Sunday, January 4, 2009

Staying on track with Twyla

I’ve been thinking about a book I had read a few years ago. It is called The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp. More specifically, I was thinking about “Spine” - a concept she introduces (in chapter 8) to help the creative individual move from inspiration to final product. I wanted to refresh my memory about this concept so I went and pulled out the book and began to read. Twyla explains how Spine is an important foundation in every creative endeavor. She also explains the interaction between her concept of Spine with Theme and Story.

It begins with an inspiration – which is usually your first strong idea. This inspiration is the starting point of your creation regardless of your media: art, music, writing, dance, etc.

Let Inspiration develop into Intentions. What is it that you wish to explore about your inspiration? List everything you think of even if it doesn’t seem to apply at first. Try to clarify the items on the list. This can help you to develop a set of goals for your piece. From this set of goals your Spine, Theme, and Story develop.

Spine is probably the most important part of the developmental stages. Spine keeps you grounded. It is your skeletal frame for the piece. It is the underlying reason your piece came into existence. When you feel lost – go back to Spine to stay on track.

I’m not sure if there is any right order to the process of creating in terms of Spine, Story and Theme. You might already have your Story worked out – but need something to build in on. You may decide to explore certain themes but need to brainstorm about specific ways to give your theme life. However, whether you have Story, Theme, or Spine first, it appears that Spine needs to be well thought out in order for the creative process to be productive. According to Twyla, not all “final products” need to include all three components – although writing seems to be the easiest process in which to include all three. Where Twyla always has Spine to refer back to when creating her dances, she often does not need to include Story. Also, there can be overlap or “double duty” as Twyla puts it – where Spine can also be Story.

Twyla suggests there might be good reasons for keeping Spine hidden from the public. This can be (or perhaps should be) your secret – unless you are prepared to explain the path you took from Spine to your finished product. Where the Spine is usually the hidden piece – the Story is what the audience experiences.

Twyla provides several literary examples that demonstrate the relationship between Spine, Theme and Story:

The Natural by Bernard Malamud

Spine: Search for Holy Grail
Theme: Redemption
Story: Simple Story of Baseball

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Spine: Get the Whale
Theme: Obsession
Story: Get the Whale

In this example, both the Spine and the Story are the same.

West Side Story

Spine: Romeo and Juliet
Theme: Social Issues
Story: Gang Wars on New York City’s West Side

Twyla gives many examples of her own creative process in her choreographed dances – from inspiration to Spine to finished product. In many instances she returns more than once to her original inspiration, intentions, and the Spine of the piece when she feels she’s waivering from it or is getting lost along the way.

My first experience in applying this technique started with a wall calendar I had depicting the work of Elizabeth Catlett. At the time I had this calendar, I was learning to throw clay on a potter’s wheel. I was studying the work of Hans Coper. More specifically I was studying his method of creating sculptural pieces by throwing individual components and then building a sculpture from these components.

I loved Catlett’s piece in the calendar titled “Sharecropper.” It is a wood cutting portrait of a weathered black woman. I was particularly drawn to the tilt of the woman’s head, the angle at which we are shown her features, the space the brim of her hat creates below her brow, and the set of her shoulders. This woman haunted me. It started me thinking about what can be shown about a person by the set of their shoulders and the tilt of their head.

Catlett’s Sharecropper 1952

It became my inspiration to create a bust from throwing the individual components on a wheel and combining them to form a head, neck, and shoulders. So my Spine became what could be demonstrated by the set of shoulders and tilt of head.

I threw some deep and narrow bowls (like hyperbolas). Then I threw some open cylinders (no bottoms) of various sizes for shoulders and necks. The bowls came together to form the head. The narrow cylinders became the neck. I tried to form shoulders from the larger cylinders – but it didn’t work for me. I went back to my Spine – and my original intention – but could not make these pieces work with a set of shoulders. However, what I discovered was that I could alter the angle of both the bottom and the top of the neck cylinder – so the set of the shoulders are subtly implied by the way the pieces sit on a flat surface. Here are my two most successful attempts to date:

I’m still considering these prototypes. I need to experiment more with this technique – as I want more dramatic results. These pieces were fired in a wood-fire kiln for about 8 hours. I did not put any glaze on them. I was hoping for a toastier color.

Since then I’ve been working on several painting ideas using the same Spine. One of the early scenes in the movie “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows a group of men sitting around a camp fire. I had to pause the DVD just so I could study the set of each man’s shoulders – and what it revealed about each character – and each man’s character within. There’s my next painting.


  1. I absolutely love your pottery pieces - are they for sale?

  2. Hi Anon:

    No - these are not for sale. They are just my first crude attempts as I experiment more with Coper's technique. I do hope to show my stuff within the next year though...