Creativity and Isolation: is isolation productive or destructive for creativity?

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Isolation sucks.  Gone are the much-anticipated vac plans, the long overdue meet-ups with school friends, and days of lying in parks with no work-burden that many of us had anticipated for this week.  Instead, talk is only of the Draconian measures imposed on us; not going out, not seeing friends, weeks trapped with no one but our families for company.  However, is this imprisonment an inconvenient but effective way of blocking out the distractions of our ordinary lives, an opportunity to be creative in a way we never normally would?

History provides multitudes of examples of wonders created in isolation. Indeed, many have drawn on isolation to inform their art, using it to demonstrate what can be a freeing or imprisoning experience.  Many of Frida Kahlo’s most emotive paintings depict her in barren and empty landscapes, a direct reflection of her time in isolation after a tram accident as a teenager.  Her time trapped in bed gave her time to pull back the curtain, giving us an insight into this time of her life, the thoughts and emotion that it evoked.  Isolation not only motivated Kahlo, but directly inspired her artwork.

More recently photographer Barbra Ess created her astonishing Shut-In Series, capturing the effects of light and shadow on seemingly mundane objects.

Perhaps isolation provides an increased focus on our surroundings, forcing our attention on details of our lives we wouldn’t normally appreciate.  The lack of stimulation drives us to find new ways to be creative, rethinking our own situation and environment.

In 1845, we find an extreme example of an artist in isolation when American essayist and philosopher Henry Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods.  Living there in solitude for two years, he eventually published Walden, or Life In The Woods as a memoir of his time.  The text reflects upon natural harmony, simplicity, and beauty, using it as a model for human interaction and development.  Seen as many as performance art, Thoreau’s newfound self-reliance informing a kind of spiritual awakening.  Isolation here provided an opportunity for a philosophical shift, informing ideas of natural simplicity and order.

Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago is a 21st century echo of Thoreau’s actions, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) spending a winter in a wood cabin in Wisconsin. He lived self-sufficiently, killing his own food and not contacting another soul for months, initially as a last-minute plan to get out of his creative rut.  Music was a by-product, “part of the process of me ironing out that weird vibe inside me.”  While a somewhat extreme example, it certainly paid off; Vernon’s music drawing heavily on his surroundings, and the difficult reality of self-sufficiency.  The product is far from the whimsical folk album we expect. Instead, Vernon produces a cathedral-like landscape, twisting the traditional folk genre into something contemporary; not just melancholy but fiercely so.

Both Thoreau and Vernon used their isolation to challenge themselves, recording their response to the challenges they faced as a result of their isolation, helping their experiences inform them creatively.

For others, isolation provides a chance to have complete control over their creative processes. Roald Dahl’s shed is a perfect example of a creative using their isolation to optimise the way in which they work.  From his heater suspended from the ceiling to the collection of personal objects and oddities, Dahl’s shed provided an intimate space to shut the world away while he worked.  As opposed to him adapting to his space, Dahl instead adapts the space around him; isolation is here used to create order, block out distractions of family and friends and get Dahl into “work-mode”.  I’m sure many of us can think of times when what we really need in order to work at our best is to shut out mates and other distractions so we can fully focus.  Isolation proves a great way to hunker down without being side-tracked by other things popping into your head or into your uni room.

It seems, however that the vibrancy and variety of the outside world is often a wide source of inspiration.  In Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own, the writer notes the discrepancy in opportunity for writers, not just in their means of publishing, but in their personal experience – “Had Tolstoy lived in seclusion with a married lady ‘cut off from what is called the world’… he could scarcely, I thought, have written War and Peace.”  Variety helps us look beyond the small-scale of our lives – even a simple walk through town could inspire a story about the man sat outside the corner shop, a painting of the spring blossom that infests even the most urban areas.  Visits to galleries and gigs, a change of scene and perspective, even just catching up with an old friend; all of these experiences are inspiring and stimulating.   Could Dickens have been so renowned for his writing if he hadn’t experienced the richness and variety of Victorian London?  It seems his social commentary would have been much less perceptive if it wasn’t for the wealth of personal observations that underpinned his novels.

Can we really create something great relying solely on our minds for inspiration?  Surely blocking out other opinions and perspectives leaves a singular perspective, the possibilities of what we can create being limited, or lacking in some way.  As every other think-piece about self-isolation tells us, humans are social creatures, and surely isolation can only have a negative on our well-being and hence our creativity.  However, we need quietness, we need a time to rest and process our thoughts and experiences.  Maybe isolation is the perfect time to gather our recent experiences and thoughts and use them for whatever purpose we can think of.

While isolation can seem self-indulgent, a luxury for only the most pretentious artists, perhaps isolation can help us refocus, or even provide a new creative prompt for our tired and over-stimulated minds.

Good art translates us to another time and place, an escapist insight into the artist’s thoughts and feelings – it seems isolation can help, amplifying an artist’s voice, providing a window into their personal introspection.  Vernon takes us to that cabin in the woods, complete with a heavy heart and muddled head, Dahl takes us to the most distant reaches of his imagination, Ess transforms her apartment into an uncanny and beautiful landscape of light and shadow.  It seems that, despite the wealth of inspiration that normal life provides, isolation allows us to step back and reflect upon it all.  And, perhaps, that is when we can be most creative.

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