Breaking Boundaries: An Arabesque on Art, Creativity and Scholarship-Kip Jones and Patricia Leavy

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Synopsis

Kip Jones and Patricia Leavy engage two interflowing lines of thought to produce an impression of their individual ways of working with tools from the arts to create scholarship.

Kip Jones and Patricia Leavy played a game of 20 questions in order to explore some of the impulses and characteristics of scholars who turn to the arts. In the final part of their joint exercise, they engage two interflowing lines of thought to produce an impression of their individual ways of working with tools from the arts to create scholarship.   

Patricia: Kip, one of the things that came out in our back-and-forth game of twenty questions, probably isn’t surprising to either of us: we are both inspired by the arts. After our 20 questions you shared some things privately with me about your approach to consuming or experiencing art. Can you talk about that and the relationship between how you enjoy the arts and your own creative works?

Kip: I don’t see a lot of films for the same reasons I don’t try to see every work of art in a museum in one visit. I like to really concentrate on a film or a work of art. When I was younger (I was once!), when I saw a film, it would be in my head for days and days (and I often went back day-after-day to see it again). (Some examples at the time: ‘Blow-Up”, “Zorba the Greek”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Death in Venice”.)  I currently watch episodes of “Mad Men’ over and over.  I approach art, film, and music like fine meals. I really want to explore and enjoy them; no, devour them. I think that some people new to creativity too often seem to need to see/hear everything that is de rigueur or au courant, only to then try to imitate what is ‘happening’. Their work becomes ‘back fill’, not innovation and not work that moves the field forward. Necessary, I suppose, but boring.

You mentioned Bjork, dancing around the house and singing, and music generally as important to you and your way of working.  Can you give us an example or two of how music has infiltrated your work? I know that I stopped organizing my writing ‘academically’ some time ago and now often think about the shape of a piece of writing in terms of musical composition, even down to minutia such as sentence structure. I visualize music, often through ballet, so it is already ‘in transition’ in my mind and ready to become something else. This is one reason why I love to edit music for video production.

Patricia: I actually just discovered I have a pattern of how I listen to and use music. As I was completing my 17th book and transitioning to the next project, which is always a bit of an emotional experience for me, my pattern revealed itself. I see working on a book as necessitating three activities or phases. First is the long creation phase, which is everything from conception to note-taking to the writing and revising processes. Then there is production, everything from cleaning up references to how the book will physically look and feel. Finally, there is promotion.

Like most, I am in it for the creation bit, the intellectual and artistic practice. I have realized that during that time I incessantly listen to music that I consider creative and boundary-pushing. I especially listen to female artists who play with structure, so Tori Amos, Bjork, the Cocteau Twins and others. Tori Amos talks about “sonic architecture” and I think that comes to bear. The music open up new spaces in my mind, helping me to build in new shapes, by which I mean anything from putting ideas or disciplinary perspectives together in news ways or how I word something. The messages or lyrical content matters too. I have clear instances of a particular song or record becoming a seed for a project, with the lyrics and feeling of the music directly shaping the content of what I am writing. For example, my novel Low-Fat Love is based on nearly a decade of interview research with young women about their relationships and identities. There was an unnamed thing in my mind I was after in that book. It was listening to the record, Boys for Pele, and that helped me come to name it. I thought of the phrase low-fat love which then shaped much of the content of the novel.

As soon as I submit a book to my publisher and the long creative part of the process is done, I find myself listening to pop music. All of a sudden I’m listening to Madonna or Katy Perry. As much as musicians I view as artistic shape my writing process, those I view as entertainers fuel me through the production and promotion phases. It’s all about energy.

Kip: Something unexpected that we have in common came up in our 20 Questions: puppets! For you, the Muppets, and for me, Minghella’s Madama Butterfly. I see puppetry as an interesting way to engage audiences, surprise them. They think, “What can that puppet do that a person couldn’t?” Soon they are forgetting that it’s a puppet and engaging in the magic of it.

In Madama Butterfly, her emotionless child-puppet is manipulated (good word) by three puppeteers. It produces a fierce emotional reaction—from the human players, but especially the audience. Then, of course, Puccini is pulling out all the stops in the score underneath. Minghella used puppets in other parts of the production too (the dance sequence between Butterfly and Pinkerton as puppets is breath-taking), but it’s Butterfly’s three-year old child as a puppet who steals the show.

I ‘dated’ a puppeteer once. When he abruptly ended the relationship, I made a puppet of him, then placed it in all the places he had been around my house (including the bed) and took pictures. Looking back, I suppose it was a bit obsessive of me à la Cindy Sherman. Years later, he travelled to the UK to see me and to ask for forgiveness, I believe. As most artists know, pain is fuel for art. Nothing to forgive.  

I mentioned that I am thinking of using a puppet as the main character in a proposed short film. The role will be a women or a man (not sure which yet) with Alzheimer’s. The story is about the relationships (or lack of them) in their world and the people around them. I think a puppet is an interesting way to distance a character from reality, just as dementia often does.  The very visual carers become the puppeteers.

Last night on a talk show here, singer Ed Sheeran showed a puppet of himself that is the star of his latest video, “Sing”. A bit of a “Puppet Renaissance” going on, perhaps?

Patricia: Perhaps indeed. I think theatrical director Marianne Elliot may have had a hand in that too, gaining attention for using puppets so interestingly in adaptations of War Horse and The Light Princess. I love how you plan to use a puppet in your next film.

Funny how we start making connections because when I think of the Muppets, I am really thinking about movies I have seen throughout my life. I can remember as a child seeing the Muppets in the theater, and I still am. Begs the question, how does an idea that starts off as highly original, continue to be reinvented? I think about this in my own writing. For instance, what should a new edition of a book look like? What is the balance between the familiar and the new? If it was innovative in the first place, how do you retain that? Then there is playing with form altogether. For example, I’m writing expanded anniversary editions of my two arts-based novels. While typically we don’t think of novels being rewritten, why can’t they be? What might that process reveal and produce? This is what I am working on now and it has me thinking about how we expand the “shapes” we work in through pushing and playing with the boundaries.

In our 20 questions you talked about creativity as working within boundaries while at the same time changing them. Can you talk about this in regards to your work merging social science and art?

Kip: My need to morph an idea through various stages and shapes is part of my creative process as well. I think this is partly because I remain an artist at heart and not completely a scholar. I say this because many of these transformations of an idea are often visual or musical, not textural.  Even though I trained myself to write academically, I then began to explore other ways to express myself in text. An early piece from that period was my biographic interview with psychologist and feminist, Mary Gergen, where I used colors, fonts and illustrations to retell her life story. I can see now that I was struggling with a way to express the ‘show’ with the ‘tell’, and even my interpretation of her story, through graphic design.  

As an artist or as a scholar, I don’t believe that you can change the rules without knowing what they are first. There are also times in order to afford opportunities to be creative in our outputs, we need to implant the routine or expected with the Trojan Horse of creativity. I often say that the film RUFUS STONE was funded by stealth: the budget for the film was actually embedded in a very large, routine national project on ageing the UK. If I had gone to the same funder with just the film proposal, I doubt that it would have been successful. So I guess I am saying, ‘Know what you are up against, how much you can bend the rules and then play with them.”  In the end, we as artists are part of our culture as well as its forecasters. Our work needs to reflect the time in which it is made as well as implement change.

When you asked me about my biggest weakness, I said, “Handsome young men. And shoes I’ll never wear.” I wasn’t being flip. I actually thought about that answer for some time, even how to present it as two separate sentences, to represent the way that my thinking jumps from one ‘node’ to the next.  Two seemingly incongruent thoughts put together in one thought can form an impression of a way of viewing the world through an obtuse or alternative lens.  Once, in an interview, I did the same thing by using Joan Rivers and Mother Teresa as examples of a multiplatform approach to dissemination versus a single communication method—all within a sentence or two. What these kinds of arabesques can do is shake up the listener/reader/viewer to create a whole new conceptualization in their mind as well.  I like incongruence as a creative tool. It produces an antithesis that plays on the complementary property of opposites to create something entirely new.

Patricia: I love the idea of incongruence as a creative tool. When I first start publishing my work, mostly in essays and such when I was in graduate school, editors would “correct” what they deemed as odd phrasing. I often gave in, yet unsure of what I was doing. I see now quite clearly in my writing that at times I intentionally phrase things unconventionally because of the way it plays with, trips up or opens up meanings. Copyeditors still try to “correct” me but now I’ve learned to push back. It is a bit of a game when you work within but try to expand the bounds of publishing, much like your experience garnering funding.

For me, I think it all links up with a desire to show more and tell less, something you talked about as well. I was trained as an academic which traditionally is all about telling, but that doesn’t interest me the way stimulating, inspiring or questioning does. The arts do that. I use tools like narrative gaps where readers need to fill-in-the-blanks, which no two readers will do the same way based on their own experiences and perspectives. I think producing engagement in others and making them work for it a bit helps us to show and not tell. Resonance is like a reverberation, it’s not like notes written in black and white. I think of my arts-based novels more as glimpses than anything else. There’s what’s on the page and then there’s what you cultivate in readers, whether or not it resonates and causes self-reflection, and that’s really the goal. When I was writing American Circumstance which explores appearance versus reality in people’s lives and relationships, I thought of it as an impressionist painting. Providing the dots of color and compositional structure was my bit, but how one steps back and takes it in, that’s their bit.

It can be frustrating when the “industry” side wants you to make your work something it isn’t. Those who are they, if you will, have at times wanted me to write more of a paint by numbers sort of thing, where you lay it all out. They don’t get impressionism! You can’t make your work something it isn’t though, and for me arts-based research is about inviting an interpretive process, not telling. So I try to follow the muse and I have faith in readers. I know you’ve had your own battles.

Kip: One last example from me on working through one of the many disappointments and/or frustrations that we often can encounter. Some years ago now, I was extremely affronted by the homophobic attitudes of a particular group that I encountered. I objected to their prejudice and wrote about it on my blog. Because of the very intricate politics involved at the time (read as: potential funding), I was ‘asked’ to take it down, which I did very reluctantly. It felt like a battle lost and I despaired for some time.

Ultimately, I realized that I could incorporate the pain of that experience into the story for the film I was writing, RUFUS STONE. A character in the film portrays the very attitude that I had encountered, and even repeats some of the very hurtful lines that I was confronted with a number of years earlier. The film has impacted thousands of viewers and has made my case, finally and profoundly. It was done through art, not rhetoric. Ah, the sweet satisfaction of the last “word”.

About Kip Jones

Kip is Reader in Performative Social Science at the Centre for Qualitative Research at Bournemouth University, KIP JONES is an American by birth, and has been studying and working in the UK for more than 15 years. His main efforts have involved developing tools from the arts and humanities for use by social scientists in research and its impact on a wider public or a Perfomative Social Science.

Kip has produced films and written many articles for academic journals and authored chapters for books on topics such as masculinity, ageing and rurality, and older LGBT citizens. His groundbreaking use of qualitative methods, including biography and auto-ethnography, and the use of tools from the arts in social science research and dissemination are well known. Jones acted as Author and Executive Producer of the award-winning short film, RUFUS STONE, funded by Research Councils UK.

Media coverage: His work has been reported widely in the media, including: BBC Radio 4, BBC TV news, Times Higher Education, Sunday New York Times, London School of Economics Impact Blog, International Herald-Tribune and The Independent.

Kip's Blog

E-mail: kipworld@gmail.com

Tags: 20 questions, arabesque, art, bournemouth university, centre for qualitative research, interflowing lines, kip jones, patricia leavy, performative social science

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