“Listen to Your Inner Poetry”: Advice from a Guest Artist

“Listen to your inner poetry.” This was the advice that painter Jill Steenhuis gave to our seventh and eighth graders during a special arts assembly this week.

A native of Atlanta, Ms. Steenhuis is a French Impressionistic painter who, quite literally, follows in the footsteps of master artist Paul Cezanne. Ms. Steenhuis is one of the few artists in the world who has access to Cezanne’s home and grounds – the very places that he made famous through his artwork.

Ms. Steenhuis shared how she draws inspiration from immersing herself in nature, and how even the act of “listening to the wind” helps her find her creative rhythm. It’s easy to look at a painting in a museum and simply think, “Wow. That artist is talented!” without reflecting on the creative process – how something moves from a private thought to a shared experience. Ms. Steenhuis did more than talk about painting – she shared a video that showed how she approaches her work and then engaged in a question and answer session with our students.

When asked how she has changed as an artist over the years, Ms. Steenhuis noted that she works more quickly at this stage of her career because she has honed her technique. This struck me as a profound insight into the creative process. We need to listen to our “inner poetry,” but we also need to nurture the skills that will allow our inspiration to take form – whether as a painting, a poem, a song, a sculpture, or a computer program!

Her remarks reminded me of a study out of Johns Hopkins that looked at jazz musicians and asked: What can their improvisation process teach us about the creative brain? Researchers noticed that when musicians (hooked up to brain monitoring equipment) moved from playing a memorized piece of music to improvising with another musician in the room, they activated a different part of the brain. As this study’s author Charles Limb noted: “Musicians were turning off the self-censoring in the brain so they could generate novel ideas without restrictions.” Limb argues that unstructured time – Play! Exploration! Wandering! Daydreaming! – is not wasted time but rather an opportunity to let our brains move freely and develop novel ideas.

Here is the beautiful balance – the musicians needed enough skill to be able to improvise in the first place, but they also needed opportunities to turn off the self-censor and create. At school, says Limb, “Art may be one of the best ways to train the brain to have this kind of creative fluency.” (Yet another reason why “art is not an extra” at TVS.)

Ms. Steenhuis demonstrated the magic that happens when technical skill merges with creative inspiration. She reminded us of the value of attention – of listening to the wind and to our own thoughts. That night, after attending the assembly, I watched my three-year-old pull out the watercolors and paint a “big sun in the sky and our family.” I paid closer attention to how much fun she was having splashing colors on a blank page and felt grateful for the reminder to slow down and listen to the poetry all around me.

To see Jill Steenhuis work, please visit http://www.artinprovence.com/jill/

Jill Steenhuis

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