What you don’t do at Hambidge is more important than what you do.
I came to that conclusion about halfway into my two-week creative residency there. If you haven’t heard of it, the Hambidge Center is a place where creatives of various kinds go, once accepted, to work on proposed projects or creative objectives. At any given time, eight artists reside in separate studios scattered among the woods. The studios generally have no connectivity, no TVs, no mobile signal, and the phone doesn’t dial out. Except for 911.
In fact, if you choose, you may see no one until 6:30pm when all the creatives commune for dinner in the Rock House. Lively discussion can last well into the night. The largely vegetarian dinners are prepared by a chef who expertly bobs and weaves the finicky dietary requirements that artists are often known for.
Scenic hiking opportunities are plentiful. Spaces to sit and stare at the sky or the neighboring mountainscape are everywhere. One could consume countless days studying the history of the Hambidge Center and the Hambidge Fellows that have passed through it.
But that’s not what you go there for right? I mean, you’re there to work. To produce.
Well, yes and no.
In his excellent study, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi both confirms and debunks a number of long held ideas regarding the creative process for everyone from artists to scientists. In it, he says that achievements in creativity require “surplus attention.” Later he expands on one reason why:
Something similar to parallel processing may be taking place when the elements of a problem are said to be incubating. When we think consciously about an issue, our previous training and the effort to arrive at a solution push our ideas in a linear direction, usually along predictable or familiar lines. But intentionality does not work in the subconscious. Free from rational direction, ideas can combine and pursue each other every which way. Because of this freedom, original connections that would be at first rejected by the rational mind have a chance to become established.
I just remembered where I left my keys.
So What Are You Working On?
Admittedly, while at Hambidge Center, I did not take on quantum dynamics – the domain that one of Csikzentmihalyi’s subjects claimed. But, immediately upon arriving the first night, other creatives do naturally ask, so what are you here working on?
I had my prepared answer which I provided. Uncomfortably, I knew that the nature of what I wanted to accomplish while at Hambidge Center might – though would likely not – yield objects I could point to and say look what I made!
My intention for the residency was to finally carve out time during which I could experiment and dive into some technologies I needed to revisit and explore. That’s not usually pretty. It means downloading (which you can do in the Rock House), reading, tinkering, screwing up, realizing that you’re missing a cable, etc. And, in the end, there is often very little, if anything, to show for it. Especially when you forget your Mac’s admin password.
OK, But What Did You Accomplish at Hambidge Center?
You thought I was setting you up for the news that I didn’t do much of anything. Well, that’s not true. I did complete a mixed media work, something that probably would never have happened the way it did if I hadn’t had a pedestal as a furnishing in my studio. I had never had this in my work surroundings, and it made me look at a particular construction in a new way.
And, one day on a hike, I encountered stacked stones that presumably another Fellow had left behind. About that time, the solution to a problem I had been thinking through boiled to the surface.
Looking up at misty mountains on another day during gestural mark making, I had a realization bubble up that will change the direction of future work.
Even more lasting perhaps, I learned a lot about myself and my daily work habits.
Whatever the domain, it is difficult sometimes to get OK with the realization that ideas, answers, and improvements take time. We have an innate or culturally engrained requirement to point to a result – a product, an object, a manuscript – as quickly as possible after time spent with a problem. But, if innovations or a breakthrough in any field are to occur, staring at the sky is a necessary part of the creative process.
If you can get over the self-imposed production requirement, things start to happen in time. And, time is what you have at Hambidge.