For most of my life I have been interested in why explosions in creative genius occur. Mostly I have been interested in examples like the Renaissance in Italy in the 1400s, the flowering of Greek art during the classical period, the American Renaissance in New England in the mid 1800s, especially around Concord, and smaller explosions such as that which surrounded the founding of Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the mid 1900s. There are other equally important flowerings, if different in flavor and effect, such as the Silicon Valley technology explosion in California or the development of the Indian Institutes of Technology in India in the 1950s. The question is, why do these explosions of creative work occur? They have an enormous impact on human history, thought, inspiration, and even the rise, fall, and mood of nations, but what causes them to happen?
I have been fortunate in my lifetime to have witnessed three explosions of creativity, if not more. I believe I have witnessed genius brewing if not flowering. The most significant of these has been the formation and growing of the tribal college movement, which started with Navajo Community College in 1968 and is still transforming Indian country from Alaska to Michigan to Kansas and Oklahoma today. I have been privileged to work with people like Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, Lionel Bordeaux, Mike Gross, David Gipp, Carty Monette, Carrie Billy, Carol Davis, Verna Fowler, and so many others whose genius managed to help transform hopelessness on the nation’s American Indian Reservations into hope. In a speech given at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s Spring conference held in Green Bay, Wisconsin a few years back I described the founders of the tribal college movement as “giants that have walked on Mother Earth,” and I will honor them during all of my life.
But what I have been thinking a lot about lately is two different flowerings. One occurred when I was much younger in Shawano, Wisconsin. The other is the Zuni Mountain poets and the flowering around the Old School Gallery near the El Morro National Monument in New Mexico. Ethel and I lived in Shawano, where I helped found both the Menominee Indian School District and College of the Menominee Nation, longer than we have lived anywhere else. This is conservative country, home of the notorious Posse Comitatus, a place where Joseph R. McCarthy’s portrait still hangs in the court chambers of the Shawano Country courthouse.
Still, when the Mielke Theatre was built in Mielke Park in 1976, an arts movement developed in the rural part of Wisconsin that was as active as any in the entire state. The development of the movement was anything but smooth. Fighting over use of the theatre and funding and other issues, mostly inconsequential in the retrospect of years past, marred the short period of time when I was President of the Shawano County Arts Council and most of the years before that, but the point is that artists literally came out of the deep woods surrounding Shawano and began showcasing their work to the local area, inducing other artists of various kinds: Writers, visual artists, photographers, theatre people, and others, to create an atmosphere of intense, if conflicted, excitement.
When Ethel and I became involved in the Zuni Mountain poets, driving from our home in Continental Divide, NM nearly an hour and a half most Sundays, poetry group was already a strongly going concern. Held at Inscription Rock Trading Post and Coffee Company’s outdoor patio in the summer and its loft in winter, the group was already writing poetry that rivaled anything being written by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, a major arts organization that Ethel and I had attended off and on for years. There was a little controversy, in a very minor key, surrounding the Zuni Mountain poets, but Jack Carter North, the unofficial head of the group, allows almost no negative comments about a poet’s work shared during meetings, and the result is astounding. Over the years young and poor poets have joined the group, but over time all of them have improved their work, if they kept coming to the meetings over time, without hearing a negative word during their patio or loft visits. I would be willing to claim that several of the poets writing, including Ethel, have a poetic genius.
My conclusion after seeing these three movements and reading about renaissance after renaissance that has occurred around the world, and visiting places like Taos, New Mexico where the renaissance that included artists like Georgia O’Keefe and the writer D.H. Lawrence, among dozens of others, happened is that renaissance occurs when one, or sometimes two or three, extraordinary presences, an artist or non-artist, creates a spark, often, but not always, with intent. That spark excites others and a renaissance starts building, each artist competing and harmonizing with others, the group building genius out of the desire in individuals to be noticed and to mean something in the world. The spark can have all positive aspects, such as in the Zuni Mountain poets example, or may grow out of competition, or may even grow from one artist trying to get the better of other artists, but the result is the same, creativity becomes a fire, and that fire can change the world.
The trick seems to be, whether in a classroom, a community needing economic development, or in a group of poets or artists, to get the original spark going in one or more individuals, then to build the collaboration/competition by providing an environment where conversation, attention, venture capital, and/or dreams of glory can be obtained. Creative fires start small, then build, irregardless of how rural or small or big a community is, until its light outshines the environs where they were born.