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Thunk, Pffft, Click, Aha!
by Susan Hodara
Eight months before his solo exhibition in a gallery in Philadelphia, Douglas Repetto, a sculptor and installation artist, was preparing to meet with the curators. He had already settled upon the concept of the work he wanted to make—a machine-driven nest-like environment—but he was still searching for the specifics. Then he pulled out the gallery’s floor plan.
“As soon as I saw that there were three rooms I could use, I knew what I was going to do,” said Repetto, 41, who is also the director of research at Columbia University's Computer Music Center. “It was as if this vague and complicated idea that was floating around in my head suddenly went thunk, and filtered out, and I saw how the piece would physically exist.”
When Repetto’s show opens this fall, the tri-sectioned work in the gallery will have emerged, at least partially, from that flash of clarity as he examined the floor plan. Call it a spark, call it an aha moment, Repetto's “thunk” represented a transformational step in his creative process: a shift from not knowing to knowing, the unexpected recognition of a previously indistinct thought.
“Seeking Sparks,” my last contribution to Wendy Richmond’s column, was a response to her request for evidence of creative sparks generated in public conversations between two people. After its publication, Wendy asked me to dig further into the subject, and it got me thinking: What are the triggers for such sparks in our individual work? Can we encourage them to occur? And just how do we experience them?
So I asked artists working in different fields to describe the way they encountered these moments. When I pressed them to be as specific as possible, they’d often pause, as if sifting for words to best articulate the clearly hard-to-pinpoint nature of what they’d felt. Their responses were deeply personal, a collection of anecdotes and analogies filled with awe, appreciation and delight, and peppered with the word “suddenly.”
“Suddenly I can see it. I can hear it,” said Roz Chast, whose cartoons in the pages of The New Yorker and other publications have been making readers chuckle since 1978. “There’s an increasing clarity. It’s like something coming into focus.”
“You give yourself over to the work,” said Desy Safán-Gerard, Ph.D., a painter who works in Los Angeles, “and suddenly something clicks, and it’s fantastic."”
“Suddenly, it just went pffft—it’s three pieces,” Repetto said.
What is that sudden “it?” To better understand, I researched the work of John Kounios, Ph.D., and Mark Beeman, Ph.D., professors of psychology at Drexel and Northwestern universities respectively who have been studying the cognitive and neural basis of insight, which is the psychological equivalent of the creative spark. In their 2009 paper, “The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight,” they defined insight as “a sudden comprehension—colloquially called the ‘aha moment’—that can result in a new interpretation of a situation and that can point to the solution to a problem.” In contrast with deliberate problem-solving strategies, insight occurs unconsciously and emerges as an unanticipated awareness.
When it happens to Roz Chast, she sometimes laughs out loud. Like the time she spotted an advertisement for ice cream cakes while riding the commuter train to her home in Connecticut.
“There was a little girl with a party hat and cute eyeglasses standing beside a cake,” Chast, 57, recalled, “and on the frosting it said, ‘Congratulations on your new glasses.’ It cracked me up. I remember thinking, that’s really setting the bar low.”
But beyond cracking her up, the ad was a spark. It wasn’t long before Chast’s cartoon “Gifts from the House of Low Goals” was published in The New Yorker. Not only had she drawn “Special-Occasion Cakes” (with frosting decorated with adulations including “Wow! Only 16 Cavities!”), but T-shirts with messages like “I Survived Conjunctivitis” and a low-bar trophy awarded to “Participant.”
To learn more, I spoke with Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist with a focus on creativity. Dr. Kaufman explained that our subconscious minds are constantly processing, sorting and making associations among the trove of experiences and knowledge we’ve amassed. “Most of our creative thoughts are bubbling underneath the surface of consciousness,” he said. “What enters our consciousness as an insight is usually an idea that has reached a certain threshold where we are able to recognize it.”
Sharon Olds, the author of eleven volumes of poetry, identified this recognition as the moment when her poems are born. “They seem to emerge by attaching themselves to something out in the world,” was how she put it.
Recently that something was a total lunar eclipse. “There was one point when I could see the shadow of the earth, our shadow, halfway across the moon,” Olds, 59, said, “and it looked so much like the shadow of a large person falling on a smaller person. And I knew right then that it was going to be a poem.”