The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf

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The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf

Shannon Bickford

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf What is the experience of creativity? Kurt Vonnegut, American writer and author of Slaughterhouse-Five, once responded to an invitation to visit a high school classroom. While he did not visit the class in person, he did give them an assignment. He told them to write a short poem, with care and effort, but then to, “Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces,” without sharing it or telling anybody about it. After doing so, he claimed, “…you have already been gloriously rewarded…. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside of you, and you’ve made your soul grow.”1 Vonnegut gifts us with an essential experience of creativity. By excluding another’s judgment, acknowledgment, and any continuity of our poem, he distills it to an essential experience. It begs the question, what is creativity? Where does it come from? What does it do? What is the experience of creativity?

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf What is the experience of creativity? (cont.) The study of creativity has benefitted from new ways of peering into that most complex of organs— our brain. What we find in the buzzing networks of billions of neurons with trillions of connections tells us that creativity is born of our memories. We remember and imagine, making associations and linking ideas in a new way.2 Studies suggest a network of neurons acting together creates new ideas derived from unexpected associations. This idea generation is marked by flexibility, less judgment and less dependency on the familiar. The creative brain then hands the task to another network to evaluate and implement our ideas. Moreover, when not indulged in the creative endeavor, these two networks typically work in opposition to each other (when one is on, the other is off). But in the creative thinker, they work more flexibly, in concert, to develop and implement novel and useful ideas. These models of creativity are important because they support creativity as a basic and pervasive human endeavor and recognize the potential for creative thought in everyone.3

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf What is the experience of creativity? (cont.) To consider creativity as a play between flexible associations and more focused modes of thought, while intriguing, still seems distant from the soulful and insightful experience Vonnegut describes. Looking at what innovators do, rather than peering into their brain, may bring us closer. Graham Wallas, an English psychologist, sought to portray the creative experience in stages: exploration, incubation, illumination, and implementation.4 The illumination stage is the “ah-ha” stage and is characterized by a burst of insight and emotion. Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and analytical psychologist, felt creativity and innovation were often expressed as metaphor, the means by which the unconscious communicates with the conscious, often in dreams.5. Creativity described in stages, metaphors, and dreams comes closer to Vonnegut’s experience, but creativity is more complex than can be portrayed by one theory or another.

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf What is the experience of creativity? (cont.)

If I look at my own experience as a visual artist, and interviews and encounters with many incredible art makers, I suspect there are as many ways artists see their experience as there are artists.6 Novelty, after all, doesn’t predict one way of thinking. So how do we learn about the experience of creativity? One way is to ask the artist, for whom the spigot of creativity is turned on full blast. To that end I have interviewed Valerie Runningwolf, a mixed media visual artist from the Central Valley of California.

The Art of Valerie Runningwolf

The Kiss Acrylic 24” x 18”

• Runningwolf strolled for years over the concrete walkways of a local college campus which bore the cracks and crevices from years of weather and footfall. Then one day they captured her. “I began seeing the lines and the cracks forming faces, images, compositions, and designs.” She adds, “It was if they were calling out to me to be noticed.” She began documenting the worn concrete with photographs, which, in turn, evolved into paintings.

Valerie Runningwolf

Dance Into the Light Acrylic 24” x 18” (Detail)

• For this series Runningwolf begins with a photograph of the cracks in the concrete, but is not bound to it. She adds to it or takes from it as needed. She emphasizes that her most successful work results not from directing the process, but from becoming part of the process, part of the flow.

Valerie Runningwolf

Connections Acrylic 24” x 18”

• When she makes art, it takes Runningwolf to a different place. “It's the only thing I'm thinking about,” she says. She starts with an idea but then, "allows the process to take over."

Valerie Runningwolf

Coming Together Mixed Media 24” x 18”

• Part of the flow of a series consists of experimentation in different directions. In this image Runningwolf explored the use of texture to support her image.

Valerie Runningwolf

Heartbeat Acrylic 18” x 24”

• Runningwolf says, “The most valued art education I received has been from working with children who have taught me to be honest, brave, and bold. To be able to express through art without fear or judgement.”

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf Final thoughts

Runningwolf offers us a glimpse of her mindful creative experience. She takes the mundane and unnoticed cracks in the concrete and, by her own words, with the directness and honesty of a child, turns them into engaging compositions of line, color, and shape. There is another experience to consider here—that of the viewer. Again, there are likely as many viewer experiences as there are viewers, so I will offer mine. I find these images reminiscent of stained glass windows or patterns on a butterfly wing. As such, they are gentle reminders to pay attention to our world. In doing so, we may be so fortunate to find something calling out to us, offering us the opportunity to grow our soul!

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf References 1.

Klein, R. (3/14/14, updated 12/6/17). Kurt Vonnegut Once Sent This Amazing Letter To A High School.


Gabora, L. (2010). Revenge of the ‘Neurds’: Characterizing creative thought in terms of the structure and dynamics of memory. Creativity Research Journal, 22(1), 1-13.


Beaty R. E., Kenett, Y. N., Christensen, A. P., Rosenberg, M. D., Benedek, M., Chen, Q., Fink, A., Qiu, J., Kwapil, T. R., Kane, M. J., Silvia, P. J. (2018). Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. PNAS, 115(5), 1087-1092.


Kozbelt, A., Beghetto, R. A., Runco, M. A. (2010). Theories of creativity. In J. C. Kaufman and R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity (pp. 20-47). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


Jung, C. G. (1968) Approaching the unconscious. In C. G. Jung and M.-L. von Franz (Eds.), Man and His Symbols, (Part 1), Dell Publishing.


Bickford, S. (1998). An Ethnographic Study of Seven Visual Artists. Master’s Thesis, School of Natural Sciences, California State University, Fresno. Fresno, CA.

The Experience of Creativity and the Art of Valerie Runningwolf Contact information: Valerie Runningwolf Website:

Shannon Bickford Website:

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