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Vol. LXV, No. 17
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
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The “Inevitability of Making Art”: Burstein Talks about “Spark”

Ellen Gilbert

At the beginning of her recent Labyrinth Books talk on her new book, Spark: How Creativity Works, former Studio 360 host Julie Burstein promised to list five “points” that she has identified as ensuring creative success. In keeping with that model, Ms. Brustein’s prescriptions will appear at the end of this article.

Ms. Burstein created Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen for Public Radio International. She led the show’s Peabody Award-winning creative team at WNYC for nine years, and after all that time on the radio, she declared it a real pleasure to be in front of a live audience last week. “How lucky I am,” she added. She said that she loved both her radio work and the experience of preparing the subsequent book, which she distilled from the program’s most compelling interviews. She also acknowledged the contributions of Kurt Anderson, who wrote the foreword to the book, and others with whom she has worked.

The power of live interviews cannot be underestimated, Ms. Burstein observed. “A voice in a split second can convey emotion that would need a paragraph to explain.” Voices represented in Spark include those of artists Chuck Close and Richard Serra; writers Richard Ford and Isabelle Allende; filmmaker Mira Nair; entertainers Patti LuPone and Roseanne Cash; poet Stanley Kunitz; musician Yo-Yo Ma; and photographer William Christenberry. In addition to copies of Spark, books by and about these subjects were also on display for the event.

Other local programs like MothUp and People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos came to mind as Ms. Burstein described the power of stories and the “importance of looking around.” Describing herself as a storyteller as well, she acknowledged that attending to what’s around us can be both “wonderful and terrifying.” She described the inevitable losses—the heartbreak, war, and death—each of us must face in life as “the tragic gap.” Successful creators who have the ability to “make beautiful pictures out of something devastating” describe making art as inevitable to their lives. In Chuck Close’s case, being afflicted with prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, forced him to adopt a technique using grids to construct a larger image. “‘I build a painting,’” Ms. Brustein quoted Mr. Close as saying.

“The act of creating art is eternally shrouded in mystery,” observed Vanity Fair in an article about Spark. “For ten years public radio’s Studio 360 revealed the unique sources from which the artist’s creativity flows while pinpointing the hot spot ‘where art and real life collide.’ In Spark, Burstein offers enlightening answers from the culture’s heavy hitters on which experiences, memories, tragedies, or landscapes ignited their imaginations, as well as the process by which they stoked these embers into a roaring fire, and how you, yes, you, might too.”

Okay, so how might we too?

Ms. Brustein’s first suggestion is to “stay open to experiences around you.” Next, she advised taking “a break when you’re stuck,” rather than spinning your wheels. “Dive into a challenge; don’t back away,” came third, and sticking to one’s guns by “developing a passionate obstinacy” was fourth. Finally, Ms. Burstein said, “look for a champion.”

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