Our creative roots


Dear Artist,

New light is being shone on the nature of creativity, and it’s coming from a surprising source: animals. If you accept the idea that we are all fellow travellers on this planet, right down to the simplest amoeba, and that we are all continuing to evolve, albeit at different speeds, the animal world is there to teach us.

Creativity is closely related to invention. Other factors include the love of play and the ability to use tools. Studies of animal behaviour are constantly finding new evidence of play and tool activities. Creativity is not just the property of Homo sapiens. Apes select from a supply of different lengths of prepared sticks to dig grubs from crevices. Dolphins leap for joy and perform self-motivated tricks in unison. Invertebrate octopi toy with plastic bottles by squirting them with jets of water. Closer to home, kittens and puppies show innate tendencies to play.

Researchers conclude that animal activities are based on both inherited traits and observational learning. Further, creative and inventive tendencies run in families and species. For example, the comprehension records for dog vocabularies — 400 words or more — are held by Border collies, a breed traditionally involved in sheep management, where continued employment depends on the accurate hearing of a master’s commands. These dogs learn words quickly — ball, stick, keys, doll, Frisbee — and fetch the object called for. Alert and cooperative, they can be called upon to identify dozens of individual humans by name.

How should we be interpreting these wonders? First, it seems that if your parents were creative, you are slightly more likely to be so. Second, when there is potential reward, even dull minds rally. The creative-inventive animal asks, “How else can this be done?” “What tool do I use to get what I want?” “How can I play here?”

Artists do well to understand that creative-inventiveness can be learned. With simple desire, the vocabulary and range of creative moves are broadened. Through ongoing play, the moves are further deployed and perhaps later dropped. Even an octopus asks the golden question, “What could be?” This is the nature of not just human nature, but Nature herself.

Best regards,


PS: “Dolphins are our colleagues. They are partners in our research, guiding us into the mind’s capabilities.” (Louis Herman, researcher, Marine Mammal Laboratory, Hawaii)

Esoterica: Even though its brain is the size of a shelled walnut, the New Caledonian Crow solves problems by creating and using tools. Fledglings isolated from adult influence bend short lengths of wire specifically to achieve certain tasks. The next time you hastily improvise a custom scraper or other studio tool, know that your action is part of an evolutionary need to develop and improve. And when you continue to play with that tool, you are doing the natural thing as well. How far can this blessing be taken?


Education the key to progress
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada


watercolour painting
by Marney Ward

I recently saw a program on TV in which scientists examined why primates, who also use tools, have not evolved at the same rate that humans have. The answer seemed to lie in the fact that they seemed unable to teach their young the tricks they had taught themselves, so each generation had to learn from scratch. The monkeys studied were unable to follow a non-verbal human direction, such as a hand pointing to an object, although young dogs were able to do so. The scientists believed that the ability to pass on acquired knowledge and skills to your offspring or your social peers seems to be the crucial factor in the evolution of “civilization.” Without that ability to educate, primates, and presumably other species, seemed unable to break away from the natural pattern of life dictated by instincts such as how to build a nest, or migrate, or hunt for food. Certainly most artists I know feel they are standing on the shoulders of all the artists who have gone before them, and I think most scientists do too.


More roots
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA


oil painting
by Warren Criswell

And speaking of roots, it’s not just animals! If creativity is trying things out and discriminating among alternatives, some plants might make the cut too. The Great Lakes sea rocket made the news this week when scientists discovered it could recognize its relatives. “If the sea rocket detects unrelated plants growing in the ground with it, the plant aggressively sprouts nutrient-grabbing roots. But if it detects family, it politely restrains itself.” (New York Times) The same article mentions the parasitic dodder weed, a plant which also selects its menu. “In time-lapse movies, scientists saw dodder sprouts moving in a circular fashion, in what they discovered was a sampling of the airborne chemicals released by nearby plants, a bit like a dog sniffing the air around a dinner buffet.” When they smell one they like, they go straight for it.

I know, I’m being silly. But if plants can do this without eyes, ears or brain, it sort of backs up my conviction that creativity is mostly an unconscious activity. Sometimes when I feel as dumb as a cabbage, an image will appear! Or not.


Comparing the music of birds and men
by Suzanne Joubert, Montreal, Canada


Antoine Ouellette

Mankind has been thinking a little bit too highly of itself and certainly not enough of other living beings – perhaps because it served its purposes of exploitation. Fortunately scientists have recently begun to spread the news! I would like to point to a fascinating book titled Le Chant des Oyseaulx by Antoine Ouellette, biologist, composer and PhD at UQÀM University. The literal translation would be The Song of Birds. Since Antoine is a proficient musician, he studies and explains his subject from both your point of view of animal creativity and that of the surprising relation between bird and human music and its evolution through history. It is in French, but maybe if there is a clamor it would be translated. In fact I have just insisted to Antoine about it.


In praise of play
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA


“Tinkerlinks” sculpture commission for the 1972 Munich Olympics
by Ernst Lurker

Your material is perfect for the play art philosophy. It appears that you have come across some interesting animal research. Could you please name that source? I might find various quotable phrases in that literature and it would be preferable to name the proper author.

It is sad that our society is still largely burdened by a plethora of negative attitudes towards play. When it is regarded as infantile, frivolous, trivial, a waste of time, etc. we tend to lose the things that make life worthwhile. Considering that all of culture and science are based on play (according to Huizinga and Einstein) we shoot ourselves in the foot. A curator who heard about play art said: “Lose the name.” Unfortunately this is typical. The most comprehensive endorsement of play is The Play Ethic by Pat Kane. Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the last 300 years of industrial society — our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value.

(RG note) Thanks, Ernst, and others who needed to research further. A lot of the ideas for that letter came from Inside Animal Minds by Virginia Morell in the March 2008 issue of the National Geographic. There’s a collie on the cover. Ernst Lurker is the founder of the Play Art Movement and the creator of the philosophy.


Is scientific research necessary?
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA


oil painting
by Rick Rotante

This has to be one of your lamest emails to date. I see new studies every day on the most banal subjects that a blind man with his hands and feet bound would stumble across without even trying. Can’t we find some better use for the huge sums of money being giving to these types of research? There are studies on why we breathe? Why we Love? Why we advance? Why we chew our nails? We are so caught up with the “Why we” factor, why can’t we see the trees through the forest? Why don’t we study why we waste money on these studies? It’s fun to delve into why we do things and how and why we learn. Agreed. But can’t we spend the money on how we can live together better instead of breaking down why we sometimes walk?




The creative exit strategy
by Gertjan Zwiggelaar

We need to balance our lives so there is always time for play. Life is not all about work, work, work. Unfortunately, for many people, the time to play is pretty much gone. People are so hard at work, just paying their exorbitant tax bills, food costs, housing expenses, etc., there is little time, if any, left over for play. What becomes play for many is sitting in a vegetative state in front of the electronic indoctrination device; i.e. TV. Hence, because of this sad state of affairs, there is a very serious disconnect that has happened, severing people from their nature, and converting them into automatons, with very little creative energy left. The rulers of the world don’t want people to be too creative. If people were, in general, creative, they would probably figure out how to extract themselves from the externally imposed madness that poses for the modern world. Creative energy would figure out an exit. Alas, for most people, the exit light is broken.


Creative heritage
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA


“Haiku of Spring”
original painting
by Gene Black

Many times I recall the creativity of my grandparents and parents. Both of my grandmothers were quilters and each had a different style. Paternal Gran did very careful precise pieces and quilted with “the ladies.” Meanwhile, Maternal Gran did recycled cloth quilting. She used whatever fabric was available and made quilts that were warm and comforting. I credit her with my love of abstract/experimental art. Her work didn’t have to be perfect — just interesting. In her later years, she would buy fabric and make a quilt, such as the one currently on my bed. But if she ran short of a fabric, which she usually did, anything was fair game. Thus my blue and orange running brick pattern has some surprise bricks that are completely other. The men were creative too, Maternal Papa was a musician and farmer. He taught all of his children, and there were nine, to sing or play an instrument. Saturday nights were a joy as everyone joined in for a sing-along. Today, I am the family artist. I paint, draw and recently started piecing a quilt. Life has a way of coming full circle.


Identifying play structures
by Stanley Horner, Victoria, BC, Canada

Your notes on play as intrinsic to nature are supported by author Donald Winnicott who teases out the origins of play as it emerges in human infancy. It is also addressed by author J. P. Carse who teases out the ways in which humans play games. Winnicott worked with mothers and their infants and noticed that mothers were providing them with instant gratification when they cried for help. He surmised that the infant was able to experience the magic of inner imaging food and receiving it effortlessly instantly. He referred to this as an illusion since the child would eventually have to realize that they would later in life have to master language and techniques in order to realize their inner fantasies, and that it would never be instant. He noticed that mothers were later indeed disillusioning their infants by delaying the feeding time and gradually limiting their protective closeness. Providing a blanket or other soft object as a readymade gave the infant the illusion that they were able to possess an object, be creative and playful. The original experience of illusionment is then, according to Winnicott, the primary experience that every artist taps into when they are playing with art-making. We can see, then, how important the original illusioning is for individuals, later in life, enabling them to believe in their inner image as the source of their self sense, their creative potential, their need to play. Carse differentiates infinite and finite games that people play. Finite games are played with rules so that a winner can be declared and so that the play can end (in vogue these days on reality TV); infinite games are played with rules so that a winner can never be declared and the play can never be finalized. The former are short term events and can only exist inside the context of the latter as long term play.

(RG note) Thanks, Stanley. Donald Winnicott, 1896-1971, was a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst who, among other areas of interest, studied and wrote on relations between mother and child, and the nuances of objective development and learning. J. P. Carse is the author of Finite and Infinite Games an attempt to define just exactly what games are.


Animal potentials
by Sandra Donohue, Robson, BC, Canada

I do agree with you that we don’t give animals enough credit for their small brains. Every day while walking our Border Collie Riley, we watch crows dropping walnuts on the road to crack open the shells. Riley does something similar with the large beef bones we occasionally give him by dropping them on the hard tile floor to crack small pieces off them. This is really not to be encouraged due to the sharp nature of the bones, but an interesting observation. I have also heard that crows have an amazing memory for individuals who do mean things to them and will eventually take revenge.

Never having taught Riley to “come closer,” I was really surprised one day when he was sitting near me and I asked him to come closer — and he did. Thinking it was a coincidence, I tried it again, and he repeated it, and always has since. I did read an article about some dogs being able to be taught to “read” certain symbols, but I haven’t had the time.


What could be?
by Penny Talbot

As a perpetual dreamer, I have found my inner voice to be my biggest deterrent. It asks me “why?”… all the time… Why would someone paint that? Why would I paint that? Why would someone like that? Why… why… why?… it has made me put down my pencil, or my brush, or my creativity, and walk away… I have incorporated a studio in my new house because I have seen my 17-year-old son evolve over the last 5 years at a school that nurtures and celebrates art… he never asks “why”… he has the time, the space, the means, and the playfulness to sit at an easel for several hours a day when others are wandering the halls… so I decided to imitate him… And then came the words in your letter this morning… “what could be”… not “Why???” but “what could be?” The Breakfast painting club was inspirational… coffee in hands, pyjamas still on, I stand at my easel and just… paint. And what comes out is not what IS… not perfection… not even reality… but it’s places I’ve been, moods I’ve felt, the wind in the lupines on the dyke on a spring day… it’s the What could be… Is it art? Fine art? Or just what could be… enjoyable, fun, playful, satisfying. And if it makes someone smile and say, “Can you paint that for me only bigger,” then it works for me.


Creative Roots
by Paula Timpson

is deeply rooted within
our souls,
in sweet womb
as we swim
we listen and we learn
how to breathe
find grace in
simple moments
may we travel far within
into the light…


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Our creative roots



From: Judy Welsh — Jun 12, 2008

I am shocked by your meretricious conclusions in this article. Maybe you want to be nothing more than a result of upgraded primordial ooze but my creative heritage comes from a grander and far more wonderful source. I suggest you elevate your focus from the mud to the heavens.

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 12, 2008

Judy – well said.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jun 12, 2008

Great letter, thank you Robert.

From: Liz Reday — Jun 12, 2008

Out of the ooze and born to cruise. Did you know that the word humility comes from humus – from the earth, mud? As an artist, tis better to avoid grandiosity. I’m with you Robert.

From: Bill Cranny — Jun 13, 2008

Nice one, John Grahampole. Just what is it with crows? They set out to get even if we upset them, they hold funerals, they are said to be harbingers of death (viz. Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” painted just before his suicide), their collective noun is, a murder of crows. Is it any wonder they’re always dressed in black!

From: Tinker Bachant — Jun 13, 2008

Judy and Rick, do you not think that animals come from the same “grander source” that humans do? And in fact have according to our current knowledge, been around longer.

From: Robert Goldberg — Jun 13, 2008

meretricious |merə-tri sh əs|


1 apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity : meretricious souvenirs for the tourist trade.

2 archaic of, relating to, or characteristic of a prostitute.


One sign of uncertainty is intolerance. It’s unique to certain masks of religion that they can only feel the comfort of being right by making everyone else wrong. There is nothing valueless, lacking in integrity or prostituted about the views expressed here. If you equate companionship with other life forms and “coming from the ooze,” you’re a Creationist and you’re cheerfully welcome to it. Perhaps when born-again Believers learn to listen and stop calling names, refuting science, equating faith with blind faith and minimizing the beliefs of others, they too will be listened to by someone other than the choir. I commend you on the strength of your beliefs; they are, in a sometimes oozy world, a comfort to you no doubt. But they aren’t the only views in this world of collies, crows and counterarguments. Learn tolerance, that you may be tolerated. Or similarly, judge not lest ye be judged and found oozy.

From: Jane Brenner — Jun 13, 2008

It is irritating that so often when artists’ works are shown here, there is no mention of the dimensions of the artwork. I think this information is vital ( just as much as the medium used) to our seeing reproductions. Perhaps, Robert, this is a topic you might discuss.

From: Asma — Jun 13, 2008

Each and every observation/analysis is so true, it gives me goose bumps! thanks :)

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 13, 2008

There is a reason humans are at the top of the food chain, irritating, as this may seem to some. Religion and ego aside, humans are the one species that not only has risen to it’s full potential but has the ability to surpass its potential and at a more rapid pace than any other animal on earth. Not only do we feed ourselves, grow our own food, shelter ourselves, in structures that contain heat and cooling, we also create huge societies that in fact have change the world. Changes for better or worse remains to be determined. Dare I use the term “lower animals”, though perfectly suited to their own nature; have yet to accomplish what the human animal has achieved? Granted, animals continue to learn and increase their verbal skills and perform “play” and are very creative in their own right, but they have yet to build a ship to go the moon, cure disease, nor managed to create the myriad of inventions we now take for granted. My dog, smart as she may be, still can’t use my cell phone or fix my dinner or clothe my body. Though we are all interconnected and learn from one another, it is we who make this connection. Dogs or crows or what have you only learn by conditioning, repetition and interaction with us to meet their own basic needs. We’ve have risen beyond basic needs.

When we study other animals it only serves to reinforce that we should be using this knowledge to advance humankind. As for animals, I would cause seriously injury to anyone who would harm by animals, but I would sacrifice my animals to save a human being. Therein lies the difference. We’ve come a long(er) way from primordial ooze.

From: Suzette Fram — Jun 13, 2008

We are so close to being the same, people and animals. We may have evolved differently; they are more instinctual, we are more intellectual (well, sometimes anyway…). But we are still so close. We like to think animals have no feelings; I believe that to be wrong. They feel hunger, pain, fear, love. Why do we think we are superior? Yes, we can build houses and cars and computers; so our evolution is ahead of theirs. But at the core of things, we are all the same; we all struggle to survive, we all want to find some degree of happiness along the way. Some of us are more ingenious than others, more creative, but still, we are all the same.

From: Suzette Fram — Jun 13, 2008

Rick, do you really think man has reached its full potential and even exceeded it? Gosh, I hope not. We can build computers and tall buildings, but have we learned treat each other with kindness and love, are we able to sustain long-term relationships? How is our record in dealing with poverty, hunger, crime? Have we achieved peace in the world? I sure hope we haven’t reached our full potential and that we can still look forward to a better world.

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 13, 2008

Show me any other animal who can even try to do these things you say. We may falter, and fall short of these goals but only we can begin acheive these things.

From: Charles — Jun 13, 2008

Show me a man who can jump from a tree to a tree, who can fly hundreds of miles naked in the rain and snow, who can raise thousands of offspring, who can feed himself and survive in deserts and jungles, who can tunnel the soil with bare hands…and end up replenishing instead destroying the planet. What an inferior and self serving spices or a creation we are.

From: Rick — Jun 13, 2008

…and this makes us the same, How? Only a human can create Philosophy, science, mathematics, and poetry, write sonnets, and create art, music. All of which other humans can comprehend. You’ve to be kidding. Try, hard as it may be, to stay on point.

Swinging from tree to tree is sure a productive activity and will certainly advance the sciences and mankind. I will alert the media. Last time I looked my dog was licking her private parts, and only because she can.

From: Robert Goldberg — Jun 13, 2008

Rick, it isn’t a matter of being the same. This is tantamount to judging creation by our standards, a rather biased criterion. I am overjoyed, comforted and less lonely, knowing that chimps, gorillas (check out Gorilla.org) and elephants seem to be able to share some of our experiences. I don’t expect a dog to be a person. Our job is different. If your dog, between auto-osculatory interludes, cand be enjoyed for who she is, you’re in better company and so is she. Too often, animal intelligence is explained away by “instinct,” especially by those who need an inferior in order to feel superior. Philosophy is a reflexive pursuit: we think about thinking. It’s also (mostly) a human pursuit, and one that can be conveniently defined to put us on top. Swinging through trees is very important to the creature who’s learned to do it. Don’t underestimate someone just because they don’t swing from your particular species’ branch.

From: Brad Greek — Jun 14, 2008

Just a few examples that come to my mind that, to me, is totally amazing: a beaver dam, a spider web, an ant colony, a birds nest, a school of fish, a bee hive. And it all comes naturally to them. We artists try to capture their beauty, as humans we try to imitate their ingenuity.

From: Jennifer Horsley — Jun 14, 2008

Speaking of trying to imitate their ingenuity — the Chinese actually tried to hasten the honey-making process by “evaporating” the nectar. Afterall, that’s what the bees do. They flap their little wings so fast, you can actually feel the hot air coming out of the hive. Once the honey is cured, it’s capped off with wax. The Chinese (this is all documented, by the way) tried hastening the process by removing the nectar-filled comb before it was completey cured by the bees and boiled the nectar until 90% of the liquid had evaporated. They didn’t end up with honey. It was rather nasty stuff, so I’ve read. (Maybe that’s why they moved on to copying art)

From: Nancy Davis Johnson — Jun 14, 2008

I won’t consider the human race has reached its full potential until it stops fouling its nest/planet. Right now our situation reminds me of the yeast animals gorging on sugar in a brewery vat, defecating alcohol and CO2 and inevitably suffocating in the process.

From: Charles — Jun 16, 2008

And how about slandering other nationalities by only mentioning “convenient” examples and “forgetting” all the unethical evidence from our nations. One more point for paraleling with animalistic behaveiour but in a sad way.

From: Charles — Jun 16, 2008

Unfortunately Americans (the majority) are not interested in their environment or in quality of goods. How else could all those malls and fast food restaurants be zoned everywhere while places for arts, crafts and farmer’s markets are only found in touristy areas. It’s not about the money, this is the richest country in the world. How can we persuade an average American to buy one piece of original art instead of 5 cheap copies, one book instead of 5 trashy magazines, one healthy meal instead of 5 big macs? I would agree that education is the key – but the schools are over flooded and the teachers are doing their best. So what now? Can we artists start reaching out in the community more than we do? Everyone I know donates paintings to charities and participates in community art events. I think that we should just accept that this is the normal state of the world. Elite and masses are just doing their natural thing and there is nothing we can do about it. There is no way to win the mass market with a luxury product.

From: C. Young — Jun 17, 2008

Pertaining to Jane Brenner’s comment above, I, too, would like to see medium and size on every painting reproduced. Just helps me envision the painting better.

From: Walt Henley — Jun 23, 2008

People who feel that most of their knowledge can be provided by ancient and culturally respected texts such as the Bible or Koran are shortchanging themselves from a much greater, even more beautiful and more significant way. These evolved individuals, and there are more and more of them despite what’s happening to our world, may not have simple and clear answers at their fingertips, but they have the keys to a process. Thought and the scientific process is its own reward.






The Spooky Old Tree

oil painting
by Kyle Buckland, Canada


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, 2013.

That includes Nancy Oppenheimer-Smolen of Seneca, SC, USA who wrote, “Bears are believed to be ten times as intelligent as dogs, which would make them far more intelligent than a number of our neighbors! They can also be very creative! In fact I have seen a bear drawing circles with a stick in snow.” www.nancyoppenheimer.com

And also Lynda Henderson of Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “Being creative is so amazing, it’s like as soon as I know my intention for a piece, it’s already there on some level, so no matter what I do, it turns out, like magic. I do so love to play.”

And also John Grahampole who wrote, “Did you know crows hold funerals for their departed?”

And also Ardath Davis who wrote, “Regarding creative animals, thought I would tell you about “Jay” a standard poodle who sleeps in his mistress’ bedroom on a leather love seat with two large feather pillows. During the night my friend noticed that Jay jumped down and one by one pulled his pillows off the loveseat and dragged them to his kennel, had difficulty placing them inside, so he went in and then pulled them in after him. How is that for either brains or creativity?”

And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “Much of our future can be found in mankind’s past and that of his environment. Can or will we learn?”




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