Of building blocks and blockages

My friend Liz Crain just ran a great post on the creative deep freeze, and in it she throws around a few blocks by asking the question of whether the winterlull was not in fact some different form of creativity. Her conclusion is that what can seem like a creative block is at least occasionally a formative period of gestation and incubation. The blockage, in other words, is also a building block.

The gardener opens a small hole in the dirt and shoves a seed into it. The seed blocks the hole, stops it up, and gets covered with more soil. The seed itself becomes blocked. But the blockage of the seed is itself the building block of something new and different: A plant!

Someone is hiking a trail and comes upon a fallen boulder blocking the path. The way forward is obstructed, but if the blockage is surmountable the hiker can get not just to the other side but start climbing up the hill from which the boulder came. The blockage is itself incentive to divert the course and traverse paths new.

Similarly, a damn is built that stops up the stream. Its a blockage that forms a lake, something new and different. Occasionally also that flow of water finds a new escape, a new path to descend into the valley, a different course from the well worn one that became obstructed.

Michelangelos angel

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” The block contains within it the possibility of something exquisite. The block stands in the way of that thing, the unnecessary parts must be removed, but without the block you really have nothing. The block itself is necessary because it contains the things that are essential to the way forward. No other thing does, in the same way or to the same extent.

The lesson for us creative types is that our blockages may seem like the end of progress, and sometimes they truly are, but they are also often the very building blocks of something new. The illusion is that a blockage is just an end, just an impediment. The difficulty manifests when we see our objective just as a product and not as a process. The end itself is no more than fertilizer for something else.

When that tree dies we can mark its passage. We lament the doomed product. There is a failure embodied in blockages and ends, but this is only a small part of the story. Its a shortsighted person who looks no further and fails to see the food for worms, the eventual soil it becomes, and the foundation it provides for new life and new growth.

The advantage of being creative is that we see not only the value of the way forward but the importance and necessity of obstructions turning us aside and endings that transform things. The advantage to being creative is that inside almost every blockage there is a germ of possibility. It is our privilege to see the Angel in the raw block.

In the same way not understanding a thing can be the opportunity to learn something new. Our failure is not just an impassible obstruction, and its not a signal that there is nothing to understand. If we can admit there are different things to understand and different ways of understanding we become open to the many Angels hidden withing the mute stone. We become capable of turning our ignorance into glory. A failure to understand is an opportunity to transcend ourselves. And we should accept those challenges rather than turning from them.

Its the lesson of blockages and building blocks.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Of building blocks and blockages

  1. Lee Love says:

    I find that deadlines are my friend both in pottery making and writing.
    Seeing myself as a craftsman, rather than an artist is also a great help. The Shokunin (craftsmen) who taught me in Mashiko, never had creative blocks. They would laugh at the thought. They just made the work required for the next firing.
    When I need a boost, I make my first form from my apprenticeship: the yunomi, with throwing stick and toombo measuring gauges. Always transports me to the time when I was learning the same way sitting zazen transports me to my late teacher’s zendo.

    Also, a devotional mindset is helpful. When you stop thinking about “expressing” yourself, you tap into something that is greater than yourself. Good to think about on Easter Weekend.

    • Well said, Lee!

      I’m not sure I’d put ‘expressing one’s self’ in a negative light, necessarily, just that there are MANY things worth expressing.

      The idea of blockages is that we don’t know the way forward. Tradition solves that because the way forward is not a question. You can’t get blocked by not knowing the way forward because the path itself is laid out by definition. The blockages for tradition are all external.

      The difference with expressing one’s self is that the way forward has not always been mapped yet, so it IS often a question what the next step will be. And from where I am sitting that’s not always a bad place to be 🙂 You don’t stay curious if you already know the answers. If you don’t have some doubt about the way forward you are not in a situation of growth. If all the answers have already been presented to you its more a matter of sustaining the same old same old than exploring the new.

      Personally I prefer the indecision and unpredictability of growth to the stasis of always knowing what to do.

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