At the annual conference of the Alliance of Artists Communities, which we attended in San Jose, California, two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a session with Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Meloncholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. He is currently finishing another book entitled The Power of Two: Creative Chemistry, and at the conference he talked about this work in progress.
According to Shenk, the traditional paradigm of the lone genius has recently been countered by a more nuanced story of the complex network out of which genius emerges. While he doesn’t deny the existence of either the loner or the network, he asserts that a very specific electricity arises from creative pairs: think John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Georges Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. He also argues that there are several predictable acts in the stage life of a creative pair, the first of which is often an attraction of the familiar to the unfamiliar.
And while the two partners must in some way merge, each partner losing his or her particular identity to the other as in the confluence of rivers, “creativity proceeds from dichotomous exchange,” as Shenk says. Roles that become fixed or static signal a dying fire. This dichotomous exchange often involves an asymmetry of power in the partnership and consequent tension and unraveling. Those generative sparks can be extinguished without moments of what Shenk calls repair, moments of returning to the pure joy and delight of the original sparking.
To illustrate one of these moments, he played a clip of the Beatles’ famous 1969 rooftop concert, their last live performance together. During their rendition of the song “Don’t Let Me Down,” John forgets the words to the beginning of the second verse and improvises several syllables of gobbeldegook instead, exchanging bemused smiles with Paul. Shenk identifies this as a moment of repair in a torn relationship—by the time of this performance the friendship between John and Paul had nearly frayed to the breaking point—a recapturing of delight.
While Shenk didn’t use the word “marriage,” marriage easily qualifies as a locus for creative energy, although not necessarily marriage as it’s envisioned today, with its focus on equal rights and equal work loads, of two people completing each other’s deficits into some measurable whole. I hasten to add that fairness and equality, in some form, are necessary to any fruitful marriage; however, the asymmetries and tensions and inequalities that also occur within marriage are often the source of a relationship’s generative genius. Shenk’s taxonomy of creativity between pairs appealed to me instantly because I found immediate evidence to support his structure, not in the pairing of people but in the sparks that fly when unexpected disciplines are rubbed together.
One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Teri Rofkar, a native of Alaska and a member of the Tlingit people. She began her career as a traditional weaver making baskets from such materials as the roots of spruce trees, maidenhair ferns, and native grasses, an art taught to her by her grandmother and which she is now teaching her grand-daughter. These baskets, aside from being beautiful, can last for hundreds of years and are woven so tightly they can be used as water vessels. When she took a class at a local community college on traditional methods of textile weaving, she realized that she already had most of the skills she needed to make the leap from weaving plants into baskets to weaving goat hair into traditional robes, a skill that had almost disappeared.
To practice her new craft, she needed mountain goat wool, and lots of it, so she befriended local park rangers who worked with a herd that had been introduced in 1923. The rangers informed her when they found spots where the animals had shed or when they found one dead. She became aware of a study of the genetics of the mountain goats, which discovered a herd genetically unrelated to the introduced herd and dated it to the last ice age, indicating that the species had not been “introduced” but was, in fact, native.
This genetic drama was unfolding as she was beginning work on a new robe. In addition to the traditional patterning, she added mathematically correct renderings of the distinctive DNA strands of the two herds. Although in some ways the addition was a design innovation, she knew from her many years of basket weaving that her ancestors had always transmitted a deep knowledge of the natural world through their art. On her website she writes:
Decades of weaving have opened my eyes to the pure science that is embedded in Tlingit art. The arts and our oral history together bring knowledge of ten thousand years of research to life. My goal is to continue that research, broadening awareness for the generations to come.
She wore the robe as she presented her keynote speech, dipping each shoulder and spinning so the robe rose up like smoke around her. “Who knew science could dance?” she laughed. Her delight communicated itself to the audience as we witnessed a moment of repair between ancient art and modern science.
Martin and I returned to Austin just in time to attend the last day of the Texas Book Festival, a spectacular intersection of people who love to read and write. We attended a session facilitated by one of Madroño Ranch’s first residents, Juli Berwald. She interviewed Alan Weisman, an environmental journalist and the author of Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Fiercely researched and beautifully written, Countdown follows Weisman’s travels through more than twenty countries asking four very loaded questions: how many people can the land carry? How robust must the Earth’s ecosystems be to ensure our continued existence? What species are essential to our survival? What kind of economy would serve a stable human population, rather than the current exploding one? Despite the complexities of the questions—which Weisman addresses with sensitivity and intelligence—a uniform answer presented itself in virtually every context: education of girls, which almost inevitably leads to lower birth rates and to fewer ecological pressures on the planet.
He tells a story about Esmail Kahrom, an Iranian ecologist whose interest in biology had its roots in the Persian carpets he saw in the museum his father took him to as a child, one in particular, dating back to 1416. It depicted a Tree of Life, and among its branches the boy found an extravagance of intricately woven birds, animals, and even insects:
The depictions were so detailed that zoologists could determine each species. He was looking, Kahrom understood, at creatures now extinct in his land. The eyes of ancient carpet weavers are how Iranian biologists know today what once lived there.
One of the animals that has almost disappeared is the Asiatic cheetah, which exists now only in Iran. Visiting the United States for the first time, Kahrom found himself in a sixth-grade classroom in San Diego, invited by the teacher, who was married to one of Kahrom’s cousins. She showed her students the Iranian flag and Iranian coins and then unrolled a Persian rug, one that Kahrom could tell immediately was ancient and expensive. She introduced him to the class as an ecologist, someone who studies the ways in which all life is connected.
Then the classroom door opened, and in walked a curator from the San Diego Zoo with a muzzled cheetah on a leash.
The teacher asked her astonished class what would happen if the endangered cheetahs disappeared altogether. Would the students suffer from the loss? Would they still be able to live their lives? The class agreed that they would, even though they thought the cheetahs should live. The teacher pointed to the beautiful rug she had brought in, noting that it was years in the making, with its more than one and a half million knots. What if someone came in and cut out one, or even two hundred, of the knots? Would you be able to tell? No, she said. You wouldn’t even notice.
But what if you keep cutting, she asked, as her students and the cheetah watched her. Opening her arms to include the space beyond the classroom walls, she said:
All this is the carpet of life. You are sitting on it. Each of those knots represents one plant or animal. They, and the air we breathe, the water we drink, and our groceries are not manufactured. They are produced by what we call nature. This rug represents that nature. If something happens in Asia or Africa and a cheetah disappears, that is one knot from the carpet. If you realize that, you’ll understand that we are living on a very limited number of species and resources, on which our life depends.
These stories weave together many things, but what struck me was the union of the textile arts with modern science. So often the realm of women and household, textiles claim a lower rung on any cultural-status ladder than the hard sciences, but their marriage can strike all sorts of generative sparks. Jewish mystical theology identifies the work of the chosen people as the restoration of God’s shining shattered dwelling place, associated with the feminine principal, with God’s exiled self: tikkun olam, or repair of the world, whose signal marker is delight. In a culture that so often measures itself by efficiencies of scale and measurable, predictable outcomes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be well served to seek out irregular marriages between powerful and humble enterprises, between unlikely partners like science or technology and the arts, rather than seeking to separate them, as so often happens in times of economic stress. In these unlikely partnerings perhaps we’ll see some repair of our moth-eaten world.
What we’re reading
Heather: Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
Martin: Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City