I once won a Blue Ribbon at the Polk County Fair.
At first thought, not a particularly noteworthy accomplishment, but there is a back-story that I believe is worth telling.
I grew up in a small town in Western Oregon. Built on the industry of ranchers, farmers, loggers, and those who provide services to them, Oregon was, and still is, primarily a rural economy. Each summer, county fairs from Multnomah in the north to Klamath in the south blanket the state.
The town of Independence in Polk County where I attended Middle and High School holds a classic county fair: dusty, noisy, smelly, and filled with reunions, laughter, and opportunities to show off your skills.
In those days, women took advantage of the opportunity to present their canning, sewing, and baking prowess. 4-H projects of lambs, hogs, and cattle were a major draw for the kids, along with a decrepit-looking arcade of rides and games where we learned what it meant to waste money while screaming.
There were also art competitions: watercolor, photography, and landscapes primarily, with birdhouses, quilting, needlepoint, and wood-carving filling the crafts portion of the competitions.
During this particular summer, they were holding a graphic design competition. Since I was fortunate enough to have access to art classes in my public school and spent much of my time drawing, I decided to go for it.
The theme of the competition was ‘Oregon Tourism’, which seemed easy enough. Since Oregon is known for outdoor activities, I chose ‘Ski Oregon’ as the slogan for my poster. My design concept was to have the silhouette of Mount Hood in the background. My media: tissue paper, glue, and poster board. Brilliant, right?
I discovered very quickly, however, that applying Elmer’s Glue to tissue paper can be problematic. I had selected a particularly vibrant turquoise tissue to represent the sky in my poster. Painstakingly tearing it into the shape of the sky over Mount Hood, I managed to create the silhouette of our beloved volcano.
After applying the glue to the tissue and then wrestling the gooey substance onto the white poster-board, I was horrified to see it scrunch into a wrinkled mass of turquoise that looked surprisingly like a topographic map that had lost its sense of direction.
Hoping to repair the mess, I peeled back the soggy, disintegrating, glue-slathered, and seriously mangled tissue to find a fascinating repeat pattern of turquoise dye floating on a pure white background. The image left behind was the perfect negative outline of Mount Hood.
Knowing an opportunity when I saw one, I carried on with this wonderful surprise as the backdrop for my poster. The next step was to add text by tearing another sheet of tissue into the shapes of letters to create the slogan. I happily found that smaller pieces were much easier to handle, and entered this marvel in the fair!
Because of this accidental brilliance, coupled with adolescent courage, I received a Blue Ribbon for my efforts. More important than receiving a blue ribbon, however, was discovering the joy and reward of accident in the act of creation.
Every artist can recount similar moments of surprise and horror that become the strongest elements of an artwork. It’s alchemy at its purest, and is a huge part of what motivates us to create. And, I believe, it is the driving force behind creativity: curiosity motivated by accident and egged on by chutzpah. It’s my contention that ‘The Accident’ is the source of all great works of art, scientific discoveries, heavenly bodies colliding, and genetic mutations — powerful stuff.
Forty years (or so) later, I acknowledge that an accident can also be the beginning of a career. This small success, I have no doubt, set me on the course of becoming a designer and engaging in a lifetime of creative accidents.
Let’s actively encourage these flashes of accidental brilliance by providing the space for our children to experiment with a range of media, from clay to crayons to wood, paper, glue, and metal. The next great accident is waiting for a perfectly wrong combination of materials to collide.
The Arts Empower Us…
The arts provide countless opportunities to bridge diverse cultures and to engage with and enrich our communities. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the arts also enhance learning and increase engagement in the classroom, while providing opportunities to benefit from creative collaboration.
The passion that artists exhibit to unite and uplift through the arts, to protect the environment, and to stimulate and support community engagement, are my inspirations.