Facing a Blank Canvas – Part 1: The Difference Between Creativity and Imagination



Activities ProgramPart one of a four-part blog series, from a conversation with Visual Arts Instructor Mark Mulherrin

When the Activities Program staff meets with patients (who are students when they work with us) shortly after being admitted, I hear similar sentences come up again and again: “I can’t draw.” “I’m not creative.” “I have no imagination.” Though any of the disciplines can elicit these responses, it seems most intense around the visual arts which is frustrating because I think it's arising out of a misunderstanding about what visual art is and how it is made.

Many of the students I work with come to the visual arts with an expectation that they should be able to do this thing that they don't know how to do, or they come to it with this huge fear of failing. When I press them and ask, “What do you mean when you say ‘I’m not creative?” it becomes clear that language and the definition of words are getting in the way. Imagination and creativity are sometimes confused; imagination is the very human process of visualizing non-existent things in your head and creativity is the magical, but down-to-earth process of taking existing things and combining and recombining them in a new way right out in front of you.

Facing a Blank Canvas – Part 1: The Difference Between Creativity and ImaginationA good example would be a child in a room with a box. The child starts playing with the box and it becomes a castle—that's a perfect example of the combination of creativity and imagination, because the child is using the box to embody his or her imagination. It’s a shipping box, not meant to be a castle. So creativity is taking things outside of their purpose and putting them to other uses. Creativity happens out in front of you, so you have to have stuff in front of you to be creative. Imagination is ephemeral and an intellectual kind of activity; it all happens in your brain, which is a huge difference.

People often believe creativity is thinking of things that have never existed before and just magically putting it out in front of you in some fully realized way, which is impossible. Art is not made that way. Art is a response to stimuli and to processes and objects where open mindedness is key. It is an ultimately awkward birth.

Check back next week for Part 2: The Difference Between Skill and Talent


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