Musings on creativity – 2 basic styles?

"December House"

“December House”

I’ve always thought there were at least two kinds of creators — those who start with an idea and those who don’t. These approaches are inherently alien to each other and sometimes one camp fails to recognize the strengths of the other. Both are valid, of course.  And, as valid approaches, either can bring honest expression forward.

This quilt started out as response to the George Zimmerman acquittal (one on left, below). It was about outrage. And grief. But somewhere along the line I dropped that idea and let the thing be about the darkening time of the year… December in New England. The lengthening night is keenly felt in these parts, but because of the crazy freight train that is the holidays (comin’ straight at ya!), many of us squash the mammalian instinct to curl up in the dark and quiet down. To listen to ourselves breathe. To listen, period. For this reason, and this reason alone, December can be stressful.


This post’s quilt started as the left-most house


pattern stars, rhinestone stars, polka dots and stitches


checked shutters made from a former Anne Taylor skirt – a small remnant of life as a downtown lawyer

I enjoyed layering up the dark. Adding ecru and navy blue “X’s” for stars. And ‘finishing’ the house with shutters and a window box. Making all the layers cohere was a task (one of the downsides of being an improv quilter, I might add), but even that became a useful exercise, as it allowed me to sit with the metaphor of creating unity from disparate parts. Integration.


pre-shutters, with some REAL shadows


with patchworked seat

had to add shadow under moon to interrupt vine - otherwise it would look like a lollipop

shadow under moon added to avoid its resembling a lollipop


house needed the fanning foliage to look like it belonged

Just as extroverts have their need for solitude and introverts like the occasional party, the line between artistic approaches is far from clear cut: planners wing it and improv folks plot. But, I would venture to say that we possess one basic tendency or the other.  And more — that getting comfortable with one’s basic tendency is essential to success.

None of the above is new for me. What IS new is this idea that the approach we abide in might dramatically change how we describe our work. People who form an idea and then strive to express it, might talk about the how forming the intention to say something is essential. People who discover their idea as they work might talk about how being open to what arises is all important. Maybe these commitments ultimately end up in the same place, when true and practiced, but do they impose noticeable differences? I am wondering.

But not for long, probably, because this has gotten to a place of abstraction that is mental and potentially boring. Though I would love to hear reader’s thoughts.

I have to add one more thing, because it bears on honesty in one’s art.  Blogging in a public forum, or a even semi-private one, can dampen one’s level of disclosure. Unavoidable choices about what is or isn’t revealed must be made, and may turn on concerns that have nothing to do with the level of honesty in one’s work: a commitment to protect children’s privacy (even if they don’t!), for instance, or a refusal to be public about some personal issues (even if they are informing one’s work). I find this part of blogging difficult. The WISH to be free with my thoughts almost always feels at odds with the NEED to stay bounded.

18 thoughts on “Musings on creativity – 2 basic styles?

  1. spiritcloth

    I am not sure about these 2 approaches being separate in terms of my definition of art. maybe a plan vs an idea. But the idea is there, the plan to get there matters to some and not to others. I find myself trusting just being involved will lead me to a solution, not really caring too much about what final form it takes.
    Honesty in the work can be there without talking about it publicly, but I am not sure what you struggle with. what is the risk? maybe being misunderstood? that makes me talk more. (oh ha, i am laughing at myself)

  2. deedeemallon

    all this verbiage later, and I too often start with a germ of an idea.. a notion, or something. “Trusting just being involved will lead” you — this sounds to me like a quintessentially improv approach. So, how does this square with the idea that one needs to intend to say something in order to produce honest work?

    I was mostly arguing with myself, you understand. With writing the need to DO in order to DISCOVER is stronger than with fiber… my hand actually needs to be moving across the page to get my ideas out.

    As to the interesting question, “what is the risk” – I would have to say it is my fear of hurting other people.

    Having said that, you question holds… I think my basic problem right now is I’m not sure what it is I want to say. I know what I DON’T want to say — endless iterations about ultra depressing themes of Middle Passage and Global Warming… they have a way of being too big and too depressing and in some essential way, not personal. I am WISHING that a new subject will be at hand soon. I feel that I have been preparing for it. Clearing the ground.

  3. manhandledinmt

    I absolutely adore December House! I want to wander around inside and out. Read, cozied up at the hearth. Cook deliciousness in the kitchen. Sleep with the St. Bernard (cuz of course there is one sprawled on the bed).

  4. Michelle in NYC

    I’m strictly improvisational even when I seem to start with an idea, or even just a notion. I’m often inspired by others work, by Jude’s instructions, by memory, by imagination.It has just become play again, as it was in the first place. I’ve slowed down and finally adjusted to it I think Winter helps, even withall those holidays we are both attracted to and repelled by. Makes me want to curl inward for the Solstice when I’ll light candles and let them burn through to dawn. That’s enough for me right now.

    I love the detail on your work. Love the colors.

    1. deedeemallon

      I’m glad I posted this ramble afterall, because I love hearing how people work! Winter does help, to slow down… are you staying put for awhile, Michelle?

  5. Mo Crow

    I like setting myself a big project that will take years to complete with a loose aim and time frame so it will get done in this lifetime (if I don’t get hit by the proverbial truck or whatever in which case it won’t matter anyway) and then seeing what happens along the way whilst always allowing for total diversions from the dream things caught out of the corner of the eye or drawn up out of the deep pool of the subconscious, or whilst sniffing roses and all that!
    My favourite artist’s statement is by Christian Boltanski-
    “I come to my studio every day at 10.30, and I stay and do nothing. I go to Paris sometimes. I have a few ideas. To be very pretentious, sometimes I believe it is mystical. Sometimes you find nothing, and then you find some-thing you love to do. Sometimes you make mistakes, but some-times it’s true. In two minutes, you understand what you must do for the next two years. Sometimes it’s in the studio, but other times it’s walking in the street or reading a magazine. It’s a good life, being an artist, because you do what you want”.

  6. Karen Davis

    Those 2 approaches are often inseparable for me…often starting with an idea and that gives way to improv or vice versa. Five, six years ago, I would give much more energy to trying to figure this out for myself…now it is just more vital for me to trust whatever process I’m going through. Currently, my thoughts are devoted to figurative/narrative vs. abstraction/emotion.

    And I share that disclosure concern on all social media also with family and friends, especially with those eschew online social forums.

  7. deedeemallon

    Well, these comments, including yours Karen, make me think that if I were to recast this post, I would make it THREE types of creators — those who start with an idea, those who surrender to the process and incorporate ideas as they arise, and those who actively do both.

    Thanks for yet another incredible link and reference, Mo. I am going to think about this notion of ‘enjoying a many year goal’… I often discover that a project has taken many years when looking BACK and that discourages me… I wonder how that might change if I framed the thing from the beginning as a long-term project. I think it might change something crucial — not the work so much as how I feel about my tempo of executing it.

  8. saskia

    thought provoking post as per usual Dee; hmm I do wonder what category I fall into….I ‘have’ ideas and then I ‘just start’ and sometimes the idea meets the result-as-it-develops and other times the original idea (not necessarily mine) will pop up in another piece(s) I’,m working on at at the same time (I always have at least 4 or 5 on the go) and it all feels kind of blurred and yet an undercurrant-of-connection runs through it all, slowly but surely,, I hope I’ve not lost you by now, the thing for me is: I trust the work will lead me ‘somewhere’ and as I grow older (middle age advantage again) I’m less bothered about the outcome, more and more I’ve become aware of how being involved in the process is what matters to me, much like how it was as a child: the pretending/playing/doing in the moment was what mattered, I didn’t expect anything really….anyway that’s my take on it at this particular moment

    re the private lives of my family members/friends, I only allow what I would consider to be none too personal or embarrassing, for them

  9. deedeemallon

    what I am taking from your and other comments, Saskia is the crucial element of TRUST… and perhaps also, a willingness to let go of an attachment to a certain outcome (well, that IS a way to trust, isn’t it?). thanks for stirring the pot with me.

  10. debgorr

    Love the picture with the sunlight falling on the house and the rest dark. Glad you added the third option and the idea of trust. 🙂 I have the idea, the feeling, the story in place before I start usually but rarely plan how I am going to get there. I have a friend that always shook her head about that. She plans things out start to finish. What I’ve found is that I don’t mind doing something over and over until I get to where I want to be.

    1. deedeemallon

      Hi deb. So maybe the improv method requires a persistent willingness to “do over”. You should have seen the mess I made today trying to piece a star!

  11. nadia

    Hi, Dee. Finally found some time to stop by and I’m glad I did. You’ve got a very good discussion going here. Let’s see, the day I had something to say was the day I finally got it together as an artist (first Gulf War, as a matter of fact). So obviously, most of my work is gut-wrenching, idea-driven. That being said, I plan very little and the process unfolds as I go. Here’s the thing: I expect to be dazzled. The final piece will go far beyond my wildest imaginings and that’s what I love. Dazzle me! (Why would I do it if I knew how it was going to look???) For this to happen, however, most of my work is over a long period of time, which allows me to discover so many things about process. I gave up counting time (and money) long ago. Just dazzle me!
    Oh yes, your December House is definitely dazzling! LUV your use of fabrics and the ideas behind this piece. Your voice is shining through loud and clear!
    Have a very happy holiday season!
    best, nadia

  12. deedeemallon

    glad you did, Nadia — I understand you have been super busy with teaching? Your work IS dazzling… I find the idea of surrendering to the artistic process with the hope and intention of being dazzled a brand new one. It’s so delightful, I find it almost funny!

    ‘gut-wrenching’ ‘idea-driven’ ‘unplanned’ ‘beyond my wildest imaginings’ — this is a nice line up.

    I think I hope for good design. That isn’t always dazzling. But it requires some of the same surrender and expectation that you describe.

    and as to counting time and money — you just can’t with quilting or you wouldn’t do it. period.

  13. nadia

    Ahhh, good design, yes. And yet, the term smacks of rules–and who decides good design? I try to look for some kind of balance…yes, I think I like the term “balance” better, something more interior, intimate, personal and pleasing. Something only you can decide.

    1. deedeemallon

      I agree about the term “good design” possible being laden. Thanks for a refined and expansive way of saying. And then my point stands. About how that balanced and pleasing end product may please in ways that are quiet. I thought about “dazzle” tho, as I pinned scraps to linen last night.

  14. beth

    Great discussion. When Nadia said dazzle I thought my word might be pleasing or balance. And then you said that Dee. It is what I look for when I step back. This needs something here… That needs to go… I guess I am more of an improv, but I’d call it intuitive or listening to the cloth whispering.


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