Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Discover the Possibilities

When I visit a library, one of the first places I go is to the area with the new books, the ones that have just arrived at the library. There are always titles that "jump out" at me. Sometimes they are books that I want to read, and other times, they're just catchy titles.

A few months ago, while perusing the most recent additions to the library's collection, a title caught my eye, "Make the Impossible Possible." I almost didn't pick it up. Another one of those self-help books saying the same things that a 1000 others have said, I thought. Blah, blah, blah. For some reason, I ignored my first reaction, and took the book off the shelf. I liked the cover design. I began to read the introduction... I was hooked.

The full title of the book is "Make the Impossible Possible: One Man's Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary." The author is Bill Strickland. The book is his story and the stories of others whose lives have been changed by his work.

Bill happens to be a Pittsburgh native. I've written about other people from Pittsburgh lately, but this time, it wasn't planned. That just happens to be where Bill grew up.

The people in Bill's neighborhood were the poorest of the poor. Crime was high. Hope was non-existent.

One day, in high school, Bill wandered into the classroom of ceramics teacher, Frank Ross. As he watched, the teacher turned a lump of clay into a beautiful urn, as if by magic. "I want you to teach me how to do that." Mr. Ross showed him how to use a potter's wheel, and handed him some clay. Touching that clay was a transforming experience. There were possibilities in that clay, not just artistic possibilities, but life-changing possibilities.

Bill Strickland was hooked on ceramics. Even though he was poor, lived in a crime-ridden neighborhood and was surrounded by people without hope, Bill realized that he could still create something of beauty. Maybe there was more he could do.

There was.

After that amazing first moment of feeling the pliability of the clay in his hands, Bill's life began to change. He enrolled in college. He saw a future with hope.

He wanted to do the same thing for other kids, so he talked to some area church leaders, and they agreed to let him use some space at one of the churches. He raised enough money to buy a few potter's wheels and some clay. He opened the doors of the church basement so that neighborhood kids could see inside. Slowly, they wandered in. "What's that?" they would ask. And Bill showed them.

One by one, they became hooked. Their lives changed. They left lives of crime for lives of hope. Like Bill Strickland, most improved their grade point averages; many opted for college, who had not considered it previously.

Today, that church basement studio is a multi-million dollar facility, known as Manchester Bidwell. It is filled with art from its students, and from craftspeople around the world. The building itself is a work of art, inside and out. People, young and old, come there to learn new skills from photography to culinary arts. The classes are offered without charge. People begin to see the possibilities within themselves and within their lives. It is located only a few blocks from the high school where Bill Strickland first touched a lump of clay.

When I first read Mr. Strickland's story, I thought, "yes!" That is what I believe and what I try to share in my workshops. Every person is gifted in some way. Every person is like that lump of clay that is just waiting to be given the opportunity to transform into something beautiful and amazing and unique.

As I thought about what I had read in this book, I recalled when I was in first grade. One of the students who sat near me was a very thin, pale blond girl named Linda. She seldom spoke, and she struggled with reading, writing and arithmetic. When we separated into reading groups, she was always in the "slow" group. Several times a week, we had art class. That was where Linda shone. Her paintings and clay creations looked like they had been done by an adult. Her trees looked real, not like thick brown sticks with green balls on top. When she drew people, they had eyelashes and cute noses and smiles with proportionate teeth. I was in awe of her artwork. The teacher would tell her that her work was very nice, but would usually follow that comment with, "I wish you would try as hard when you are reading. You'll never make a living drawing pictures."

As the years passed, Linda became more withdrawn. She doodled during class, and her grades were lower and lower. By high school, she was often found hiding in the bathroom, smoking, and she and her friends were often in the principal's office for being disrespectful. These days, Linda works in a factory. She sees life as “the daily grind.” Her creativity is buried within her. There's no way to know, but I believe that if Linda's art had been valued and encouraged, she would be living a different, perhaps better life today.

I have a friend, Mike, who was the 1950's equivalent of a gang member, when he was in high school. He drove fast cars, and spent his free time breaking various laws.

Mike lived in a tiny town whose only store was a combination grocery/hardware/dry goods store. It just happened that the owners of that store were two brothers who loved photography. They added a rather large section of quality photographic equipment to their store. I remember going there when I was a little girl, and wondering why they had all those cameras and tripods and other equipment that I had never seen before. None of the other grocery stores sold cameras.

Those two brothers saw something in Mike when he was in that troubled teen phase. They began showing him their latest cameras whenever he was in their store, and showing him pictures they had taken of cars and motorcycles. Mike was impressed. Like Bill Strickland, he said, "I want you to teach me how to do that." And they did.

Mike had a natural talent for photography. He showed some of his photos to the local newspaper editor, who was impressed by what he saw. He began sending Mike out to cover local events, and more and more of Mike's photos began appearing in the paper.

At one particular event, Mike took some great photos and when he took them to the newspaper office, the editor said, "These photos are great, but I didn't have a reporter there to cover the event. Can you write a short article about what you saw? If it's good, I'll include your photos and your story." It was good.

The editor noticed that Mike had a unique style of writing. He had a knack of finding just the right angle in interviews and using that angle to create stories that people wanted to read. The more pictures Mike took, and the more stories he wrote, the better his writing and photography skills became.

There was an opening for an editor at a weekly newspaper owned by the same publishing company. Mike got the job.

An executive for one of Akron's large tire manufacturers happened to read Mike's stories in that little weekly newspaper. He thought they were great, and he loved the accompanying photos. He asked Mike if he would like to be the editor of this huge corporation's employee newspaper. Lots more $$$.

The employees noticed that their newspaper was a lot more interesting to read than it had been. There were more feature articles about employees, and they were terrific! And the photos that accompanied the articles were perfect. "Ahem... Mike, we have this magazine that we send to our tire dealers around the world. We need an editor. Interested?" He was.

As the magazine editor, Mike traveled around the world. He had lunch with Indy car driver, Mario Andretti. He went to the movies with another Indy car driver, Johnny Rutherford. He went riding with motorcycle daredevil, Evel Knievel. He stood on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with Johnny Cash and June Carter. He flew into the steaming hole of Mt. St. Helens, in a small private plane, two days before it erupted. He had many of his photos published in Life Magazine. He owned 8 motorcycles and tested Hondas for a large Honda dealership, in his spare time. He loved drag racing, and for awhile he owned a well-known dragstrip..

When he tired of traveling and was considering retirement, he was asked if he would consider being a speech writer for the chairman of the board of the rubber company. He accepted. He could work from his home in the country, and ride his motorcycles. He had done so many amazing and fun things in his life, and he was ready to enjoy his retirement. And it was all because two brothers looked past his rough edges, and thought photography might be a fun hobby for him.

I agree with Bill Strickland. I think the arts are very important. Our society puts more and more emphasis on academics and achievement and test scores, and creativity and the arts are often seen as unimportant, something you do when you have time.

Working at the art gallery each weekend, I hear so many people say, "I wish I had talent, but I don't." I think everyone is an artist. They just haven't discovered their talent yet, or they don't recognize it.

Some people are artists with clay. Some with cameras. Some with words. Some with cooking or musical instruments. There are people who express their creativity through their parenting skills. Others may be artists when it comes to car repair or decorating their home.

Summertime is a great time to explore creativity. A great way to find your strengths, or your child's strengths is through creative play. Why not take the emphasis off academics this summer, and play?

Go to concerts, museums, parks, festivals and plays. Make mud pies. Sit under the trees with your children, no matter what their ages are, and read aloud. Write poems, short or long, about the weather, your family, your pets.

Go to a farmers' market and buy the ingredients for a picnic lunch. Get some inexpensive paper plates and let each "picnicker" decorate their own. Find wildflowers and create a centerpiece. Take an old white sheet and design an artistic picnic cloth, by drawing on it with fabric pens or attaching sequins. After lunch, have an Olympic competition, with unique and unusual feats of physical prowess.

In the evening, collectively make up your own bedtime stories. They can be as fanciful as you like. I have always enjoyed including carousels that slowly rise in the air as they turn, so that soon you are floating through the billowy clouds on the back of your beautiful painted pony, who may or may not come to life and gallop off into the rainbow, with you on its back, of course.

I firmly believe that creative pursuits lead to happier, more fulfilled individuals, who have more confidence and more great ideas. The arts help us deal with frustration, sorrow, fear and failures. They show us that every day is filled with possibilities that we have not yet discovered. Enjoy the discoveries!



P.S. This message is not just for your children.

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"To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist." ~Schumann

"People are born into this world as assets, not liabilities. It’s all in the way we treat people (and ourselves) that determines a person’s outcome." ~Bill Strickland

"The sand in the hourglass flows only one way. Stop going through the motions of living--savor each and every day. Life is here and now, not something waiting for you in the future." ~Bill Strickland

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***With subtle accompaniment by longtime friend, Herbie Hancock, and a slide show that has opened the minds (and pocketbooks) of CEOs across the country, artist and youth activist, Bill Strickland tells a quiet and astonishing tale of redemption through arts, music and unlikely partnerships.  You can hear Bill Strickland tell his story on TED Talks.

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