The networks of creativity
I got to be part of a wildly creative scenius of several dozen families who homeschooled our kids back in the 90s and 2010s in a town in NC that had a great public school system. The reason this group of folks decided to homeschool was just simply because we wanted to spend more time with our kids as they grew up. And we all homeschooled in different ways, different philosophies (unschooling was common). Thursdays we would meet at a rotating local park all day. There was absolutely no agenda. The kids would play while we parents hung out together in a big circle of lawn chairs. A lot of the parents were writers and artists. We just hung out and sketched or talked or knitted. It was very relaxed and sort of tribal. The only requirement to be part of the group: Kindness. In fact, the group couldn’t even define itself-- we called ourselves “a fluid possibility.” The ideas that came from that scenius were endlessly creative. One 10 year old girl organized a big group of other kids to put on full Shakespeare plays every summer. Bands formed and still exist. When kind, creative people get together, something great it’s bound to happen. It’s inevitable like a virus or a snowflake, things just start sticking together.
tbh i have had a challenging time finding my scenius, finding any scenius - i live in hamilton ontario canada and there is the "cool kids" art group who have a thin outer shell of welcome hiding a concrete bunker of you can't play with us and a bunch of lone spirits (of which i am one) that occasionally bump off each other randomly but are yet to congeal into a mass (woo boy this is a mess of words but i hope someone will understand) - i crave a scenius and before anyone suggests i start a group i have tried that and honestly i need help and cannot manage this alone :(
If you follow trends in modern quilting closely on Instagram (home to many online scenes and communities and social imaginaries), it’s pretty easy to see where they begin and how quickly they get disseminated through the modern quilt world. My guess if you wanted to, you could make maps of how modern quilting ideas/trends/patterns travel and at what speed. Sometimes a new trend begins with a popular teacher who travels (or Zooms) across the country to teach her newest technique or pattern; other times, they begin in the minds of iconoclastic artist-quilters. What fascinates me the most is when you start seeing something new, but it’s coming from different, seemingly unconnected people. The source isn’t just one person (it never is, really); it’s multiple people coming up with similar ideas/approaches around the same time, often completely independently of one another.
Since it’s 2023, the Unofficial Year of the Fungi, I don’t think we should pass up the opportunity to play with the analogy of mycorrhizal networks. I’m only beginning to learn about this stuff myself (I recently made a new friend who’s a mycologist, and I’m downstream from a lot of interesting ideas these days), so I can’t claim any great expertise, but it does seem to me that there are a lot of interesting scenius analogies to play with. Look at these descriptions/definitions of mycorrihizal from Wikipedia:
A mycorrhizal network is an underground network found in forests and other plant communities, created by the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi joining with plant roots. This network connects individual plants together.
Mycorrhizal relationships are most commonly mutualistic, with both partners benefiting, but can be commensal or parasitic, and a single partnership may change between any of the three types of symbiosis at different times.
The formation and nature of these networks is context-dependent, and can be influenced by factors such as soil fertility, resource availability, host or mycosymbiont genotype, disturbance and seasonal variation. Both plants and fungi associate with multiple symbiotic partners at once, and both plants and fungi are capable of preferentially allocating resources to one partner over another.
I’ll leave you with that, plus one more thing about scenes: As an older Generation X’er, I have a great nostalgia for the music scenes of my youth, including 6th Street in Austin, Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, and the whole thing going on in Athens, GA, back in the day. Oh, and Minneapolis! We can’t forget Minneapolis.
Good to read all of the comments so far. I tend to do a lot of work alone. I get overwhelmed by even moderate-sized groups of people. At the same time, I have made connections with other individuals. My friend Julia is someone I met in a letterpress class, and we were later in a paper making class together. We both follow Wendy MacNaughton's Grown Up Table. We've been texting images of our work back and forth and are going to meet in person in Chicago on the 16th. Have connected with another woman who follows both Wendy and Austin. We email images back and forth. Am taking a letterpress class and joined the Print Club. This is huge for me--a club?! I look at it as "playing well with others." Expect that this will stretch me a bit. Most of the others are way younger than I am and are in a graphic design program. I'm just doing it for fun. There are a couple people in the actual class with whom I connect (could I come up with a different word?) We share opinions and advice. Have a few other friends who are "co-appreciaters."
Great post! I found myself nodding in agreement to this paragraph: "Creativity is about connection—you must be connected to others in order to be inspired and share your own work—but it is also about disconnection. You must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others. You must play a little hide-and-seek in order to produce something worth being found."
In considering Scenius, I am reminded of a sketch group I belonged to that met every week. One night, someone suggested that we each start a sketch, work for about 10 minutes, and then rotate around the room, working on each others’ drawings. At first, it was like pulling teeth to let go of the original drawing. Of course you want to show your perfect self on the page! But it became a fun and amazing experience as drawings were transformed, information shared, and we got to know each other on a deeper level.
The Romantic poets are a favorite of mine. I was so delighted, way back, when I learned they were all friends! Here’s another great book for your list: Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. So much creative energy in that group!
The thing that gives me pause when I think about this stuff is that there's a fine line between a "scene" and a "clique" especially on a small scale, though not exclusively. The best scenius is a welcoming, open one. However, I think there's something to the notion of there being something special about the group - perhaps a barrier to entry, that's important, too. You can't just wander in off the street and be a part of the party, you must participate and contribute, too.
WhAt a great post Austin. I meet with a sketch group every Monday, Urban. Sketchers twice a month and Nature journaling group once a month and a sketch group twice a month. Those are examples of senius for me and it’s exactly as you described because through casual conversation and showing our work we get to see new ideas, new tools and new techniques. Not to mention the inspiration!
Austin, I often have trouble coming up with the right words to properly add the right emotions to most of the awesome information and insight you share with us each week. So yeah, this newsletter, for me is a great example of what “Scenius” has become to me. Over the last few years, I have felt such a connectedness to many of the artists that have come and gone long before us. You know, those legacies of some of the ordinary people who cast aside fear and allowed history to plug their names into eternal neon lighting for all of us to enjoy... forever! I have mentioned in the past about visiting museums these days with an incredible feeling of presence that I am actually walking the halls with these same folks. I was in New Mexico last year and felt such a connection to Georgia O’Keeffe, it was somewhat haunting but in a good way. Each of us is a rookie at the start of our journey, wherever that journey is taking us. I am rapidly finding out that “shrinking” my world by subtracting rather than adding to it, has literally opened the doors of limitless possibilities with the kind of people and creative ideas that actually belong on your tribe! Thank you friend!
My favourite story is about the old NFB building in Montreal. There’s a great little oral history reflecting on the building shutting down and the swanky new building downtown that everyone knows won’t be able to hold the same magic. https://www.cartoonbrew.com/studios/nfbs-montreal-studio-remembered-filmmakers-and-studio-employees-on-buildings-legacy-171972.html The stories are all about how a terrible building in a terrible location with all the right people, with space to work made interesting things.
More recent discoveries than favorite scenius, but I just received that book that looks fantastic, about the Folly Cove Designers. It's a mid-20th-century group of American artists block printing from Gloucester, Massachusetts: https://bookshop.org/p/books/trailblazing-women-printmakers-virginia-lee-burton-demetrios-and-the-folly-cove-designers-elena-m-sarni/19811101?ean=9781797224282
I had also bought Anni Albers' book On Weaving when Austin first mentioned it in a newsletter (thank you!) and have since taken a fantastic gel printing class where she was one of the many artists used as inspiration, so I've been following the Albers trail to Black Mountain College and was in awe to discover all the people who were there at the same time. I borrowed books about BMC specifically, and have this one on pre-order I'm quite excited about: https://bookshop.org/p/books/weaving-at-black-mountain-college-anni-albers-trude-guermonprez-and-their-students-julie-j-thomson/19968754?ean=9780300273564
I have a WhatsApp group with a few friends, an artist, an animator, a film editor. What is great is that they’re not just talking, but also doing. They’re constantly making things, churning out ideas, art, films, explorations - so you have no option but to do, and keep up your end! Here’s mine over this weekend https://www.instagram.com/p/Cw_5rTfyQCaX4_XzWA9QW2AoXhPoaylLOidyb00/?img_index=3
Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years by Robert Dean Lurie is a great book example on scenius, especially in the geographical areas of Athens, GA, but also expanding into North Carolina. I found a bunch of great new bands to check out when reading.
Scenius is, in one sense, about connected learning, the model of learning I study in my research. I actually need to get to work on said research now but I have a page about connected learning on my website here: https://kimberlyhirsh.com/connected-learning/
1. This might be a mega-scenius but I find the Chelsea Hotel utterly fascinating. INSIDE THE DREAM PALACE by Sherill Tippins is a great history of it. I generally associated it with Warhol and the NYC punk scene but I never knew the literary roots were extensive as well. Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur C. Clarke, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Kerouac, Burroughs, Brendan Behan, and quite a few more stayed there at times. It's also pretty amazing that it was *intended* to be a scenius at its founding in 1884!
(Side note: over the moon excited for this NYC Birth of Punk walking tour I'll be doing next month!)
2. It's more of the diagramming of scenius but Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees are amazing and were essential reference in pre-web days. (No convenient link but if you google it and click on the Images tab, you'll get the idea.)
3. Dada had quite a few strong city scenes, right?