Breath of Clarity

Obstacles Fuel Creativity

The typical West African woman radiates an amazing combination of strength and creativity as she walks the streets of Senegal. Balancing a variety of goods on her head, she transports necessities to her family. This invention sparks from the fact that she can’t afford transportation and needs to adapt to those uncontrollable circumstances. The woman is simply problem solving, figuring out a way to alleviate the physical pain of carrying heavy cargo. The most incredible creativity comes from the way that people respond to obstacles. Whether it’s physical burdens or emotional challenges, artists use creativity to improve their lives.

Portraitist Chuck Close (pictured below on the right, courtesy of The Art Story Foundation) is a painter whose career was driven by the setbacks he experienced. First of all, according to Washington Post, Close produced much of his work in an era dominated by photography, so it was difficult to gain respect for his medium. According to The Art Story Foundation, Close suggested that portrait painting is a method for exploring the fact that one’s identity is often a product of constructed fiction. Close utilized a methodical approach to his pieces, making gridded portraits based off of the realistic photographs to attempt to reflect the true identity of the subject. Through this effort of producing work different from the conventional style of the time period, Close eventually achieved a lot of success in the artistic world. In addition, Close also suffered physical setbacks throughout his career. Close suffered from dyslexia and also experienced severe chest pains, which initially paralyzed him from the neck down. According to The Art Story Foundation, during his time in intensive care and rehabilitation, Close produced the painting Alex II (pictured below on the left, courtesy of Washington Post), which was of another painter who had been shot two years before. Instead of defining himself as a victim, Close expressed gratitude for his life. “The photograph itself was not particularly sad,” Close said in an interview with curator Robert Storr, “but the resultant painting ended up expressing the kind of conflicting emotions that I was feeling myself.” Close perceived the grid as a symbol of his analytical processes after the physically painful period. Close produced outstanding work through conquering adversity, making all of his accomplishments even more admirable. According to The Art Foundation, Close suggests that without these hindrances, artists are never tested to perform to their maximum ability. Chuck Close understands that the way artists are affected by obstacles fuels their creativity.

The first month of sophomore year, my parents’ decided to officially split up at the same time that my brother, who was my chief source of support, moved away to college. My innocence was broken, and I was forced to feel things in an entirely new way. Times were tough and I had no other choice but to rely on myself to make it through, day by day. It was difficult to express my pain when I felt as though nobody really wanted to listen. I couldn’t even accurately explain myself due to my confused mental state. I tried various coping strategies, such as exercise and writing, but none of them seemed to work. The most useful method actually developed accidentally. Although I never considered myself to be a talented artist, I decided to produce slideshows of family pictures that were to be deleted from my computer. The pictures were set to a soundtrack of slow songs that seemed to be an accurate representation of my sadness. These final products turned out to be very touching. Those who’ve suffered anything that caused them deep sadness have an advantage as artists because their feelings add depth to their work. The higher the emotional intensity that an artist feels, the more powerful their work will be. Often, the only people who push themselves to achieve their artistic potential are those who are forced to as a method to cope with an overwhelming obstacle.

Documentary photographer James Nactwey also worked to capture struggle and felt the same appreciation for it. However, his greatest obstacle was putting himself in dangerous physical and mental situations in order to capture the awakening sense of realism that the Vietnam War had to offer (James Nachtwey: My Photographs Bear Witness). His life was on the line. Also, the passionate journalist built up a lot of anger watching the Vietnamese people suffer because he had no control over their horrible conditions. According to the article “When the World Turned Its Back: James Nachtwey’s Reflections on the Rwandan Genocide,” Nachtwey captured images from the Rwandan genocide (pictured below, courtesy of In the article, Nachtwey explains his photography from a political perspective. Nachtwey continues to put himself in unsafe situations in order to tell both sides of the story. Nachtwey said in the video, “This man had just been liberated from a Hutu death camp and turned his face towards the light as if he wanted me to see him better. I think he knew what the scars on his face would say to the rest of the world.” Nactwey wanted to give a voice to the individuals who don’t get the opportunity to speak up, and he is willing to deal with the fear that the situations evoke. He believes that photographers are in the position to tell a story from a different perspective than the rest of the media, who try to protect the people by censoring their newscasts. Nactwey said in the Ted Video, James Nachtwey: My Photographs Bear Witness, “Journalists go to the extreme edges of human experience to show people what is going on. Sometimes, they put their lives on the line because they believe that your opinion and influence matter.” Nachtwey’s obstacle forces the artist to reflect on the purpose of his creative profession. He is reminded of this purpose by the fear he feels every time he puts himself in harm’s way in the mane of his art.

Similar to Nachtwey, Photographer Rob Forbes employs realistic images to produce authentic works of art. Forbes differs from Nachtwey in that he creates the obstacle, for himself. Forbes considers himself a “streetwalker” and studies the symbolism in urban design. He challenges himself to find beauty in what already exists without enhancement, and works with the scenery that is provided. For example, as pictured below, Forbes photographed a specific aspect of the construction site because he wanted to capture the meaning behind the foundation of a building. Forbes reflects on his experience of getting the shot, saying, “Approaching a building from a distance, you don’t see too much. When you get a little closer you arrive at a nice little composition. To me, it was a nice example of a still life unintended piece of design. Going closer, you get another perspective”. Forbes implied that if he didn’t create this challenge for himself, he would never be able to look so deeply into the ordinary. Forbes also explained that in order to consistently practice studying this particular design style, he must be very tolerant of the mundane, and that would require a lot of patience. In fact, Forbes noted that it is increasingly more difficult to find designs that reflect preserved culture, but exhilarating to accidently stumble upon those beautiful pieces. Without the obstacle that Forbes creates, it would be difficult for him to establish an identity as an artist and be unique. Obstructions encourage us to make our own definition of creativity.

Obstacles truly impact creative work in multiple ways. However, it is not the obstacle itself that contributes to the art, but instead, it is the way that the artist is affected by and responds to the difficulty. Before this project, I’d always thought that the predominant way that obstacles contribute to creativity is that they broaden our perspectives and encourage a sense of authenticity. However, this assignment has taught me that obstacles can actually become a source of creativity. For example, Chuck Close was able to capture the natural gratitude for being alive, due to his reflections following time spent in rehabilitation. Even non-artists can respond every obstacle with a creative mind, and grow from each experience. Obstacles play the role in our lives of the motivator. Without challenges, we would never find ourselves, which is a necessary ingredient in the production of creative art.