Many of the artists I’ve foreground in CIA 7091, MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop, remind us of the importance of play in creative work—as an intention as well as something that we can attend to in art-making.
Intention, according to director Anne Bogart, asks us to consider what we are “tempting” in our work. Attending, Bogart says, allows us to consider how we want to “cultivate” receptiveness in others. Play bridges the two—it is both an intention (a way of engaging the work) and attention (a way of calling others to it). I’d like to offer four artists’ perspectives on play—and then I hope you’ll “play” with them and see where they lead you in your own work.
In the essay “Building a House,” poet Mary Oliver tells us that “…stepping away from actions where one knows one’s measure is good. It shakes away an excess of seriousness.” She shares that in the process of dealing with the unknown, such as building a house, she finds herself “becoming, in an almost devotional sense, passive, and willing to play. Play is never far from that impress of the creative drive, never far from the happiness of discovery.”
Anne Bogart in "A Director Prepares: Seven Essays On Art and Theater" writes: “Every creative act involves a leap into the void.” This leap is a kind of play that asks us to engage embarrassment and also our assumptions. Bogart writes that embarrassment is “an obstruction we encounter that helps us to clarify our mission.” Bogart’s engagement of embarrassment, like Oliver’s stepping out of one’s “measure” involves reaching just beyond what we’ve already mastered—into something new. As we do this, assumptions also arise—“The enemy of art is assumption,” Bogart says—and she encourages us to question them. If we do, she tell us “you will find yourself instantly, childlike, face to face with new sensations,” inspired into play.
The Maira Kalman exhibit—"Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco—offered a living example of art at play. The exhibit included 30 years of Kalman’s work on paper as well as photography, embroidery, textiles, and an installation. Kalman refers to her work as journalism but the exhibit’s website tells us she “uses writing and drawing to render an ongoing account of the world as she sees it. Hers is a daily discipline of creativity based on photography, travel, research, walking, talking, and open observation. A serious love of distraction pervades.”
It is this serious relationship with detail and distraction that allows Kalman to play. The intention and attention to play shapes her work (text and image) and what she says (a dual relationship with the creative moment and to the larger context of her experience and contemporary life). See also this work featured in The New York Times.
Marjane Satrapi, author of the graphic memoir "Persepolis," is also playful in the ways that she constructs her work. She says that she makes “frames” first. She starts with the form and then fills in. “I have one page, and I decide how many frames I want to put on it, six or eight or nine [she sketches a pattern of empty frames on scrap paper], and what I want to say in each frame. Then I sketch what I want [she draws a stick figure], a person here or a scene. After that, I take a pencil and draw them…”
Also, Satrapi’s use of an adolescent narrator allows a playful “frame” (stance or a perspective). Also, her “graphic” approach allows her to establish expectation for a comic book feel. See also this interview on the Powell's Books website.
When building her house, Mary Oliver said she “was joyous all day long.” That’s why artists across the disciplines rely on play. Leap or step away. Engage or question, discipline or distract yourself. Whichever or whatever you frame or shape—play is a material, and you can use it often and well in your creative work.