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How I Became An Artist - A Primer on Creativity

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Recently, I was interviewed by a podcast interested in featuring Dirt Alley Design. I answered many questions on how I developed my business and how making art led to my business. All of these questions got me thinking about creativity and how being a creative person has shaped my life.

Living a Creative Life - My Journey As an Artist

It's strange to say it, but creativity has been integral feature of my personality since childhood. My earliest memories involved reading voraciously as a kid (digging deep into books meant for adults), teaching myself how to make origami from said books, and writing imaginative stories about my stuffed animals that I would then share every week during "show and tell" to my second grade classmates.

As a teenager, I designed the page layouts of my junior high yearbook including coming up with the yearbook theme. I also created complex beaded jewelry. I went so far as to suggest to my parents I apply to Savannah College to study jewelry design, but as they were practical, logical immigrant parents, they said no and I compromised and went to UCSB to study literature and biology. 

I attended a unique college at UCSB - the College of Creative Studies - where I was given the freedom of a graduate student and took classes meant for third and fourth year students including creative writing and printmaking courses. I aspired to be a writer, and spent my days hanging out with musicians, writers and artists. We made zines, took whacky road trips, wrote poetry and went to underground punk concerts. It was a really fun, creative time in my life!

music show at college dorm

When I graduated, I moved to San Francisco. I was working jobs that weren't particularly creative and hated the routine of going to a 9-to-5 job. For a creative outlet, I started making collages and painting. I showed some of my paintings at open studio events, which is when I realized I wanted to make art that wasn't abstract but was about a concept people could connect over. At the time, making art for me was more of a therapeutic practice.

I took breaks from my jobs at various points to travel including spending a month in Crete, and visiting Amsterdam, Ireland, and London, to name a few places! I also lived in Washington DC and NY for a short period of time.

At one point, I worked as a library assistant for the Academy of Art in SF and I would pore over all of the art and design books they had. When I started working for a nonprofit a little while later, I took community college classes on photography. One year, I helped put on a conference on typographic design in San Francisco called TYPO SF.

san francisco financial district photo by michelle chandra

Throughout my twenties, I found myself drawn to making and creating art outside of my jobs, at first with paint, then with a camera with my interests eventually veering towards design. I also found myself constantly switching jobs and interests, spurning routine and seeking out new experiences. I am a classic creative person!

I ended up at AIGA's annual design conference in Phoenix in 2011 exploring going to graduate school for design. For most of my time in SF, I was struggling financially given the recession. I knew I needed an upgrade in my skills.

Fast forward two years later, I landed in graduate school in NY with a keen interest in data visualization and design. While at graduate school, I ended up taking a class with Jer Thorp on data art, and realized I found the idea of abstracting data for artistic purposes to be fascinating.

A section of the course focused on cartography, which is when I realized I really love maps! My first map visualization project visualized photos tagged #doublerainbow on Instagram and is called "Chasing Double Rainbows." Using the Instagram API, I showed users on a map where double rainbow photos had been posted in the past day around the world and drew a whimsical “double rainbow” arc between consecutive photos connecting users who saw a double rainbow closest in time to each other. 

chasing double rainbows map visualization of instagram double rainbow images by michelle chandra

The biggest takeaway for me from graduate school was pivoting from making work that was very personal, to making art that while reflecting an interest of mine, was more about a concept and less around my own personal feelings or experience.

For my Master's Thesis, I explored a photographic concept many people are fascinated with, but is also mundane - photos of the setting sun. I created a map visualization that tracked the rise and set of the sun in real-time through photos tagged #sunset on Instagram, and showed moments in time in which someone posted a photo of a sunset at the same time as another person posted a photo of a sunrise.

all our yesterdays map visualization of instagram sunset and sunrise images by michelle chandra

It was a natural progression after graduate school that once I was employed full time again, to take on a new artistic project on the side - this time map art. I launched my first art business - Dirt Alley Design. For my first print line, I transform street maps into solvable mazes!

rainbow minneapolis minnesota city map art print poster puzzle labyrinth maze

The Creative Personality

There are a lot of commonalities in my creative journey that creative people share. A study outlined in Scientific American describes three personality facets creatives share: plasticity, divergence, and convergence.

Plasticity means an openness to new experiences, high energy and inspiration. I am constantly seeking out new experiences and these experiences are sources of fresh inspiration in my life. As a kid, I sought out new experiences through books.

Divergence means you go against the norm, are non-conforming, impulsive and perhaps not agreeable. As a teenager, I chose to hang out with geeks and nerds in high school, identified as not being part of the cool crowd, and was generally seen as argumentative and opinionated. While this made me a target for bullying, the experience taught me the importance of seeking out and surrounding one's self with like-minded creative people (which led me to the College of Creative Studies at UCSB where I found my first community of creative people!)

Lastly, convergence means a high degree of persistence, conscientiousness, and critical thinking. To create my first SF maze map, I spent over 3 months and 100 hours outside of working a full-time job to develop the design. Persistence was definitely key! 

black and white san francisco framed puzzle print maze labyrinth by michelle chandra

How Can You Be More Creative?

If you are someone who doesn't feel you are naturally creative, here are a few key ways you can practice being more creative in your life:

Train yourself to be observant. Daydream.

Make observations of what is happening around you. Keep a journal where you detail what you observed. Take the time to really be present in the moment and really "see" what is happening. Reflect on your day, and practice self awareness. Cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. Conversely, take moments to allow your mind to wander and dream without structure. Go for a walk during your lunch break and let your mind wander. You might be surprised to discover you don't remember anything about the walk after but are bursting with new ideas!

Life life as fully as possible.

Be curious, try as many new things as possible. Go to a new park every week, then try a different trail each time. Travel, even if it's just over a state line or to the next city over. Search out new experiences as often as possible.

Be willing to take risks and "fail."

Recognize and know that failure is just one rung on the ladder to success, practice not taking failure personally.

Put in 10,000 Hours

Find time, even if just an hour every day, to practice a creative craft. If you need structure, vow to make a song a day, or an artwork a day for 180 days. 

Don't Stop Learning

An ability to connect experiences and knowledge across disciplines to come up with new ideas requires two things - a variety of experiences, and lots of knowledge! Read up, watch videos on youtube, talk to people, and keep learning.

Break From Routine and the Expected

Switch up your day-to-day life, practice spontaneity and randomness. Be open to changing your schedule hour to hour, minute to minute! 

About Dirt Alley Design

Michelle Chandra of Dirt Alley DesignDirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes. 

My maze art isn't just decorative art for your home, it's a real puzzle maze you can solve (if you dare!) I think my maze maps are pretty cool, but don't take just my word for it! My maze maps have been featured in LaughingSquidThe Creator's Project, Untapped Cities and UpOutSF.

artist process creativity

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