The Creative Struggle

By Julie Burstein
Artist Chuck Close in front of his self-portrait [© Henning Kaiser/AFP]

It is difficult to watch our children struggle, whether it is with illness, schoolwork or in differences with their friends. At work and in our communities, it is usually frightening to acknowledge failure, to discover that we need to develop a new approach to a problem we thought we had solved. In our relationships with family and friends, it may feel easier and less hurtful to avoid the friction of opinions different from our own. But what artists show us is that these challenges are not just unavoidable: struggle, failure and difference can become sparks for our creativity.

Engaging Adversity

This is certainly true for the painter Chuck Close. He knew from the time he was a small child that he would be an artist. But for Close, art wasn't just fun, it was his most powerful way to connect, because he has severe learning disabilities. "In the 40s or 50s no one knew from learning disabilities; I was just dumb," Close says. "I learned early on that since I wasn't athletic, I couldn't run or throw or catch a ball, I needed to do something to keep people around me. I began to realize that one of the things I could do that my friends couldn't do was draw."

Close's disabilities shaped both his subject and technique. He paints huge portraits, mostly of friends and family members, yet he suffers from a disorder called prosopagnosia, or face blindness; he can't remember faces in three dimensions. If you met him today and then ran into him tomorrow, he wouldn't recognize you. But once he paints a face, flattening it into two dimensions, he can hold on to it.

Close describes his artistic approach as "building" a painting. "Part of my learning disability was being overwhelmed by the whole, and I found it to be particularly helpful to use a grid to isolate one small piece that I could work on and forget about the rest of the picture." Early on, he erased the penciled grid, but in his later portraits he lets the grid show, allowing us into his process and his unique way of seeing.

The novelist Richard Ford, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, describes a similar childhood challenge. He says that he didn't read for pleasure until he was almost 20 years old, because he is severely dyslexic. "I went all the way through school not really reading more than the minimum, and still to this day can't read silently much faster than I can read aloud," Ford says. "But there were a lot of benefits to being dyslexic for me, because when I finally did reconcile myself to how slow I was going to have to do it, then I think I came into an appreciation of all those qualities of language and of sentences that are not just the cognitive aspects. The syncopations, the sounds of words, what words look like, where paragraphs break, where lines break, all the poetical aspects of language. I wasn't so badly dyslexic that I was disabled from reading; I just had to do it really slowly. And as I did--lingering on those sentences, as I had to linger--I fell heir to language's other qualities which I think has helped me write sentences."

The Benefit of Failure

Failure is often an essential element in the quest to develop a unique perspective. As a young artist, Richard Serra considered himself a painter, and lived in Florence, Italy, for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. While there, he traveled to Madrid, where he saw Las Meninas, Diego Velásquez's masterpiece from 1656. It's a huge painting of a young princess and her servants, and Velásquez has put himself in the picture, too. "I was standing there looking at it," Serra recalls, "and I realized that Velásquez was looking at me. In most paintings, the subject was depicted in the frame, but here was a reversal, where the perspective of the painting was outside of the painting, as if a wall had fallen down and there was a transparent box. There was a projection forward, where I was part of the painting. And I thought, 'I am the subject.'

Walking through a Richard Serra sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City [© Mario Tama/Getty Images]

"I couldn't do that in painting. I was at the point where I was using a stopwatch and painting squares out of randomness, and wasn't getting anywhere. So I went back and dumped all my paintings in the Arno and thought, 'I'm just going to start playing around.'"

Focused play became his serious pursuit. After moving to New York, Serra put together a list of verbs--more than a hundred of them--which reads like a poem of directions for what he could do to various materials, beginning with "to roll, to curve, to crease," and ending with "to continue." By instruction number four, "to lift," Serra realized he had hit upon something important. "I took a piece of rubber that was about 4 feet wide, 12 feet long, and took it on its center edge, and lifted it up," Serra says. "I thought, 'Oh, jeez, it's free-standing, this is interesting, and it has a volume like sculpture.' You do these things and you think, 'Oh, lay it back down and try something else.' And I had that one up long enough to come back day after day to think, 'Well, I could put my name on this one, right?'"

That one--To Lift--is now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This exploration led Serra to create huge curves of steel that invite us to walk through and around. Because his immense sculptures take time and motion to fully experience, Serra succeeded in doing what he failed to accomplish through his paintings--he makes us the subject of his sculpture.

Collaborating with Difference

Many artists who work collaboratively talk about allowing the tension between two divergent points of view to move their work forward. The power of that tension is beautifully described by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. They have been professional and personal partners since the 1960s (they married in 1967), and describe how difference is a crucial component of their creative lives.

Venturi says he often thinks about something the poet T. S. Eliot pointed out, that the creative process consists enormously of criticism. "You don't invent all the time. When you get an idea, you try it out, then you critique it. You work much of the time as a critic of your own ideas. I think Denise and I are very much critics of our own and each other's ideas."

Scott Brown responds: "We jump-start the design process by batting ideas around between us. Our ideas bounce back and forth. We cap each other's ideas. Sometimes we argue. I say, 'I don't think it's working this way.' He replies, 'Of course it's working.' But I reply, 'Couldn't you consider such and such, do it this way?' And he, 'No, no, you can't do that.' Then, a day or so later he'll say, 'Remember what you said? Well, look what I did.'"

These artists' stories offer inspiration. Creating anything is difficult, and the process is often fraught with obstacles, failure and resistance to change. But in art, as in life, these challenges can also reveal the growing edge of new ideas.

Julie Burstein is the creator and founding executive producer of Studio 360, the Peabody Award-winning weekly public radio program produced in New York which explores the artistic and creative process. She is the author of Spark: How Creativity Works (Harper 2011).