives directions to carry out the concepts. “Silence,” for example, includes: “Silence provokes deep responses. It quiets your mind. Beauty will rise up in you.” At the altar of my sacred easel I said these things aloud to myself: “Let silence reign,” I said, “Pursue what arrives.”
Eric’s cards topped up my tank. They paid for themselves in a few minutes. I found them a fun way to be clearer about what I was doing. The card headlined “Routine” reminded me: “Do not wait for inspiration. Do not wait for anything.” I didn’t. The cards are all positive affirmations — deceptively simple, basic, valuable stuff. At no point did I read, “Do not expose yourself to the weird man from the north who has come to steal your soul.”
PS: “One thing I’ve learned is that less is more in therapy and in coaching. A simple idea or solution, once it takes hold, is more valuable than long discussions and arcane theories.” (Eric Maisel)
Esoterica: Is it the hand we are dealt? Or is it rather the cards we deal ourselves? Did Michelangelo, or Leonardo, or Louise Nevelson, or Georgia O’Keeffe make affirmations? Or did they just naturally live their art? Did the great ones have soft spots and dry periods where they were just not themselves? To what degree is life and art-making under our own management? Eric’s cards are not commandments, they’re suggestions. The human mind is an imperfect organ of suggestibility. Why not?
Surprised at ignorance
by Marjorie Oldfield, Canon City, CO, USA
I find it surprising that you know so little about the I Ching. I would have expected otherwise. It’s quite possible that you will receive other responses such as mine, which might prompt you to learn more about it. It could be synchronistic, even a perfectly-timed opportunity.
(RG note) You’re right, Marjorie, several artists wrote to say that I was ignorant about the I Ching, but they didn’t say specifically what it was that I was ignorant about.
by Suzanne Edminster, Los Banos, CA, USA
Your Mexican artist friend was in a closed-loop cycle of increasing insecurity with his omen-seeking. The symbol system had possessed him and, like a pair of distorting lenses welded to his vision, he could no longer see anything without it. This can happen with I Ching, Tarot, astrology, psychology and other self-help systems. I personally find that whenever I have the first thought that I “need” a reading of some sort, that is invariably the time when I don’t need one. I always do better when I put it off, wait until I am calm and not anxious. I avoid doing readings in the middle of heavy, pressing or immediate problems or transitions — which are exactly the times we want guidance most! Boredom, too, doesn’t justify an immediate omen.
Much life or art anxiety can also be relieved by simply making something — anything. Getting down to work, even if the work is just cleaning or organizing the studio.
Omen systems that have neutral/mildly positive/gentle reminders or directions, judges, work a lot better for me these days than heavily weighted negative or highly positive or euphoric images. Sounds like the Eric Maisel cards fulfill this — my new criteria for omen-helpers. Cards are endemic on the market now. Just look near the checkouts of any Borders or Barnes and Noble. Interesting that they are entering the mainstream — formerly they were the province of kooky types.
An artist must remain as sensitive as a psychic or oracle to subtle impulses — acknowledging and embodying them.
Why we’re superstitious
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
Fear is the biggest thing that prevents me from painting. It’s amazing how that white sheet of paper or canvas can be so intimidating. I know most of the time it is wanting to know the end result and be guaranteed good results before I get started, which show that I want to control. I guess that is why we become so superstitious, doing anything that will inspire us or wish us luck on our next endeavor. One thing that does help me, is to put music on in my art studio even if I am not painting. This tends to lure me in. Once I am in the studio I inevitably start painting. All we have to do is paint.
No fun in tombs
by Jean Pastula, Palm Bay, FL, USA
In our beginnings in Egypt, Eric’s cards didn’t exist. Artists managed to create some really fantastic tomb drawings, paintings etc. However, they were put to death when the tomb was finished. That way, no copies could be made! For me, I really love being an artist, I don’t do tombs, but what fascinates me is what happens to a virgin canvas, just because of me! The fact that the created image, in any media, has never been on the face of the earth before. That’s awesome!
Deadlines the most valuable
by Mary E Whitehill, Newburgh, NY, USA
Nothing spurs creativity more than a deadline. When you have no time to either procrastinate or be indecisive, you just go ahead and do it. You have to go with whatever idea presents itself. Without the deadline the ideas come but you judge them too much.
by Hank Tilbury, Kansas City, KS, USA
Similar to Eric Maisel’s card set is a deck put together in the 1970s by composer Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt titled Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. These cards each contain a suggestion aimed at helping the artist who has arrived at a creative impasse within a work. Some examples:
— Emphasize differences
— Honor thine error as a hidden intention
— Look at the order in which you do things
— Use an unacceptable color
— Work at a different speed
— What are you really thinking about just now?
— Take away elements in order of apparent non-importance
I find this sort of system, with its open-ended suggestions, to be useful in generating action and ideas when I come up short. I haven’t studied the I Ching, but the way some of its believers follow its dictates with slavish adherence is a big turn-off for me. I’ll take advice, but let me make up my own mind!
(RG note) You can check out the Oblique Strategies here.
Level of commitment
by James Heumann, Juneau, AK, USA
It is most interesting that some folks feel that exposing themselves to the works or lessons of those that preceded them can be expected to diminish their personal artistic “style.” If we were to make a similar analogy to the field of music it would suggest that a musician must work alone lest their personal harmony be watered down by being exposed to the work of other musicians. Both musicians and painters can benefit by carefully studying the work of those who contributed before us. In the end we will develop our own personal style. If we’re lucky, we can also hope to contribute something of our own to those who follow.
Art evolves over time and we owe so much to our predecessors in the ages of enlightenment, determinism, impressionism, fauvism, cubism, abstraction, realism, and others. One of the principal lessons that we can learn from books is that, for most highly successful artists, there is a very direct correlation between the level of commitment they made to their painting and the results they obtained. With that in mind, let us learn whatever we can — wherever we can, keep our brushes wet, and the paint flowing.
Parking lot ponderings
by Richard James (Gentlehawk), Livingston, CA, USA
I began painting when I retired, like Churchill, and it’s my passion. In the next life I’m coming in with a brush in my tiny hand so I can start earlier. I was a teacher then I got a part-time job at a big grocery store bagging groceries and doing “carry out.” One of my favorite tasks was sweeping the parking lot at 6 a.m. and just pondering things in life. I would write them down later and I called ’em Parking Lot Ponderings. All sorts of insights would come to me as I watched the sunrise as I listened to the birds in the trees noisily greet the morning. Don’t ya just love us humans?
by Connie Frey, Victoria, BC, Canada
I’m pleased to hear of your pleasure with Eric’s cards. My own recently released cards are called FAME Cards: Writing Prompts for the Right and Left Brain. After we communicated last year you quoted my “focus and momentum shorten the path to the finish line.” With the deck, F in FAME is for “focus” and M for “momentum,” then there’s A for “awareness” and E for “expression.” The title, FAME, stands for four vital aspects of our intrinsic creativity. Let’s say, we shorten the path through focus and momentum, while awareness and expression make the trip worth taking.
(RG note) Connie’s cards can be found at: FAMECards.ca
Medium is the message
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
My best psychiatrist once told me that I am not a machine! (I wondered what the hell he was talking about, at the time.) What he meant was, “I am not a machine.” You can’t get blood out of a stone, and you can’t get art out of a person who artificially deems herself some kind of a ‘source.’ We aren’t sources. We’re mediums! This proverbial attempt to produce more, and always, speaks most poorly for any ‘love of painting.’ If you don’t have anything to say, let there be silence! If you don’t have something you feel like doing, do nothing. Doing nothing is not a sin.
Difficulties promote daily gifts
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA
I used to wonder about why we sometimes have to suffer as we endeavor to create art and live an artful life. Today I know that I would not be the person I am if I had not been through some of the things I have. Going through the valleys gave me a box of crayons that has a depth and texture I could not get from staying on the flat. And it gave me a great compassion for other artists that I use every day as I hold my annual fiber-arts online competitions. I am now on my 3rd annual competition, and I started the first one a few weeks after I got laid off from my last full-time job, my dad died, and my oldest dog died. I couldn’t have had the fortitude I have to keep going if I hadn’t been in those valleys. I see each day as a gift, and no matter what the day might bring, I look at all of it as a big adventure. No matter how it turns out, I know it will be good, for I will have learned something new, and I never know where that new knowledge will take me.
Blocks and blockbusters
by Linda Schweitzer, Morgantown, WV, USA
I tried working with a creativity book a few years ago. At the time, I didn’t feel particularly blocked, I just wanted my work to be freer. After working with the book, I started feeling that if the artwork wasn’t a blockbuster, something the likes of which the world has never seen, it wasn’t worth doing. I got to feeling that all my stuff was mundane and not worth the effort, which became a block. It took some time, after hiding the book, to convince myself that normal, everyday art is okay.
Most of my “blockbusters” begin as normal works. At some point, I look at them and think, “Damn, this is good!” At that point I become totally terrified. Wow, I live for those moments of terror! (I could only write this to other artists.) Sometimes it’s hard to breathe. I put the brush down, and have to clear my head because I’m afraid the next stroke might ruin it. Usually, I can pull it off, but it always feels like I wasn’t the only one doing the painting.
That said, I did order Eric Maisel’s Creativity cards, since you recommended them so highly, and everything I’m doing right now is pretty “normal.”
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Christine Kuhn who wrote, “I’ve been reading a great new book called The War of Art. It’s about the resistance that artists often feel toward their work and how to overcome it. It has been very inspiring and might help some of our readers.”
And also Jamie Lavin of Gardner, KS, USA, who wrote, “Freddie Martin needs to be reminded the world is turning.”
And also Hans Werner of Australia who wrote, “Robert — are you an American? You sure sound like one. Come down to earth man. Maybe a visit to Australia.”
And also Paul Kane who wrote, “I love cards. Tarot, for example. One of the best ways to wake up the creative mind.”
And also Lorion who wrote, “I’ve been using the twice-weekly letters to help focus, much as you have been using Eric’s cards.”