Creativity and Purple Elephants

Judy Robinson Vine art exhibit

I was invited to exhibit my art at The Vine.

In making and selling both musical instruments and watercolors, I have conversations with many adults who tell me that they couldn’t play the flute or try watercolors themselves because they aren’t creative or artistic.

Recently when I suggested to a friend that we could paint watercolors together on my upcoming visit with her, she emailed me:

“My junior high art teacher told me I had absolutely no artistic talent. She found me hopeless!”

So many of us have had the experience of someone who has limited (or tried to limit) our view of our potential or of our possibilities.

Is there a wrong note?

With watercolors, much of the art results in the pigments and water having minds of their own. You provide the pigment, the water and the paper. You can add more pigment or tilt the angle of the paper. But many things you cannot control.

From the musical perspective, I make Native American-style flutes and kanteles, a Finnish stringed instrument.

Both were created for more impromptu, improvisational, free-form expression. Neither instrument requires sheet music.

Flute trio on stage

Deb, Pam and I played improv on stage at the Leesburg Art Festival. Playing improv requires a special kind of creativity.

The kantele was used as storytellers strummed and told their stories. The flute let the player’s fingers express what the heart and spirit were feeling.

Both instruments offer the player an experience with mindfulness, with your breath and the placement of your fingers on the holes of the flute or the strings of the kantele.

Is there a wrong note?

With watercolor, is there a wrong color?

And who says it’s wrong? What are their experiences with creating?

When we’re young, part of the role of adults is to help us fit into a culture or organization. That can mean making us conform to certain standards, sometimes arbitrary standards. Enculturating us.

The Elephant in the Room

On the last day of school when I was in kindergarten, Mrs. Grenis, my kindergarten teacher, walked the class down the long halls to what would be our classroom when we started school the next fall. We were graduating to grade one. We filed quietly into the grade one room — the classroom for big kids.

We sat, for the first time, in our own little desks. The lids of the desks lifted and revealed a cavernous space where we would store our workbooks next year.  The teacher gave us each an elephant outline on white paper that we were to color. Every desk had its own box of Crayons. We were all very nervous and wanted to make a good impression on our new teacher, Mrs. McVey, for next year.

We were told to color our elephants – with emphasis on staying in the lines (which were very thick, black bold lines and hard to miss).  When we were done, we would be leaving school for the summer.  While we were excited to be seeing our new classroom for next year, we were also excited about the summer.

WrenSong Woods at Leesburg Art Festival, 2018

I’ve created WrenSong flutes to be easy to play to encourage people to make music as part of their lives.

When all the students quietly went to work to color their elephants, little Judy pulled her own box of crayons close to her.  They were the big thick crayons which are hard to hold – especially for someone with small hands and not at all like the nice slim crayons Judy had at home. As Judy dug though the box of crayons, she could not find a black crayon to color her elephant gray.  Was this a test?

Had the teacher removed the black crayon from Judy’s box to see what she would do? To see if she was smart enough to be in grade one?  Was she resourceful enough to handle herself when she did not have what everyone else appeared to have?  Her dad had taught her to be resourceful — as big a word as it was it was an even bigger task.

Judy had learned at home that many things happened for a reason even if she did not know or was not told the reason why to her many questions. She was not always to ask why because sometimes the reason would become apparent if she waited.  Hard as that was.

When she was certain she did not have a black crayon she held the two colors that seemed closest to black in her little hand: a purple crayon and a blue crayon.

Judy dared not disturb Mrs. McVey with a, “I don’t have a black crayon.”  That would be whining. Weak.  Not resourceful.  And Mrs. McVey was very busy at her desk working very hard. Judy had learned that if an adult was concentrating on something she should never, never disturb them.

So Judy debated a long long time on which crayon was closest to producing an elephant-gray. And finally decided it was purple.

Aside from the fact that purple was a favorite color (she had created a much admired purple finger-painting in kindergarten) it seemed closest to doing the task at hand.  For a young brain, a purple elephant was no cliché.

Near the end of class — and the day — and the school year — Mrs. McVey walked around the desks and started to collect the elephant colorings.  She stopped at Judy’s desk and looked for a very very very long time at the perfectly-in-the-lines-colored elephant.  A laborious work with that giant resourceful purple crayon.

“What color is your elephant?” Mrs. McVey asked sternly.

“Purple,” said a very shy, timid voice. It took all the effort in the world to make two syllables.

“Are elephants purple?” Mrs. McVey clipped.

“No” eked out a terrified, tiny voice.

Another sheet holding the thick-blacked line elephant descended from above onto the desk.

“Color it correctly,” Mrs. McVey commanded and continued walking up the aisle.

Horrified the child realized she was trapped. She still did not have a black crayon.  Would she be reduced to coloring purple and blue elephants all summer?  Would her parents punish her too? No new box of crayons came with another sheet to color. What would she do?

As all of the other students filed out of the room and yelled and screamed with joy “It’s summer” outside the classroom windows, Judy looked up to see her two good friends that she was always to walk home with (Kathy and Lori)  standing on their tip toes looking in through the classroom windows.

Should they wait for her?  They didn’t. It was summer. And who knows how long it would take to color an elephant gray under a cloud of shame.

I survived.

I still love purple among so many other radiant and beautiful colors and have come to enjoy making art with words, wood, watercolors.  And I am delighted that Judy did not take let the experience of many decades ago hamper her explorations in music and art.

As children and students, we may need to conform to others’ standards of music and art because we’re being graded or are auditioning for a chair in the school band. Maybe we don’t take an art course in high school because our junior high art teacher told us we didn’t have artistic talent.  Maybe we are hesitant to pick up and try a musical instrument.  But beyond the hesitation is a great world too rich to miss.  Don’t let the judgement of the Mrs. McVey’s stop you.

Persist and pursue.

Here are some examples of my creative work.

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