Maker Jen Cushman (and writer and teacher) oozes enthusiasm. You hear it in her voice, see it in her art and experience it in her classes. I interviewed Jen about creativity.
What does creativity mean to you?
“For me, creativity is a way of being. It means that every day I am doing something that piques my curiosity in some way. It doesn’t have to be art, though creativity is most readily accessible to me when I’m in my studio working on my mixed-media jewelry, collages or assemblages. However, tapping into my inherent creativity can be the spark of an idea for my business, repurposing something vintage or shopping at a local farmer’s market for fresh meal ingredients. It can be a phone conversation with a friend where we wander into a topic I’ve been pondering and, clear as day a lightbulb goes off that causes a shift in my thinking – love those moments of creative insight! The bottom line is that creativity + curiosity creates opportunities to learn and grow and evolve. It’s simply living my life.”
Tell me about the role of art in your childhood
“I’ve always seen the world differently. When I was young, my mother would joke that I was an odd child. I wrote stories and drew pictures to illustrate my own books. I took apart my mother’s costume jewelry and put it back together again using only tweezers and my fingers since I had no idea jewelry-making tools existed. I played dress up and dolls and sang to imaginary audiences. My mother was not born with any inherent artistic skills, but she provided me space and supplies to draw and paint and make. My siblings were much older than me. I spent a lot of time alone in my make believe world. I’m still most comfortable and content in my own brain, in my quiet studio. In high school I decided to become a journalist because I was good with words and felt pressure to come up with a major for college. I loved working as a reporter. However, my non-working hours were spent refinishing furniture and painting quotes on the walls of the first house my husband and I bought. I quit the newspaper when my son was born. I was 31. I joined a Moms Group for at-home mothers and started scrapbooking. That led me to seeking out and learning and soaking up like a sponge every collage and assemblage and “altered art” technique that I could find. (pre-Pinterest and YouTube days). That evolved into teaching. Now, I’m evolving again to a solopreneur business. I want to continue teaching women how to re-discover their own creative magic with two deep-dive retreats per year and then a monthly check-in to align it with their daily lives.”
The studio feeling
How do you feel when you’re in your creative space and what does that feeling contribute to your end result?
“I feel calm and centered in my studio. My brain is curious and I have an idea of what I want to work on. Sometimes I do a rough sketch of an idea, but most times I’ve simply envisioned it in my mind from beginning to end and have already worked it out days or weeks before I sit down to make it. This usually causes things to progress quickly. For example, when I look at an object I already know what I see for it. Then it’s just a matter of what I’m going to subtract from it or add to it and what other materials or techniques I plan to use to achieve the desired outcome. The feeling can be difficult to explain. It’s like my body is excited to be in creative discovery mode, but my brain has already done the thinking and problem-solving ahead of time. Changes can be made on the spot as I work with my intuition. For example, an attachment or element doesn’t quite look the same in the physical as it does in my mind’s eye so I adjust and move forward. Time tends to go into homeostasis, as rhythm and flow happens. The end result is my work tends to look like me. My style, for lack of better word, emerges from the clay or wood or resin or metal. Story also emerges…always a narrative.”
Do you see an impact of fellow artists on you and your work?
“When I was learning from others, yes, of course. This is what I tell my students. You must find inspiration somewhere and you must learn techniques from someone. It can take a while to find your style. You can know rather early on if you tend to be precise and detailed or if you like loose and free form. However, it isn’t until you do the work and learn that you figure things out. When I was 20 years old I spent a summer in Paris learning French. My university rented space from the Sorbonne and took 12 students plus local instructors to Paris for an immersion study program. Most everyone else lived with families. A single entrepreneur who owned multiple apartment buildings was my caregiver for the summer. She basically gave me a tiny, clean flat to live in and invited me into her home each evening for dinner. I took classes in the mornings and in the afternoons I wandered Paris mostly by myself. I ended up at the museums because they were free for students and I would sit for hours looking at the Impressionists. Even though their work can seem cliché as an inspiration now because it’s so famous, I studied the loose brushstrokes and dreamt that someday I would learn to make art that suggested form and figure and looked effortless. It was a crazy thought at the time because I was already pursuing my journalism degree, but being exposed to that many beautiful works of art that summer changed me. It planted a seed in my subconscious mind that I might one day find a passion beyond words.”
As an artist, are there doubts and struggles you face?
“Oh goodness, to be a sensitive artist is to be angst-riddled at times. When the world tells you that you cannot make a living on your creativity and that your shot is one in five million, how can one not have doubts and fears? I often struggle with thoughts that I’m not good enough. I don’t have a degree in art. I’m self-taught. How can I succeed if real artists with real degrees from top pedigree universities are struggling to be seen? Luckily, I started on my own path of self-discovery and spirituality about the same time I started making again. Like art, I take a little here and there from all the experts and have cobbled together a form of personal spirituality that gives me tremendous meaning and joy in my life. It allows me to (mostly) live in positivity, and this helps me counteract the icky self-talk when it rears its ugly head. My spirituality allows me to dream big thoughts and then have the belief the Universe is co-creating with me to bring the people, opportunities and resources into my life to help manifest my intentions. Synchronicities and signs give me the confidence to know that I’m on the right path. It allows me to move toward love. This doesn’t mean I don’t experience hardships, sad/mad or overwhelm days like every human does. It just means that my beliefs allow me to bounce back quicker and to know that I can always return to my authentic creative center.
Signs and synchronicities signal a pathway
Signs and synchronicities. Goodness they’re so common that its almost hard to point them out. Here’s a few. I start thinking about a project I want to do and as I work through the process and specifics of what I need to move forward I will start thinking about a person I know who I absolutely must speak to. That person magically appears on my Facebook wall or sends me and out if the blue private message saying something like “hey, what’s up? I’ve been thinking about you.” Or I contact them and get an immediate response like “crazy you emailed me. I’ve been thinking about you even though it’s been a year since we’ve talked.”
A simpler and often one: I come up with an idea for a big project. Each time I do something toward making it happen, even something small like writing some copy or even just telling a friend about my idea, I see a repeating number. I look at the clock and it’s 2:12 or a notification dings on my phone and its 11:11. I look up the number on a website I use for this and I read the message intended for me at the time.
Signs often come to me in threes. When a new friend tells me about a book she’s reading and the next day the same subject matter comes up in a different conversation, my ears perk up. Then my husband comes home from work and mentions a conversation with a co-worker and it reminds him of something I would like as well. I jump online to follow the topic and the expert the co-worker is talking about is the author of the book my friend’s reading. These are not usually big trend things, like a new season of Game of Thrones. These are usually concepts or ideas I’ve been thinking about and information, inspiration or confirmation is being drawn to me in what seems like a random way. Back to back to back threes tell me I’m on the right track.
It can seem crazy to some or even just superstitious, but watching for signs and synchronicities are an important part of my life’s journey. They are like little safety lights illuminating the path just ahead of me.”
How has your art changed your perception of the world and how the world sees you?
Good question! There are two ways I’m reading this question. From a practical perspective of how the world see you and then from an esoteric question of how has your art changed your perception of the world. Let me tackle the easier one first – as a practical question of how the world sees me. I think making art and, in particular teaching it, allowed my work to be seen by people who might never have looked at it if I had taken a more traditional route of showing at art festivals or selling in shops. One of the biggest struggles for artists is finding opportunities to put your art out into the world. Social media, like Facebook and particularly Instagram, has made it easier but “getting noticed” by people with authority and resources to help an artist’s career is still something every artist needs. Artists today need to be smart about using technology as tools. Marketing and branding is not just for celebrities. It’s for all creatives who want to elevate their art medium from hobby to profession. Knowing how to contact and work with people in the media are important skills. Fortunately my journalism background before art made getting my work published in magazines a little easier. I think those who know my art see it as different, atypical, lyrical, colorful and possibly even soulful. There is a vibe to it and those who feel it, get it. Others will never take the moment necessary to pause and reflect. They won’t see my work.
From an esoteric perspective of how has my art changed my perception of the world, I would have to say that I believe the best stuff of life is found in the smallest of details. Beauty is a timeline. My art is about scars, cracks, patina, tattered edges, timeworn elements and how objects and people break, change and transform. There’s beauty in wounds and failures and deeply-felt emotions. It’s about breaking out of uninspired boxes and becoming exactly who you’re meant to be and not who you’re told to be. The longer I live and the more I make art, my perception of beauty being a timeline becomes more and more ingrained in my work and purpose.
What impact do you want to have with your art and on whom?
The answer to this has changed recently as well. My father died 2 ½ years ago and my mother followed him six months later. Before their deaths I wanted to make a mark with my art; to have the world validate some inherent creative genius that I felt deep inside but that I never wholly believed. However, as I’ve deconstructed my own life this past 18 months I realize that where I’m at right now is to simply ask myself “Why” every day. What do I want to create today? Why do I want to do that? What’s my intention? What’s my motive? Is it honoring how I wish to feel today? Is it authentic?
Why I’m a Maker
At this time I want to make art to more fully know myself – both light and shadow – and express the person I am. I wish to be of service to others who’re on a similar path. I feel this pull…this daily tug to simply feel and express and create and to have faith it will land where and how it’s supposed to. Check back in with me next year. I’ll let you know how it’s going.”
This interview with Jen Cushman is part of an ongoing series of interviews with artists. Learn more about Maker Jen Cushman’s transformations for art and life at this link.