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Forgetting what you know: 5 steps for developing your creative projects

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

When my brother started his maths A-level, his teacher told him to ‘forget everything he’d already been taught’. I was two years younger than him and my 14 year old mind was BLOWN.

Many years later, I learnt about butterfly metamorphosis. At primary school, they don’t get into the nitty-gritty, do they? So in case your butterfly education, like mine, left quite a lot to the imagination, here's a quick summary. In the cocoon, a caterpillar dissolves its entire body - its digestive system is all that remains during this process. It then reconstitutes itself from caterpillar-goo stem cells into a completely new form. I mean. Kudos to the caterpillar. And I’m careful to say ‘caterpillar’ here rather than butterfly, because it’s the caterpillar that’s sacrificed for the sake of the butterfly.

I so often use the butterfly in my work - and I’ll be honest, it’s really because they caught my imagination when I was that 5 year old at primary school, learning about the ‘magic’ of metamorphosis. But since I really learnt about metamorphosis, they’ve captured my heart even more. Because I think it’s much easier to stay the caterpillar in this scenario - and we so often do. If we are to step out of line, walk our own path, challenge the status quo, we have to do the hard work of ‘dissolving’ our comfortable form, to forget everything we’ve been taught, and to start from scratch (hopefully with digestive system still in tact).

Turquoise swallowtail butterfly with rose, hydrangea, delphinium and calendula petals in a mixed media artwork on a gold background
Detail from mixed media artwork, 'Aurelius' by Anna Masters

I spend a lot of time in the studio feeling uncertain of my decisions, unsure of the way forward. There’s a chance that I’ve done the dissolving and am stuck as a squishy, gloopy, formless mush, I don’t know. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. But I do know that without challenging expectations, without trying something new, then things stay the same. We stay caterpillars. And we never fly.

Now. I'm going to take this analogy too far, and I'm going to say that my artistic practice is made up of two animals. My mixed-media works - they're a mammal. They've had a slow gestation; they've gradually grown from simple cells to complex compositions, evolving slowly over time. My projects - site-specific exhibitions, public art projects, participatory works - they're butterflies. They start as one thing, they grow and take on substance, and invariably that initial idea - that founding notion, the caterpillar - has to make way for something else.

There’s a saying that's common in creative circles, ‘Kill your darlings’. For studio artists, this might mean painting over an exquisite texture or mark - potentially your favourite piece of the painting - because it just doesn't benefit your overall composition. For designers it can be the removal of a beautiful design element because it doesn't aid function. For me, I find it particularly useful when working on project-based artworks, as it gives permission to tear away all the initial assumptions and parameters and to dig deep into the core of the idea. It’s something that I come back to time and again. If I’m working on a creative project, I’ll work it and rework it until there’s not much of the original idea left. It’s the butterfly to the caterpillar. It’s central to creativity, to being able to get beyond your (largely taught) expectations of a thing and to bring out something more essential. It takes a sacrifice.

Steps to developing your creative projects

So, if you're looking to kill your darlings, emerge into a butterfly, or even ace your A-level maths exam*, you could try these five practical steps to help you clarify your vision for your creative project.

1. Mind-map the subject:

I find mind-maps an incredibly useful tool - they sit somewhere between the 'thinking' language of words and the 'connections' language of images. Start with the main topic you wish to address in your project, and jot down your initial thoughts under sub-topics. Consider the problem that you're trying to address, the context, related theory. Then continue to branch out from your sub-topics with more related ideas and topics. If you've never created a mind-map before, you can get simple guidance here. Your mind-map does not need to be tidy, full of pretty pictures (unless you find that helpful), and most importantly, it doesn't need to make sense to anyone else. The main point here is to find the connections that link different areas of your subject. You might find that you'll have one or two things that connect your subheadings in unexpected ways. You might find that some of your branches contradict others in ways that make you ask new questions. It's often these connections and contradictions that will give you an access point to show your unique perspective and insight into the topic. It gives scope for creativity.

2. Focus in on a few areas of interest:

Now that you've identified a few areas of interest, you can start to come up with some initial ideas. Brainstorm around the areas of your mindmap that excite you the most. These initial ideas don't have to be good! I'll give an example. I was brainstorming ideas around the theme of a contemporary monument. We were still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I wanted to create something that spoke to people's need for touch and connection, and commemorated the lengths that people had gone to in order to come together over this time. I knew I wanted to create something that related to humanness in its scale and form. So, thinking about what people needed - touch without physical touch, a hand to hold, and - importantly at that time, cleanliness... SOAP HANDS WERE BORN: a sculpture of a pair of hands that people could hold, made of soap. And if people needed soap for home - break off a finger. Now, in retrospect, I can see that this idea is bonkers. If nothing else, whenever it rains we'd be left with a sudsy, slippery mess on the ground; a health hazard rather than a bonding community gesture (unless we're all bonding in a tangled heap on the floor, but that's a different kind of project...). That said, it was my favourite of the initial ideas, because it spoke in an essential way to the core of what I wanted my monument to represent. It was my darling.

3. Workshop your ideas:

Once you have one or two ideas, no matter how good (or not) you think they are, it's a good idea to workshop it. This is really a deeper dive into your idea. Identify who it is for, what it does, how it works, how it looks. Write about it, sketch it. Make a note of the aspects of the idea that you like. Identify its shortcomings. Go hard on the shortcomings. Painful as it can be, it does help in the long-term.

4. Give it space:

This point is always important for me. I find it hard to develop an idea when I'm too close to it. So I'll usually sleep on it, and a day or two later, I'll go for a long walk. There's a lot of research that shows that people often come up with their best ideas when they're in the shower (or on the toilet!), or taking a walk, but I think the key here is that it's somewhere outside of the typical work context. You don't have the pressure of a blank page (or canvas) or the blinking cursor key reminding you that you have a problem to solve. You'll probably already know where you have your best ideas. So take some time in that place. Relatedly, I sometimes find it useful to draw in "unrelated" influences at this point too. I like to listen to podcasts that talk about society and psychology that sit tangentially to my practice.

5. Revise your project:

At this point, take a fresh look; you'll probably have a good idea of what's working and what's not with the project. What’s bothering you? Loose it. What are you missing? Find it. What’s working? Keep it. You can do this as many times as you need until you finally have a project where, actually, nothing feels wrong or out of place.

So to come back to the questionable project that was SOAP HANDS... During this cycle of project development, I listened to a podcast that talked about the impact of gift-giving within communities. I went for a long walk and sat for an hour at the edge of a field. Something about the idea of 'gift' spoke to the essence of the project I was trying to create. And after a day or two, SOAP HANDS had evolved into Something Good. Something Good is a sculptural pair of hands which provide a public platform where people can give and receive gifts (you can read more here). The idea was commissioned and later won an award. AND there were no soapy slip hazards involved.

A sculptural pair of hands hold a gift in a public garden
'Something Good', public art sculpture by Anna Masters, in situ at St Butlophs without Aldgate, London

This kind of circular, non-linear thinking often goes against the grain when we’re taught to be efficient and productive in our working practices. It’s time to forget what you’ve been taught. Creativity often doesn't take the obvious path, and it can take time to get to the right result. By immersing yourself in the subject through mid-maps, focussing in the areas with most potential, workshopping, giving space, and finally refining your ideas, you can create remarkable creative projects that access your subject in novel and exciting ways.

Please do share your own techniques! How do you access your creativity? What are your favourite ways to develop a project idea? I'd love to hear your insights.

*I make no guarantees that these techniques will help in the slightest with your prowess in mathematics, sorry.

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