Everyone Is Creative


In reading the new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, I was struck by a story about an incurable brain disease.

And, like someone was trying to send me a message, the next day I listened to a Radiolab podcast with Jonah Lehrer as a guest talking about the same disease.

I was destined to write about it.

The Story

In brief, the stories in both the book and the podcast talk about a woman, “a brilliant biologist” who one day decides to quit her work as a biologist and, instead, become an artist… full-time.  Of course, her husband found it odd.  The biologist hadn’t studied art or trained or even had any experience, just a strong and sudden need to create.

She painted and painted and painted more, up to 10 hours a day in her studio.

She got better.  She began getting some high-profile commissions.  She began to get some gallery showing and had her work featured in exhibitions.  She painted for the next 15 years until she died of the very disease that unlocked her creativity.

Unlocking Creativity

It’s called frontotemporal dementia.  The disease destroys the prefrontal cortex.  According to Jonah, “As a result, nothing is repressed: the raw perceptions processed in the right temporal lobe of the cortex… are suddenly unleashed into the stream of consciousness.”

In the case of individuals with frontotemporal dementia, the disease creates an irreversible decline that starts with the need to… create.

What’s interesting is that we all experience, the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex, every night once we fall asleep.

Of course no one wants to shut down his or her prefrontal cortex just to create, but here’s the thing…

It debunks the long-lasting myth that only some people are creative and others are not.

Story after story about sufferers of frontotemporal dementia show regular non-artistic folks becoming highly creative and becoming good at it.

What Does this Mean?

Well from my perspective, it means everyone has the capacity to be creative.  That means you, me and all of the people we work with.

The idea that one must be creative to appreciate new things like using images to facilitate is simply wrong.

We all have the capacity to use creative tools, to enjoy creative things, to express creatively and to simply be creative.  The problem is suppression.

Once we practice suppressing self-expression and inhibit our impulses we stop those natural creative abilities. 

This means we need to be more active in the practice of letting ourselves go.  We need to make it safe to express.  We need to make it okay to let others express.  We need to be okay with expressing ourselves as well.

The next time someone says they aren’t creative or that they don’t understand creative things, tell them the story of the biologist turned accomplished painter.

Happy Visioning!

Check out the Radiolab podcast here.

Want to unlock your creative side?  Then join us for the Women Unplugged Retreat, you won’t want to miss this event!  Learn more about the retreat here >>>  Women Unplugged Retreat

Plugging Into Your Creative Side

One of the long time myths about creativity is this idea that creativity = art.  Not so.

Here’s another, only right-brained people are creative.  Also, not so.

Lefties and Righties are equally creative the only difference is the expression of that creativity.

That means that creativity is not all about art, many times it is about process.

The process of creating can be just about anything.  Of course it can be as obvious as writing, painting and composing music.

And yet there’s a forgotten side we many times overlook like just the act of throwing paint on paper no matter the outcome, maybe it’s a walk on the beach and reflecting, it could be meditation, yoga, running or journaling.  It doesn’t matter if there is a tangible outcome because what matters most is the process.  That is what leads to creativity and the practice of process can have huge implications on all those other things we do all day long that don’t feel creative.

Let’s hear Christine and Jalene talk about what creativity means to them:





Using images to celebrate birthdays

Would you like to have a quick and easy way to make birthday greetings for Facebook and email? I’ve been using our ImageCenter to do just that.

[flowplayer src=’http://www.visualsspeak.com/videos/birthdaycards.mp4′ width=600 height=450 splash=’http://www.visualsspeak.com/newweb/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/valbday.jpg’]

The process I show in the video uses Techsmith’s Jing to capture the image and quickly add text to it. I use Jing all the time for a variety of purposes, it’s a great way to quickly grab an image or short video from the web. I used the more complex Techsmith Camtasia to create the demo video.

Being fully seen

I’ve just made a few of the birthday greetings so far, but the people who have received them have told me they really liked them, and felt fully seen. This is one of my favorite part of working with our visual tools. We all need to be seen and appreciated for who we really are.

If I can help that happen, even in a tiny way, I feel like my real work is done……


Nurturing creativity

Early phases of becoming an artist

There have been a few people in my life who have played a significant role in nurturing my creativity. My high school art teacher, Miss Keary, is one of the most important to me. I haven’t seen her in over thirty years, but I do hear about her since my father attends a yearly meeting of retired teachers. One of her friends left a comment on a post I wrote last year, where I just briefly mentioned her, which inspired me to talk about her in more depth.

It isn’t always easy being an artist. Even more difficult is becoming one in environments that are often hostile to expressions of creativity and not designed to nurture artistic or visual skills. I liked school, and was fairly successful in most subjects, but they were all just classes get out of the way so I could attend art class. I remember counting the days until the next one– torture in elementary school when they were two weeks apart.

I decided to attend high school in the town where my father was a teacher instead of the town we lived in since it had higher quality schools. I was the new kid with no friends, and I lived 45 minutes away. I remember walking down to the basement of the big new school to discover the art department that became my oasis for the three years of high school.

The first room at the bottom of the stairs was Miss Keary’s room. I remember her as a fairy godmother. Always so cheery and bright. Salve in the midst of the social struggles of teenage years. And she was a real artist, who painted and showed in galleries. I had never met one before. My family is full of people who do crafts for hobbies, but not for ART.

What I got from my high school art teacher, Marjorie Keary

Marjorie Keary believed in me. She probably believed in all her students, but she had a way of making it feel personal and personalized. She was always supportive and told me I could be an artist and found something positive about everything I did. And it wasn’t because my work was outstanding— my mother still has a pile of it under a bed in her house— it is typical high school art.

Maybe she saw my passion? The tiny little flame of inspiration? She nurtured it and helped it grow.

She opened my eyes, and changed how I see the world forever. Miss Keary loved to assemble still life setups for us to draw with fabric and pitchers. My drawings were always kind of flat and boring. Not that she ever once told me that, but I knew. Then one day I was struggling to figure out what I was doing wrong. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. She leaned over my right shoulder and started pointing out details I wasn’t seeing. Shadows. How the textures contrasted. How the lines interrelated. She gently challenged me to look deeper. After several minutes suddenly the world shifted, and I started seeing differently. Kind of like in the Wizard of Oz when the movie shifts from black and white to color.

I thought I was learning to draw, but she showed me that I was learning to see. The hand can’t begin to reproduce what the eye can’t see. It was a profound moment in my development.

Lessons learned

I don’t think I ever would have become an artist without Marjorie Keary in my life. Much of art training is based on criticism, and the market is a harsh judge. Many, many times over the years I have remembered those early years of support, and drawn on them for strength and inspiration.

My attention has shifted over the years from being an artist who makes stuff to being an artist who facilitates others people’s creativity. I have remembered how important it is to have someone believe in your creativity and see the sparks of inspiration in the early attempts.

I doubt Marjorie Keary was even doing all of these things and making this huge mark on my life so I could go on to make marks on others. I believe it is just the integrity of who she is and how she walks though this world. I hope I have become a better person from the foundation she gave me.

So, thank you Miss Keary, for all you have done for me. For how you inspired and nurtured me when I needed it most. For being a kind generous mentor to young artists. For who you are and how you walk through the world.

Christine Martell

Wrestling with Creativity

I was recently asked to develop a non-credit certificate program on creativity and innovation in business. It’s very early in the process, there aren’t a lot of limitations yet. I started by looking around online for discussions about creativity and asking questions of my network. I’m looking for input from as many people as possible.

Creative Tools

The concept of creativity

I started by asking my Twitter network : How do you teach creativity?

hjarche @cmartell for adults, you may have to do a lot of unteaching first

layoutmonkey @cmartell It’s more like ‘facilitating’ the creative thought process.

dramagirl @cmartell Set a ‘problem’ within a set of limitations. Stand back and let students engage.
danielrose @cmartell you want me to tweet a reply? how about a 3 day conference on the subject. how can we compromise. i love, love, love this question
danielrose @cmartell have you read Path of Least Resistance by Fritz? That’s where I start when I want to “teach” “creativity”. Lots of “‘s.

Lots of “‘s. I noticed this too. And it’s not just in this list of responses, I saw it in other discussions of creativity. Not sure exactly what to think of it yet, but it is a distinct pattern. Could it reflect the elusive nature of the concept? Or it’s amoeba like nature that shifts as soon as you focus on it?

And what is creativity anyway? People sure seem to have a wide range of ideas about it. And lots of ideas about whether they are creative or not. It gets twisted up with art. Some who seem very creative to me, don’t think they are because they don’t express it artistically.

Expressing Creativity

I have used art in facilitation for many years. I used to focus more on the expressive arts, asking people to draw, paint, play music, dance, do yoga. What I noticed was I spent a lot of time on creative anxiety, and helping people get beyond their fear to be willing to engage. I heard story after story of mean art teachers and parents who told kids their trees couldn’t be purple. Layers and layers of lessons that shut down the natural instinct to create.

I had those mean teachers and people who didn’t support my art also. But for whatever reason, it drove me deeper into it rather than away. It’s not that I don’t feel creative anxiety, it’s just that I push through it. So I can be creative on demand. How can other people discover that place?

Giving permission to create

If I am going to facilitate creative expression in others, part of it needs to be creating a safe space and helping to find a place inside that activates permission. To unlearn all the lessons about I am not creative, to foster yes I am creative.

Next, I will look to mitigate the effects of judgment. There is a time and place for assessment in relationship to the quality of our creative efforts. Sometimes I think my ability to create relates more to my ability to suspend judgment for quite a while and produce a lot of total crap. So often I see people give up after only a couple of tries. Yes, people get lucky and hit right away sometimes. But most of the time, its a small percentage of ideas that are exceptional.

Tools and skills are part of it

Certainly there are tools to help us, and skills that can be developed. Just as important are to develop the ability to access when it is the right time to use a particular tool. Which tools do you think are important? Things that jump to mind for me

  • brainstorming effectively
  • storytelling
  • generative divergent methods for idea generation
  • mindmapping
  • variety of visual tools
  • improv

What else?

Tension between divergence and convergence

There is something about the concept of balancing process and task that is critical to creativity. I’ve been seeing it manifest in a variety of ways. With the visual processes I work with I see it in the shift between the divergent generation of ideas and the shift to converging into an action plan. After you generate ideas, there is a moment of possibility where if you look carefully, new patterns and connections can be made. All too often though, it’s a moment where old patterns of thinking and agendas surface and groups are off and running into an ‘answer’. Instead of basking in possibility, a kind of group think surfaces that generates least common denominator solutions. As a facilitator, I’m focusing my attention in this place. Looking for activities and sequences that allow the group to use pattern recognition and ways of reconfiguring. Anyone have any ideas?

In The Creative Personality: Ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about a number of traits that tend to be separate in many people, but in creatives they both exist. Like introversion and extroversion, high energy and sleeping a lot, imagination and reality. I recognize these things about myself, but I suspect it’s my ability to rock back and forth between the opposites that releases the creativity. There is something about being able to tolerate tension?


What else should I be thinking about? Have any resources to share?

Marketing 101

I’ve been reading some interesting material by Robert Middleton on how to market a service company. Even though its about service companies, the concepts apply to product companies. VisualsSpeak is actually both a service and a product company. As I write this my partner, Christine, is facilitating a 2 day retreat for an executive management team for a branch of our state government. So we offer consulting as well as sell products.

The marketing material suggests that the first thing you do is create what they call an Audio Logo. Most of us know this as an elevator speech. Actually its the one-liner part of an elevator speech which is designed to gain interest in what you do. This comes in handy, because people always ask ‘What do you do’? If you have a good audio logo, they will ask you for more information about what you do. Sounds simple, right? Not so. At least for this entrepreneur.

Continue reading “Marketing 101”

Where do you learn?

As I’ve been thinking about the significant influences over the years that have contributed to VisualsSpeak, I’m noticing a pattern. Many of the people who have been influential have been teachers of some kind. Most of the interactions have occurred around some type of learning environment.

However, it hasn’t been the content of the actual class or formal learning space. Isn’t that interesting? The significant pieces have come from those spaces between the formal learning, the seeming passing comments in a conversation, the significance of which often has not come to light until many years later.

What does that mean for an instructional designer, a trainer, an educator? Certainly my choice to engage in a learning community put me in the path of others who made those significant contributions. I trusted what they said based on a respect I had developed in a more formal context. Continue reading “Where do you learn?”