Scholarship AS creative activity: Meeting your inner artist

Five glass tiles of different colors and designs on a black background.

My academic training is in ecology. And I have always had a creative, artistic streak. In high school and college, I was moderately serious about music performance. I played clarinet in school and community orchestras and I performed in pit bands and orchestras for musicals. Since about 2019, I’ve been painting and doing block art. Last year, I started learning glass art. Recently, I’ve been making mandalas with acrylic paint on black canvas.

What do I like about engaging in art? It gives my problem-solving brain a break, serving as a beautiful escape. I feel internally quiet, mindful, and meditative when I’m painting. I often have a breakthrough in a work problem when I’m making art. My artistic practices in both block art and glass require destruction and physicality in order to make something new and beautiful. I can convey an idea and integrate some concepts together to make new meaning in my art. For example, my block print of a peacock represents more than a colorful bird to me; there’s a story behind it and a meaning I make of it. Same with my sunfire mandala.

A block with a peacock carving in it, blue ink is spread on the block. There's newspaper on the table underneath, a roller to the right and blank paper to the left.
Peacock block carving, ready for printing

Upon the recommendation of a high school friend and fellow academic, I’ve been reading “The Artist’s Way” (Julia Cameron, 2016) to further develop my own creativity, both in my work and in my art. Her book is leading me to think about the ways I can guide graduate students as they explore their research, writing, and teaching AS creative activities and learn how to protect and nurture their creative spark. 

What do artists and creative people do and why?

Creativity: Create. Construct. Design. Imagine.

Art: Painting. Sculpture. Photography. Film. Dance. Music. Storytelling. Writing. 

Artists experiment with materials – paints, sounds, words, movements – to convey an idea or message. They do research to understand how others have encountered and explored the idea. They curate an experience. They help you see something you might not have seen before. Artists capture a moment that evokes emotions and sensations. They use imagination to take you to a place you’ve never been before with possibilities beyond our everyday. They can portray beauty and pain. They can reveal a painful and delightful truth about the human experience.

Academics are creators and creative people, too. We write. We integrate ideas and thoughts to make meaning, convey knowledge, and create new stories. 

Reflect on how you are already a creator: 

  • What creative activities do you currently engage in (crafts, hobbies, fiction, film, cooking, music, theater)? 
  • What functions of art and creativity most resonate with you? 
  • What connections do you see between the functions of creative/artistic activities and your academic scholarship?

Creativity as a process

Creative processes have ebb and flow, two steps forward and one back, rocking, swinging, oscillation, wave action, a pendulum, a dialectic. 

  • Expansion & collapse.
  • Inhale & exhale.
  • Consolation & desolation.
  • Growth & senescence.
  • New self & old self.

I hear about writer’s block all the time among graduate students and faculty. Artists talk about blocks, too. I experience blocks in my academic projects and writing these posts. Any creative person will experience blockages in their creativity. There’s an acceptance to this dialectic and natural order of things.

Sometimes we resist and prevent the ebb or flow. Maybe we are afraid that our creativity will die. Maybe we are afraid to be bold. Sometimes our creativity is shut down from extraordinary stress (see Mays Imad’s work, especially her article on Trauma-Informed Educational Development in To Improve the Academy). We dissociate and disembody to the point where we’re reacting to the world but not making meaning of it from a place of calm. Sometimes we’re not making our time and space important for creative activity; we let others determine how our time is spent.

Reflect on how your creativity feels to you. Imagining your creative experience along a continuum from 0 (not creative at all) to 10 (highly creative), how does your creativity feel to you aesthetically (with adjectives) and as an embodied practice (as sensations in your body)?

For me, zero creativity feels: stuck, grinding, dead, stagnant, lurching, old, and uninspiring. When I’m my most creative, it feels: frictionless, flow, new, fresh, oxygenated, exciting, energizing, tingling, integrating head to toe, delectable, delightful, and insightful.

Reflect on how you prioritize creativity. Where does creativity fit into your priorities for time and space? Consider an Eisenhower Matrix where you map out your activities along the urgent/not urgent and important/not important axes. Which box do you prioritize? 

I think creativity would fit in the important/not urgent box. I bet for most of us in higher education, things in this box always get moved to the bottom of the list. Creativity is something that we have to plan into our day and commit to doing.

 Important
Things about me and what matters to me
Related to purpose 
What inspires, enriches, feels good
Not important
Things about someone else or something else
Keep time-bound
Maintain accountability
Urgent
Demands full attention
Top priority
Drop everything
Do it immediately
Things with reasonable, achievable deadlines
Things with meaningful, observable outcomes
Health
Safety
Security
Wellbeing
Delegate or automate
One-off tasks
Last-minute requests
My skills aren’t necessary (anyone can do it)
Maintain oppressive institutions
Don’t contribute to my long-term growth
DOING, not being
Not urgent
Spacious time
What fills the spaces
Potential for growth, connection, and relationships
Schedule and commit
Personal growth
Planning
Maintaining a house
Creativity
Investing in values, interests, wellbeing
BEING, not doing 
Delete
Time wasters
Other people’s responsibilities
Repetitive, marginal tasks
Email, social media
Numbing, avoiding 
Eisenhower Matrix

Nourishing your creativity

Here are a few ideas to learn more about your own creative process and how to care for it.

  1. Take a mentor whose creativity you admire on a coffee date. Tell them where you notice their creativity and ask about it. Where did they learn that? What does it mean to them? What is helpful to them as rituals and boundary-making? What squashes their creativity?
  2. Study your own creative process in your hobbies and crafts. What boundaries and inspiration help you? What squashes your creativity? Maybe draft an artist’s statement, which you might include in a cover letter or website – as an introduction to your body of work. What you do/make and why you do/make it? A Google search turns up lots of guides and examples of artist’s statements; here’s a website on artist’s statements I found helpful.
  3. Go on an artist’s date. In the book, The Artist’s Way, Cameron recommends weekly time by yourself, “opening yourself to insight, inspiration, guidance” and “committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion…” (18). A Google search turns up tons of lists of suggested artist’s dates: go on a walk somewhere new, make sidewalk chalk art, go to karaoke night, look at the stars, listen to the sounds at a farmer’s market.
A woman, pulling her mask down, standing in front of a projection on the wall of van Gogh's Starry Night. A bright yellow star is to the left of her face, the background is vibrant blue.
Me at the van Gogh exhibit in Indianapolis in November 2021

When you meet your inner artist and integrate them with your outer academic, notice what happens. Thinking of my work as creative activity shifts my thinking from being productive (through publications and presentations) for the sake of production to creating meaningful, enriching experiences for myself and people around me.

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