Book Review: Derek Pigrum's Teaching Creativity

Artist Derek Pigrum argues that everyone is creative, but that people often do not allow their surroundings to inspire them

TVR Books | Natascha Eichinger | December 2009 / January 2010

A Lesson in Creativity

A monumental industrial table, covered in streaked dried up layers of paint and glue looking like a frenzied Jackson Pollack action painting, littered with brushes, pencils, and paper. This is the remaining debris of creative battles fought out that Wednesday in Derek Pigrum’s art room, the pungent intoxicating scents of oil paint and turpentine still lingering in the air.

What might seem like mayhem to outsiders is a productive and inspiring site for the art students in this class at the Vienna International School. Furnishing the surrounding spaces of the room are a brigade of skeletal easels some bearing painted canvases of images caught in broken glass, pink cobwebs, and portraits of grotesque clowns, while many more colorful canvases cover the surrounding walls, not a bare untouched surface to be seen. In this flourishing room creativity is not a distant, abstract notion but a visible reality.

The state and style of this room reflects the teaching practices of Derek Pigrum, which are elaborated in the underlying themes of his recent book, Teaching Creativity – ‘Multi-mode’ Transitional Practices. His work as an art teacher inspired him to look further into creative practices, but the idea for his book originally stemmed from interviews he conducted with various artists for his doctorate concerning idea development in drawing processes 30 years ago.

"I discovered then that there was a genuine similarity in the way artists worked," explains Pigrum in an interview with The Vienna Review. "Since then I have always researched this topic and continued to find new sources." This new book represents his life work and thinking.

Although he is an art teacher, his book not only discusses creative practices of artists but also those of architects, scientists, musicians, film and fashion designers to explore how creativity can be enhanced in people. Pigrum ascertains that creativity is not only a natural trait of exceptionally gifted individuals.

"We have fetishized creativity," Pigrum observes, clasping his hands together as he leans forward to speak earnestly. "For instance the idea that the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had all his compositions in his head and simply had to write them down is a myth! We just don’t have his drafts." In his book, Pigrum refers to several other examples of famous creative historic thinkers such as the British poet William Blake, where it is commonly believed that his finished works simply poured out of him as if by divine inspiration. Pigrum clarifies that these assertions are all untrue, and that in Blake’s case more than 20 drafts were found for most of his poems.

In Teaching Creativity Pigrum argues that everyone is creative, but that people often do not allow themselves to be inspired by what surrounds them.

"Our idea of creativity is of people twiddling their thumbs, until the idea comes from within" he says, twisting a pen round and round in his hands. "But the idea is not only within you! Creative ideas come from an interaction between yourself and your environment."

In his art classes with his students, and now in his book Pigrum encourages people to be more open-minded and receptive to their environment, because anything around them could spark an idea.

"The effect which the external world can have on a person was very evident with the architect Liebeskind, when he thought of his design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin," Pigrum recounts. "He found the addresses of a number of famous German cultural figures and Berlin Jews that had been murdered by the Nazis and drew lines between them on a map giving him the shape of his initial idea.

In another design project of a war museum in the north of England, he was inspired by an external object, an ugly battered old teapot which he found when he went to a local market. And that’s how he did it!"

In teaching, Pigrum feels that not enough is being done to promote creativity in students. He considers that one way is by encouraging students to interact more with their environment.

"As teachers we must encourage students to gather ideas from the external world and be perceptive" Pigrum affirms. Student notebooks and their classrooms can play a crucial role in their creative learning but is an aspect that is often neglected. "Particularly the classrooms of older students tend to be bare and clinical. Instead classrooms should include objects and student’s work that can stimulate creativity, while their notebooks are an important place for them to store ideas, undo, and rework them as they develop."

Pigrum is convinced that more participation with one’s surroundings can animate creative impulses.

"Recently I desperately needed something to unify a triptych painting I was doing of the Sirens in the Odyssey," he says thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair. "At some point when I went to a library I randomly picked up a book on present-day Russia. Even though this had nothing to do with what I was working on, an image of an ice-hockey rink in it triggered the idea I needed to finish my painting. It was serendipity!"

In his book, Pigrum outlines several practices to develop ideas, which he has divided into nine of what he calls ‘transitional modes’. "These transitional modes reflect the passage of states that an idea goes through, from the initial idea, to the first formulation and then to further modification and development," he explains.

Pigrum believes that it is important for a person to remain flexible and not to be afraid of continuously rethinking an idea.

"Working creatively is like molding clay, you continuously manipulate it until you are satisfied," he says firmly. In this way Pigrum explains that a person’s work can progress and improve so that it can reach its full potential.

Several different creative techniques can be combined in order to develop thoughts and ideas. Frequently this emerges naturally in people.

"If we have to solve a problem we use whatever modes we need," says Pigrum, placing his tea-cup back down between a jumbled array of papers. "The use of multi-modes is, for instance, a scientists bread and butter. They often engage in dialogue with one another to explain their work, while they draw out diagrams, as well as annotate them with writing."

However, Pigrum is disappointed to discover that most educational systems tend to prevent students from putting many different creative techniques to use at once.

"Our education divests us of multi-mode use!" he says in frustration. "Teachers tend to instruct their students to focus either on writing, or on drawing, or on dialogue instead of allowing them to combine them for themselves." To enhance creativity at schools Pigrum feels it is essential that teachers allow their students to combine various techniques to express their ideas in a manner they feel most comfortable with.

The fundamental problem for creativity is that people are too fixated in achieving visible results. He feels that this obsession suffocates the ability to rethink and remold ideas that are necessary to instill creative ways of thinking.

"In our society we only ever consider the finished product," Pigrum grumbles. "This prevents creativity from unfolding which takes place in a process of continuously doing, undoing and redoing an idea." Our present mentality pressures people to perform so much that they no longer use their creative abilities to their full extent to work out an idea. Often people focus too intently on finding solutions entirely within their own minds, which can result in mental blocks.

In such difficult situations Pigrum believes it is best to let our minds wander until something in our surroundings generates a spark.

"Make use of the outside world!" Pigrum exclaims. "Don’t try to dig the idea out of your head, because it is out there, somewhere in a conversation, an object, a past work or an image is where you’ll find the clue."


Teaching Creativity: Multi-mode Transitional Practices

by Derek Pigrum

Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009

ISBN 978-1847060389

Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

1., Sterngasse 2

(01) 535 5053

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