Updated on May 7, 2020 at 12:08 a.m. ET
Looking for a creative outlet? Sarah Urist Green shares ideas for fun art projects you can do at home during the coronavirus outbreak. (These are a great activity for kids and adults alike.) If you try one, share your creation with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Urist Green is on a mission to change the way we think about creativity. "Creativity is overrated," she says flatly. What she means is that you don't have to feel creative in order to make art. You don't have to think of yourself as an artist to make art. You don't need a degree or fancy materials to make art. All you need is to just do it.
(Listen to an interview with Green from NPR Life Kit at the top of the page, or find it here.)
And in her new book, You Are An Artist, she hopes to take the elements of fear and decision-making out of art-making.
"Maybe you don't know what kind of art feels good or right," Green says. "These exercises can help you figure that out."
Green has spent years working with contemporary artists to highlight their processes and work through her PBS video series, The Art Assignment. Together, the artists and curator built a workbook of art projects derived from the artists' approach to art-making. "When you read about the artist's approach, it helps you understand deeper."
The projects, thankfully, can be done in isolation and shared virtually. Whether you have a background in art or not is not important to Green.
"Making the most of what you have and being creative with materials found anywhere."
Here are five of the projects from the book that you can do today, whether you're 9 or 90, without any expensive materials or experience:
Share your creation with us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #stayhomemakeart or send an email with a photo to email@example.com.
You Are An Artist is coming out April 14 from Penguin Random House. You can preorder it now.
The audio portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.
ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:
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CHRISTINE PRICE: Hey. From the east side, this is Christine Price (ph). My life hack is a little tool. It's a hex key. They're the cheap wrenches back home with flatback furniture and such. When you're done assembling your furniture, keep them either underneath or behind or somewhere on the object so that when you need to retighten bolts or disassemble to move, the tools are right there. That's it.
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LIMBONG: I'm Andrew Limbong. And this is NPR's LIFE KIT. There's no getting around the fact that the world is crazy right now. There's obviously this pandemic and all the news associated with it. You're stuck at home. Every bit of content is telling you how to eat right and exercise better and be more productive. Well, let's be real. All you really want to do is go outside, hug your family, share a meal with some friends, maybe actually touch and try out something you've been meaning to buy. Well, we can't help you with those things. But have you tried making some art?
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LIMBONG: OK. Obviously, it's not a great substitute for those things. But art can help you filter through the noise and find out what's really important to you.
SARAH URIST GREEN: For me, making art with my kids on my own has been a little something I can do that just sort of gets myself out of my own head a little bit. But it's also a way to, like, use your hands. It's a way of just sort of doing something a little bit meditative. It's like a puzzle (laughter) but plus - with some thought behind it.
LIMBONG: So in this episode of LIFE KIT, let's make some art.
Sarah Urist Green is the host and creator of PBS' "The Art Assignment" and the author of the new book "You Are an Artist," where she spoke to a bunch of different artists about what they do and their creative process and came up with these things called art assignments.
GREEN: And it could be something that is like a warmup exercise for them or something that they normally do as a part of their practice. Or it could be something just far afield that they thought would be fun to put out there. They really design these assignments with other people in mind. You know, I asked them to come up with a prompt that didn't require expensive or very specific art materials and that could be done by somebody who either does or does not consider themselves to be an artist.
LIMBONG: Why bother doing art at all? I know that seems like a rudimentary question, a very basic...
LIMBONG: ...One of one sort of thing. But, like, what can I get out of this? (Laughter) I'm being very selfish. Like, what can I get out of this right now?
GREEN: Well, right now, I think that it's a great way to get unstuck. I know that a lot of people in my life are feeling very much sort of confused and a little bit adrift in this coronavirus crisis that we all find ourselves in. And an art assignment in particular is a way of kind of resetting your brain a little bit. People have been making art since they've been people. It's a natural human impulse.
And I think that we've sort of gotten it in our heads that making art is this thing that only certain people can do. And so like in a wider holistic sense, I think that a lot of people think that they can't make art when they really can. And all they need is just sort of a little bit of a prompt and encouragement, some direction.
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LIMBONG: Tell me about shadow portrait.
GREEN: Shadow portrait is an assignment offered by the artist Lonnie Holley, who's actually an artist that I took a workshop with when I was a child in Birmingham, Ala. One of the first types of work he ever made was taking old wire and bending it into different shapes. And this has been something that he's done throughout his career. And for his assignment, shadow portrait, he asks you to take a wire coat hanger or find one and then twist the hanger from the hook until you separate the two ends and straighten it out. And then, you bend the wire into a profile of your face.
And then if you like, you can add beads, cloth, feathers or any other item that helps it - make it feel more like you. And then after you've done that, you can hang the piece up on the wall or hold it a few inches from a wall and take a picture of it and its shadow. And it can be - as he put it, it can be a reminder of the person you envisioned when you made it.
So this is something that I've definitely tried out. And my little wire self-portrait hangs on my office wall. And does it look like me? No (laughter). But, you know, it's sort of - it reminds me of me and that I made it. What I'm really trying to do is get people to start making things. And I think, you know, hewing too closely to any instruction is not the intent.
LIMBONG: And it might be a way to just, like, use stuff that might be rattling around in your closet - right? - that you haven't seen in forever.
GREEN: Right, exactly. Even if you think you don't have art supplies floating around your house, I guarantee you do.
LIMBONG: All right. Let's move onto the next one. Can you tell me a little bit about fake flyer?
GREEN: Yeah, sure. So this assignment is offered by the artist Nathaniel Russell. And he asks you to make a flyer that gives advice, shares something about your life or promotes an imagined event. And then, the next step is to put it out into the world in some way whether it's sort of tacking it up during your daily walk on a telephone pole or what have you, or to share it on social media or to circulate it to your friends.
GREEN: And this is something that he's kind of played with throughout his career. And he has done this series of fake flyers. And the one that we reproduced in the book is my favorite. And it's a - he sort of found a picture online of a fancy French poodle. And then, he sort of put it on an 8 1/2x11 sheet of paper and then took a Sharpie and wrote above it in the style of a lost-dog flyer. He wrote at the top, the opposite of lost. Don't try to find me. I have finally escaped my master's wicked clutches. To the others, I say, join me.
GREEN: Bite the hand that feeds you. (Speaking French).
GREEN: So I, you know, yes...
LIMBONG: Hell yeah.
GREEN: Yeah. It's playful, but it's also punk, you know.
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GREEN: It's like finding this voice and this space to come up with an idea and to work within a platform that already exists. Take a familiar format and then twist it a little bit. Like, what would a band poster or flyer look like in the age of coronavirus? Not that that's a great idea, it's not. But, like, part of it is just kind of...
GREEN: ...Sitting down with a bunch of basic materials and playing. Like, when I've done this one, even if I don't have any idea, I'll, like, go through a magazine and cut out a strange or interesting picture I find and then riff on that idea. So - and when I've done this also, like, I've made a bunch of them because a lot of times if you were like, oh, OK, I'm just going to make one flyer. And, you know, you put too much into that one flyer. So if you say, like, OK, I'm going to make 10 - and then maybe, one of them is decent.
LIMBONG: Yeah. OK, yeah. So you don't even need - like, I don't - as someone who doesn't, like, have a printer, you know...
GREEN: Yeah. You don't need a printer. Yeah.
LIMBONG: I have a sort of - yeah. So you can, just, like, take regular paper and, like, staple some magazine stuff or whatever on it and, like, go to town, yeah?
GREEN: Yeah. Or you can actually do this digitally, too. You can find an image online. You can make it on your phone. You could make a - you can make an Instagram post. So I think there's lots of ways that you can sort of interpret it within your own means.
LIMBONG: Yeah. I think this one hews sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum as shadow portrait in that where shadow portrait, you're sort of like being conscious about, like, using up all, like, your junk and trash or whatever. This one seems focused solely on, like, impracticality, yeah?
GREEN: Yeah (laughter). Yeah. I mean, but what's impractical? I think we tend to underestimate how important play and impracticality are in our lives, you know. I think we're all listening to a lot of - we're all listening to a lot of news, too much news in my case. And, you know, the ability to kind of get out side of that space and experiment and play and use what you've got around you is, like, more beneficial than we might realize.
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LIMBONG: The next one I want to talk about is lost objects. Can you give us a quick overview?
GREEN: Sure. So lost childhood object is an assignment devised by the Pittsburgh-based artist Lenka Clayton. And it is - the first step is to interview someone about an object they owned and cherished as a child. You ask questions to understand its dimensions, material, texture and form. And the goal is to create a mental picture of that object. And then, step two is to recreate the object as closely as you can using materials you have on hand. And step three is to give the object to the person.
That's something that you could do with someone with whom you share physical space or virtually anytime. You describe something you loved and lost as a child to me - and I'll do the same for you - and then using whatever you've got around the house. You know, maybe, you're making a teddy bear out of old plastic bags from the grocery store. And then, you make it for each other. And, again, like, the goal isn't perfection here. But it's to sort of create a gift to give another person.
And to me, that's a great - it's a great motivator for making something. Like, for me, if I know that I'm going to give it to somebody, it's like an extra kick because if it's just like, oh, I'm just doing this for my own benefit, it just seems pointless (laughter). Like, I want to do something for someone.
GREEN: So - and this really has that in mind because they're counting on you, you know. They describe this thing. And now it's in your court to...
GREEN: ...Realize it for them.
LIMBONG: One question I have when I was, like, thinking about making these - and it's something I kind of struggle with when making art. A - how do you know when you're done? And B - how do you know if it's good?
GREEN: Oh, gosh. You know, I usually know I'm done when I can't work on it anymore because I have something else to do.
GREEN: So I think that - like, is it that important to call it done? I mean, I think if you know it's done, it's done (laughter). But if you're not sure, then you just put it to the side. Walk away. Like, pin it up on your wall or a board and look at it. And overtime, if you want to change it, you can change it or come back to it. I think that to a certain extent, it can remain open ended. And to your question about how do you know if it's any good, I think that - again, if you free yourself from the thought that it has to be perfectly wonderful...
GREEN: ...And, you know, extremely impressive. To me, I don't really care (laughter) if what I've made is good or not because for me, my favorite things have stories behind them, you know. They're not just sort of, like, physically beautiful objects that I don't know anything about. But my favorite things have a history. They have a context. And I think if you can internalize that, you can get over this expectation that you need to be a masterful genius in order to make anything.
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LIMBONG: When do you recommend people do these projects? Like, are you the type of person that, like, get - like, gets up every day and does it first thing in the morning? Or do you just, like, wait until inspiration strikes you?
GREEN: You know, artists do not necessarily separate art from their life. Like, I do think that it can be helpful to give yourself a deadline or - but then, it's up to you. I mean, I find that some mornings, I wake up, and I feel creative, and I want to do something. But more often, I wake up, and I don't feel creative. But I do something anyway.
And often once you sort of get started, you find your motivation in that process. You know, maybe, you wait until your kids are in bed and say, OK, I'm going to have a glass of wine and try this exercise. I'm going to try to make a fake flyer for 45 minutes while I'm, you know, watching YouTube and doing something else, too. You know, I think that's a good...
GREEN: I think that's a good practical way to start. And then just say I'm going to try it for this amount of time. And if I like it, great. And if I don't, you know. (Laughter). It was 45 minutes. And tomorrow, I can try another thing.
LIMBONG: Yeah. And I do think it's - it does seem important to just do it even if you're not feeling, like, quote-unquote "inspired," whatever that means - right? - because, you know, momentum will take you there eventually.
GREEN: Oh, yeah. Almost all of the artists or makers I know do not wait for inspiration to strike to make work. I think there's a reason why they call it a practice, you know. It's something that you do. It's - you sit down. And you try. Maybe, the output is great. And maybe, it's not. But if you keep at it enough, something good will come.
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LIMBONG: So there you have it. We hope we've inspired you. So recap - making art is a great way to get out of your own head and see the world in a new way. You don't have to make a masterpiece or be a, quote-unquote "creative" to enjoy art. You just have to start making it.
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LIMBONG: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on how to appreciate poetry. My arts desk colleague Petra Mayer just put out an episode on how to write a novel. And we've got lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. Also, we want to hear your tips. What are you doing to cope right now? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@NPR.org. Special thanks to Sarah Urist Green. This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.