Soaring to new creative heights

Yesterday I got to fly around the Spark Gallery in Orchards with a flock of the most beautiful birds.

flying with the flock
Flying with the flock

 

The evening began in the gallery where we browsed some wonderful bird creations.

 

There was a short speech.

But then things took an interesting turn as a flock of birds appeared and flew among us, eventually leading us out into the garden on what turned out to be a wild adventure. The birds were fabulous with crazy costumes dreamed up from scraps. Blinds, plastic bags and blankets became wings. Beaks were fashioned out of bottles. Just as birds in their profusion of colour and shape, are a great indicator of the wild creative imagination of the universe, so these birds showed off the imaginations of the artists who dreamed them up.

cool bird dude

Like all good adventures there was some confusion. The narrative was somewhat hard to follow. There were two men, one in search of “his” crow. They tried to get to the kingdom of the birds, but were blocked by a very scary wall.

the wall
The very scary wall

Our protagonists got through the wall, apparently with the help of graffiti artists. It turns out that painted walls are less effective as barriers! But they found themselves captives of the king of the birds. After some debate, they (and all of us) were admitted to the kingdom of the birds.

Walking in to the kingdom of the birds, just as the sun set, really was magical!

into the kingdom
Into the bird kingdom

It’s a land of well-feathered nests.

pansi pigeons

Here the king grants the two men the right to live as birds. We attend a meeting of the Ministry of Bird Affairs where a plot is hatched by the vultures, and the two men, to build more walls. But the king steps in to save the day and explain that love is all we need.

Well, love and the kind of creativity that this project has surfaced. I love that this is about everyday creativity, that it is not polished and refined, that it makes the point that creativity is for everyone with whatever materials you have to hand. What a refreshing way to spend a Friday evening. More of these kind of events will make a Better Joburg!

Birds of the Grove is a production by #ArtMyJozi and artists from Orange Grove as part of the Johannesburg Development Agency’s initiative to involve local artists in the development of the city. This particular initiative focuses on the development of Paterson Park which adjoins the gallery. A few weeks back I took a walk around the newly-refurbished Paterson Park. Some way to go still, but it’s looking good. If you haven’t visited yet, you should.

 

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Embrace everyday creativity in 2017

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”

– poet Mary Oliver, Of Power and Time

The New Year is a great time to re-evaluate priorities and make plans for how better to spend your precious life-time. If you are feeling the call to create, the urge to escape the corporate nine-to-five, or the need to balance your life with some more fulfilling pursuits, consider joining the Better community in 2017.

Better is a place where people doing creative things for fun or money can work, share and relax. Better is about promoting a culture of making and about celebrating creativity.

In Making is Connecting, David Gauntlett speaks of the “inherent pleasure in making; we might call this joie de faire (like joie de vivre) to indicate that there is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something that didn’t exist before”. He goes on to propose a definition of everyday creativity that takes into account the emotional aspects of creating, as opposed to the more traditional definition of creativity as that which results in unusual or celebrated outcomes. It’s a long definition, but worth repeating in full:

“Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something. The activity has not been done in this way by this person (or these people) before. The process may arouse various emotions, such as excitement and frustration, but most especially a feeling of joy. When witnessing and appreciating the output, people may sense the presence of the maker, and recognize those feelings.”

That’s the kind of creativity Better is about. We believe that all human beings are inherently creative, and we want to make a space where you can explore your creativity and experience the joy of making.

Better caters for artists, designers, writers, poets, programmers, photographers, and all kinds of crafters. We are open to accommodating other creative pursuits where at all possible. We’ll provide space and some equipment, as well as fast internet, tea and coffee, and a program of events. We need you to help us create a friendly and stimulating atmosphere. Come for coffee, stay to write, compare notes and helpful tips, join or host a workshop, and share your latest project with others who care about creative work.

Better is an emerging project; we are making it up as we go along! We welcome your input. What do you want at Better?

Better is based in Saxonwold, Johannesburg (more about that here) and will be opening in February 2017. Watch out for more information during January, including your invitation to visit. Leave us your e-mail address to be kept informed, follow us on Twitter (@betterjoburg) or find us on Facebook.

 

Coral reefs and tangled banks

Steven Johnson argues that coral reefs and the tangled banks of rivers are the environments that best support innovation. These complex, messy environments that support a variety of intertwined life forms, have unique properties that lead to a rich, fertile and flourishing state. Rich, fertile and flourishing is what we are aiming for at Better. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation, (also subtitled The Natural History of Innovation in other editions) Steven Johnson delves into the history of innovation to identify seven themes which reflect on the conditions that support creativity. Some of these themes inform our vision for Better as a creative space.

Part of the vision for Better is that it is a place where people can share ideas, projects, knowledge and skills. We want it to be a place where you will be able to bump into people who share your interests and challenges. Andrew talks about it being like a bar for creative pursuits. You go there when you want to meet people and you can usually be sure that there will be someone there.

Johnson talks about a liquid network, one that is dense and viscous enough that ideas can move and collide. Solids prevent movement, while in gasses the particles are so far apart as to make collisions unlikely. We want to be sure that a range of people come to Better – not the same people all the time (which would be like a solid). We envisage having a member base large enough so that you meet different people on different days. We also envisage events that bring non-members into Better to provide fresh ideas. We want to make sure that there are enough people there on any one day for you to find someone interesting to share a coffee with, and we plan on using themed afternoons and evenings to make sure that you bump into the people who share your specific creative domain.

Another of Johnson’s themes is that of the slow hunch: ideas emerge slowly, they take time to mature and grow in response to information and impressions that are gradually added to. This idea reflects the growing concern to rediscover slow scholarship, allowing for deep ideas in academia to emerge. Slow scholarship, the movement’s slog (slow blog) explains, “is carefully prepared, with fresh ideas, local when possible, and is best enjoyed leisurely, on one’s own or as part of a dialogue around a table with friends, family and colleagues”. By being a physical space for actual warm humans, Better provides those local ingredients as well as the tables and the company. In particular Johnson notes that “pressures, distractions, accountability and supervision all work against ideas”. Better is a place where those pressures can be left behind, where you can contemplate quietly, and let your best ideas emerge, slowly.

Another theme in the history of innovation is that error plays an important role. “Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes” says Johnson. So one of our concerns for Better is that it needs to be a messy space for trial and error, for experiment. One of the challenges of creative work is the ever-present fear that what you have made is not good enough. Particularly when it comes to the visual arts, so many people are paralysed by the fear of their stumbling efforts being seen and criticised. Better is a playful, permissive space, not only for the accomplished. We want people to try, to do things they have never done before, to produce misshapen mistakes in the process of learning and having fun. We welcome and celebrate things that go wrong or don’t work. We hope to see fabulous flops.

And finally, Johnson makes the point that innovation requires platforms, places where innovation can take place, where the habitat needed for innovation is built by what he calls ecosystem engineers. Better invites you to be an ecosystem engineer, and help to build a coral reef or a tangled river bank, to shape Better and make it into the kind of space that supports your creative process.

 

Software tools for writers

While you are planning and outlining your writing you might want to try note-taking tools to capture thoughts, quotes and resources, and to play with structure. EverNote allows you to capture notes as text, or photos, and has a plug-in to your browser so you can automatically save from web pages. WorkFlowy enables you to put together nested lists (of chapters, sections, characters, tasks). I love the mobile app that allows me to work on these lists in meetings. For the less linearly-inclined there is Spiderscribe that keeps your notes in mind maps.

For the actual writing, you can use your favourite word processor, but you might want to try tools like Scrivener or Writer’s Blocks that are designed for more heavy-weight writing. These tools help you to keep track of large and complex writing projects with outlining and overviews and allow you to easily move text around to re-structure a large manuscript. Scrivener also gives you the tools to output your work as an e-book. If you want to write an e-book, but don’t want the full power (and cost) of Scrivener, try Sigil, a free and open-source e-book editor.

If you struggle to just get the words out, try WriteorDie which uses a game-like format with rewards and punishments to make you write. You set a target for, say, 1000 words and then you have to keep typing until you reach it. It’s a great tool for doing initial free-writing about your topic. I use it for the first draft of blog posts. And if you are easily distractible, try some of the tools that declutter your desktop, taking away all the social media notifications so that it’s just you and the text, and possibly a soothing background image and soundtrack. FocusWriter and OmmWriter are worth a try.

For academic writers taking the time to build up a database of references in a good reference manager will pay off in the long run, making it easy to find and format references and taking your productivity to dean-pleasing heights. Mendeley and Zotero are both free (for basic functionality) and store your references in the cloud so that they are easy to access. Both have tools to automatically index your database, making it quick and easy to add items.

Do you have favourite software tools for writers? Share them here.

Better tools for writers

I am running a writing retreat next week and have been putting together lists of my favourite writing tools to share. I thought I’d share them here too.

“The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker, subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century” is a book about why writing matters, what makes writing good, and how to navigate unsettling changes in language with style, without being stuffy about correctness.

The Book on Writing” by Paula LaRocque is a great guide to writing simply and for clarity.

“Keys for Writers” by Ann Raimes and Susan Miller-Cochran is a (costly) reference text for academic writers. It covers the writing process, using resources and referencing, technical aspects of language and a very helpful guide to how the grammar of different languages impact on expression in English. The international edition is available through Exclusive Books (not Amazon).

Refseek is a great source of reference web sites. Think of it like the reference section in a library. It has a guide to online dictionaries, including general dictionaries and those for specialist terms like medical, computer and financial terms. The site also gives links to other reference works, such as style and grammar guides.

Visuwords is a really fun graphical dictionary where you enter a word and related words pop up around it. Try it! Good for really understanding all the nuances of any particular word and identifying possible ambiguities.

Urban dictionary is a great way to while away a boring meeting or seminar. Words are defined by the users of the site so there is nothing official about them, but it gives great insight into how words are actually used. You can submit your own definitions too, so get creative!

There is nothing like good writers for advice on writing. Here is one of my favourites, Ursula K Le Guin, on Rules of Writing. Explore her site for more or hunt for your favourite author online and let them excite you about the possibilities of words.

What resources inspire you to play with words? Share your favourites here.

Looking for a Better job?

Update: Applications for this position are now closed. Thanks to all who responded.

We’re hiring! Please point anyone at this ad who you think would make a great first impression for Better.

Better Receptionist

Are you able to bring people together, put them at their ease and make them feel loved and cared for? Do you want to work in a relaxed happy space, for between 20 and 40 hours a week, surrounded by creative people?

Better is (soon to be) a shared space for artists, writers, crafters and other creative people. We are looking for a receptionist to greet people, make them happy, manage memberships, sell items from our kiosk, arrange events, and keep the place organised. Please explore this blog to learn more about Better.

What we want from you:

  • A sunny, outgoing disposition
  • An ability to work well with people
  • A good memory for names and faces
  • The ability to connect and introduce people
  • A good telephone manner
  • Great organisational skills
  • Computer skills – spreadsheets, word processor, e-mail

And optionally (nice, but not essential):

  • Any retail experience
  • Events organising experience

We can offer R50 per hour, with a bonus each month that the company exceeds monthly targets. Starting date will be 01 October 2016 (if all goes to plan).

To apply, send a CV and a cover letter saying why you would like to work for Better to: better.joburg@gmail.com. Please put “Better Receptionist” in the subject line and apply before 21 August 2016.

We will only contact short-listed candidates. If we don’t find the right person, we won’t appoint anyone.

Survey results

Thanks to everyone who answered our survey. Thought we’d share some of the results with you.

What?

We now know that fast internet, safe parking and a quiet work space are really important for Better. Tea, coffee and cake also ranked highly! You are keen to attend exhibitions and discussions on doing things better, as well as book launches and readings.

The best part was reading your wish-lists of what you want to see at Better. You gave us comments about the space…

  • “A good working environment, not too hot or cold, not too harsh and light, or cosy and dark. Just balance.”
  • “Lots of tables and chairs/benches in a relaxing garden, with access to power points”
  • “Individual spaces with comfortable lounge chair and open space to view outside – I cannot be creative in a closed space – to be on top of building with no restrictions – rooftop sitting on lounge chair able to look at the sky in summer and in winter glass doors to look outside – summary comfy sofas, view and private space or semi-private space”

About equipment…

  • “Affordable for-hire equipment for photography and street art”
  • “Most craft implements”
  • “Pantone books”
  • “3D printer. Laser engraver/cutter. Milling machine. Lathe.”

And about services…

  • “Access to a curated database of other local creative suppliers e.g. laser cutters, bookbinders, printers, 3D printers, stationery stores, copywriters, open mic events, instrument stores, etc.”
  • “Healthy lunch options so I don’t need to worry about organising food when I’m super busy”
  • “A nice place to take clients to for meetings or the ability to easily book secluded space – without exorbitant costs”

Lots of people want to learn…

  • “Sharing and learning of different skills, not necessarily in my profession.”
  • “Workshops or short lessons to learn new skills, e.g.: typography, printing fundamentals”
  • “The feeling of learning. At varsity when you enter a library you automatically feel inspired as so many people are learning so many things. Where work places struggle is to replicate this feeling of inspiration.”

And you recognise the value of other people…

  • “People to talk to and get perspective from”
  • “People with experience in getting freelance work published”
  • “Angel investors and donors for my next creative project—every artist’s dream!”

Not sure that we can provide for all your wishes right up, but it convinces us that there are enough people out there who share our interest in having just the right environment for thinking, connecting and creating.

When and where?

Most people said they would visit two or three times a week between the hours of 9 am and noon, with a fair number also keen to attend in the evenings. Many of you are willing to drive up to 10 km or to the next suburb.

We had great fun plotting the suburbs you live and work in on a map of Johannesburg. There were large numbers in Melville and Greenside, but also many in Randburg. From our map we plotted out a circle of suburbs that would put most people within a suburb or two of our location.

20160711_163723

 

What next?

We have done the sums and based on the interest you have shown, it looks like Better will be viable. So now we are out hunting for a suitable property. Watch this space, we will let you know our progress.

Thanks to all who connected with us. If you want to make sure you hear about the next steps, get on our mailing list here. Please continue to send your good ideas, feedback and thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Sources and resources for artists

We’ve had many great ideas from those of you who have completed our survey and from conversations over the past few days.

book shelf small

For artists, it seems that Better could provide access to the kinds of sources and resources that they might not be able to own individually. Some of the things on the wish list include anatomical models, reference books, a light table, studio lights and backdrops.

There was also a request for live models so we are adding life drawing sessions to our list of events.

The idea of things being used communally fits well with our Better ethic, so we love these suggestions. We may not be able to start up with everything, but we’d like to provide a space that you will find well worth visiting.

Look out for more news as we analyse the survey results this week.

A place for writers to retreat to

I (Judy) work a lot with writers, mostly in the academic space. I’ve facilitated a lot of writing retreats where we get together and write. At the most recent retreat a colleague was pondering why it is that he can be so much more productive when surrounded by other writers, than when he works by himself at home. This sparked quite a discussion.

Even though the uninterrupted space at home seems like a good place to work, it is easy to get distracted, to go and put the laundry on, then to hang it up, then to decide that the dishwasher must be stacked, the path must be swept. It is easier to procrastinate.

Being in a room with other writers, all working together, makes it easier. The fact that everyone else is writing inspires you to do the same. There is a cameraderie, and some social pressure, that keeps you working. There are also fewer distractions to support your procrastination.

When you get stuck, you can discuss whatever is tripping you up over coffee with the next writer. There are shared suggestions as to how to get unstuck. I’ve seen people share resources, contacts and simply empathy. Writing together is better and Better hopes to be a space to facilitate this and other creative activities.