Lorne M. Buchman
Courtesy Art Center College of Design

What Roles Do Our Bodies Play in the Creative Process?

Lorne M. Buchman, president of Art Center College of Design, discusses how physical encounters lend themselves to imagination in his new book, “Make to Know.”
By Michelle Erdenesanaa
October 26, 2021
6 minute read

For Lorne M. Buchman, president of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, the creative process rarely consists of an “ah-ha” moment. Rather, it’s a slow, ambiguous, often improvised affair that involves a continual rediscovery of oneself. Innovators including Yves Béhar, Paula Scher, and Frank Gehry, as well as companies such as Apple and Tesla, attest to such experiences in Buchman’s new book, Make to Know: From Spaces of Uncertainty to Creative Discovery (Thames & Hudson), as archetypes that demonstrate the value of embracing the unknown as a way to unleash new ideas.

Buchman is no stranger to his subject: A trained theater director and scholar, he previously served as president of Saybrook University and, later, California College of the Arts, and, as part of his work at Arts Center (which, after 13 years, he’ll conclude in 2022), he hosts the podcast Change Lab, for which he interviews leading artistic practitioners. Given Buchman’s extensive contact with and observation of creative people who work with their hands, we wanted to learn more about his perspective on the roles that the human body can play in the ideation process, and recently asked him to elaborate on the topic. Here, he discusses how various physical encounters—with materials, spaces, and ourselves—lend themselves to imagination.

What role does touch play in the creative process?

Touch is an engagement that’s part of making. It involves setting up a physical space in which to explore, to make, to improvise, to discover. It’s about the actual. Some of the artists I’ve spoken to talk about touch as their way into a project: the feeling of the pencil on paper, the feeling and the experience of the paint, and of the canvas. It’s this [tactile] engagement with material that gets them into a world that’s unknown and uncertain, but filled with possibility.

Can you give a specific example of that happening?

One that comes to mind is the neutral mask, [an expressionless face covering] used at a clown training school in Paris, called École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, that I talk about in the last chapter of the book. What does this “neutral” mask do? It’s a feeling. It’s a touch of this artifact on the face that blocks out facial expressions, and that simultaneously blocks out any kind of speech. The idea is, you take those things away, and it opens up a discovery of the body and what the body knows. It’s fascinating to think about this feeling of the mask as touch, the experience of the mask on the face, and how it actually frees something else. It changes who [the wearer] is, and allows them to have access to something through this particular kind of making process that they never would be able to have access to otherwise.

The mask also provides a kind of context, or frame. Discovery and improvisation can’t come out of nowhere. It needs something to hold it. Not to determine it, but to hold it so that the breeze can blow through, and discovery can transpire.

Do you think this kind of discovery can take place without an external object or material, and within our bodies themselves?

The human body is a reservoir of discovery. It can be a way into this world of uncertainty and the unknown that I find to be so filled with possibility. The artist Ann Hamilton, for example, often talks about her stomach, and how she can’t do an installation without feeling her body in a given space. She can’t really know what it is that she wants to do unless she gets a sense in her stomach, or feels compelled by an ache in her belly, to move forward into something. That physical sensation guides, opens, and confirms—it’s when a recognition, a word she uses quite a lot, takes place.

It also does something else. I learned this from a few artists, but Ann Hamilton is really clear about it: In the creative process, you almost have to eclipse, or overcome, intention. Because if you’re always focused on manifesting a vision, the work becomes about the intention. So the body can lead in a different way, and not narrow the possibilities, but open them.

What physical habits or ceremonies help you when you’re creating something?

A lot of people say, “I thought of the idea in the shower,” which is its own kind of touch. And man, I do—my ideas come in the shower. I just need to make sure I have a pen or pencil and a pad of paper on the counter when I get out—typically soaking wet—to make sure I can grab it and [write everything down]. That’s one way.

Another is stopping the focus and opening up another place in my being, in my body, in my brain, to allow something else to come in. I’ve had ideas or thoughts come to me through dreams. People also talk about ideas coming to them when they’re driving, riding their bikes, or doing the dishes. These are all interesting ways of touching, experiencing, and moving the body and space that trigger and allow us to find things. So the creative act is something that happens over a wide spectrum of activities, and is not in any way limited to the studio or the rehearsal hall.

It sounds like you’re suggesting that even the most mundane acts—things that all of us do—can be seen as catalysts for creativity.

All the motions that we’re talking about shouldn’t be limited simply to “artists” or “designers.” They’re relevant for everyone. The idea of living our lives as a making, as opposed to manifesting an already-created vision—there’s a freedom there. A way of nourishing our souls, and of opening ourselves up to growing and learning constantly.