Celia Stahr is an author, art historian and professor at the University of San Francisco. Celia specializes in modern American and contemporary art with an emphasis on feminist art and gender studies. She’s the author of the book Frida in America, a book that focuses on Frida Kahlo’s personal and creative awakening while living in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York during the Great Depression. For more information about the book go to fridakahlojourney.com.
ES: This is 5 minute mentor, a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent authors, researchers, engineers, artists, and more, in 5 minutes or less.
ES: Today’s mentor is Celia Stahr, author, art historian and professor at the University of San Francisco. Celia specializes in modern American and contemporary art with an emphasis on feminist art and gender studies. She’s the author of the book “Frida in America”, a book that focuses on Frida Kahlo’s personal and creative awakening while living in San Francisco, Detroit, and New York during the Great Depression. For more information about the book go to fridakahlojourney.com.
CS: My advice is to not underestimate the power of the creative mind. You know, don’t ignore your creativity, or your ability to imagine something that hasn’t come into a physical form yet. Albert Einstein said in 1929, quote: Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. End quote.
CS: So I say: create. You know, write a song. Make a video. Choreograph a dance. Write a story. You could write about your favorite author, or artist. You could write about yourself. You could make a quilt. You could create a garden. You could paint a design on your bedroom wall. You know, the possibilities are endless. Rather than focusing on what you can’t create, focus on what you can create.
CS: It might seem insignificant, impossible, or difficult. But something magical begins to happen, when we put our focus on an idea, a project, a feeling, an image. It grows. It morphs. And it develops into something you might not even have seen coming.
CS: This is what happened to me when I had the idea for my book: Frida in America, about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. A conference paper I presented on this artist’s creative explosion while living in the United States, made me realize, there wasn’t much published information on this significant period of Frida’s creative awakeing. And I began to think, that I might need to write the book I wanted to read. I actually resisted the idea at first. Too much work, But this idea really grew inside of me. I’m a visual person, so strictly speaking the images grew within my mind’s eye. I saw Frida on a train, crossing the border from Mexico into California, and then getting off in San Francisco. I saw her painting. Saw her witnessing the extreme poverty, in contrast to the extreme wealth while in New York. Saw her melting into a ball of pain while in Detroit. But then rising like a phoenix with extraordinary creative powers afterwards. I saw her facial expressions. Her unique walk. Her hearty laugh. Her mischievous twinkling eyes. Her hand moving across the canvas. I saw images as if they were a trailer for a film.
CS: The challenge for me was how to take these images and turn them into a written journey. Could I create this journey allowing the reader to see it within the mind’s eye? Could I create the feeling that the reader was on this journey with Frida? Could I foreground Frida’s creative development, and discuss her art in a style that allowed readers to step inside Frida’s paintings? Almost as if surrounded by them in a room. I wanted this book to appeal to Frida lovers and art lovers. But I also wanted to reach readers who might not have a background in art or art history. Because I think art is important.
CS: When I was first beginning to study art history. A friend asked me: Why is art important? And I didn’t really have a clearly formed answer. But the question never left me. So, why is it important? Well, one: Art opens the mind and heart. Two: Art is primal. Petroglyphs and cave paintings speak to the importance for humans to express themselves through a visual language. And it’s cross-cultural. And three: Art helps us to understand the world. You know, neural scientists have studied neural activity through brain scans while people are creating art. Singing, even rapping.
CS: Dr. Limb at Johns Hopkins found that creative thinking engages the entire brain. Even looking at art engages the brain in similar ways to creating it. And it’s good for the brain. It maintains its neuroplasticity. The more active and engaged we are with creative thinking the better we maintain the plasticity of our brains. Which means our brains retain mental agility. Even into old age.
CS: So, you know, I agree with Einstein in that imagination is more important than knowledge. Because knowledge allows us to learn something. But imagination allows us to create something new with that knowledge, or even something powerful. Like, for example, Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The artist had carefully observed the early morning and night sky. He had an intimate knowledge of it. But the way he imagined it on canvas was completely new. And it forever changed how people viewed a darkened sky. It’s alive, with pulsating, swirling light.
CS: Frida Kahlo achieved a similar feat with her painting: Henry Ford Hospital. She took a common experience for women, a miscarriage, And imagined it as an other worldy, solitary, bloody, industrialized and painful experience. In this act of creation, she drew upon a highly personal incident but transformed it into an image that would go on to speak to women across cultures, who have expressed having had a visceral response to the painting. Both Van Gogh’s and Kahlo’s art affect viewers on a deep emotional level. These intense responses speak to the reciprocal relationship between artists and viewer You don’t have to create a masterpiece to engage a creative mind. You can also fully experience one.
CS: So in addition to creating something, go look at art. Go online. Go find a book. Go to the streets. Go to a museum, go to a gallery. There are numerous possibilities. As Einstein put it: Imagination encircles the world. That’s it.