The first college classroom I ever stood in was at Long Island University when I was just starting elementary school in the late 1960s. I was essentially a “show-and-tell” display. My older cousin David wanted to refute an argument leveled during a “nature vs. nurture” debate in one of his classes. It had been asserted that a youngster growing up like I did, in a lower-income and predominantly African American neighborhood in Brooklyn, was highly unlikely to show a potential for individual achievement equal to that of a child growing up in an educationally nurturing, middle class environment.
Conversely, my cousin David believed I was gifted and that nurturing had not been required to produce me. He simply asked me to bring in my artwork, my stories and ideas and talk about them to his classmates. As I reflect back now on my early years as an arts learner, rarely was my creative activity based upon school classroom assignments. So from whence did my creativity originate? And how did art + design learning expand my vision as a literate, creative thinker?
When I was a child, I discovered I was a part of an ancient secret society; I learned how to read that society’s creative codes and recode them as my own. I discovered this society while mining deep into my father’s closet full of black plastic bags of Marvel and DC comics featuring stories of superheroes and tales from the crypt. I introduced myself to other kinds of codes as I paged through the anthologies that lined my father’s art studio bookshelves by artists ranging from Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts—to the dark worlds of Charles Addams—to the obscure illustrators of risqué pulp advertisements and girlie drawings who were themselves steeped in repressed 1950s and countercultural 1960s Americana.
By learning to decode the shifting and intersecting patterns of words, images, ambiguity, and double entendres, I also became fluent in my own communication of the code. I was encountering countless artists engaged in the alluring behavior of rendering experience and imagination through pictures on paper, and I refigured my own subjectivities between the seams of those images at every opportunity. My father—a professional artist in a post-Civil Rights era when most African American men raising families sought secure jobs as public employees—was a bold man, but he wasn’t a very sharing man. So I had to sneak into my father’s studio to enjoy this treasure trove, always taking care to put every book back exactly as I found it or risk his anger.
Nevertheless, my father and I shared a membership in this secret society, a creative swarm. Like all artists and designers, we became collaborators moving in a parallel trajectory, makers of new visual patterns along the way. Like all those artists I encountered from afar, my ambition became to make marks that came to life as stories. And in these visual stories, as within the inner labyrinths and sub-basements of Snoopy’s doghouse, I initiated connections to other selves, unexpected possibilities, and imagined worlds. I shared these worlds with anyone who was interested in my visceral narratives of space battles and underground cities, penciled into being on page after page of the large bond paper layout pads my father gave to me.
Since the early grades of elementary school, where I ultimately was identified and tracked as “gifted and talented,” the best evidence of my early creative literacies was usually my self-initiated creative activities.
But let’s take a moment to radically rethink what we think we know about creativity. The collective generation of our local cultures, whatever the admixture, requires that “from one generation to the next, via teaching and imitation…knowledge, values, and other factors that influence behavior” must be transmitted (Boyd & Richerson, 1985, p. 2). In learning theory, each individual brain learns from the cultural influencers that surround it; in other words, a person’s cognitive development begins with myriad independent internalizations of ideas that were once elsewhere in proximity. Understanding the social origins of our creativity has huge implications for individual learning.
A culture is a complex pattern of human behaviors, systemized to sustain both itself and the multiple agents that perpetuate it. Through a myriad independent and decentralized choices, these agents—or cultural workers—somehow coalesce meaning from the chaos of life and purposefully render that meaning into coherent and recognizable patterns through mark-making, representative models, and aesthetic interventions. In this way, our works of art—written, visual, and performed—all serve as biocultural mechanisms transmitting and then initiating every social pattern that matters most.
But isolated agents cannot in themselves constitute cultural patterns; others must be enticed to do likewise. Culture requires biocultural mechanisms—or enticements—that work like the excreted or secreted attractors in ant colonies, chemical pheromones triggering a likewise response in the members of their community (Miller, 2010). Lopreato (1984) calls such enticements “culturgens,” described as “genes” that operate in the social body rather than individual human bodies, and which are passed directly from mind to mind, selecting for cultural advantages that will strengthen the patterns of a given collective. As such, these enticements do more to cultivate individual gifts and talent than we realize, always stemming from the transmissions of a swarm of other thinkers and doers (Fisher, 2009; Miller, 2010). In our own lives, as throughout the natural world, these socially situated enticements are ideal for either maintaining the trajectory or rapidly altering the development of the human swarm. In a thriving culture, the self-initiated creative activities of individuals are else-originated. In my father’s art studio, so it was with me.
With my father’s art supplies at my disposal and so much content to draw upon, I routinely made unexpected connections.
In my father’s home art studio, I first learned to decode the shifting, intersecting patterns of words, images, stories and the many metaphors for living that emerged from their confluence within our distinctly visual culture. To my young mind, visual forms blended with word forms, story forms, design forms, moving images formatted for cinema, television screens and eventually computer monitors to inform my understanding of the life I was living in context with the lives others had lived and were living along with me. Through learning to decode, I thereby learned to encode and communicate to others about what was on my own mind. As it has always been, the arts and design practices are systems of information, the intentional juxtaposition of sensory, phenomenal, and cultural data about the human experience in order to create meaning. According to Alex Wright (2007), it is the organization of data that recasts it as useful information—cargoes of meaning that hold us utterly enthralled, “melded into manufactured forms, cultural symbolism, and liberatory frameworks” (Rolling, 2008, p. 10).
In his article Art Education for New Times, Paul Duncum (1997) defines and describes the greater ramifications of the Information Age. The Information Age was that period over the last quarter of the 20th century that saw the rapid globalization of information and communication technologies and the proliferation of the ability to digitize and manipulate information and its traffic. In the wake of the Information Age, the fostering of what would best be described as creative literacies in teaching and learning has emerged both as a fundamental investment for developing creative leadership capacity in 21st century urban society, and an apt framework for my recent work as Editor of Art Education.
The development of fluency in “multiliteracies” (The New London Group, 1996) supplants traditional literacy’s emphasis on learning to read and write with a more holistically empowering focus upon learning to interpret and serve as a catalyst for communication across multiple communicative modes and social contexts (Duncum, 2004). A multiliterate learner is better equipped for the generation of situationally relevant cultural forms, information, and social transformations. Ultimately, the traffic of creative literacies goes far beyond teaching learners to decode and encode; creative literacy is the fluency to recode content from one symbol system or network of meanings to another, through a practice akin to “conceptual collage” (Marshall, 2008). Recoding makes fundamental sense of meanings not initially our own as we navigate the unending tempest of wind-blown narratives circulating the globe like turbulent seas, searching out the connections that bind us together, ultimately keeping us safe and afloat.
Personal and national identity itself is an interpretation, and those who are not literate enough to generate a plot from the chaos are subject to having their destinies written for them. These are tumultuous times. Recent events—from those in Ferguson, Missouri to those in Syria to those in the European Union—reveal that the stories we each live by remain open for much needed reinterpretation. Reinterpretations are the stuff new renaissances and creative revolutions are made of. The more creative activity we engage in, the more creatively we will forge our ongoing reinterpretations of life story, national narrative, and global community. There is much to improvise in the years ahead. We have the supplies; yet as art + design educators, we are still learning to use the tools. As the late Robin Williams may well have urged us, let us each contribute a verse. And then, let us teach our students to do just the same.