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Day 04/10/2012

It is the willingness to confront one’s assumptions that counts ~ Dominic Randolph on Creativity & Inspiration

In the Spring of 2009, as part of an oral history project centered on creativity and inspiration, I interviewed artists involved in a wide range of mediums, spanning from film to etching including painting, poetry, writing, music, and photography. I started off each interview with the topic of inspiration or its absence. One of my interviewees was Dominic Randolph–Sketcher, Etcher, Writer, Singer and Educator–on his creative process & sources of inspiration. Here is the interview in full, reprinted with his permission:

I get inspired by words, metaphors, provocative images, also other stories… many from memories. You take an idea and run with it…sort of brainstorming. For example, I remember being invited to a tea with the abbot of a Finnish Orthodox Monastery, I was living and working at the monastery for the summer. He was a Russian–sort of out of a novel living in the Abbott’s house–a Victorian house overlooking a lake. He had one of the old samovars that whistled away. It was odd to be with a number of young students meeting with the Abbott, but unable to speak with him. We had tea and then walked in the orchard. I can still remember that the air was cold, but it was sunny. The apple trees were in bloom. The next day we were again peeling potatoes and raking leaves. I wondered what the Abbott was doing since we never really saw him walk around the rest of the monastery.

There are many things I could mine in this–the apple trees, the cold water of the lake, the odd Russian/Finnish/global thing. I would probably sketch around and doodle and write–see if anything interesting emerges to then move on the next level. The next level is something that is more of its own–a drawing or a story or both–something that is connected to the original inspiration, but has its own integrity or life. Perhaps there is some image of apples and water that I could play off of. “Apples+Water”,  not a bad title. I could link this to other places where apples and water play off of one and another–remember “The Orchard” in Cambridge. That also links the idea to poets that I know–could be some interesting linkage there between British and Russian poets.

Of course sometimes they are just sketches or doodles or failures. I wait for something to catch my imagination. I don’t really think it has much to do with a creative mindset, no I think it is more of a constant thing but I do think that to produce something worthwhile (at the next level) one needs to get into “flow”. Here are the components of “flow” from Wikipedia: Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following nine factors as accompanying an experience of flow:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced…

For me the flow is when you just forget that time exists and become super-involved in a certain task; you are interested in something and your interest takes over completely. I guess it happens naturally. I do think that there are some things that help–getting good sleep and having a space that is conducive to concentration–those things help. I think that it is also helpful if one has experienced flow before in one’s life… I think that it is addictive. The first time I experienced it was probably when I was playing an instrument when young–I think that you also need to attain a level of proficiency doing something so that it can become automatic to some degree, doing sports as well, running…There are periods when I don’t experience flow–when I am tired, distracted by other things, depressed–It makes me more frustrated than anything else. I’m not certain that I fear losing the potential of flow since I find I can get to it pretty easily.

Being around people who are idea generators helps. I think that there are people who are always thinking about different, new things; there are actually loads of people like this–much more common than we are led to believe. There are creative waiters and bus drivers, but we make out that only artists have real creative capacity…bullshit and a really unhelpful myth. Everyone has the potential to create, to experience the flow, absolutely. I think that we could all be more creative in our lives. It is just a matter of acquiring a certain mindset, of assuming that things can always be improved upon whether it is an idea, a drawing or the way that you cross the road…

Any experiences that are different from the routine are possibly an aid to creativity. Creative tension arises when one’s assumptions about something are questioned. So drinking mate from a gourd instead of Earl Grey out of a porcelain cup is going to make me think more creatively about tea. I don’t think that travel is a must, though–some of the most creative people didn’t travel much at all. It is the willingness to confront one’s assumptions that counts.

I just saw a bee outside of the window and remembered going to Corfe Castle in Dorset with my mother, brother and aunt. We were having tea in a garden next to the castle when we were attacked by bees interested in the jam. We were swatting them, running around trying to not get bitten…had to run into the house and let the bees win. Interesting idea of how nature can confound us, we think we are in control and then suddenly, we are no longer in control. I could think of drawing something that played with this conflict.


I have always been fascinated by the idea of the labyrinth–think of the Minotaur, the clammy walls, the fear, the thread. Why do we want to walk in a labyrinth? Do we always want to be on a journey or path to find something? Is it something grotesque, or something enlightening?

I love the idea of punctuation as being something more than a protocol for making sense. I am obsessed with ellipsis right now–the path, the potential, the dots moving our minds along, to what?

They’re cool, image-wise, and then you start thinking about what they can mean…perhaps it is a matter of looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary, like Morandi and his bottles. He just sat in his room and painted bottles again and again.



The Russian Formalists talked about this idea of estrangement. Roman Jakobson described literature as “organized violence committed on ordinary speech.” Literature constitutes a deviation from average speech that intensifies, invigorates, and estranges the mundane speech patterns. In other words, for the Formalists, literature is set apart because it is just that: set apart. The use of devices such as imagery, rhythm, and meter is what separates “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns (Nabokov Lolita 9)”, from “the assignment for next week is on page eighty four.” This estrangement serves literature by forcing the reader to think about what might have been an ordinary piece of writing about a common life experience in a more thoughtful way. A piece of writing in a novel versus a piece of writing in a fishing magazine. At the very least, literature should encourage readers to stop and look closer at scenes and happenings they otherwise might have skimmed through uncaring. The reader is not meant to be able to skim through literature. When addressed in a language of estrangement, speech cannot to be skimmed through. “In the routines of everyday speech, our perceptions of and responses to reality become stale, blunted, and as the Formalists would say ‘automatized’. Literature by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes these habitual responses and renders objects more perceptible (Eagleton ‘What Is Literature’).” In 1917, Russian Formalist scholar Victor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie to describe the artistic strategy of presenting the well-known as if seen for the first time. The term is translated into German as Verfremdung, which became the cornerstone of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-Aristotelian dramaturgy of estrangement. The traditional means of estrangement in theater are epic devices central to Brecht’s strategy of breaking theatrical…taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary….taking the little girl’s walk through the woods and making it into Little Red Riding Hood…taking advertisements and making them into artistic statements.

The duckrabbit confronts one’s assumptions about things, it challenges one’s perceptions (what you think is a duck is actually a rabbit)–how can you have an image of one thing be an image of something else? The duckrabbit is key…It creates the paradox, creates the tension, read something one way and understand that there is another way of reading. Interpretation and meaning.

Restlessness…Chatwin was right…always seeking…always uneasy…get unhoused…to drive from a house or habitation; to dislodge; hence, to deprive of shelter…it also means to make people feel uncomfortable, to shake up…




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