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.

Red-backed Shrike Watercolour by Eric Ennion (1900 - 1981)

Red-backed Shrike Watercolour
by Eric Ennion (1900 – 1981)

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?”

Oystercatchers Watercolour by Eric Ennion

by Eric Ennion

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)

Crows Watercolour by Eric Ennion

by Eric Ennion

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?

This letter was originally published as “Our creative roots” on June 10, 2008.

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“It would be a tragedy indeed if, at this hour of awareness, of awakening conscience in a man-powered world, we should find: ‘No birds were flying overhead. There were no birds to fly.'” (Eric Ennion, quoting Lewis Carroll) 



  1. What’s really cool is that crows can recognize human faces. If you want crows to like you, leave them little shiny gifts – a (crow) bead or a balled-up metallic gum wrapper. (I guess they use it when making Art.)

  2. Kathleen Scott on

    I have always marveled at the ingenuity of animals. When I was a child and main stream thought tried to negate that there were similarities between us and animals, mentally and emotionally, I knew ‘they’ were simply wrong. My most recent delight regarding animal, creative play was watching a a young crow fly up with a stick, drop it about 25 ft above the ground, and then dive to catch it mid air. He/she repeatedly practiced this fun. At one one I said, “Good job!” enthusiastically, at which point it flew to the top of the fence beside me with it’s stick, in it’s beak, and turned it’s head, to observe my observing.

  3. “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” – Martin Buber
    If you read the introduction of ‘Pottery’. My expression is like my cat: ‘Van Gogh’ or ‘Van Gogh’ took on my expression. Van Gogh always had that look. Van Gogh’s wheels were always turning. I’d be writing away and look over at Van Gogh and with that look say to me : “Your not going to put up with that, are you? Goddammit fight!” As you read my writings there are so many causes I’m fighting for. Which all lead to one thing: “self-liking.” If you like yourself you don’t need things. Fancy homes, cars, etc. Your at peace with yourself. You can invest your whole existence in helping others, which includes art. Great art can stop you in your tracks. It can create a vortex of emotions. In the introduction of ‘Pottery’ we learn my standards. I had my cat Van Gogh for 19 years. June 20th will mark 8 years since I put Van Gogh down.
    Pottery just cut & paste: salmonstudio.wixsite.com/yohnke/post/pottery
    Below is my press release from last Friday. What I was fighting for. I share it as I can hear my cat. I can also hear Robert Genn.
    R.I.P. (Rest In Painting) Robert Genn
    Subject: Building Happiness
    Release Date: June 10, 2022
    “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
    – Dave Ramsey
    “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
    – John Lennon
    With the never-ending mass-shootings occurring and people dying from overdoses, not once have I heard the word ‘happy’ brought up in a press conference. Not once. You’d think this would be the central part of the solution, and yet, not once has it ever come up. Don’t you think there is something terribly wrong with that? Don’t you think that all any of us want to be is happy? Any yet, it is rarely talked about. You never hear a politician talking about happiness on her or his main platform.
    Imagine if we were happy. Content. We wouldn’t harm one another. We wouldn’t harm ourselves. We wouldn’t find cannabis shops & liquor stores on every block. We wouldn’t find every other commercial being a gambling one. We
    wouldn’t buy needlessly. We would be content. Happy. At peace with oneself.
    Shouldn’t we be hearing about ‘happiness’ more often? More than ‘Happy Birthday.’ ‘Happy New Year’. Do we even think about the essence of the word ‘happy’ in that context? And yet, that is all of anyone of us want to be.
    Don’t you think it is time we ask politicians to champion happiness? For media outlets to talk about happiness? Wouldn’t you love to hear that ‘happiness’ was up in the last quarter?
    It is time we bring an end to mass-shootings.
    It is time we bring an end to people dying from drug overdoses.
    It is time we stop harming others.
    It is time we stop harming ourselves.
    It is time we get ‘happy’ into the consciousness of humankind.
    It is time we get ‘happy’.
    Here are two short articles on building happiness. Dr. Jacqueline Marie
    Maurice, Sixties Scoop Healing Foundation CEO writes: “‘Building Happiness’
    pushes the readership out of their comfort zone and into that deep
    consciousness that you write of and speak of. Way to go!”
    Happiness (2-minute read): (copy & paste):
    Building Happiness (4-minute read): (copy & paste):
    As always, love is the way,
    Miles Patrick Yohnke
    Please feel free to share this with your friends and colleagues and to post it on any social media that you use. Thanks for caring, sharing, and reading.

    • Thank you so much for both the original article and Miles Patrick Yohnke’s press release which I have already shared. It is interesting to note that several years (maybe even decades) ago, a study was conducted about happiness in children around the world. Unsurprisingly children in the United States were among the unhappiest, our country came in just above the United Kingdom. It appears that we have done little to ensure that fact has altered.
      Recently I found myself moping in my own studio and just stopped myself in my tracks and said “You’re not having FUN!” so I just stretched up a few canvases, ceased the unfulfilling creations I had been making and just PLAYED.

      • Dear Jane,

        I loved your response. I so appreciate one’s vulnerability. That, here I am. Here are my doubts. Here are my joys. I love hearing YOU! Indeed, we got to be joyous. Be playful. Always keep that child-like spirit. Bob did. Mr. Robert Genn never became boring. Never became a bitter old man.
        He gave us this community.
        He was always curious. He was always challenging himself. Which challenged us. Not one single thing I have wrote doesn’t have Robert looking over my left shoulder. I just loved how he wrote. How a paragraph could POP. Every time I write a article or a poem Mr. Genn is over my left shoulder. Now his daughter, Sara, she appears over my right shoulder. You are trying to meet their high standards.
        When people praise me for my thinking, my writings, they really need to get to my source, and that is the Genn family.
        I loved that you shared it, Jane. Thank you!
        I thank you for sharing it for one reason as I have a severe case of dyslexia. As a child I couldn’t read or write. I couldn’t even spell my own last name when I was nine years of age.
        Now people are sharing my writing? This never gets old or lost on me. My dad was tragically killed when I was 5. He was just 39. So you learn that tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. That time is all we have and here you are allowing me your time? I am just so grateful. Everything I write I don’t want to waste another person’s time. If your interested how I went from a complete retard to this post just copy & past this URL: salmonstudio.wixsite.com/yohnke/post/school-s-out
        I think my post is a little heavy. I think we need a joke? What happened when 500 hares got loose on Main Street? The police had to comb the area.
        As always, love is the way,
        Miles Patrick Yohnke

        • Dear Jaye,
          I deeply apologize for calling you Jane in my original post to you. I wish I could blame it on my severe case of dyslexia, but I’m just a cold, heartless person. I could have made Adolf Hitler cry. Jaye, you deserve better. Frank Lloyd Wright was referring to me with his quote: ““I’m all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with typewriters.”
          Your fool, friend,
          Miles Patrick Yohnke

    • Miles, so sorry about losing your cat, Van Gogh, 8 years ago–I know from experience it feels just like yesterday. I had an orange tabby, Pumpkin, who had a gaunt face due to difficulty in digesting food. I had been immersing myself in photos of Van Gogh’s self portraits all day long, and glanced over at my cat Pumpkin, only to be startled by the uncanny resemblance to a 3/4 profile photo of Van Gogh’s face, including the buzz cut of his orange hair/fur, the pronounced cheekbones, and the intense look in his eyes. Pumpkin lived to 20 yrs. old, but suffered with health issues all his life, but hung in there until the end, similar to Van Gogh.

      • Dear Jo,
        What a sweet reply-thank you! I am so sorry for your loss. 20 years, that is wonderful! R.I.P. (Rest In Paradise) Pumpkin Williams. I can tell you were not only a great cat owner, but you are a great human being as well.
        I wish I was more computer savvy, or able to share a photo of Van Gogh with you. With the community. If anyone is interested in seeing Van Gogh, please drop me a line at my website with your email address and I’ll send you a photo if you like.
        In the summer of 1995, I was in the beauty industry calling on salons. Selling them products. My customers were like family. I had two cats, Otis (beautiful silver tabby) and Milo (beautiful tuxedo cat). Of course, I had photos. They were my kids. One salon owner said: “Miles, those are beautiful cats, but I have one even more beautiful. It is a Maine Coon kitten. She said, the mother and the other kittens don’t like it. It needs to go to a great home. It needs to go to your home.” I told her I’d love to, but I live in an apartment. The salon was an 1 hour and 15 minutes away from me. The next day the guilt got the better of me and I phoned her. I’ll be out Saturday and pick it up. When I got to the salon, she said: “Miles, I can’t give you the kitten. Something happened to it last night. I don’t know if it was another kitten, or the mother, but part of its ear was cut off.” I replied: “That is perfect! I’ll call it Van Gogh!” Van Gogh was accepted beautifully by Otis & Milo. The apartment was full of love. Still live in the same apartment 30 years later.
        copy & paste to see, if your interested salmonstudio.wixsite.com/yohnke/post/apartment-23
        Well this has turned into a cat form. Not a art form. A art community. We need a joke again. What do you call a cat who loves to bowl? An alley cat!
        As always, love is the way,
        Miles Patrick Yohnke

        • Miles-you are a beautiful person! Love the story about how your cat Van Gogh got its name. Some cats seem to create their own names. One of my cats was a feral kitten we caught and adopted. I figured the label the vet would put on the carrier would read: Feral-Williams, so she became Furrell Williams, and to this day the vet cracks up every time she hears her name. Our other cat came to us as a 10 week old stray tortoiseshell (which I’d always wanted) on the very day the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf was capped. We named her BP because her fur is mainly black and tan, like an oil spill. Both these cats are my art “muses/meowses.” ;-D

          • Dear Jo,

            Those are great stories and names. Thank you for sharing them with me. With us. The following year, 1996, I walked into a salon. I quickly heard: “Miles, don’t open your bag. We have something to sell you today.” It turned out to be a 8-month-old cat. Pretty much all black. I figured we had three cats, one more wouldn’t hurt. We had Otis & Milo. Van Gogh needed a brother. Theodorus ? I told the salon I’d come back at the end of the night. At the end of my calls. I was 3 hours away from home on that trip. To this day I can clearly remember that trip back like it was this morning. The car I was driving had a bench seat and the cat jumped in just like a dog. Sat next to me, and was the best passenger one could ever ask for. We got home and it jumped out, again, just like a dog, and walked by my side into the apartment and up our four flights of stairs. We called it Theodorus for a short period of time. All the early vet records have that name, but the name just didn’t fit. So you know, I love espresso. Have a espresso maker in the apartment. It’s going morning, noon, and night. My partner, she said, you know this cat is black, and wound up like an espresso bean. We should call it Espresso. Espresso was a good buddy. Espresso died on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007 to kidney failure. Espresso was 18 pounds. Espresso was 11 years and 6 months old. Milo departed with cancer at just 5 years and six months old on Sep 19, 2000. Otis departed on Oct 24, 2011. Otis was 16 years old and eight months. For the record the apartment was theirs. We were just visiting. At least that was the look I got when I returned home. You know the look: “Where were you? Your two hours late. How dare you!”
            As always, love is the way,
            Miles Patrick Yohnke

          • Dear Jo,

            When I read that you named your one cat: “BP” after the British Petroleum oil spill I thought about a poem I wrote titled: “The Hope Depot.” I mention the BP oil spill in the poem. If you are curious in reading please copy & paste this URL:
            As always, love is the way,
            Miles Patrick Yohnke

  4. One of my fav animal creativity was in a box canyon near Moab, Utah. We were there to a string quartet in the natural amphitheater. Amazing enough! A raven on the canyon wall listened intently. Then she began to repeat musical phrases in key. It became a conversation between the composer, musicians and the raven.

    Let’s remember that if human creativity grew from play, we need to keep the playfulness in our creativity! Wyncia Clute

  5. Definitely corvids (crows, ravens, jays) are super-smart and if you offer them a bit of bread they can become your friend. Of course, you have to hang out in their circles to start. Love Ennion’s watercolors! As to happiness, I defer to Abraham Lincoln’s remark that “people are as happy as they choose to be”. Don’t expect this world to change. It hasn’t in all the millennia that mankind has walked our planet. Make your life by being engaged in something bigger than you are. In short, what you are doing’ now with your art, music, writing, beekeeping, etc. Happiness is fleeting, but staying engaged and present in your life is permanent and depends on you, not someone else.

  6. Last December, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and it moved me to tears. It’s the most transformational book I’ve read in a long time. In my youth I wanted to be a marine biologist, but now I’d rather celebrate the sea and all the life in it by painting it and surrounding myself with everything that reminds me of it. My studio has the feel of being underwater: seashells, model boats & paintings, nautical gear (vintage), banners and flags of mermaids, fish, and octopuses, including 3D toy stuffed octopuses everywhere, sharks, sea turtles, leafy sea dragons, sea horses, and mobiles of mermaids and seahorses hanging from the ceiling. Not only is this my happy place, I declare it with a bright yellow flag: Be Happy. (Miles-I can’t agree with you more on this!).

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