What Being a PhD Student Taught Me about ‘Being Creative’: Reflections from a Former Artist

I met Sara Schumacher back when she was still an artist, before academic study lured her into Scotland’s cold reaches. She is one of the masterminds behind Transpositions, a whole website of rich resources on precisely this topic: Christianity and Creativity. She is not only a practitioner but an expert in this area, and I am honoured to have her here. Listen closely to her insights – they are gold:

My current identity as a PhD student might, at first glance, make me an unlikely contributor to a series on Creativity and Christianity. Surely the tediousness of minute differences between concepts that only excite the researcher together with academia’s headiness, required output of words and logic-driven nature of argument means that being an academic is a far cry from the creative process of an artist. This is something that I assumed when I started a PhD, resulting in a great deal of insecurity as I ventured into the unknown world of academic life. Reality has taught me differently and challenged my understanding of what it means to be a Christian and creative. But all that is to come. Let me start with a bit of background.

I grew up doing art. Deciding to major in graphic design at university, my gifts of artistic creativity were developed and I confidently entered the world as a professional graphic designer, using my gifts in studio, corporate and ministry settings. While my skills developed as my experience grew, there was one thing that never really changed – the mystery of the creative idea. In my graphic design days, I’d get a brief or have a team meeting, aware of what needed to be done, and then I’d return to my blank screen or blank paper and stare. At that point, while the skills were there, I wrestled with the process of coming up with something new that served the needs of the client. There was no tap to turn on out of which creativity and ideas would flow. While walks, visits to museums, or time in a cafe might create an environment for inspiration, there was great mystery in where the idea eventually came from. And that mystery was scary as it was not something that I could control.
As a professional designer, I had to learn to push through the fear with the simple act of starting, trusting that as I worked, the ideas would flow. This was undergirded with prayer for God’s inspiration, acknowledging that He is the one on whom the artist is dependent. However, there was always a tension between relying only on my skills and experience (a reliance that would produce suitable work in most cases but honestly was usually the lazy option) and labouring with God’s Spirit for truly creative ideas (exhausting but rewarding work).

Now, I am working on a PhD. Rather than Photoshop and InDesign, my computer now only opens Word and Endnote. My medium has shifted from image to words, crafted into arguments that must be sustained over many pages. I have had to learn how to use logic and how to identify when another’s argument does not follow or contradicts itself. My days are spent reading, writing, and thinking; the closest I get to creating ‘art’ is the random doodle while listening to a lecture.
And yet, I find myself in a highly creative and constructive process that is much more challenging than when I was working as an ‘artist’. The vast blankness of the slate before me sends me daily to my knees: ‘God, what do you want me to see in these arguments? Lord, how does this concept relate to your view of reality? Lord, how do I untangle the mess of these ideas in light of Truth? Spirit, help.’ At times, the wrestling with the unknown has been almost visceral as I seek to construct the right words around disparate concepts, leaving me exhausted as the idea is finally out of my head and onto paper. Perhaps even more so than when I was working as an artist, the idea is deeply personal and requires that I learn to view criticism (and the failure of an idea) as a conduit for better and more robust future ideas.
Even though I am not working as an artist, I am still a creative person; what has changed is my medium and output. As I have reflected on these two iterations of my creative nature, I have come to this realisation, pertinent to this theme of Creativity and Christianity: All humans are creative and being an artist is only one expression of human creativity. 
While this might seem an obvious statement, implications of this mean that, when talking about creativity, we need to be careful not to make creativity and artistry the same thing. If we make artistry an expression of creativity rather than synonymous with creativity, the result is that there are no ‘uncreative’ fields and ‘uncreative’ persons. As humans, we are all wrestling to create, construct, and contribute to this world that God has put us in. As well, it means that we have a lot to learn from how other vocations wrestle with and display creativity. While I do not mean to diminish the artist, I also want to prevent elevating the artist to a station that he/she was never meant to have. As artists (or PhD students), we are called to serve the Church and encourage the multivalent creativity God has put within humanity created in his image. How, as artists, can we encourage the creativity in others? How might we open ourselves up to share our struggles and successes, encouraging others to greater depths of creativity in their own God-given vocations?

Sara Schumacher Sara Schumacher worked as a graphic designer in Oxford before pursuing postgraduate studiesin art and theology at the University of St Andrews. Currently a PhD candidate researching contemporary church patronage of the arts, she is also Editor-in-Chief of Transpositions, an award-winning blog about art and Christian theology.

Over to you:

  • How do you feel about Sara’s words, ‘All humans are creative and being an artist is only one expression of human creativity’?
  • Have you experienced your studies/academic work as being worshipful and creative?

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2 Responses to What Being a PhD Student Taught Me about ‘Being Creative’: Reflections from a Former Artist

  1. Sophorn 3rd September, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Sara, I agree with your points that creativity comes in many form. I think that being creative and having the talent to put that creative thought into something into something we can see and(or) touch is two separate things. I know of many artists that have the talent, but lack creativity. Given some creative instruction, this artist can draw anything.

  2. Mark Allman 4th July, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

    Great points. I think that the Creator instilled in us creativity and I agree that expressing that can be in numerous ways and one creative way should not be held above others. I enjoy viewing great works of art; listening to great music but I also admire the person who uses his talents and creativity to perhaps write upon someone’s heart and show them a life they never knew. I do think when we see greatness in any field of endeavor that we have this desire to be great or to know the greatness. Some of the most creative people I know go unnoticed because the things they are good at are not recognized as being creative. I know people who can wade into chaos and create calm; people who see problems in a way no one else can and can help to solve those problems; people who can reach into others souls and heal them with kindness and encouragement; people who make others better people just by interacting with them and those few who change the dynamics of everything they are involved in by their presence. While those things are not considered the arts I admire those people for what they create and in my mind they should be held in the same esteem as creators of the arts and their creativity should be acknowledged.

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