I designed this CD cover for the grunge band, The Quirks. I used my own photography and, of course, Adobe Photoshop.
My latest project: a diversity poster for Front Range Community College, Boulder.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I detest wrapping Christmas presents – or any presents for that matter. I don’t like wrapping paper full of smiling, generic snowmen, sappy snowflakes, and flatulent-looking Santas. Worse, I hate forking over money for paper that’s going to have a quick moment of glory only to end up in garbage dumps.
Fed up with this chore, which meets its apex during the December holiday season, I decided to – excuse the pun – think outside the box.
As an artist, I keep a large pile of “stuff” in my art studio to inspire me. But as a consumer, I also seem to accumulate a large pile “stuff” – papers that go too easily from hand to trash.
Several years ago, I started stashing all this extra “stuff” into baskets. My accumulation started to include:
I also decided not to throw away my doodles, practice art, disaster paintings (we all have them), kids’ art, scraps of unused paper, and paint test strips.
No more nice
During the Christmas season about three years ago, I dove into these baskets of junk and started taping and stapling things to boxes. I told myself to move fast and not think about matching colors or making it look “nice.”
The first year, everyone loved the packaging. With a boost in confidence, I got a bit zany the next year, trying to find humorous things to attach to packages. This year, I used holiday stamps on some of the wrapping.
It should look like this
However, I’m careful not to let thoughts like “it should like this” contaminate the process. I’ve now extended my wrapping philosophy to other gifts given throughout the year.
What I didn’t expect was the fun I now have wrapping. As an application of “everyday creativity,” it gave me that sense of satisfaction that I missed by using store-bought wrapping materials.
Happy Holidays, And Enjoy A Bravely Creative New Year!!!
by Lynn S. Schwebach
A lifelong friend who knows me quite well, called me while I was living in Chicago this past summer and asked me if I wanted to go with her to a party. “I know you’re going to love this. The party involves eating, drinking, and PAINTING.”
“I’m in,” I said, hearing painting and party in the same sentence. The party, my friend said, is a SMocK party. (Huh?)
Even though I’ve been a pastel painter for about 15 years, I’ve never painted with acrylics on canvas. And I usually paint in my home studio, alone, without 15 others painting alongside me. So, I admit, I was a bit nervous.
As I walked through the door of a funky Chicago condominium, my nervousness was eclipsed. I was in an old pencil factory converted into condos. I was drinking wine (helps the nerves), and meeting women with diverse backgrounds, careers, and talents. I was talking to the host, artist Yianna Angeloupoulos, a spunky, intriguing woman whose unlimited creativity sparkled behind her dark, Greek eyes.
Soon, Yianna yelled above the chatter. She took a crayon to a canvas and sketched for the group a very loose outline of the Chicago skyline. It wasn’t anything close to a masterpiece. In fact, she did it while hardly looking at the canvas.“This is what we’re painting tonight.”
Yianna stressed the importance of sketching creatively, of not trying not draw in every window of every skyscraper, of not trying to sketch in every building, every light, every cloud, every blade of grass – of not seeking perfection. “Go fast, and don’t worry.”
Then she marched us out of her condo and up the stairs to the roof of this amazing building, where the breathtaking Chicago skyline sat just beyond a few rooftops. She had us pick only one crayon, and said “draw.” A few of us watched others get started. The pressure began to subside. We were laughing and having fun. We were sketching with crayons!
Then we marched back down to the condo, where for the next few hours we continued to drink, eat, and paint “in” our skylines.
The results were as idiosyncratic and interesting as the assortment of people who Yianna gathered together on this hot July evening.
I was enchanted – and captivated. How did Yianna come up with this idea? What was her background? Looking around her condo, I could see she was an accomplished artist. I wanted to know more.
I caught up with her after I returned to Colorado, noticing recently on her Facebook page a new product – uniquely tied into her “SMocKing” concept. Bravely creative are the only words to describe Yianna.
Bravelycreative: What is the meaning of SMocK?
SMocK is my idea of when parties and painting mix.
Bravelycreative: Why and when did you start SMocK parties?
SMocK is really a new venture. The idea of SMocK was four years in the making, but work and life kind of gets the best of you, and often ideas are set aside. It wasn’t until February of 2012 that a couple of wonderful friends re-lit the fire and pushed me into having my first party. Thank goodness they did because it’s truly transforming into something special.
I started SMocK as a way of combining two of my favorite activities: art and entertaining. I love having friends come by and throwing parties, and I love sharing what drives the motor in me…painting. So I combined my teaching background, my art background, and my party planning into one – and SMocK came out of it.
Bravelycreative: What do you most enjoy about SMocKing?
I really enjoy watching people become artists. For one day, for 3 hours, they lose their inhibitions and embrace their creativity. I love watching how SMocKers start with “oh I can’t paint” to “look what I did!” It’s great!
Bravelycreative: Do any of your SMocKing participants start painting more and becoming more interested in art?
I think all of my SMocKing participants are interested in art but seem to have repressed their creative pursuits. I don’t know if they go off and buy canvases, paints and brushes, and set up shop at home, but I do have repeat SMocKers, which tells me that I have unleashed something – a wonderful creative beast.
Bravelycreative: Tell me your background. Where did you go to college? What got you interested in art? What is your medium when not SMocKing?
Well, I’m from a nice Greek family!! I am an art teacher going into my 13th year. I teach elementary-aged students.
I went to The University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, for undergraduate studies where I was a little ambitious. My studies led me to have three majors, and surprisingly enough, completed in 4 1/2 years. I have a BA in art history, a BFA in drawing and, of course, a teacher certification. I continued my studies in graduate school at New York University, NY, and was a student in the study abroad program for painting. I had the most amazing opportunity to spend two incredible summers in Venice, Italy and one summer in New York City. There is nothing like living the life of a Venetian painter in a city that surrounds you with magic, wonderment and beauty.
I really can’t pinpoint what started my interest in art. It’s just something in you. I tend to think it’s the creative side in all of us, but in some people it screams a little louder. Art, in my opinion, is engrained in everything, and it is something that you can’t avoid – from people, to places, to objects. It’s what links us as humans.
When not SMocKing, I do a little bit of painting, but mostly I am a metalsmith – I love creating wonderful silver jewelry. There is nothing more relaxing than lighting up a torch!
Bravelycreative: What do you enjoy about teaching art?
Every day there is always a new discovery, whether by my students or by me. I love seeing the smiles on my students’ faces when they have finished art projects and they are so proud of them. I love to see them making connections between art and the world. And I love knowing that my students’ experiences in my classroom affect them positively. And what’s not to love about teaching art? I have the wonderful privilege to be creative and make stuff every day, while passing my own excitement and enthusiasm along to young people.
Bravelycreative: I’ve heard that you donate the proceeds from your SMocKing parties to teaching art in Chicago Public Schools. Is this true? If so, why?
Yes, I do. I was collaborating on a separate project with a Chicago Charter School and I found out these kids did not receive any formal art education: no art teacher, no art room, nothing. I was just heartbroken. I thought to myself how can I take what I am doing and make a difference in the lives of these young students? And then I thought, “I’m gonna SMocK’em.”
I did a little bit of fundraising and had a couple of SMocK parties and before you know it, I transformed a third-grade classroom into an art studio for the day. Thirty-two wonderful students walked into their classroom bewildered but enjoyed a day of learning about an artist, painting on canvas and experiencing – for one day – something all children should have every day: art.
Bravelycreative: Anything you’d like to share with me regarding your life/art/smocking?
There is nothing more special than doing what you love every day. Whether in my classroom, a children’s birthday party, or painting with adults…I get my SMocK on.
xoxo, SMocK you. Yianna
Note to my friend, Susan Esbrook: This was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received! Thank you for taking me to a SMocK party!
Yianna now offers SMocKboxes!
What’s in it? a canvas, paints, brushes, markers…most importantly a 5 step simple guide to get you started on your drawing and painting. Packaged in a fabulously cute box -ready to give as a gift.
Each SMocKbox has a different guide to create something new and different every time!
Contact Yianna for more details and JOIN THE CLUB:
have fun, be creative, get your SMocK on!!!
by Lynn S. Schwebach
When you discover an author who is also a visual artist, you’re on the path to uncovering the secrets of creativity. Someone who works in both artistic domains is defying those experts who say we are either “word” people or “image” people.
Which happens to be the case with Audrey Niffenegger. After reading her 2003 book, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” I researched Niffenegger, curious as to how she wrote such a unique book. All fiction writers strive to innovate, but few are able to truly achieve.
The bios that I read on various websites and in her many interviews proved my suspicions correct. Niffenegger was as interesting as her first novel. She was in fact a visual artist, and a writer – and also a teacher.
Her paintings, artist’s books, drawings and comics have appeared at Printworks Gallery in Chicago since 1987. And “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” her first novel, was such a huge success, that Scribner, a unit of Simon & Schuster, bought the rights to publish her second novel, “Her Fearful Symmetry” for close to $5 million in 2009.
But how does she do it all? What are her secrets – her keys to the creative process? How does she seem to move so seamlessly between images and words? To take on so many projects in addition to teaching at Columbia College in Chicago?
When I found myself spending a month in Chicago this past summer, where Niffenegger lives, she gave me the opportunity to ask these questions. I was rewarded with a great – and inspiring – interview.
When I talked with Niffenegger, she was working on six major projects with two upcoming deadlines. One of those projects was a story for a ballet called “Raven Girl” for the London Royal Opera House Ballet. Collaborating with choreographer Wayne McGregor, the ballet premiers in May 2013.
Bravelycreative: How do you divide up your work? Do you spend a couple of hours each day writing , and then work on a drawing or painting?
I’m sort of deadline driven, and at the moment I have six largish projects, and the ones that are getting all the attention this summer are the ones with deadlines. So with the Raven Girl – everything has to be turned in at the end of August. Therefore I just get up everyday and work on that – everything else just goes by the wayside. Another thing I’m working on this summer is that I’m having a retrospective next spring of my artwork, and for that to happen, the catalog has to be entirely ready more or less the same time as Raven Girl, so that’s almost a housekeeping type of project as in answering questions like “What year did you do this painting?” and “What are the dimensions?”
If there were not deadlines at all, well then you just get up in the morning and ask yourself what you’re in the mood for.
Bravelycreative: Are you done with your third novel, “The Chinchilla Girl in Exile?”
No way. My first novel took five years and my second novel took seven years. This one is probably going to take longer just because of the other projects getting in the way.
Bravelycreative: How do you get stuff done when teaching?
I only teach one class a year. So it’s not that hard to squeeze it in.
Bravelycreative: I’ve participated in many writing workshops over the years. I always hear the advice: Get a day job that’s not creative like working in a coffee shop or an office so that you can save your creativity, writing in the morning or at night. Yet you switch between creative jobs. Does one feed the other? When working on your paintings or drawings, is the book idea percolating in the background?
“The Chinchilla Girl In Exile” will benefit by being on the slow burner while everything else is being attended to. I do think the more time you spend on something, not just the actual hours you spend on it, but the amount of time in your life that you live while doing it, can only benefit the project because you have more time to come up with more interesting solutions to problems.
Getting back to this idea of advising people to take jobs in coffee shops – that’s just bullshit. Unless someone is very interested in coffee, they should get the best, most interesting, most stimulating job they can get. I mean, please. The thought that we’re all going to be in food service until we get that book contract is just nuts.
Bravelycreative: In the field of the psychology of creativity, there’s this concept of a combinatory process or taking what’s in your memory and combining it with new, incoming information to create something original or to solve a problem. It seems to me that your idea of “living your life while working on a project” is a reference to this combinatory process.
My own experience is that in the beginning, most large projects begin very slowly, and most of the work is being done in your head. The more solid you feel about what you’re imagining, the easier it becomes to get it down on paper. And as it gathers more and more of a word count, the faster it will go. I’m not operating on cruise control with the setting at some specified rate. Some people just need numbers to get them to do it at all. Someone needs to say to them, write 2000 words or 10,000 words a day – a game they have with themselves.
Bravelycreative: Do you have those “aha” moments that provide solutions to problems you’re trying to solve?
For me, the book should feel from the very beginning – when you are reading it – as though everything that’s going to happen in the book is possible and present in the beginning. The idea that you would start writing and on page 300 you make a discovery – to me that would show in the writing and might not feel like the whole book is integrated.
For example, I recently thought to myself: There are two characters in the new novel that until recently I didn’t think had anything to do with each other, and then I suddenly realized that they ought to have an affair. So now when I write the scene when they meet each other, it will be a different scene than what I would have written had they meant nothing to each other – ever. It makes foreshadowing possible.
Bravelycreative: When I read your other interviews, I hear you talk about starting in the middle or at the end of the book and working backwards. This sounds to me like you’re “designing” the work, which is similar to drawing or painting. In other words, visual artists are often taught not to spend an inordinate amount of time on one area but to sketch in the whole image and then work back, sketching in around the picture or image.
Yes, it’s very similar. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” was written all over – a bit here and a bit there. The ending was written first. . But I had in my head a kind of architecture for it that made it possible to skip around and let the characters be who they were no matter what age they were in a given scene.
Bravelycreative: Am I making a huge jump to say that when I look at your art on your website, I see a connection between the timing of your novels and your visual art? For example some of the art that you were working on while thinking about or working on “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and also “Her Fearful Symmetry” remind me of those books.
I hope they’re connected. It’s interesting to have a retrospective because it makes you go back and look at all your old stuff, which I rarely do. It makes me realize that I do return over and over again to similar ideas. I always sort of prided myself on having a diverse body of work, but now that I have 30 years of work behind me, I look back and say, oh, I was actually somewhat consistent. I mean, there are certain themes that just come back over and over again.
Bravelycreative: You became a visual artist before you were an author, and I know you were always interested in bookmaking, and you’ve done fine art books. But did you make a separation in your head between writing and art, or did you always consider yourself both an artist and writer?
Very early on I thought of doing both. My mother is an artist and also an English major so I grew up in a house full of books. I was encouraged by all the adults around me – teachers and so forth – to do both and was praised for both. It was my own preference to go to art school. It never occurred to me to get a writing degree.
Bravelycreative: For me, working in both writing and painting is a challenge. For instance when writing, sometimes I have to physically to turn my brain off, or switch my brain, or feel different parts of my brain working. It’s hard to describe.
The physical feeling of switching back and forth I think is quite real. If you’re attentive and you’re paying attention, you really can feel it. Take the example of a figurative drawing class. Students come in and make all this chit chat: what did you do over the weekend; where should we put the model – here or make him lie down? But then once everyone settles in, no one talks. My God, you couldn’t talk and draw at the same time. All the language receptors in your brain are switching off because you have to look and it’s so different – when the drawing is going well, there’s a literal sensation in your head. I couldn’t really tell you what it is… it’s almost like a meditation.
However, comics is one area where both writing and drawing processes are taking place. These authors are able to switch back and forth.
Art students that I teach are much better at developing their writing skills than the writers are at developing their drawing or art skills. One reason is that our educational system has put so much effort into teaching us how to read and write, and virtually no effort into teaching us how to draw or think visually. People in many fields have to read and write, but if you’re not actually a visual artist, nobody is demanding that you draw anything.
But people can be taught to look and see and draw without a huge herculean effort.
A couple of years ago I was teaching a course called “Visual Book.” The point of the class was to take a bunch of writers and help them develop their visual thinking. We did a bunch of exercises that involved putting images with words. I assigned each of them to do a one page comic, and they could do whatever they wanted. One student told me she wanted to do a story about people but that she couldn’t draw – not even stick figures. So here’s a comic about a worm. And I said “oh this is very sad” and so the next class I said, okay everybody, we’re going to have a drawing lesson. I used exercises from Betty Edwards’ book “Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain” and by the end of the class, they were drawing portraits of each other. That was probably one of the more informative classes that I’ve ever taught from the point of me kind of experimenting with people to see what you are able to do because the difference was so startling. The students were startled – they couldn’t believe that they could actually learn to draw.
Bravelycreative: Do you think you can teach people how to be creative?
The job of the teacher is to provide the correct limitations so that when students do exercises, the exercises actually force them to have certain kinds of “thinking experiences.” You’re getting them to think differently. You’re not trying to produce a particular kind of idea – you’re trying to get them to go through a different route in coming up with a solution. You’re trying to change their processes. So for me, the most fruitful thing has been in class exercises in which they have to do things to which there is no correct solution, and usually it’s timed so that the stakes aren’t that high. You have to artificially simulate conditions that artists have for themselves when actually creating.
Bravelycreative: So you’re teaching divergent thinking, or coming up with as many different solutions to a problem as possible. How do you then get them to choose the best solution – when working on a book or painting, for example?
In class we talk about how ideas are a dime a dozen but it’s recognizing the better ideas. Experienced artists have a track record and they can tell if an idea is fitting in with what they’re already doing – they recognize something as being for them or for this particular work. Most artists who have worked for awhile know not to toss something just because it’s startling. So part of it is about practice. As a student you don’t have it.
One thing useful for writers is reading out loud and feeling the response of the audience or classmates. Sometimes people just don’t know what they’ve got. There’s just a vibe in the room when an idea really hits people.
Also the process of editing. I teach people how to edit and how to be edited. And this idea that okay you’re going to open your mind to hearing someone else’s ideas about your work, and of course, what you’re doing is listening attentively and quietly so if someone is giving you a good piece of advice you can recognize it.
The problem of talking about all of this is – what’s a good idea for one person is a useless idea for someone else. So it’s all very individual.
Bravelycreative: Have I overlooked anything on creativity?
Suzanne Cohan-Lange founded the Interdisciplinary Arts Department at Columbia College – the department I taught in before moving to the Fiction Writing Department. She always would say: “We teach courage.” I think that is actually really important that people have to somehow learn to be fearless, because if you’re too worried about how something will be received or if people will think you’re nuts, you can’t really get the most out of your creativity. The self-censorship, this fear that you’re not coloring in between the lines,I think scotches a lot of amazing stuff before it has a chance to take shape. And so I would encourage people to be fearless.
See Audrey Niffenegger’s website for more information on her artwork, books, and upcoming projects.
Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm, artists, Chicago, Christopher House, community garden, creativity, designing a garden, feeding the poor, garden artists, Logan Square, paper artists, paper making, sustainable gardening, visual artists, volunteering
by Lynn S. Schwebach
Sometimes when intentions are good and solutions for helping others and the world are the goals, creativity snowballs, breeding ideas that are truly innovative and unique.
Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has a corner – literally – on this type of creativity. The Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm at 3240 W. Altgeld St., started out as a community garden, but ideas about how to employ the Farm’s resources grew faster than the plants.
Unlike many other community gardens, individuals growing produce at Altgeld Sawyer do not take their fresh vegetables home – they donate their output to the Christopher House located directly across the street. As a resource center for families at or below the poverty line, Christopher House runs educational programs, and provides a food pantry for these families, offering produce from Altgeld Sawyer.
This Corner Farm also serves as an outdoor classroom for the students and teachers of Christopher House, enabling research projects and encouraging families to tend and water the garden.
A Unique Community Garden
But its mission doesn’t stop there. What makes this community garden especially unique is its artistic emphasis, serving as a habitat for plants like milkweed, marigolds, and lilies that artists use for paper-making fibers and dyes. And it often serves as an outdoor artist’s gallery, featuring artists from the Chicago area.
Chicago artist Laurie Wessman LeBreton recently displayed her installation “A Color Can Be A Prayer” in the garden. She started early in the morning, hanging about 120 of her colorful handmade flags made of abaca paper – made from a type of banana plant. Abstract spiritual symbols made of foil were centered on the flags.
The flags are reminiscent of Buddhist prayer flags, Wessman LeBreton told me standing amidst her art which flapped in the Chicago wind, as if on cue, against the bamboo poles they were mounted on. They were spread across the raised beds and berms, competing at times with the yellow of towering sunflowers.
“There’s something powerful and creative about a garden, and the prayer concept ties in nicely,” she said. “It’s a humble setting, and I like that.”
Wessman LeBreton’s flags hung only for about 9 hours in the garden on a Saturday in July. They will be included in her art show in October at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
This artist’s interest in papermaking happens to fit in with the Corner Garden’s history – and the founders’ goals. The idea for the project started with Logan Square residents Margaret Hartmann and Noah Swinney Stein wanting to start a community garden on a vacant lot at the intersection of West Altgeld and North Sawyer. The lot’s owner, Al Jakich, let them start planting in the Spring of 2009 on his land that had sat empty for 30 years.
Brie Callahan, the communications lead for Altgeld Sawyer, said that vacant lots attract crime. The founders knew that filling the space would make the neighborhood safer because people would be in the garden working, meeting, and learning.
Serendipitously, Logan Square resident Shayna Cohen (now Shayna Norwood), a papermaker, printmaker, and fine artist, wanted to develop a community garden where fibers for the papermaking process would be grown alongside vegetables for the community. She had been awarded a $5,000 Aiko Fellowship in May 2009 from the Columbia College Book and Paper Department to begin developing such a project.
After meeting Noah and Margaret, the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm began its unique existence. Not only was this a community garden that would supply the neighborhood’s food pantry, it would help combat crime, and become a haven for Chicago artists.
Callahan, also a garden volunteer and neighborhood resident, stressed that the community garden is run entirely by volunteers with full-time jobs who donate their time.
She pointed to tomato plants that she started from seeds she saved from last year’s garden. Planting from seeds, of course, saves Altgeld Sawyer a lot of money. The organization only runs about two small fundraising events each year, each generating about $500.
Callahan also pointed out the 4 compost bins set in back of the garden. Residents from the neighborhood can bring any organic produce they would normally throw away to the bins, and it all goes back into the garden. And she pointed out the 4 community herb beds. Anyone from Logan Square, whether a Corner Farm member or volunteer, or merely a resident, can take herbs from the Farm.
Those who grow plants in the garden bring their interests to the soil. Some are into wildflowers, others into the plants that produce dyes, still others like Callahan, love kale and tomatoes. One person happens to know a lot about harmful insects and plant diseases.
“Basically, if you have an idea, you can try it,” Callahan said. She pointed to a raised bed where someone was experimenting with the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash.
Each year the volunteers learn more, and the garden gets better, she added. They have learned how to rotate crops, for example, and to keep harvesting and planting to keep production high.
Help Feed the Hungry
However, their main goal remains to stock the food pantry, which serves a large number of Hispanic families. With that in mind, the Farm grows hot peppers, basil, and chili peppers – all main ingredients for Hispanic tastes and foods.
This ambitious group of volunteers wants to keep helping food pantries beyond Christopher House, so they are currently developing another community garden only a few blocks from Altgeld Sawyer, at the intersection of Kimball and Medill Streets.
For creative ideas on community volunteering and sustainable gardening, it will be worth watching how this new garden comes to life. Visit the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm for more information.
by Lynn S. Schwebach
Looking back on her life, Amy Malysa observes a pattern: about every 10 years she reinvents herself – which she admits, on further reflection, is a way to continually express her creativity while giving back to those who have gone before.
Sitting in the Mexican restaurant Tenochtitlan on Western Ave. in Blue Island, Ill., she ordered a strong coffee with cinnamon, telling the waitress that she loves cinnamon and to make sure they add “a lot.” We sat in front of a window that looked out across sun-drenched Western Ave., facing a large white movie marquee advertising the movies Psycho and Night of the Living Dead.
The movie sign is in front of the Lyric Theater, and we are discussing the “Lyric Theater Project,” or at least that is the topic that brought us together on this hot July Sunday morning. The theater officially closed in the late 1980′s for movies, and reopened under many different businesses over the years.
Amy’s energy and enthusiasm about the project, and Blue Island in general, are compelling. And her comment about reinventing herself in order to bring her to this point in her life, and this project, raises more questions in my mind than I have time to ask. I have to keep reminding myself that we’re here to discuss the Lyric.
Saving the Lyric
Working full time as the youth services manager at Alsip-Merrionette Park Public Library, Amy also manages various properties – residential, industrial, and commercial – owned by her family. Restoring the Lyric has become her third job, often consuming many of her nights and weekends. Saving and restoring buildings, however, runs in her family.
Amy’s grandfather bought the Lyric – which originates back to 1917 – and rebuilt it in 1962 after a fire in 1960 completely gutted it. Both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have fond memories of growing up on the South Side and going to The Lyric.
“These buildings, this town, my family, this theater, it’s about holding on to something that you love. Saving buildings is about trying to make a difference and honor all the hard work of those who have come before you – not throwing that away,” Amy said to me before sipping her cinnamon coffee.
South Side Chicago
Characteristically South Side Chicago, Blue Island was founded in the mid 1800s by immigrants and was sustained by heavy industry, including the Rock Island Railroad, brick-making factories, and eventually, oil refineries. Similar to other South Side neighborhoods and communities, Blue Island has the deep wrinkles and aging spots found among Chicago’s financially struggling neighborhoods – communities experiencing white flight, and plagued with racial conflict. But as you drive through its neighborhoods, there are still homes of magnificent architecture and gardens of silken flowers. The sound of train whistles hits you from every direction, still rattling windows.
On this languid Sunday morning, Amy talks of how she loves “this town” and isn’t about to give up on it – a bit ironic since Amy, now 53, fled Blue Island when she was 19 for more artistic, culturally diverse experiences. “I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign for one semester after high school and hated it,” she said. “I wasn’t your traditional student who wanted to live in a sorority and go to football games and parties on the weekends.” She said she craved creativity, and went out East to live.
After returning 12 years ago, she found her hometown had changed radically, but she also found herself changed as well, and that – paradoxically – allowed her to stay. It was hard for her to express why, but she knows it has to do with what they call “coming full circle.” She also saw potential in the town she once fled.
A Community Arts Center
Her goal is to turn the Lyric into a community arts center. Her family still owns the building, but its renters over the past 25 years haven’t been successful, and she knew she had to take it over herself to try and make it thrive.
To help her find a stable tenant, with the ultimate goal of having the tenant handle the arts programming and scheduling, she formed a nonprofit.
Community volunteers wanting to see the Lyric Theater come back to life have completed all the repainting, remodeling, and cleaning, and Amy has spent many late evenings in the theater working.
“When we took the building back from its previous renter, the walls were teal and pink – just like the 1990s and Miami Vice. Oh my God. It was awful.”
On the evening of July 13th, the Lyric Theater reopened, showing the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho. Over 160 people turned out for the premiere. Vintage automobiles from the era of the movie (1960) lined Western Ave. in front of the theater.
“It was amazing,” Amy said, remarking that so many people remember the Lyric and came back to honor those memories. But there’s still so much work to do and not a whole lot of money to get it done. Three movies are scheduled for July, but she said in order to become financially viable, the nonprofit needs to have ongoing, weekly – or even daily – events.
A Lifetime of Experience
I asked Amy if she ever thought, when she left Blue Island all those years ago, if she would be back doing this.
“Never. But I realize that everything I’ve done in my life, everything that I’ve been interested in, or invested myself in, I put to use on this project.”
Which brings the conversation back to her life. After leaving Illinois at age 19, Amy lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a house with six other people – all artists and writers. She became interested in photography, taking classes at Harvard University in the evening, and setting up a darkroom in her bathroom.
While working various jobs including interior house painting, she eventually graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University in Boston, as well as a master’s degree in library science.
She fell in love while in New England, and simultaneously became interested in organic farming while managing a community garden in Cambridge. Eventually, she moved to Vermont to live with her boyfriend and farm 90 acres. It was there that she started her own flower business, driving for two hours every week to Boston to sell the flowers at outdoor markets.
Returning to Blue Island
When Amy’s relationship ended, she needed space and time to heal. Ironically – or maybe not so ironically – she landed back in Blue Island. Yet it was running her own business – and farming − that taught her so much about becoming a community organizer and activist.
Finding oneself, at least for Amy, meant coming back to help her family and community.
It’s been over 10 years in one place now, and I ask her what’s next. Something is brewing, she said almost whispering. I know I’ll be doing something different in three years. But first, she claims, she has to bring this project to its completion.
by Lynn S. Schwebach
Authors working at the start of the 20th century – Henry James, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham – traveled widely throughout the U.S. and Europe, often residing in different “summer” and “winter” locales. Many of these writers’ iconic characters did the same, which added to their complexity and interesting lifestyles.
Creative individuals of all genres romanticize this type of vagabond lifestyle, but point to lives with economic constraints, families, jobs, and the practicalities of daily life keeping one at home. Commercial destinations such as Walt Disney World or fancy beach resorts often come nicely wrapped in packages that require little planning – but often end with large bills.
This is not to say that themes parks or beaches aren’t fun or beneficial for relaxing. Yet many desire to immerse themselves into a city or town different from one’s own without spending exorbitant sums of money – and acting as a typical tourist.
Thanks to today’s information technology, creative travel options abound, giving every type of traveler the possibility of different types of extended stay options. For instance, those with virtual jobs such as computer programmers, educators with summers off, and entrepreneurs, are now able to work from remote locations for weeks or months at a time.
I recently used a website to locate a long-term rental in Chicago, a common destination for me because of friends and family. However, I wanted something that provided a more home-like environment so that I could bring my writing and painting with me, and which gave me the chance to work and live in this vibrant city.
You might ask what the benefits are of working or living for more than a week in a remote city or country. I personally believe that the benefits are essential, but that’s just my opinion. However, creativity researchers now support my personal hypothesis. What authors knew more than a century ago, scientists and researchers now prove: travel helps fuel creativity. In other words, it’s a cerebral boost for helping our minds expand and think differently, giving us the space we all need for breakthroughs and new, novel approaches to solving problems.
William Maddux, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD in France, studies how cross-cultural experiences affect individuals’ creativity. He, along with Adam D. Galinsky, professor of ethics and decision in management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, studied and compared students who live overseas to those without that experience.
In a published article, they reported that students who had lived overseas solved problems better and faster than those who hadn’t traveled. Their findings led them to conclude that foreign travel directly contributed to open-minded thinking, which led to better problem-solving abilities.
The good news is that other researchers have found that any type of travel – overseas or within one’s own country or even within one’s own mind – generates new ways of thinking.
Lile Jia, a PhD graduate student in psychology at Indiana University (IU) Bloomington, showed that merely thinking about distant places helps expand creativity. In his studies, participants never physically leave the campus. Rather, he has them solve problems by imagining how someone in another country or a different part of the United States might derive answers to a specific task.
For example, he gave brain teasers to different groups of students. He told one group that the brain teasers came from individuals living in California. Compared to students who thought the brain teasers came from those on the IU campus, or weren’t told where the brain teasers came from, those who thought the brain teasers came from California did much better at solving the puzzles.
In another study with similar results, he told one group of participants that other students studying abroad in Greece developed a task that derived different modes of transportation. He told another group of participants that students living on the IU campus actually invented the modes of transportation task.
He then asked both groups of students to try and match the modes of transportation developed by their peers. Those participants who thought that students in Greece developed the task came up with significantly different and more transportation options, and they were much more creative options than the group who though that IU students developed the task.
In summary, Jia hypothesized that increasing psychological distance, even by simply stating that the source of a problem came from another state or country, increased creative thoughts and insights.
So are you wanting to get away to increase your creativity but you’re not crazy about the sterile environment and often high cost of a hotel room? And you don’t want to merely travel within your thoughts?
The website Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) is a great place for creative travel alternatives. The site lists privately owned homes, apartments, condominiums, cottages, and cabins that individuals rent on a usually a weekly or monthly basis. Depending on the location, size, and number of travelers, the prices can be much less expensive than staying in a hotel.
Coloradoans Mary Halcomb and her husband Gary used VRBO while traveling in Spain, staying in apartments in Madrid and Barcelona.
“We love VRBO because you can read traveler reviews, find tips for restaurants and sights, and plan access to public transportation before you even get to your destination. It is wonderful to have a ‘home’ feeling while traveling, living in a real neighborhood, instead of a hotel environment. We enjoy the opportunity to shop in the local markets and cook some of our own meals.”
This autumn, they plan to use VRBO while traveling to Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Vienna.
TripAdvisor is another website that offers both hotel accommodations and rentals by owner. This is where I found a property “North of Chicago” offfered by Maggi. Her cottage has been an ideal retreat for me to pretend that I’m a real writer, living like Edith Wharton or Henry James, finding inspiration in my summer lodgings.
And yes, I’m more creative in a neighborhood that is walking distance to Lake Michigan and restaurants, where a full-size sculpture of a horse sits in the front yard, and a Kandinsky poster hangs on the living room wall – and I can peer out my kitchen window at Maggi’s idyllic garden.
I give it five creative, unusual stars. I call these stars hoof prints. I’ll let you know how many hoof prints my next destination receives.