Mastery and Mystery in Art by Marc Imlay

Updated: Nov 17, 2018

There are a couple of types of creative flow that I have experienced in various arenas of artistic endeavor (including pottery, bonsai, public speaking, dancing, sports, music, meditation, and poetry).


The first type of creative flow is that which comes from “#mastery”. Dean Paton, from Northwest Dance Network in Seattle, WA, shared with many of us the following philosophy, although I’m not certain that he authored it. He described 4 stages of mastery. The first stage is “Unconscious Incompetence” wherein one is so clueless about the subject that one doesn’t even know how bad one is at it. If you continue with it long enough, you come to realize how bad you are at it and enter the second stage of “Conscious Incompetence”. Hopefully this leads one to study the topic more deeply and practice more, hallmarks of the third stage of mastery, “Conscious Competence”. Finally after enough time and effort (some say 10,000 hours are required) you attain a level of mastery, the fourth stage of “Unconscious Competence”. In this stage you experience creative flow and the process is effortless. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing or follow rules. It’s automatic, non-conceptual, and free form. This fourth stage flow is blissful and may be as close as we can get to what God #experiences in creation. As your #sensitivity to the art form refines, you realize that there is a next level to which you were previously clueless (Unconscious Incompetence) and you begin the circle, now become a spiral, all over again.


The second type of creative flow comes from “mystery” or grace. This does not require mastery and can occur even in a beginner’s creative actions. In some respects it may even be easier for the beginner for it requires a setting aside of self and the allowing of a greater creative power to work through you. This can happen when beginners give up upon confronting their limitations. Once, early in my ceramic career, I was sculpting a small Buddha and everything went well until I got to the ears. Try as I might I could not get them right. After several woeful attempts, the oddest thing happened. I gave up on it and suddenly my arms and hands began working by themselves. I wasn’t involved in the process but just witnessed it passively. The ears turned out perfect! Being the first time I had experienced this, I wasn’t certain I could honestly claim that I had made the statue. As another example, early in my public speaking career as an instructor of Transcendental Meditation, I often found myself answering questions with concepts that just came to me, thoughts I had never entertained before. The words just seemed to flow into my mind and come out my mouth as I witnessed the process as if it were happening to someone else. The answers were perfect, both by my assessment and that of others present. Whew!!!

The necessary requirement for this grace to happen is to be willing to step aside and let the greater creative power work through you. One can’t make it happen on demand, but one can invite it to happen by being open to the possibility of it occurring, assenting to its happening, and being prepared to step aside should it come. This type of creative flow is also quite blissful and leaves one feeling connected to the higher creative power of #God during and after the experience.


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