I still remember the day I walked into the halls of middle school. I had apprehension and that strange sense of anticipation one only gets when they first walk into a place they know will change them from that moment onward. I recall searching around and soon finding out a new reality that lay within: lockers replaced my classroom desk, and the track and field took up the space where jungle gyms and slides used to sit. There was something stale about the moving “up” into the ranks of the older kids.
After school started, I soon discovered art class fell into line with the rest of the school’s blandness—it was less about discovery and more about technique. Instead of coloring elaborate designs of the mysterious places only a 7-year-old could imagine, they forced me to study abstract art forms and memorize the color wheel. The mystery and creativity was gone, replaced by a call to mimicry and the almighty textbook manual.
As time moved forward and I graduated high school, I found myself in the middle of England at a university studying Italian Renaissance Art. I sat in a large theater-type auditorium with stale yellow fluorescent lighting and the faint glow of a projector trying it’s best to show a quick clip of the masterpieces by Michelangelo and Botticelli. I can still remember the dusty smell of the chairs and the low hum of the lights as I spent most of my time in the library reading 800-page books about the life and times of Renaissance Art.
Rarely that semester did I gaze deeply into the art that I spent so much time studying in books. Nor had I once taken pen or crayon or brush to paper and create anything of my own. I was uninspired. I was dulled. I was a machine that wrote 25-page papers parroting axioms from scholars and my professors to gain their approval. The carefree and creative youth of yesteryear was now the educated student, bent on proving my worth with staggering word counts and brilliant analyses.
Art had died the day I walked into the seventh grade. I spent the next several years with a textbook in hand hoping it would turn out to be a resurrection stone.
With the creative life flickering out of me, my college semester ended and I hopped on a train. I crossed Europe to find myself in the middle of Rome a few weeks later. The streets were abuzz and crowded with more people than I could ever imagine. Soon we found out, from a few overheard conversations in English and clips from the media, the sad news: just before we arrived, Pope John Paul II had passed away. After we had confirmed the news, we made it our determination to make our way to the Vatican.
Travelers lined the streets. We heard snippets of song—some hummed and some sang hymns in their own languages. Many had tears and frustration on their faces. The day was ending, but somehow we made our way inside Vatican City and through all the visitors to the Sistine Chapel. As I craned my neck to gaze upon the famous ceiling I had spent weeks analyzing, a strange sensation came over me: awe and inspiration. Perhaps the emotions of all the pilgrims on the streets had somehow touched my hardened heart and made me able to once again look into a masterpiece and forget about analyzing the techniques. I could actually see what hard work can create.
Art can make you take notice. Great art makes you catch your breath and stand still in a room filled with the chaos of a hundred pilgrims and make you feel as if you were utterly alone. That day, a little light flickered inside me and, once again, passion for creativity pulsed through my veins.
Since then, I made my way through a business degree, a few marketing jobs, and landed back into my long lost passion of graphic design. Those days in Rome have stuck with me as a reminder of what real passion is and what real creativity can become.
It stands to note that Michelangelo greatly disliked his commission and spent about 4 years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for his “client,” Pope Julias II. While well known for his paintings, Michelangelo’s real passion was actually for sculpting and working with marble, but he never seemed to get the chance to do what he loved.
In some ways, as graphic designers, we have the same feeling a lot of time. We do what we do for the clients who hire us, but somewhere along the way we realize our passion is tucked away in some other art form or design that we never really get a chance to work on. Somewhere along the line our creative spark and passion can flicker out with the constant revisions and conflicts of vision—just as easily as when dull classes and boring professors crush it.
Hugh MacLeod says it this way: “Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.’”
In the creative process, sometimes we long for the days of carefree coloring, making blobs with strange appendages that will somehow make their way to a place of prominence on the family refrigerator. As we grow up, the reality of school and work and process can all have their stifling effect on the passion we feel. It’s important we never forget that, while suppressed and underutilized, our creativity is still there and can come out again if we only take a moment to remember we still possess it.
We may no longer hope to create spindly suns and stick figure families, but the imaginative world is no less alive within us. And although our passions have outgrown monsters and fairy tales, we must still take a moment to embrace the wonderment of a world filled with the mystery of God and remember we always have the ability to grasp at capturing its beauty, like a child trying to catch the wind—leaping and laughing all the while.