Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: creativity Page 1 of 8

Ed Sheeran & Friends Shape a Song

Shaping the Creative Process

The creative process fascinates me – how artists and musicians can start with a blank slate and then make something out of nothing. Usually, all we get to see or hear is the finished piece and, if it’s good, it glows like a polished gem.

But creators shape their work bit by bit. As it flows, the creative process brings together many little moments of inspiration and discovery. Some pieces fit easily like hand in glove, others fall away to be replaced by something better. How it all comes together often remains a mystery.

So, I was excited to see a NYT video that takes us behind the scenes to explore how singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and his music collaborators created what would become the biggest pop song of 2017.

Ed Sheeran performs “Shape of You” at the 2017 Grammy Awards (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

From a NYT article describing the Shape of You recording session:

“Shape of You” was written in a brainstorming session where ideas are developed or discarded fast, with computers and instruments close at hand and recorders running. “The best songs that I’ve ever written, I don’t really remember writing,” Mr. Sheeran said. “They take like 20 minutes and then they’re just done. And then you move on to the next thing.”

Visualizing Creativity

What makes the NYT video unusual is how it uses music, graphic imagery and text to enhance the interviews. It helps us visualize all the little moments of discovery and inspiration that were pieced together to create the song. The graphics not only give the video a unique look, they also help tie everything together.

As the musicians play a little music riff or talk about working together to build the song,  you’ll see visual representations of the music’s rhythm, its melodic ramblings and little word bubbles mirroring the birth of lyrics.

The graphic elements kick your understanding up to the next level, as the musicians’ sensitivity to each other, their creative energy and the music’s pulse all beat together in delicious harmony.

Here’s the video. I apologize for the ad at the beginning. When it finishes playing you’ll need to click the pause button or else it will continue playing other random videos. 

(If the video doesn’t display correctly, you can click on this link)

Putting the Pieces Together

On the face of it, the video seems fairly simple, like the song. Bring the musicians into the studio, interview them individually, shoot them in black and white against a white background, edit and shape their comments and, seemingly, you’re done. But, adding the music and graphics makes the presentation much more fun and engaging.

The music riffs in the background add energy and help illustrate and counterpoint the commentary. The graphic touches – a music bar that pulses with the beat, dots of melody or rhythm that come and go, little graphic grids to breakup the visual space, text bubbles with lyrics and comments, all hold up a mirror to the creative process.

from the NYT video

The result is a complex, carefully-timed and layered video inspired by a complex, carefully-timed and layered song.

I know from my own experience, when creativity flows, you’re totally present within the moments of inspiration. Time disappears, it’s an exhilarating, empowering feeling. It’s nice to see how much of that was captured in the video.

You can read the NYT article about the making of the song here. You can poke around animator Taylor Beldy’s site here.

So, did you like the video as much as I did? Is the creative process the same for a pop singer/songwriter as with any other artist? What’s your take away? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Elle Luna – On Launching Your Creative Journey

Elle Luna’s creative journey is a touchstone for many eager to find creative expression in their lives. A designer and artist, she’s become somewhat of a creativity guru with her recent book, The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion.

Elle Luna twitter page

Elle Luna from her twitter page

From The Great Discontent site:

I have so much respect for anybody who will step away from what they can do in order to find what they must do. That’s a hallmark characteristic of entrepreneurs and artists. And it’s scary and exciting as all hell.

I’ve read her book and highly recommend it. You’ll find it’s many things: a journal about her struggle to find and express her creative passion – painting, an exploration of roadblocks we erect on the path to creativity, and a guide to discovering and realizing your own creative impulse.

Crossroads book

It’s also surprisingly reasoned – unlike Timothy Leary’s famous call in the 60’s to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” she talks about how issues like time, money and space challenge your ability to transform your life from the world of “should” to the challenge of doing what you “must” to follow your creative passion.


from “The Crossroads of Should and Must”

How did she launch her creative journey and what can we learn from her experience?

Creativity is a process and often, each experience builds on the next. It’s also a jumble of confusion, inspiration, stillness and bursts of activity – all leading to a final outcome. The process can be disciplined or unfocused, spontaneous or meticulously planned in advance – the specifics vary with each person.

photo by Anna Alexia Basile

photo by Anna Alexia Basile

Elle Luna would say it’s a journey that is potentially open to everyone. Here’s her story in brief:

Elle Luna grew up in Texas and came from a long line of lawyers, on her father’s side. She took some art courses in college but saw law as her destiny. She applied to 9 law schools and was rejected by all. So she pursued her early interest in art and got an MFA in design and conceptual storytelling from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Her ability as a storyteller led to a dream job with the design firm IDEO. From there, she helped redesign Uber’s iphone app, won an Innovation by Design award, designed a logo and app for the start-up Mailbox, and helped scale up the storyteller site, Medium. She was 31, at the top of her game but all she accomplished left her feeling unfulfilled.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 4.40.41 PM

From The Great Discontent:

I started having a recurring dream about a white room: it had really high ceilings, white walls, industrial windows, and concrete floors. I had the dream over and over again. Finally, a friend of mine said, “Have you ever thought about finding this white room in real life?” I remember feeling stunned by the question. What an obvious thing to ask. I didn’t know what I was looking for or what the role of this white room was. I felt ridiculous.

white room

Feeling restless and unfulfilled, she began looking for her dream space.

One day I was on Craigslist and saw a thumbnail of an apartment—it was the room from my dreams. When I walked into the space, it was crawling with people, but I felt like it was already mine. I walked up to the broker, wrote a check, and left; it was almost an out-of-body experience. A couple of hours later I got a call that I had gotten the apartment. 


I had no idea what I was doing, but I showed up in the new apartment with two suitcases and my dog.

her studio2

I sat, looked at the space and said aloud, “What in God’s name have I just done? Why I am I here?” As clear as day, the space spoke back to me and said, “It’s time to paint.”

ike edeani

photo by Ike Edeani

That next morning, I went to the art store and filled my cart with anything and everything that spoke to me. Then I went back to the space and started painting nonstop for the next seven months.

from her tumblr site6

from her tumblr site

Still, she was stuck between should and must – How would she live? How could she support herself? Would her work be any good at all?


photo by Ike Edeani

From an interview from

Shoulds are everywhere. You should read this book. You should go to that event. You should ask that question. They can be small; they can be big. Should provides lots of rewards.

Must is different. It’s about the essence of you: what you believe; what you stand for; what you want; who you must be; and how you must live. Must isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be brutal. But, choosing must is the greatest thing we can do with our time here in this life.

self portrait


She spent time in solitude to slow down, explore, meditate and seek inspiration. She showed her work to people she admired for feedback and criticism. And kept working, refining and following her muse. Her art gained attention – a solo show sold out.

Far From Shore Ian Ross Gallery

Elle Luna’s “Far From Shore” exhibit at the Ian Ross Gallery

From the Great Discontent:

Everything is a paradox. I feel like I’m on a path I’ve never seen before, yet I’m not on a path at all. There’s no prescription for where I’m going, yet many people have been down this road. 

her studio3

In 2014, she wrote on Medium about her struggles and insights into the conflicts between “should” and “must.” Her article went viral. That led to a book and inspirational talks like this one at DO Lectures.


She took a deep dive into painting, plus giving interviews and inspirational talks. This year she felt the need for solitude once again. She decided to take her “white room” on the road.

Elle van2


Here’s a video of that experience, from the Adobe Create site:

Adobe Creative Voices – Elle Luna from ALCHEMYcreative on Vimeo.

More than anything, I’m struck by her courage, curiosity and belief that if she takes time to stop and listen she’ll find a direction forward. It’s exciting and difficult, crazy and illuminating to find your own direction and follow it. When you give yourself to the “must,” you may not become a social media darling but you will be doing something that’s true to yourself. That’s a huge gift in its own right.

Medium.comFrom the Great Discontent:

I began to wonder, “What if we went through life assuming that everyone actually was an artist? That everyone had an offering to give? To share?” Let’s broaden that up a little and ask, “What if everyone has a gift inside of them, a unique gift to give the world?”

If your time is short – read Elle’s article on Medium (15 minutes) or watch her DO talk (30 minutes). If you have some time – buy her richly illustrated book. You’ll feel inspired and realize there are many small steps you can take to launch your own creative journey. She’ll show you how.


Visionary Art or Creative Obsession?

Visionary Art or Creative Obsession?

What do visionary artists try to capture when they draw, paint or sculpt? Are their visions a reflection of the world around them or some internal need that demands expression? Perhaps visionary art is both obsession and an expression of the creative voice.

The Peacock

“The Peacock” by Sam Bleecker

My friend Sam Bleecker inspired me to think about visionary art, although Sam might say obsession is too strong a word for it. Visionary artists may be untrained – but there is something driving them, some internal voice that demands to be heard.

For them art is about capturing an internal vision, or an issue, or responding to the world as it once was or as it should become. Still, why do they do it? With little or no formal training some visionary artists manage to create amazing work, inspiring us to celebrate their creative spirit.

Simon Rodia’s Amazing Structures


Several of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

We have plenty of examples, like Simon Rodia, who spent 34 years single-handedly constructing the soaring Watts Towers in Los Angeles.

35mm negative

Simon Rodia and his Watts Towers

He constructed 17 interconnected steel and mortar towers and decorated them with a mosaic of shells, broken glass, bits of pottery, tile and hand drawn designs. He worked without an overall plan and designed his amazing creation as he went along. Why did he do it?

He said, “I had it in mind to do something big and I did it.”

Grandma Moses’ Celebration of a Bygone Era

At the Well prints-01

“At the Well” by Grandma Moses

There’s the nostalgic imagery of Grandma Moses, who painted scenes of country life remembered from her youth. A farmer’s wife, she expressed her art first through embroidery and took up painting only when arthritis made that detailed hand work too difficult.


“The Quilting Bee” by Grandma Moses




She was 76 when she began using a paint brush, was “discovered” a few years later and became a national sensation. She painted over 1000 pictures. There’s an excellent remembrance of her life and work in her NYT obituary.


Ralph Fasanella, Urban Working Life and Post War America

Another visionary artist who caught my eye is Ralph Fasanella.


Ralph Fasanella


As a boy he helped his father deliver ice from a horse-drawn wagon. He worked in the textile industry and later as a machinist and then a union organizer. It was as a union organizer, in his late 20s, when he started painting.


“Bench Workers” by Ralph Fasanella

Soon art consumed him – he quit the union, bought a service station to pay the bills and painted in his free time. He always saw himself as part of the working class and envisioned his large canvases hanging in union meeting halls.

New York Going to Work (Ralph Fasanella) 1980

“New York Going to Work” by Ralph Fasanella

His son Marc holds a PhD in Art and Design and has written about his father. From a Smithsonian American Art Museum interview:


Marc Fasanella

My father was an exceptional guy. My mother always said that if he got on a crowded elevator by the time he reached the fifth floor he knew everyone in the car and would most likely keep in contact over time with at least one of the people he met. You could put him in any situation and in any environment and he would find a way to talk to people. With workers there was an instant bond.


Ralph Fasanella’s work was spontaneous and improvised, often developing on the canvas as he worked on it. Describing one of his paintings, he said it “just came out of my belly. I never planned it. I don’t know how I did it.”


“Sandlot Baseball” by Ralph Fasanella

Marc Fasanella:

He didn’t “know” how to paint. He painted because he was compelled to. He couldn’t stop the ideas swimming in his head from exiting through his fingers. My father was a passionate guy and he poured out that passion in many ways, but once he began painting that was his primary form of release.

American Tragedy

“American Tragedy” by Ralph Fasanella

Like Grandma Moses, Fasanella celebrated the world he knew. He also explored darker subjects like labor struggles, the cold war, the assassination of JFK and Watergate.


“Watergate” by Ralph Fasanella

Marc Fasanella:

Every time I look at one of my father’s complex political paintings I see something new. His most accomplished works reveal to me the promise and perversions of America; the history of prejudice, oppression, and wage slavery; and the power of opposition. They also show hope, the struggle for a more egalitarian society, the beauty, poetry, emotional resonance of icons with unvarnished political imagery, and persuasive metaphor.

Sam Bleecker Finding Order in Chaos

While Grandma Moses and Ralph Fasanella tried to capture the world as they encountered it, Sam Bleecker‘s work is inspired by his background in science, math and biology.

Hidden Worlds (Manhattan)

Hidden Worlds (Manhattan) by Sam Bleecker

Sam Bleecker describes this work:

Beneath the irregular white grid are two mostly obfuscated paintings, both NYC street scenes abstracted and then purposely hidden. To my mind, this is much the way we perceive reality from first holistic glance to deep analysis. The meaning is always deeper than the surface.

For much of his life Sam Bleecker’s mode of expression was the written word. Trained as a physicist and molecular biophysicist, he worked for Bell Labs writing numerous pieces to explain the company’s science and technology. He’s written about computers, astronomy, architecture, launched his own tech consulting business and spent ten years as a travel and science photographer and writer.

Sam Bleecker

Sam Bleecker at the Compton Gallery

Entangled Numbers

“Entangled Numbers” by Sam Bleecker

From a recent newspaper article:

Bleecker finds beauty in numbers. He thinks quantum mechanics is poetic. And he’s spent countless hours working on his own theory, which is that science and math can be aesthetically pleasing to anyone.

Quantum Foam

“Quantum Foam” by Sam Bleecker

Sam Bleecker, from the article:

There can be chance and randomness in something and it can still become ordered. You just drip paint on a canvas, but you order it in a certain way and it becomes aesthetic. Some people just start painting and don’t know what they are going to achieve. I have to have a concept. I can’t paint without a concept first.

Sam is on a quest to reveal the deeper meaning hidden in what we observe. His analytical mind is always active, always questioning what lies beneath the surface of what we see and think we know.

Night in the Swamp

“Night in the Swamp” by Sam Bleecker

When I asked what motivates his art, he said:

There’s an aspect of compulsion. I see things and think about what they mean or could mean. Each canvas is a world unto itself. Why do I do it? It’s a way of connecting, of having a conversation between me and the person who views my work.


“Turbulence” by Sam Bleecker

In my abstract paintings, much like a musician, I use color and form as my notes, but rarely to write a song, but rather as a jazz ensemble. It’s the interplay of notes, not meaning that is essential.


From the “Hidden Worlds” series, by Sam Bleecker

As these few canvases suggest, a visit to Sam Bleecker’s website is quite an experience. You’ll find his body of work explodes with an infectious exuberance. Not all of the pieces work, you sense he’s continually experimenting with form and substance, but the ones that do are quite striking.

You’ll also notice his body of work pursues themes and styles that seemingly have little connection among them. They’re all intellectually inspired by scientific or mathematical concepts and constructs, true. But they’re so different and his newest work seems to be continually departing from what came before. In that sense, his creativity flows like a meandering stream with new ideas and imagery constantly bubbling to the surface.

Sam told me,

Painting is a way of bringing together my two passions (Science and Art). Science, that analytical approach to the world, is inescapable. You can’t abandon who you are – at some point it just has to burst forth. I can’t live without it. It’s my oxygen.

A Final Thought

I think there’s something here that’s truly remarkable. Sam Bleecker, Ralph Fasanella and Grandma Moses were all driven to create by a deeply profound need to express themselves through their art. It’s as if each time they sat down to begin a new piece, some internal story blossomed forth. It’s there in the work and I think you can find it if you look for it. They’re sharing that story with you, it’s their mission, their hope, their dream. That, I believe, is what makes each of them a visionary artist.

Marc's World

“Marc’s World” by Ralph Fasanella


“Bringing in the Maple Syrup” by Grandma Moses

In her autobiography Grandma Moses said,

I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.

Great advice for all of us.

Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Art & Creativity Inspired by Nature: Janis Goodman

I’ve always been curious about the creative process and what inspires it – that’s one of the reasons I write The Vision Thing. So I thought I’d ask some of my artist friends about their take on inspiration, art and creativity.

Janis Goodman head shot

photo of Janis Goodman provided by artist

This will be the first of several posts, starting with artist and educator Janis Goodman. Janis is Professor of Fine Arts at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, DC. She’s a working artist and often experiments with new approaches to her art. Over the years I’ve seen her canvases change quite a bit. Janis also appears regularly on PBS affiliate WETA-TV to review arts and culture in the Washington, DC area.

She spends summers in Maine to hike, kayak and paint. She told me she finds lots to inspire her in that rural setting. As she meanders along the rocky coves near her cabin, her eye is often attracted to the ever-changing patterns in nature – and especially water.



Rather than record her encounters with nature in a realistic way, she tries to find the essence of those experiences and re-image them in her art. So the swirls and eddies on the water’s surface that she observes from her kayak become abstracted as lines, shapes and color in her paintings.

Janis explains:

I was working with paintings of water – the tides and currents – how they ripple and move, and are constantly changing. I’m trying to capture the instability of everything and the way we perceive and observe the world.

"Summer Landscape"

“Summer Landscape”



There’s a strong feeling of movement in her paintings and it’s that constant change – those moments of flux and uncertainty – that she’s trying to capture. Her work is unpredictable that way. If you spend time reflecting on one of her abstractions, inevitably something new is revealed or begins to take shape in a different way.

Painting represents change over time – that’s what’s exciting. It’s continually changing and you hope it adds up to something cohesive.


photos of Janis in her studio by Dan Bailes

I asked Janis what she saw as the core of her creativity.

I’m always questioning: why is something like this instead of like that? I think it starts with curiosity, then feeling a sense of permission to go forward, to reach out and embrace the motivation to do the work.

"Movement and Migration"

“Movement and Migration”

Her paintings evolve as she works on them, she starts with one idea and that leads to another and another.

You jump into the abyss and hope the painting will tell you where to go. I’m usually up in the air and never know where I’m going to land. It’s scary.

Curiosity is the catalyst that launches her creative process, combined with a keen sense of observation. As she spends time on the water or takes a walk through the woods, she becomes more open and connected to the natural world. It’s that quality of mindfulness, and her interpretation of what she experiences, that she tries to capture with her brush.


Janis has a remarkable sense of composition. While everything seems out of balance, somehow it works. I asked her why.

Composition is a lot about intuition. My work is always asymmetrical and I really like unequal balance. I’m conscious of the energy force (created by that unequal balance), or what adding something does to the energy force.



It’s like the energy around magnetic fields – you want all of the elements in a conversation. Balance helps your eye take everything in, but not necessarily in one go. As you spend a little time with the work, balance allows you to digest the whole picture.

What does the creative process mean for Janis? Is she driven by passion, a need to communicate something, ego or what? I wondered how she would respond.


This is not about enjoyment. This is hard work. It’s not easy to do – it’s problem solving – to me that’s really interesting. I love doing it, I couldn’t see doing anything else. Still, I’m very stoic about it – when I’m finished and looking at one of my pieces I might say to myself, “Yeah that came together” or “Where did that come from?”


Most of my artist friends would say it’s work – it’s problem solving. Painting is: you create the problem; you solve the problem. It consumes you – you go into unchartered waters in your head.

"Bee Hive"

“Bee Hive”

You keep digging, like you’re going to get to some truth – of course you never get there – but it’s like one of these days you will and it’s going to knock you on your ass.

"Dream of Odysseus"

“Dream of Odysseus”

Maybe it all just comes down to being curious, mindful and in sync with yourself.

I know if I haven’t been in my studio in a few days I go crazy. You spend so much time with yourself you need an honest dialog with your work – if the work isn’t talking back to you, you shouldn’t do it.


Janis begins with a blank canvas, something at once terrifying and exhilarating. Powered by curiosity and a confidence born from experience, she’s able to pick up a brush and begin. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Page 1 of 8