A seemingly-purposeless activity

There are times in the studio when I’m able to just let myself play. I’m not intending to produce beautiful art, not freighting the process with the expectation of delivering something frame-worthy. I’m just moving the brush to where it wants to go and I follow along. Sometimes when I’m working like this I like to experiment, dropping this color into that one just to see how they play together. If I don’t like it, who cares? Why don’t I work like this more often? I ask myself. It feels so energizing, psychologically and even physically, to work in this way, fostering a palpable vitality that I can feel in a physical way, an openness of sorts, that leaves me with a delightful sense of possibility. It tends to leave me feeling really happy.

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I was working like this not too long ago, just playing and making marks as the impulse moved me, “taking a line for a walk” as Saul Steinberg once described it. I didn’t produce anything spectacular, though I did experience an undeniable spike in energy along with a solid sense of flow.

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Sometime shortly thereafter, I was in the studio with no particular ideas in mind when this came out:

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And this:

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Many followed:

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It’s a year and a half later and they’re still showing up. I had no idea these were floating around in there and I’d never produced anything that even remotely resembles this work and yet I’m convinced that it was that initial playing around practice that loosened them up.

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Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute of Play, suggests that humans are hard-wired for play and that we foreclose on this seemingly-purposeless activity at our own peril. In his 2007 interview with Krista Tippett, Dr. Brown noted:

At least for the last 200,000 years or so, our capacity as a species to adapt, whether we’re in the Arctic or the tropics, the desert or a rain forest, appears to me to be related significantly to our capacity as developing creatures, to play. If you look more closely, you find that the human being is biologically designed to play throughout the life cycle. And that, from my standpoint as a clinician, when one doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, lack of adaptability, no irony — you know, things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.

Too many demands leave two of our natural resources—time and attention— in need of protection. Play, with all its seeming uselessness, can be a useful antidote.