Montclaire Elementary School
The best response I have heard to the complaint, “I don’t have any good ideas!” is this: “Show me your bad ideas.”
When we terrified of the possibility of trotting out a few bad ideas, we can censor out too much too early and then feel creatively stuck. Bad ideas are awkward and embarrassing. No one wants to experience the discomfort of claiming ownership of a bad idea. Unfortunately, we can’t always know upfront which of our creative brainchildren are going to be our winners and which…not so much. (In 1984 we all thought our poofed-out hairstyles were awesome.) Since my business depends on cranking out new designs on the regular, I don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for the angels to descend with a perfect and fully formed flash of brilliance. I have to be willing to get some mud on my face.
When I start to design a mural I step into the river of ideas that are within my reach, whatever comes to mind. I let hunches, experience, curiosity, and play pull me to follow the ideas on hand I find most intriguing. Just a few mediocre ideas will get the ball rolling. In my own creative process, I have learned to trust that the “wrinkles” in my mediocre designs will get ironed out during the execution. Sometimes this makes my clients nervous, but the creative tension, the leap, of “will this turn out?” is also part of what I find most exciting about making art. Trusting your creativity is like starting a conversation with a stranger. I didn’t realize chit-chat was a learned skill until recently, emerging from a year of isolation and feeling rusty with basic conversation skills. Creativity is the same: it’s a learnable habit. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
On my most recent project at Montclaire Elementary, my clients and I decided to base the design on feedback from a survey sent to the graduating 5th-grade students about what they felt was unique about their school culture and traditions. I received a laundry list of items to work from including “WATSA”, the annual 5k & carnival fundraiser, the Third grade “Tiger Creek” town reenactment, the “Big Blue” play structure (It wasn’t blue, so no one was sure why it was named that), the running club, and the school mascot, Monte. I did my best to “meet spec”, but the designs I came up with felt literal and uninspired.
I went back and forth with the client making minor edits, trying to find the sweet spot between giving the clients what they wanted (and not disappointing the kids if all their ideas did not make it into the mural), and also something that as an artist I would feel proud of. When the day came to paint I wasn’t thrilled with the design yet. My plan was to show up and just trust that the “onsite inspiration” would carry the day.
That day came. I showed up at the agreed-upon time to start painting the mural. I taped off the area and start sketching in the design with my paints. I notice the fundraising leadership team assembling behind me. They want to talk.
-Hi team, what’s up?
-(Awkward silence.) We don’t like the design.
-OK….(wet brush still in my hand.)
-We think it is too literal. We wanted to include the kids’ ideas but now we think something just flowy and more “artful” would be better. What if we let go of needing to represent all these traditions and school landmarks and you create a composition that flows together and is just beautiful to look at?
-Like, on the spot? Just paint it?
-Yes, we trust you.
Anointed with creative freedom, I roll up my sleeves and start creating, not only from the standpoint of “what do the clients want” but with a more open aperture of what would be beautiful? We were all happy with the outcome.
The thing is, I want to offer upfront certainty and well-thought-out designs for my clients. It seems unethical to expect a client will pay a 50% deposit with no idea what they will get until I arrive. For many clients, particularly cities, schools, and businesses, the design is required to gain required approvals and build consensus. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, a digital design created while sitting in my studio, sketching on a small tablet, is not going to deliver the same quality of ideas that are calibrated to the space as in situ inspiration.
Mountain View, CA
Last month I was commissioned to create artwork for a new yoga studio, Crave. The client and I settled on Indian henna-inspired designs with a metallic color palette. The client and I were both excited about the designs, we thought the ideas were going to be perfect.
When I started painting onsite, my ideas about what color and quantity of artwork would serve the space shifted. Instead of gold metallic, I went with a soft rose-grey, transitioning to charcoal towards the floor for a subtle grounding effect. That palette felt calming and integrated well with the industrial bones of the space. I chopped one of the “ornaments” in half because conflicted with existing structural elements more than I anticipated. I also had an insight regarding a dark accent wall that was not initially under consideration, but once onsite I realized would be perfect for a solitary metallic element, which could continue the design started on the far wall and visually unify the space. I checked in with the client along the way, but it was clear to both of us by the end that all the tweaks vastly improved upon the design that I had started with. It wasn’t that my initial ideas were bad, they were just not finished ripening.
Crave will hold its grand opening early September. See you in yoga class!
San Jose, CA
Typically, my repeat clients know the drill and trust my creative process. On the far end of the trust spectrum is Helen Kamali. Helen teaches kindergarten at Noddin Elementary, where I painted a large garden mural in 2019. Yesterday afternoon I went out and put create flourishes on a playhouse in the kinder yard. I don’t think Helen and I exchanged a word about what I would paint, she just said, Do your thing on the playhouse. Improv painting is its own sport, and I love it. I arrived onsite with no idea what I would paint. My inner dialog while I painted went something like this:
Well, hello, little playhouse. Don’t you look a bit serious today. Let’s start with a welcome mat, maybe some honeybee-inspired stripes? There you go. And what would every little kid want for their welcome home? A puggle wagging its tail in greeting. Perfect. All these windows to chat through…What are their favorite storylines? When my son Lucas was in kindergarten he loved to run small businesses, take customer orders, and yell the orders back to the “kitchen” (which was my daughter, age two, unfazed by his display of authority.) When I ordered something from the menu, sometimes he would say, “No, sorry we are all out of that today.” So, under the “flavors of the day” menu posted, let’s have a couple of the items scratched out. And make sure the flavors listed are NOT readable because the kids can come up with waaaay better flavors than I can think up. And a flower shop! Why not HUGE flowers? This is make-believe, after all. That way they can also be noticed and enjoyed by the adjacent street traffic. I hope these kids are eating healthy. How about a fruit stand to build demand up for fruit at recess?
I hid a control panel inside the playhouse and loaded it with switches, buttons dials, a radar screen, and an intercom – all painted of course. Maybe the playhouse has a secret moat that can be deployed, or perhaps the playhouse can transform into a hovercraft. Limitless possibilities contained in one imaginary switchboard. I hope the kids have as much fun playing in the playhouse as I did.
Embracing a quirky creative process is preferable to deciding your ideas are somehow deficient. Are you denying the world your creative contributions because you just haven’t given your “still ripening” ideas enough breathing room to take shape? Every creative idea goes through an awkward phase, don’t judge it too soon. Take your imperfect ideas out for a walk, play with them, give them your attention and love, and see if they don’t grow into something beautiful that you will feel good about sharing with others.