Lester, Mary and Jack

14

Dear Artist,

Three others hang out with me when I’m painting in our garden. Lester and Mary were around here last year. This year they’ve brought along an oversized teenaged layabout with an annoying voice. Jack is often on his own, but Lester and Mary, who may be married, spend a lot of time strutting about, discussing, among other things, Jack. The parents are a bit co-dependent, but they like each other and seem smugly contented with their day-to-day routine. Lester, Mary and Jack are crows.

Common Crow watercolour on paper by J. Fenwick Lansdowne (1937-2008)

Common Crow
watercolour on paper
by J. Fenwick Lansdowne (1937-2008)

Their imminent arrival is often preceded by a loud smack on our patio. Lester and Mary will be dropping beach clams onto our hard tiles and breaking them nicely open, often near to Jack, who has been standing around, grumbling. This act of creativity seems wasted on Jack, as he takes forever to walk over and check out his take-out. No matter what the folks do for Jack, he’s a complainer.

Several years ago, Teresa Amabile, researcher and professor at the Harvard Business School, completed a study which led to “The Six Myths of Creativity.” In it she tore apart six popular ideas: “Creativity only comes from creative types.” “Money is the main creative motivator,” “Time pressure fuels creativity,” “Fear forces breakthroughs,” “Competition beats collaboration,” and “A streamlined organization is a creative organization.”

Amabile opts for more immediate and joyful creative motivators. In the business of money, for example, she found that reward didn’t count as much as most people think. It seems folks get creatively engaged when they have a sense of playful progress. “People are most creative when they care about their work and they’re stretching their skills,” she says. And it happens over a period of time — one day to the next in a cooperative environment can produce more creativity than the hot expectation of a bonus.

Brown Towee graphite sketch 9.5 x 7 inches by J. Fenwick Lansdowne

Brown Towee
graphite sketch
9.5 x 7 inches
by J. Fenwick Lansdowne

I’ve come to the conclusion that Lester and Mary do the clam-drop just because they know how. Maybe they were similarly lethargic when their folks were giving clam-drop demos. But somehow they figured it out, and they got to like doing it. I wonder if it warms their hearts to be among the more advanced, tool-using animals? I wonder, considering Jack’s indifference, if the production of dinner comes as a byproduct of fun?

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “One day’s happiness often predicts the next day’s creativity.” (Teresa Amabile)

Esoterica: Those of us who think we create best when under pressure or when meeting deadlines should think again. Amabile found that “time pressure stifles creativity because people can’t deeply engage with the problem. Creativity requires an incubation period, people need time to soak in a problem and let the ideas bubble up.” You can read management guru Bill Breen’s famous interview with Teresa Amabile here. A note of caution — none of the subjects of Amabile’s now classic research were crows.

Fen Lansdowne in his Victoria, BC studio, 1981 Whitney photo

Fen Lansdowne in his Victoria, BC studio, 1981
Whitney photo

This letter was originally published as “Lester, Mary and Jack” on August 26, 2011.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“The best way to help people to maximize their creative potential is to allow them to do something they love.” (Teresa Amabile)

 

 

 

 

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14 Comments

    • I do know an artist who is basically motivated by money and is pretty much stuck on one genre. I think it’s easier doing the same thing over and over as it doesn’t require quiet contemplation and stepping back. Sad! She, nevertheless, is a nice person and works really hard at selling her work. My art is created out of the sheer love of creating it. Sales are not my motivation.

  1. Love the story about the crows. I think they are smarter than humans. As for creative types, money is not a motivation to my mind. Sometimes the need to create is both a curse and a blessing. In the meantime, part of my time is spent trying to outsmart the crows while I spend time in my studio. PS: Love the work of Lansdowne!

    • I don’t like crows at all. Their harsh caw-ing for me is like someone back in the day running their fingernails along a blackboard. However, I have discovered a humane and effective way to disperse these creatures to the houses of crow lovers. A CD called Crow Be Gone is amazing. It plays intermittent sounds of crow predators at irregular intervals over more than an hour. Because of the irregularity it makes the crows very nervous and anxious and they leave. Seriously, they do. The CD also has to be played intermittently and NOT continuously, otherwise these very clever corvids figure it out and become desensitized. So now I can be creative when I paint outdoors in the peace and quiet of my backyard. Win-win.

      Cheers,

      Verna (I adore ravens but that’s another story)

  2. Jeanne Roberts on

    Thank you for continuing to send Robert’s letters. I know he is no longer with you and I appreciate his words, his legacy, through you. Thanks again. Jeanne

  3. Thank you for this WONDERFUL letter. Robert is STILL a great gift to us because you continue to share his insightful and humorous inspirational writing
    Gail Harper was

  4. I had never heard of Amabile untill today. I was really struck by “The Six Myths of Creativity” and, to use a term no longer in common use these days, I found them to be ‘most agreeable’. Now I will have to read Breen’s interview, if only to see what else she has to say. I did find one of the Six Myths particularly relevant, after a lifetime divided between Theatre and Music Production, but I’ll keep that to myself. My own distilled Truth: Design by Committee doesn’t work.

  5. It was lovely to read the “Lester, Mary, and Jack” story again and it got me thinking. Are they (or their descndants) still around the studio? I have a fascinating DVD called a “Murder of Crows” full of fascinating info about how smart and cheeky crows are. Now I have a difficlulty with the collective noun “murder”–as a matter of fact, crows are scavegers aren’t they?–not inclined to predate/kill/murder?). I think that’s “crowism”. In this day and age of looking deeper and finding better, more insightful labels, I propose we search out a better, less negative colletive noun for the crow/raven/corvid family–such as a “Mensa of Crows” ? or, better yet, a “Tricktser of Crows”? . Thanks for bringing Lester, Mary, and Jack to the fore again–and all crows–under-appreciated birds.

  6. I’m an amateur artist and several years ago someone admired a painting, telling me it was fabulous and that I could make money doing art. I’ve been ‘blocked’ (resistant, terrified and procrastinating) ever since. Thanks for this letter

  7. Love your reply about crows. I have a group (murder ?) who appear at different times of the year on my property outside of Santa Fe. Sometimes I can identify them from prior years. One had a drooping wing and one had a sore foot. The ones I have now just wait for me to come out when I have scraps to put out for the coyotes and bobcats. They listen for the sound of my door. I’ll look for the DVD you mentioned, “A Murder of Crows”.

  8. Ha! I was surprised by the revelation of “family crow.” As a lifetime drama/performance person…performer/teacher; I love a good surprise. I am painting now and keep surprising myself with the fantastic that can be created in color, line and texture.
    I am creative because the world holds surprise, wonder and beauty and I like to praise it through art making. Thanks for your thoughtful sharing of your father’s words. I do appreciate it

  9. Ha! I was surprised by the revelation of “family crow.” As a lifetime drama/performance person…performer/teacher; I love a good surprise. I am painting now and keep surprising myself with the fantastic that can be created in color, line and texture.
    I am creative because the world holds surprise, wonder and beauty and I like to praise it through art making. Thanks for your thoughtful sharing of your father’s words. I do appreciate it

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