A box has arrived on my desk today, addressed to Artist 22.
It marks the beginning of a new project. Not a large project, but one I’m looking forward to putting my creative mark on, and also one I shall respectfully project manage my part in as carefully as I would a vastly bigger challenge.
There is a meme that periodically does the rounds of social media that goes along the lines of, ‘Creative people don’t have messy homes; they just have ideas lying around everywhere.’ It’s one that irritates me, because it suggests that creatives live in a world of constant chaos over which they have little control, and whilst it is true that the more stimulus a creative mind is given, the more it goes on to have further off shoots of ideas – as in most other fields of life - the reality of living one’s life with a creative focus needs to include a discipline and order that recognises the need for organisation and has a deep understanding of the length, deadlines and roles involved in each individual project. My colleagues would not only be extremely cross with me if I didn’t complete my part on time, but grant monies might be rescinded, pressure put on others further down the line, a great deal of goodwill lost and in the worst case scenario, the project might collapse altogether.
I said that my box marked the beginning, but actually that’s not true. The five phases of managing a creative project are;
My part in this project goes further back than the package on my desk. It truly began when I was approached to be one of the artists. I had to consider whether it was something I felt comfortable doing; discover the vision of those who had instigated and brought it into being; listen carefully to details of their ideas and find out how much ‘scope’ I have to put my own interpretation on the brief; find out what roles everyone involved has and, most important, what are the deadlines we are working to. When working with creatives, the deliverables are heartfelt creative expressions and those who have carried those ‘babies’ and invested in them, sometimes for a long time and after lengthy pursuits of funding and permissions, and sometimes with very personal reasons behind the concept, can be inevitably more wedded to the overall product of their work than others might be, so it is particularly important to treat them respectfully and sensitively.
What I’m really focusing on now is the planning part. Ideas have been sorting and re-sorting in my mind since I first heard about the project, but it’s time to get those ideas in order, to draw up plans and pull together the resources I need. With the best will in the world, I couldn’t do that with any degree of efficiency if I lived surrounded by mess. I need things to be accessible, my time to be managed effectively and my working space to be organised. It’s a misnomer to think of creatives as airy type creatures that float from idea to idea, because if that was the case, they simply wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. They have to be part creative, part manager, with an eye on the bigger picture, an empathy and ability to communicate with everybody else involved and the tools and skill to carry out the task.
There’s a box on my desk.
I’m curious now to explore its content and where my imagination will take it, but, in doing that, I am constantly aware that I am only Artist 22, one tiny link in the chain of this project coming together, each person involved with their own set of deliverables and a significant part of the bigger picture.
Today is World Elephant Day.
I am reminded of the days I spent at Hathi Gaon, a village near the Amber Palace, designed specifically for elephants and their mahouts. Tall enclosures shelter the elephants, there are lakes where the mahouts bathe the magnificent animals at the end of the day, bamboo is grown especially to feed them, the wives of the mahouts prepare chapattis for their breakfast along with those for family members and the elephants are treated with great devotion and love. The elephants are working animals, used to transport tourists up the steep slopes to the palace, hired for wedding ceremonies and stars of the annual Elephant Festival in Rajasthan. It was my privilege to be trained in how to paint them in glorious colours and geometric designs, intended to draw attention to their majesty and resplendence.
Elephants, in Hindu mythology, were the conveyors of Lord Indra, the god of heaven, and when Lord Ganesh was beheaded by his angry father an elephant offered his own head in order for him to survive. The elephant became revered and respected, used as a mode of royal transport by the ‘Maharajas’ to travel from one region to another and as a loyal escort on battle fields, held in the firm belief that power was best wielded from the back of an elephant. They became synonymous with wisdom, strength, loyalty, power and dignity. They have huge status in Indian culture and on special days are worshipped and anointed with oil.
But elephants are amazing creatures. They live in herds that are very like family units, showing a depth of care and kindness for the young, infirm and elderly that has to be seen to be believed. They are extremely calm, obliging, obedient, able to follow instructions, and have terrific memories that means they seldom forget places, faces and pathways. They also have tremendous tenacity, pushing themselves through obstacles to fully focus on achieving their tasks. These are the qualities that their mahouts admire more than their status and place in society.
There is a saying that the elephant has big ears in order to show us all how much more important it is to listen than to speak.
No matter what our status or position, how regal our outlook or how well painted our faces, true wisdom, strength and dignity comes in the quiet moments, the way we listen to others, care for those around us and concentrate fully on getting the job done well.
Photographing the giraffes today reminded me of the time I saw a baby one born, watching with my hand fearfully over my mouth as this creature with legs that looked as though they would snap with the tiniest of pressure fell a full six feet from its mother’s womb and landed on its back.
The infant giraffe rolled over and within seconds it was tucking its legs under its body, shaking off what remained of the birthing fluids and surveying the world around it.
But it wasn’t allowed to settle.
The mother bent her long neck down, took a very quick look at her new child and then positioned herself directly over the calf. She waited until her child had registered that she was there and then swung one long, pendulous leg forward and gave her baby a forceful kick, sending it sprawling head over heels.
The surprised calf didn’t get up, but just lay where it had landed. So the mother kicked it again. Still the stunned calf didn’t move. Again and again the mother kicked her unmoving calf. The small body was growing tired, but eventually tried to muster strength to rise and move away from the violence. It pushed its body half way and then stumbled. The mother kicked it again. The calf finally stood for the first time, on very wobbly legs.
There were a few moments grace and then the mother did an astonishing thing. She kicked the legs from under it again, sending the calf sprawling.
Why did she go through this seemingly cruel ritual?
Because she wanted it to remember how it got up.
In their natural habitat, baby giraffes must be able to get up as quickly as the others in the herd. If they are too slow, not only are they in danger, but they hold back the others, putting the safety of the whole herd at risk. Lions, leopards, hyenas and wild hunting dogs all enjoy young giraffes to eat, so it is imperative that the mother teaches her calf how to act independently, get up quickly and get on with what is needed to survive.
There is a common thread that runs through the lives of many great visionaries, artists and exceptional leaders. Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Malala Yousafzai, Franklyn Roosevelt, Victor Frankl, Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela and James Dyson all had it. They all had obstacles to overcome, were beaten down, knocked over by the kick of circumstances, vilified and appeared to be getting nowhere for many years. But, just like that baby giraffe, they found a meaning in the adversity, got up from it and learned how to use it to their advantage.
When we face challenges, we can’t just look at how it is limiting us, but how it changes us and we can decide whether that change is going to be for the better or for the worse. Those who survive and out-run the herd are the ones who are focused on their objective and determined to improve their strength and stamina in the process. Our weakest moments are opportunities and every obstacle or failure is simply another step on the road to success.