Parallel Play by Taylor Tower

I stumbled upon Lynda Barry’s tumblr a few months ago while I was planning a storytelling class. She’s a graphic artist whose work is a mesmerizing mix of collage and comics.  She’s also a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and posts her notes (beautifully illustrated mazes of thought, questions and ideas) on her tumblr, along with fascinating articles like how fiction affects our brains.

I discovered her notes about Creative Concentration and thought I’d test out the theory.

Basically, would watching people make things make me want to make things?

I asked new media artist (and friend) Frances Adair Mckenzie if I could join her in her studio. Pedaling through the plateau, the bustling streets gave way to empty ones lined with boxy concrete condos and towering buildings full of studio space. First I took advantage of the desolation to meow enthusiastically at a stray cat before climbing the front steps and into the elevator that smelled like old paint and dust. Watching the numbers light up to the 10th floor, the soundtrack to my ascent was the eerie drone of classical music over crackling speakers. The smoky voiceover of a French woman announced “dixième étage.” Ding.

Frances Adair Mckenzie in her studio

Frances Adair Mckenzie in her studio

We were joined by the resident bird, an electric green, blue and red parakeet who spent his time perched on an exposed pipe near the ceiling, peering out the window at the city lights.

I settled at the big wood table and took out my notebook. Frances was painting what looked like stuffed pantyhose tied off like sausage links, which she explained were actually internal organs for her next project. The quiet of the studio, the darkness outside, and the rhythm of Frances’ brush got me in a zone, and I managed to scribble down a few promising lines. I explained my project.

“So it’s not like creative concentration in the mind, it’s more like a concentration of creativity in one space,” she said, and laughed. “I like it.”

We weighed the pros and cons of creative collaboration, or just having other people in the room while you work. But having a designated place to work makes a huge difference, and being around someone who is focused and working makes me think, “well she’s doing stuff, so I can do stuff too.” Positive reinforcement.

Another friend of mine calls this practice ‘parallel play’ which I like more, because play is something we don’t do enough as adults.

Sweating through our clothes in the stifling heat, Frances told me about her inspiration, the haunting images she comes across on the BBC, like the Portland, Or woman who climbed into a dead horse as her boyfriend took pictures.

“You’ll never get that out of your head,” she told me, and put the finishing touches on her sausage-link organ. With that image in my head, I wrote a few more lines, and called it a night.