From Unexpected Places

Questlove’s book Creative Quest is a fascinating read. It’s a book about creativity, but it’s not a “successful creative person tells you how to be like him” type of book. It’s written in a very conversational style, almost like Questlove is talking through his creative process as a way of trying to understand it himself. And unlike a lot of books about being creative, Creative Quest is presented in plain black and white – no photos, no coloured fonts, no decorations, and, apart from one small box of text at the end of each chapter, no sidebars jammed full of handy tips and tricks. I really appreciated this approach because it didn’t pull your attention in ten different directions at once. It made you focus on what was being discussed.

I don’t know Questlove’s work all that well – I’ll explain how I came to the book in a minute – but I was impressed at his wide range of interests. That he’s into so many different things may not be a surprise to someone who follows his career more closely than I do, but he knows and values a lot of different kinds of artistry. One of the creative ideas that works for him and that he suggests in the book is to push your boundaries: to seek out work that you usually avoid. If you like punk music, go look at classical paintings in an art gallery. If you like classical paintings, go to a movie in a mall cineplex. You might not enjoy all of the experience, but you might find something that makes you think differently about the world, or that sparks a creative idea for yourself.

Questlove also discusses the synergies of connectivity in creative work – finding something you like and then using that as a direction to discover something more. The diagram on the book’s cover – a depiction of a Rube Goldberg-inspired device that he actually had built – is a visual depiction of how a change in one thing can trigger something somewhere else to move, and how one idea can lead to another.

It was this kind of interconnectedness that led to me picking up Creative Quest. I love Stephen Colbert’s work, and one of his TV specials had John Legend as a guest. In 2010 Questlove’s band, the Roots, did an album with Legend that featured covers of songs I remembered from the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I saw that album in a record store, I thought, “Hmm, John Legend did that great song on the Colbert special. I’d like to hear what he does with these songs”. Wake Up! turned out to be a tremendous album, and that kind of put Questlove’s name into my consciousness. So when I saw the book, I thought, “hmm, that album was a great idea, how did something like that come about?”

I was also thinking about creativity the week that I read Creative Quest because that was the week of the 2019 world figure skating championships – which was a very uncreative event, even though the best skaters in the world were competing. One unfortunate side effect of the points-based International Judging System is that skaters are going for whatever content in their programs gets them the highest scores. This is completely understandable, but it doesn’t make for the most enjoyable or artistically adventurous programs. But there was one program that stood out for being so thrillingly creative, and which was also a perfect illustration of Questlove’s ideas about exploring outside your box and following connections: the “Vincent” free dance by Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier of Canada.

The music for the program is Don McLean’s song ‘Vincent’, about the painter Vincent Van Gogh, but the song is performed by Govardo, a duo of British buskers that Gilles and Poirier’s coach discovered on Facebook. They connected online, and Govardo ended up re-recording the song especially for Gilles and Poirier to skate to. According to Gilles, “They’re very attached to the piece, as much as we are, because they’ve invested so much and it’s such a unique opportunity to present something in a completely different world.” The program isn’t a direct interpretation of Van Gogh’s life story, but more of a deeply thoughtful musing on, yes, connections and interactions. And Piper’s dress is a beautiful representation of the blue and yellow tones of Van Gogh’s best-known paintings. Here’s the program: enjoy the creativity.

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