Just Create

New look! New blog! Well, not exactly…

I want to evolve this blog from being story-centric, to creativity-encompassing. There is a lot of talk in the marketing and blogging worlds about “branding” yourself, a term I despise. It reminds me of farmers branding cows. It’s limiting and I squirm at the thought of being put in a box. I understand the idea behind it – you want your potential audience to know what they’re signing up for when they buy your book or watch your movie or read your blog. Compartmentalization can sometimes be helpful, just not so much for me when it comes to living a creative life.

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Part of what I’ve struggled with in writing this blog is figuring out exactly what I want to do with it. It initially began as a way to explore stories and understand why we need them, but it’s also been about Avatar and Legend of Korra. But my creative interests expand well beyond those things, into photography, painting, philosophy, spirituality, sociology, cosmology, nutrition, etc. There are many things which fascinate and inspire me. I try to remain curious and open to new ideas and new ways of understanding myself and the world around me. Story is one way to funnel a lot of these interests, but at the same time, it feels limiting.

I realized the overarching theme I want to explore is creativity and living a creatively satisfying life. So what does that mean, exactly? For me, it’s about living authentically, honestly, and as transparently as possible. It’s about listening to new ideas, taking what works in my life, and discarding what doesn’t. It’s about being proactive and creating a life that inspires me, and sharing what I create, hoping it will inspire others to pursue their own passions.

And this isn’t just about art and writing. Creativity appears in myriad ways across every discipline and aspect of life. I’m not a great cook. In fact I don’t really like cooking, but I am in awe of chefs who can take various ingredients and create something visually stunning and mouth-watering. In an age where craftsmanship has been too often replaced by automation, where fast-food becomes preferable to thoughtful preparation, we lose a connection to what matters. We lose a part of what makes us human.

I totally accept that I sound like an old man lamenting the “good old days.” But I’m not advocating we all move out to the woods, throw away our cel phones, and forage for our own food (though I’ve thought about it). But I often wonder if we’ve lost our connection to our more primal, spiritual selves by moving away from the physical and into the virtual.

When we started the Avatar production in 2003, the artists and I all drew with pencil (or pen) and paper. Other parts of the production used computers to color and composite the show, but by and large, there was a lot of physical evidence of our work. By 2010, nearly everything is done digitally. Everyone still draws by hand, but it’s with a stylus and Cintiq. The exception is at Studio Mir, where the animators all draw with pencil and paper, then scan the drawings into the computer to be colored and composited. The show looks better than it ever has, and I still think the style of each artist comes through in the digital medium, but I can’t help but feel like something gets lost along the way. It’s something small and almost intangible, but I can sense it, like a dream you can’t quite remember upon waking, or a smell that triggers a nearly-forgotten memory.

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

So I guess the reason I’m writing all this is to reaffirm my commitment to creativity, no matter what the form, and to hopefully inspire others to do the same. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we write our novel by hand, or by typing it on a screen. It doesn’t really make a difference if we photograph with film and develop it in a darkroom, or make photos digitally — what matters is that we write the novel, or take the photo, or paint the picture, or cook the food. Just create.

Check out these TED talks (here and here) by Elizabeth Gilbert if you need a creative kick-start. She’s one of my favorite speakers on the challenges and joys of the creative process.

Vivian Maier: A photographer’s story

I learned about the amazing story of Vivian Maier last year and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.  It has everything that makes for a fascinating story — an intriguing hero, a call to adventure, a quest, and a mystery to solve.

In 2007, a Chicago historian named John Maloof bought an abandoned storage locker full of thousands of negatives. He began going through them, and suspecting they had some value, posted some of the photos online for photographers check out. People were blown away by the quality and depth of the work. John had discovered an unknown street photographer and since then, Vivian’s artwork and story has spread around the world.

Being interested in street photography, I was immediately struck by the beauty of her work.  Every new photo that came to light seemed to be a lost work of art. I saw a show of her photos last year at a small gallery in LA, which inspired me to get out in the streets and take more pictures. Some of the most interesting photos are her self-portraits — glimpses of Vivian in mirrors, in reflections of store windows, in silhouettes on the ground. Her self-portraits tell the story of an enigmatic life. Not much is known about her. Why did she take these pictures? Why hadn’t she ever shown them? Where was this amazing artist hiding all this time?

There’s a documentary coming out soon about this search for Vivian Maier. I can’t wait to see it. I love stories about art and creativity. Add a little mystery to that mix, and I’m hooked. Seems like a lot of other people are too. In five days, the trailer already has over 300,000 views.

The Academy Award-nominated documentary Searching for Sugarman, tells a similar story of a singer-songwriter who created two amazing albums that bombed in the U.S. but were huge hits in South Africa. The crazy thing is, the artist, Rodriguez, had no idea he was an international star. The documentary tells the story of the filmmaker trying to solve the mystery of who Rodriguez was and it’s more intriguing than any fictional movie I’ve seen in a long time.

For me, both stories are fascinating not just for their mysteries, but also because they ask the question: Why do we make art?  People have said it’s a tragedy that Vivian Maier’s work wasn’t recognized during her lifetime. But from what John Maloof has learned about her, it seems pretty clear that she wasn’t interested in being recognized and that she made art only for herself. The act of photographing people may have been an end in itself, as a lot of the film she shot was undeveloped when John discovered it.

But it’s clear she had a gift. And now that people have seen her photographs, they’ve been inspired, me included. Was she obligated to share that gift with the world when she was alive?

Rodriguez tried and no one listened. At least in the U.S. But now his music is being rediscovered and people love it. The first time I heard his songs in the documentary, I swore I had heard them before. It’s like rediscovering a classic folk album you forgot you had in your collection.

Maybe they were ahead of their time. Misunderstood, as most great artists are.

I suppose these stories are on my mind because nowadays it seems that there is an unspoken expectation to market oneself, to make your voice heard, to connect with your audience through Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress, Google +, Twitter, and all the other social media outlets.

I’ve felt that pressure when I have to do interviews when I’d rather not, or when I feel like I “should” post something online, just because.

This blog is different. I feel like I have something to say and I want to share it.

But sometimes I wonder. If Picasso or De Kooning were painting today, would they really be on deviantART? Would they be blogging their latest painting in progress? They might. They both were part of the artistic communities of their day, sharing ideas and their work with fellow artists. So they were doing the social network thing, just a little more old school.

I know that by going to the Rhode Island School of Design, and collaborating with great artists through my career that I’ve been challenged to grow as an artist more than I would have by myself.

Would Vivian Maier have found fame and success if she had shared her work when she was making it? Would her photographs be as intriguing without their backstory?

Part of what makes books, movies, and art fascinating are the stories of the people who created them and why they did so. I hope the Vivan Maier documentary sheds more light on both.

Eternal Stories

BadwaterSunriseLast weekend I drove to Death Valley to do some landscape photography. It feels great to get out of LA and reconnect with nature once in awhile, and taking photos is one of my favorite ways to do that. So before sunrise I made my way over to Badwater, which is 280 feet or so below sea level and is known for its distinctive-looking salt flats, which form a kind of endless pattern.

Like El Capitan in Yosemite, Badwater is one of those iconic locations that photographers love to visit and capture with their cameras. Out in the middle of those flats, bundled in coat, hat, and gloves to fend off the cold, I struggled to figure out what my take on this place would be. What would make my photo different than the thousands that have come before? I always strive to be original with whatever art I’m doing and always hoping to say something that no one has said before.

And then I realized that wasn’t the point.

I don’t come out to places like this because I’m likely going to create an image that’s never been seen before. I come out to connect with the timeless and eternal.

These landscape locations, many of which are in national parks, have remained largely unchanged. They exist as they have for the past thousands of years (minus the parking lots, toilets, and other modern amenities). In 2011, I took some photos in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where there are trees over 3000 years old.

So even though I’m was out in Death Valley in 2013 with a modern digital camera, I was connecting to something ancient and primal.

And this got me thinking about stories. Why do we still read the classics, or why do we still go to movies to see the latest incarnation of a fairy tale or superhero myth? I think by watching and reading stories that have their basis in the past, it connects us to a part of us that is more primeval. It provides some sort of continuity to our modern lives. We may be surrounded and connected by technology, but stories predate all that. They ground us and help us understand who we really are.

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes, “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time…  mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

Did I “glimpse the core of reality” out there on the salt flats? Maybe a little. I know I felt at peace and connected to something bigger than me. I watched in wonder as the sun rose as it has every day for the past millions of years. Back home, I usually wake up after the sun has already completed its morning ritual.

Maybe it’s a little unrealistic in these days of reality TV and 24-hour news channels, but I think our best stories should provide us with some sense of timeless and help us get in touch with what really matters.