From the Archives – Exploring Imagination: Catching the Big Fish

It’s really fun to ask children about something they have created. They deliver amazing stories and explanations about what they see in a drawing or a lump of clay. They effortlessly craft fantastic stories. Children see things differently and often see things the way they want them to be. They love activities that allow them to pretend. Ask a child to be a tree, a house, an animal, or an inanimate object. Without a second thought, they just do it.

As a young child, I remember coming home from school with a three-dimensional creation from art class. I thought my creation was spectacular. It was a dog with an intense yellow body, green spots, and three legs. I also remember laughter as I presented the dog to my mother. I told her rather indignantly that it was a surrealistic dog. My mother was  more impressed with my vocabulary than the fantastic creation.

Even though my mother didn’t appear to appreciate it, that dog sat on top of a metal  cabinet in our basement for years. Other things were tossed but somehow the dog survived. I wonder if in some way it stood out from all the other crafts my sister and I brought home.

For the last 30 years, I have collected art from professional artists, but I continue to display many of the pieces my children created years ago. Each piece reflects their curiosity, perception, and imagination when they were young enough to be unencumbered by the fear of lacking skill. That’s what makes the pieces interesting, and at times, humorous.

Why has the work of so many modern artists suggested the expressive freedom of children? In 1945, painter Jean Dubuffet, incensed by public outrage at his work, responded by saying “I own a portrait done by an eight-year-old, one eye is red, the other is yellow, and the cheeks are royal blue. People praise the painting for its whimsy and enchantment but if I add a whim of my own, I am told: ‘You have no right, you are no longer a child.’”

JoEllen Florio Rossebo, president and CEO of Young Audiences Indiana. Photo by Mark Lee

JoEllen Florio Rossebo, president and CEO of Young Audiences Indiana. Photo by Mark Lee

Do we lose the ability to imagine and disregard its value as we mature? It’s interesting that after relegating the power of imagination to “artists,” more and more people understand that it’s one of the most valuable abilities that we can possess at work and in everyday life.

Sought-after authors and futurists such as Daniel Pink and Sir Ken Robinson focus on the importance of creativity, innovation, and imagination to prepare us for a globally competitive future. Even a recent Shell Oil Company television commercial touted the company’s employment of creative researchers who can envision new products for improved efficiency and air quality.

There’s a growing body of evidence in the fields of art and education that recognizes the importance of building the capacity for imagination through the curriculum. A new study by Lake Research Partners titled “Imagination Nation” shows growing public support for such programs. Imagination is an inextricable part of a good education.

I don’t think of imagination as something I can pull out when I need it. It’s more about the absence of all the junk that clutters my thought process. Imagination is the ability to clear away the junk and allow natural connections to surface. Connections from my life experience: walking in a forest, reading a book, listening to music, or manipulating cold, wet clay.

I often think about a wonderful poet and teacher, Sandy Lyne, who presented at a Young Audiences Institute for Artful Teaching in 2005. Sandy was talking about teaching children to write poetry. He used the metaphor of fishing to describe the creative process. Words and ideas are always there. We have to fish for them. Sometimes we catch a boot, but more often than not, we catch the words and phrases that capture our meaning—big fish!

What do I imagine now? How does the very kernel of an idea begin to grow? What will the garden look like this year? How do I solve a problem at work? A new system, a new thought, a new way of behaving, a new way to envision the world: anything I work toward is a product of my imagination.

JoEllen Florio Rossebo is president and CEO of Young Audiences of Indiana.

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From the archives: Frank Basile “Achieving What I Imagined”

It’s not an overstatement to say that imagination changed my life. Over time, I became  convinced that if I could imagine it, believe it, think it, want it, I could achieve it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and our character.”

While growing up poor in New Orleans, I would imagine having money to do all the things my five sisters and I couldn’t, like attending arts and cultural events—though I had only a vague idea of what those were. Being poor wasn’t the only issue—art and culture simply were not on our radar.

Since we took no family trips or vacations with the exception of visiting nearby relatives, I imagined traveling to far off lands like New York and China.

Virtually tongue-tied when called upon to speak in class, I imagined speaking in front of an audience and actually being applauded. As a boy, it was my job to watch my dad’s fruit stand. Since there weren’t a lot of customers, I relied on my imagination for entertainment. Little did I know that these daydreams, as my mother called them, would take seed. Through the years, I gradually accomplished or became much of what I had imagined, experiencing many ups and downs along the way.

I enjoyed the challenges that came with having to make things happen for myself, and the resulting self-confidence and feeling of accomplishment. I believe meeting these challenges helped in my personal growth. Those who don’t have to fend for themselves frequently miss out on the struggle and the thrill of overcoming.

I vividly recall being told by the principal of the Catholic high school I attended that my tuition was overdue, then learning from my sobbing mother that my dad had gambled away the tuition money she had given him to take to the school on his way to the market.

There was not time to brood. I drove our old pickup truck to the farmers’ market near the French Quarter, got a load of watermelons from a farmer on consignment and sold every one of them by the side of the road at my uncle’s farm just outside of New Orleans. I had earned my own way and was able to pay the tuition the next day. That was not only a thrilling accomplishment, but the beginning of the realization that I was the master of my fate.

Imagination is important to success, but it’s only the beginning. Realizing one’s dreams requires focus, determination, and drive, with a little help from others along the way—like the Christian brother at De La Salle High School who saw how frightened and incapacitated I became when it was my turn to speak or read in class. He convinced me that the only way to overcome something I feared was to do it. He cajoled me into joining the debate team. That was a defining moment in my life, without which I would never have become a professional speaker or succeeded in other areas in which the ability to communicate is important.

Although I imagined having money, I recall that it was not for the sake of being rich or to own a big house, like those in the Garden District of my hometown, or to drive an expensive car. I wanted to be able to live comfortably and enjoy experiences like travel while having enough left over to help other people.

My wife, Katrina, and I are happy living in a modest condo, driving a 2001 car, wearing  bildeoff-the-rack clothes and dining at moderately priced restaurants, with our one extravagance being travel. But our greatest joy comes from philanthropy, especially being able to give a boost to talented individuals to help them achieve their own dreams. Gloria Steinem said, “It’s more rewarding to watch money change the world than to watch it accumulate.”

My early experience growing up with my imagination keeping me company also helped shape my life-long personal mission, which is to help others grow and reach their potential. For about 30 years, I tried to do this through writing books and articles and giving speeches and seminars, most of which were motivational in nature. Most recently, I’m trying to do this through philanthropy and volunteer work with nonprofit organizations.

But it all started with an over-active imagination while minding the fruit stand.

 

Frank Basile is a professional speaker, author, philanthropist, community volunteer, and retired business executive.

Grab your sword and tiara – it’s time to play pretend!

My sister in neighbor’s dogwood tree. Photo Courtesy: Donald Blake.

My sister in neighbor’s dogwood tree. Photo Courtesy: Donald Blake.

Grab your sword and tiara – it’s time to play pretend!

By Ruth Hinkle, Spirit & Place Festival Intern

Imagine a dark night where the stars provide the only light. Three heroes sneak out of their fortress to hunt for food while the villains are sleeping. Suddenly, a twig snaps and the villains are awake! The heroes make a run for it and gasping for breath they make it the entrance of the fortress and crash into the gigantic pile of pillows. The lights in the room are turned off and only the Christmas lights remain. The corner is the perfect spot for a pillow fort and keeps its occupants well protected from any invisible evil doers.

I was one of those kids with a crazy imagination. Absolutely nothing was impossible or unimaginable. My rocket ship, house, secret lair and construction machine doubled as the neighbors’ dogwood tree. My stuffed animals had a system of government over which dogs usually presided. I had imaginary friends so convincing that a neighbor actually believed I had a younger brother.

As the Spirit & Place team started talking about this year’s theme, Play, I started thinking about that little girl. What happened to her? From an imaginative young child, I turned into a fantasy novel reading preteen. By the time high school came to a close, I was much more grounded in the reality of my every day experiences. And fantasy didn’t have much of a place in my life.

Until a four year old and a five year old reminded me that playing pretend is the best of games. While their parents practice singing, the choir kids and I fight off villains from the safety of our mighty pillow fortress. Sometimes we are the three little pigs running from the big bad wolf. Sometimes we are a sleepy family hiding from the monstrous bears that inhabit the hallways. When we aren’t on great quests, we can be found drawing with crayons and chalk or playing hide and seek.

Now, through our research on Play, I’m learning that playing pretend is crucial for childhood development.  It helps kids develop something called executive function which helps  them make decisions, solve problems, learn language skills, and be innovative thinkers!

I’m sure five year old Ruth would not be surprised. When’s the last time you got to play pretend?