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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Renaissance Man

Although most people aren't aware of it, most artists realize that creativity is a very broad gift. It is, after all, problem solving. Under the best of circumstances, it is basically an ability to devise new ways, or adapt old ways, or combine them in such a way that the results are clever, effective, and practical. It is an element of intelligence, often unmeasured by tests....perhaps even immeasurable by any means. It is not always present, nor is its presence always an indication of what we call intelligence. But usually, creativity and intelligence tend to go hand-in-hand. As artists we employ creativity (some more than others of course). And as artists, we have honed our use of creativity, channeling it into one or two exceptional skills for which we become well-known. But, as I said in the beginning, what most people aren't aware of is how broad creativity tends to be. It permeates nearly every aspect of an artist's life, often giving rise to secondary skills in music, writing, sculpting, cooking, etc., that, while not as exceptional as those for which the artist is paid, are nonetheless often quite developed. We've even coined a title for it--a Renaissance man (or woman).

Photo by Luc Viatour,
Studies of Embryos, 1510-13,
Leonardo da Vinci
The name hearkens back to the first and greatest Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. People think of him first and foremost (and unfortunately, sometimes only), as a painter. A few know him as something of an often impractical inventor, but few people today are aware of the full scope of his talents. That wasn't the case during his lifetime though. In fact, often his "lesser" talents were far more in demand than those he displayed in wielding a brush. To his despair at times, he was so besieged by requests for his services as a designer, sculptor, and engineer, they often interfered with his time to paint. He was a curious man. You can take that both ways. He did, indeed, act curiously, quite often in fact, but he also was, by his very nature, curious about things...all things. His willingness to dissect dead bodies in the name of art and science is a prime example of the intensity of his curiosity in overcoming what couldn't have been a pleasant (though perhaps illegal) undertaking for his time.

Water Lift, 1486, Leonardo da Vinci
Mechanical things interested him. Leonardo's drawings remain of such basic mechanical devices (some of which he may have invented) as the cam, chain drives, cog wheels, ball bearing devices, escapement devices, screws, worm drives, pulleys, the clutch, ratchet wheels and opposing ratchet wheels, and even robots. While in France, during the last years of his life, Leonardo did little painting (even though he had the title "First Painter to the King"). He was not yet 70 years old, but he looked older than he was and by the standards of the time, when men often did not reach their fiftieth birthday, he was old. Yet, in terms of creativity he was at the height of his power. In the last years of his life, King Francis I kept him employed designing irrigation projects, theater sets, floats, and on one occasion, he surprised and delighted the king with a life-size bronze lion which, on cue, opened its sides in a gull-wing manner and spewed white lilies, the symbol of the French crown.
A working reconstruction of Leonardo's mechanical lion

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