Category Archives: Creativity

Includes process and philosophy of, definitions.

Meditate: Thursday’s Creativity Tip

When I’ve had the opportunity to teach a class on creativity, I always start with a guided meditation.

In addition to presenting a focus on emptying the mind from external distractions, there is the practical result of settling the students’ restless energy. For those who had just completed their brisk walk through busy city streets or their classmates who had been molding clay or hammering on a metal installation, meditation was a chance to leave that behind and become present for the next activity.

I’m certainly not the first person to experience the creative process as a medium, as if ideas flow through me rather than originating in me.

Allow me a moment to roll on the floor laughing about the whole ‘first person’ concept

Nothing is new. Humans have been creating since they have been human: making art, telling stories, singing, dancing.

And as anyone who has read my blog knows, I include accounting, cooking, parenting, research, gardening, cleaning, and bus driving as creative endeavors. Humans have been doing all those things for as long as they’ve been human too (or at least since there have been buses).

Waiting around for your muse to appear is a sterile activity

No self-respecting muse wants to hang out with parasite who simply wants to receive without expending effort, and yet… an excellent way to invite the muse is by doing… nothing.

Don’t just do something, sit there. —Sylvia Boorstein 

Yup, I’m talking about meditation.

There are multiple resources to learn to meditate and to develop a practice. Just as with creating in general, a practice is the optimal way to frame it. (I’ve learned a lot from Sally Kempton and Jon Kabat-Zinn.)

But the most straightforward  instruction comes from one of my yoga teachers, Betsy Ceva.

  1. Sit
  2. Breathe
  3. Listen
  4. Repeat

Step 3, listen, is what makes this particularly helpful for creators.

While meditating we aim to take on the role of witness. (We’re back to the not doing.)

We don’t want to engage, react, or follow the narrative path arising from an observation of thought.

You know: I smell coffee. Who is making coffee? That really smells good. John must be up now. I want a cup of coffee. Weird, I hate coffee. But it smells so good. Maybe I should start drinking coffee. Maybe I should try coffee with lots of sugar. Maybe I should…

Nope, none of that. We just listen.

Later, when we’re in front of our page, our boss, our sketchpad or our bedeviled dataset we must respond.

But while we are seated, meditating, we listen and acknowledge

This serves at least two major purposes:

  • We practice (yes, that word keeps coming up) not rushing to react. We learn to introduce a pause before we act. We are taking in information instead of blindly doing.
  • We might actually hear something that we were missing. Meditation provides a safe space for thoughts that are too timid—or too daring—to enter our reasoning mind.

When these thoughts make their appearance we may discover our deepest intentions and our wildest dreams. Or maybe we have insight to the next step, be it infinitesimal, or momentous, on our journey.

Revelations and transformations aren’t (usually) an everyday occurrence

Which is a good thing because often they shatter our status quo, and living one’s life during an earthquake is no easy feat.

But making time to look within instead of forging ahead is a great tool in the toolbox of any creative.

Uncomfortable and boring

While the many available resources on meditation deal with this more systematically, I find that the discomfort of ‘doing nothing,’ and the very ‘doing nothing’ about that discomfort are central to the meditation practice.

Just observing and noting our discomfort is a great lesson for dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty of creating.

My own activity, writing, isn’t always rarely ever a matter of words gushing onto the page. Not knowing and self-doubt are part of the game, and there is little we can do to counter them.

The habit of listening and acknowledging without reacting serves one well when facing the day-to-day.

Added bonus

There is increasing research that meditation is a great stress reducer with health benefits from lowering blood pressure to pain management.

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal found that a meditation practice is the single habit change with the greatest impact on boosting willpower. (Here she provides guided meditations.)

Willpower schmillhower. What about creating?

Remember step 3, listen? That is where meditation conspires with both conscious and subconscious minds to solve problems and open up new pathways, all while you are doing… nothing.

When you return to your page, sketchbook, spreadsheet, or collection of found objects, the next step may now be accessible to you.

And if it’s not, we’ve been practicing at proceeding in the face of discomfort. Try things out, show up at the page, as Julia Cameron has brilliantly said.

Meditation is just today’s creativity tip, not a magical potion

But if we give it a try, it can help us become the medium, the antenna. It opens us up to let the stories, images, solutions come through us and into our life.

You know, while we’re doing something.

Meditate: creativity tip

Creativity Tip: A Little Something On the Side

As I’ve written before, creativity requires both both sthira and sukha, two concepts from yoga.

Sthira is discipline, determination, habit, while sukha represents joy, ease, daydreaming, flow, inspiration.

If sthira is the habit of working—whether that’s a wordcount or a time limit—sukha is about welcoming the unexpected, about playfulness and fun.

We can’t wait around for the unexpected, and much less for inspiration. Like lightning, it comes when it comes. Creating involves perspiration, another characteristic of sthira. But we also have to breathe in, to play.

A side project can be a shortcut to engage both sukha and sthira.

A side project isn’t part of our main project. It could be in a completely different medium, like visual if one is a writer, or it could represent a shift in tone, comics instead of oil paintings, or it could require a different approach, such as making a collection.

Artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon’s stunning 2010 A Collection A Day is an inspiring side project. She posted a photo or drawing of a collection every day on her blog.

What makes a project a side project?

According to this great piece:

  • Low risk. Our income doesn’t depend on it.
  • Low pressure. No deadline.
  • Love. We enjoy it.

There is final product, which makes it different from a creative hobby.

So we’re back to…

Sthira: we really need to complete it.

Sukha: we have fun.

Side projects become super-charged when they involve experimentation. Trying something new. New things can be uncomfortable, which makes them sthira.

Side projects go corporate

Tech and design businesses, like Hewlett Packard, 3M, and Google have formal programs to encourage side projects.

We’ve all heard about Google’s 20% time policy, but 3M already had a 15% program in 1948: that’s where we got Post-Its.

Not surprisingly, such programs don’t just lead to new products, but to a happier workforce. (Remember: fun.)

When is it risky to take on a side project?

Cartoonist and storyteller Jessica Abel points out the danger of having an overabundance of projects.

Most of us create in the time left over from a day job and our families, between getting to the gym to exercise and seeing our friends. If we don’t define a single primary goal, it is all too easy to fritter away our energy and never carry any of our dreams to completion.

Needless to say, this is discouraging. Finishing is key: not just for our projects but for our identities as creators.

This is why a side project has to be on the side and it has to result in a product. It’s also why it has to be fun.

What next?

Sometimes side projects become your main project, like starting to write a novel when you’re an oceanographer

This year I’ve taken on The River Project, which combines my love of walking and photography, and my craving to be near large bodies of water. When I first considered taking a daily picture of the Hudson, it seemed impossible because of my frequent travel.

Then I remembered that I can try to find the rivers wherever I go.

Divining for water—running water, a stream—what better metaphor for the creative life?

The River Project, creativity

What about you?

Do you have a side project? What is it? How has it helped with your creative flow?

Circus! Circus! My trip to Circ Raluy

Nunca imaginé que pudiera existir un circo así.

Thus was the reaction of Joan Brossa, the Catalan visual poet, on seeing Circ RaluyI never imagined there could be a circus like this. Brossa was no stranger to the theater arts, but the Circ Raluy made a deep impression.

Last week I shared pictures I took from my visit to Circ Raluy in February. I was lucky enough to attend the opening day of their run in my hometown, Tarragona.

Circ Raluy is not your usual circus

Just getting started. Juggler Dustin Huesca.
Just getting started. Juggler Dustin Huesca.

Wait, wait: what IS the usual circus? Circus involves a big top (often, but not always), performers carrying out acts of daring and skill, clowns that make you laugh, music and (sometimes, but increasingly less) trained animals also performing acts of skill.

Circ Raluy has most of those things. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned having gone to three circuses in the last year: no circus can be defined by the sum of its components.

So what’s special about Circ Raluy?

It recognizes a lineage, a tradition of beauty, craft, and showmanship

Most “traditional” circuses do this implicitly, in their costumes, in the choice of recognizable acts, in the music, in the venue.

One of the refurbished antique circus caravans.
One of the refurbished antique circus caravans.

But Circ Raluy takes it further. The Raluy family collects caravans and carriages, which they not only restore painstakingly and faithfully, but they use them to live in, traveling slowly from city to city.

They are also a museum, a traveling circus museum. Their big top has velvet seats, carved wooden balustrades, and is painted in the style of a hundred years ago.

Like circuses of the past, they are an expeditionary circus, having traveled to four continents. In 2010 they completed a tour in La Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

They’ve won multiple awards, including the National Circus Prize in 1996, the Catalunya Prize in 1999, the Max Prize of 1999 (equivalent to the Tonys in the US), and the Creu de Sant Jordi (2006).

It’s a family circus

Kimberley y Jillian Raluy take a very short breath before flying again through the air.
Young Kimberley and Jillian Raluy take a very short breath before flying through the air again.

Of course, this is not unique.

The genes to perform in the circus have not been identified. Expression of such genes might include superior flexibility, strength, coordination, determination, desire to entertain. But top notch athletes or dancers have these traits as well.

Other expressions might include a certain restlessness, a desire to see the world, an inability to settle down, detachment from the accumulation of things that root one down in one place.

Circus performers don’t just come from circus families. They are born into any country, social class, or profession you can imagine. But given the months on the road, the necessary hours of training, family dynasties hardly come as a surprise.

Circ Raluy is run by Carles Raluy. He and his brothers, their spouses, children, and grandchildren perform in the circus. Their father Lluis started the tradition. He traveled the world in, among other things, the first-ever two-person human cannonball act.

Not just for children, nor anonymous technical mastery

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“Classical” magic: Lluiset Raluy, clown, magician, and mathematician, makes the sardine disappear.

One form of circus emphasizes clowns performing slapstick gags and broad humor. Circ Raluy offers clown acts aimed at the younger set. And the kids love them. Of course, the flamenco piece with an elastic guitar had most adults laughing till they cried.

Another form of circus is an elaborate choreography of anonymous performers carrying out apparently-impossible feats. These “modern” circuses cultivate a polished esthetic. Circ Raluy has jaw-dropping acts as well, like when Akhmed Surkhatilov squeezes into a small box that is then put underwater- for several minutes. In his laser show Jean-Christophe de Beauchamp plays with beams of light and fog as if painting in the air.

The mystique of the circus

In circuses, people come from the furthest corners of the world and others are related by blood. New shows are crafted every year and performers are skilled in multiple disciplines (like Emily and Niedzela Swider Raluy who ride impossibly tall unicycles and walk on the tightwire). New technologies are incorporated while old traditions are acknowledged.

The style of Circ Raluy has not only inspired poets, but photographers and film-makers. It’s the setting of George Michael’s music video for Let her down easy and that of El Simi accepta by Le Croupier, each highlighting different aspects of the beauty of the circus.

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“She had a camera…” Percussionist Jaume Vendrell Baiona spontaneously strikes a pose.

Yes, there’s something special about Circ Raluy

They embody all the things that make a circus a circus. But it’s not just that.

Everyone- performers, ushers, musicians, vendors of tickets and popcorn- looks like they’re having fun. That they love their work, they love their lives.

That they love their circus.

At the end of the day, this love for what they’re doing, be it larger than life or the day-to-day, is something everyone in the audience wants to take home with them.

Thank you, Circ Raluy.

The Phoenix Project of Xu Bing brings a reminder and a message of hope

If you live near NYC or will be visiting in the next year, and haven’t already gone, you might want to visit the cathedral of St John the Divine on Amsterdam in Morningside, near the Columbia campus. For approximately the next twelve months, the always beautiful church will be home to the Phoenix Project by Xu Bing.

As promising as the title The Phoenix Project is, given the heady symbolism of the phoenix in world mythology, the reality will not let you down.

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The 100-foot male, Feng, leads.

The wonderful film by Daniel Traub Xu Bing: Phoenix  (17 min) for the exhibit in MASS MoCA explains the creation of the piece. 

The artist was asked to build a sculpture for the atrium of a new building during the construction boom prior to the Beijing Olympics.

When he visited the site, he was appalled at the harsh working and living conditions of the migrant workers. He was inspired to construct a Chinese phoenix, a fenghuang, from the discards of construction sites.

Every piece of refuse has been touched by these migrant workers. It is as if each piece has been touched by the heavens, after which it has a kind of spirit. So its beauty comes about from the history of these materials. –Xu Bing in Xu Bing: Phoenix

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The female, Huang, follows behind, closer to the altar. Mr. Xu says: closer to God.

However, with the onset of the financial crisis, the developers found the piece too rough and unpolished. When the artist refused to cover the birds with crystal, they withdrew their support.

Though Xu Bing continued to work on the Phoenix Project, he would not have been able to complete the pieces without the funding from Taiwanese art collector Barry Lam.

The phoenix of Western mythology is not the same as the Chinese fenghuang

Images of the phoenix in Chinese culture date back at least 4000 years. Unlike the phoenix of Western mythology, of which there is only one in existence at one time, there are usually two Chinese phoenixes: one male and one female. Over time, the fenghuang has come to represent the female principle, yin, and to be associated with the empress, while the dragon is associated with yang and the emperor.

The fenghuang is one of the four sacred animals, along with the dragon, the tortoise and the unicorn.  It is described as being a chimera made up of many animals, but it is usually represented as a mix of birds. It is very large, nine feet, and its long tail feathers have the five sacred colors: red, blue, yellow, white and black

The fenghuang is said to only appear during the reign of a just ruler.

Charles Gould, in his Dragons, unicorns, and sea serpents: a classic study of the evidence for their existence, points out that a bird of such majesty would naturally be seen as auspicious. His enthusiasm notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the fenghuang is based on an extinct bird.

The phoenix in Western mythology is associated with the sun

The phoenix of classical antiquity likely originated in Egypt. Never living less than 500 years, near the end of its life it would build a nest of aromatic woods and set it on fire. A young phoenix would then rise from the ashes.

This death and resurrection make it a potent symbol which was used, among others, by the early Christian church.

 

systematicownder_xubing_components2Majesty and humility

Close inspection shows the very humble components: plastic tubing, hard hats, shovels, fans – all sprinkled with LEDs like so much fairy dust. But the birds soar grandly, bigger than the sum of their components. 

As Mr. Xu explains in the video, Chinese folk art uses basic materials to represent hope for the future. He wanted his birds to do the same.

 

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The piece outdoors in Beijing in a still of film Xu Bing: Phoenix being shown at St John the Divine. The two Phoenixes have been exhibited outdoors in Beijing and Shanghai .

The story we hear from Xu Bing’s phoenixes

Is slightly different wherever they fly, as befits any great myth.

In front of the Beijing Today Art Museum, they appear at night as illuminated angels soaring thanks to the effort of the nameless workers building the new China.

In MASS MoCA, they spoke to the precariousness of a global market.

In the cathedral, they remind us of the sacred responsibility to our fellow man, to fair wages and humane work conditions.

If you stand very still, you can feel the birds moving.

systematicwonder_xubing_tail

Traditionally, the fenghuang is associated with the cardinal direction south

The two birds at St John the Divine are facing west, but they definitely come from the east.

May their flight bring us closer and remind us of true fairness.

An epiphany (or two) in a Medieval cloister

Monday was January 6, celebrated in my native Spain as Reyes, the day of the three kings or magi or wise men. Children traditionally receive gifts on this date, known in the Roman Catholic calendar as Epiphany.

The cloister: in Tarragona's Santa Maria cathedral.
The cloister: in Tarragona’s Santa Maria cathedral.

Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, means manifestation or making an appearance 

In a Christian context it refers to the recognition of Jesus as son of God. (For the Western church this recognition was the acknowledgement of wise men from afar: the Adoration of the Magi. For the Eastern church it was the baptism in the Jordan River.)

An epiphany with a small “e” is a sudden realization or moment of revelation. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this meaning appeared in the late 19th century.

I’m fascinated by the evolution of the word– from the manifesting of the divine to a realization.

It seems to refer to the illogical non-linearity of the creative process. An epiphany does not result from step-by-step progress, but lands like a lightning bolt. Not quite the same as a divine manifestation, but similar in its unpredictability and “other”-ness.

Revelations or when the divine enters the day-to-day

Although not religious, I’m drawn to how stories are told through images in religious art. The representation of scenes in which the divine enters everyday life are particularly fascinating. How to show a burning bush? An angel speaking to a maiden?

In my hometown, Tarragona, the Romanesque cloister has two depictions of the Adoration of the Magi carved in high relief on capitals atop columns, dating from sometime between the late 11th and mid 12th century.

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The wise men on their way to Bethlehem in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Stylized images from the early Middle Ages

Medieval art doesn’t aim for realistic depiction of the natural world but to convey a message, to tell a story. It is usually formulaic. There is an economy of elements (no extra characters or scenes) and a hierarchy of size (no ambiguity as to who is more important). For example, in the two capitals here, the horses have to be there to express the travels of the three kings, but they are far too small for their riders. 

Both capitals show the same characters in two scenes. One face of each capital shows wise men (with crowns) in transit by their horses, and the other presents a single wise man with Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in the background. The star shines above Mary and Child.

The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.
The Epiphany in E1, the capital on the column of the door between cloister and cathedral.

Telling a story with pictures

The first Epiphany, E1, is on the central column of the door to the cathedral and has suffered very little erosion. The second Epiphany, E2, is on a gallery column and is damaged, likely explaining the missing wise man. The author of E2 is probably responsible for many of the capitals with stories in the cloister.

Mary as Throne of Wisdom

In a common representation of the early Middle Ages, Jesus sits in the lap of a crowned Mary as if she were his throne. This form aims to present Christianity as the universal religion to which all nations will pay obeisance.

In E2, Mary holds a scepter ending in a fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily),  conveying regal authority and referring to her purity.

In E1, Jesus raises his right hand in blessing. Mary, the Child, Joseph, and the two wise men that are still on the road face forward. Only one character looks at an element in the composition: the wise man who half-kneels, offers his gift, and looks towards the Child.

A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.
A wise man on his way to Bethlehem in E2, the capital in the northern gallery of the cloister.

The two wise men in E1 are jiving

In E1, the two wise men lean to their left, as if dancing. This slant is reinforced by the beardless king pointing to the star, in a line parallel to the back of the kneeling wise man whose body is in the next frame. The horses’ heads fall in a countering diagonal.

The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.
The Epiphany in E2, the capital in the northern corridor of the cloister.

In E2, the Child reaches for the gift- and you feel his weight shift

In E2, the Virgin gazes down at the Child, who leans to take the gift from the kneeling king, who, as in E1, looks upward. From behind Mary’s left shoulder Joseph also watches the Child. (Like many a picture of new parents.)

The two views of Epiphany use formula to convey majesty, but also show humor and affection

For me, more than eight centuries after they were created, the humor of the dancing kings or the humanity of the leaning Child win out over the majesty and intended message. In fact, the Tarragona cloister sculptures have puzzled scholars as the artist(s) unexpectedly omitted or added figures or gestures to standard scenes.

I was not that sculptor’s primary audience, but his work continues to speak, reminding me that creating is often about knowing the script– and then riffing on it. Hmm, that probably defines being human.

Happy new year!

Creativity: what yoga has to say

Creativity has many definitions, many perspectives- probably as many as practitioners. When discussing creativity I often remember Justice Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Creativity leads to the new 

This can be a thing of beauty or one that challenges us. A performance that vanishes after it’s over. A new tool or instrument. In some arenas, like science, it’s a way of asking old questions in a new way.

Creativity is often uncomfortable, because the outcome always involves uncertainty.

Creativity is an attitude 

Creativity transcends activities traditionally considered creative, like the arts. The corollary is that creativity is inherent to any activity– if one is willing, to be open, to look sideways.

Creativity doesn’t happen once, but rather every day. It doesn’t rely on the arrival of inspiration, but is grounded in repetition.

Like many intangibles, we’d like to capture it, so manifestos and rules abound, even though creativity is about breaking out of molds.

What yoga has to say: sthira and sukha

Patanjali wrote in his Yoga Sutras over 2000 years ago:

Sthira sukha asanam.

  • Sthira translates to effort, steadiness, discipline
  • Sukha is joy, repose, rest
  • Asana is the seat, the yoga posture, the position

In a yoga context this sutra encourages the reader to engage in their practice with both effort and ease, discipline and release, steadiness and joy.

Taking position isn’t just the physical practice of yoga

It also means to take one’s seat to write or draw, to stand in the center of the room before singing or dancing.

It’s puzzling over data in a spreadsheet, examining a chest X-ray, looking back at a class of bored students. It’s tying your shoes for a morning run before the sun rises, looking in the refrigerator for the makings of a meal.

It is, in essence, to be.

Sthira and sukha chase each other, like the exhale and the inhale

Sthira is acquiring and expanding tools and skills, practicing them, exercising them. It is relentless curiosity. It is systematic wonder. It is the discipline of showing up, every day. The 99% perspiration required for anything we do.

Sthira is activity and effort, reaching. It is holding the course.

Sukha is looking away from the canvas or the blank page. It is composting ideas and images, memories and dreams. It is allowing the part of the brain we don’t always use solve the problem. It is seeing further by not looking straight on.

Sukha is releasing and receiving, letting go. It is taking a different path.

Hey, they’re contradictory

Of course. The opposing tendencies of sthira and sukha create a dynamic tension. Like all opposites they revel in balance, and like any balance, it will be different for each person and each day, each moment.

Creativity is new each day, and also the same. (Yeah, that’s a contradiction too.)

How do you define creativity?

Arachne’s story, and the stories woven within

To spin a tale… To weave a narrative… These common metaphors spring from the essence of language. The word text comes from texere, the Latin word for weaving. Spinning and weaving go hand in hand with metaphor and storytelling.

Spiders, who weave webs to capture their prey — much as an artist or story-teller aims to capture the attention of the viewer or reader, are the daughters of Arachne, who challenged Athena, the goddess of weaving and wisdom, to a contest of skill.

In his MetamorphosisOvid (43BCE-~17CE) tells us that Arachne, daughter of a humble shepherd and wool dyer, weaved so wondrously that the nymphs themselves came out to watch her work, creating tapestries that seemed alive.

Ah, hubris…

At first glance, the story of Arachne is a cautionary tale of hubris: yet another mortal daring to scorn a god’s superiority and being punished for her arrogance.  Even when Athena appears as an old woman to warn her, a scoffing Arachne re-issues her challenge.

And so the two weavers set to work. Athena weaves the story of her own power, how she prevailed in the naming of Athens, the twelve gods in their glory, and, in the four corners: the dire fates of humans who presumed to confront the gods.

Speaking truth to power

Arachne starts weaving Europa’s rape by Zeus in the form of a bull who carried her across the sea to Crete, a picture so vibrant you can hear the waves and feel the heat from the bull’s flank. She continues with other rapes using deception and force by Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Dionysus, and Chronos.

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Athena’s fury in Arachne by Peter Paul Rubens, 1626. Source. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, via Wikimedia Commons.

Athena is furious- at both Arachne’s skill and her insolence. She tears at Arachne’s tapestry and loom, raises her hand holding the shuttle, and strikes the weaver three times in the forehead.

For some reason, Arachne now backs down

Perhaps because it’s one thing to best a god and another to be at the receiving end of their wrath. Perhaps because the blows confuse her, or are somehow magical.

Perhaps because she’s proven her point.

Arachne slips a noose around her neck to hang herself.

But Athena lifts her up…

and sprinkling her with poison, curses her and her daughters to live, always hanging, always spinning.

Arachne’s arms and legs shrink. Her hair spreads to cover her body with stubble. Her thumbs stick to her sides and her fingers grow and grow and grow until she becomes a spider.

Enter the spider

Notwithstanding Ovid’s origin story, arachnids evolved at least 400 million years ago. As did Arachne, her daughters spin. They’re not the only ones. Other arthropods (the phylum that includes arachnids, insects and crustaceans) build cocoons with their silk- a poetic word for protein fibers.

But like Arachne, who is thought to have invented fishing nets and traps for hunting, spiders use their silk to protect their eggs and as draglines, and also for their webs.

Spider webs do many things

They’re used for courtship, to regulate temperature, and as defense, but mostly, they capture prey. The web has to intercept, stop, and retain the flying insects which make up the bulk of a spider’s diet.

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Photo by Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be, via Wikimedia Commons.

To meet these needs, spiders produce up to seven different types of silk with diverse properties. For example, draglines and the outer portions of the web are built with silk that matches the tensile strength of steel. The silk used in the web’s center can reversibly stretch as far as rubber.

Spider silk isn’t just hard to break– requiring 7 to 10 times the strength used to fracture Kevlar- its healing and anticoagulant properties have been recognized since antiquity when it was used to bandage wounds .

The interest in medical and military applications comes as no surprise. However spiders are small and produce proportionately small amounts of silk. (Check out this video from the American Museum of Natural History about an amazing golden cloth woven from the silk of a million spiders.)

Instead of leaving their structures behind, they eat their webs to reuse the material. Attempts to “farm” spiders are challenged by their individualism and their tendency to cannibalism when there’s not enough food. Like Arachne, spiders aren’t meek and subservient.

For now, like in the past 400 million years, Arachne’s daughters sit and spin, endlessly building and re-building their webs.

So what does Arachne tell us?

Like spiders re-creating their webs each day, there’s always more to the story of Arachne.  Over the years and the many re-tellings and re-visionings, Arachne’s tale has inspired discussion of arrogance versus ambition, art versus craft, myth versus reality, the teacher-student relationship, and the place of common people and of women.

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Las Hilanderas, circa 1667. For a large version. El Prado Museum. Source “The Yorck Project,” via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Spinners (Las Hilanderas), one of the last paintings of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), he takes the role of Arachne, while also using her story to examine these topics.

What is happening and who are all those people?

Good question! Interpretations abound, thanks to the many figures and objects, and the action in a split composition. Initially, the prosaic and unpretentious figures of women spinning in the shadowed foreground suggested a direct representation of the tapestry studio of Santa Isabel.

But then, what about the background? In a brightly lit alcove a few steps above the foreground, a woman presents  a tapestry depicting the rape of Europa while facing an armored figure with raised arm.

In the 40s, Diego Angulo Íñiguez proposed that the painting was the story of Arachne and Athena: the two spinning in the foreground, the punishment in the background. Others have argued that Penelope is in the foreground , or that it represents the tale of Lucretia.

Within the story, more stories

In a feat of meta-fiction that would make Arachne proud, Velázquez seeds the painting with references to art from the past, from the visible whir of the spinning wheel in the foreground (a direct response to the challenge of artists to depict movement as noted by Jan Baptist Bedaux) to the reflection of Michelangelo’s ignudi  in the woman holding the curtain and the spinner in the white blouse.

Arachne’s tapestry in the background is a copy of Titian’s Rape of Europa, part of the Spanish royal family’s collection at the time. Here again, Velázquez acknowledges the masters that came before by making a copy, as Rubens had done years before.

Velázquez goes one step further by placing his copy within a story about paying obeisance to teachers -or not, and about the role of art. He also obscures it with figures, but not so much we can’t recognize the tumbling headlong putti.

And in the foreground, larger than life: the everyday work of spinning women. Ortega y Gassett  said of Velázquez that he managed to

convertir lo cotidiano en permanente sorpresa

That is: He turned the everyday into permanent surprise. In doing so, he showed us that surprise – and beauty and art– is also to be found in the day-to-day.

From Velázquez’s Arachne to today

Arachne will always signify the human desire to excel and the courage to speak out. She also tells us, like her daughters the spiders, of the endless everyday work of making, consuming and re-creating. Invention and re-invention.

According to Ortega, Velázquez discovered that

 … la realidad se diferencia del mito en que no está nunca acabada.

Reality is distinguished from myth in that reality is never finished. 

Perhaps myths are never finished either.