Copying vs Inventing

What do you think about “copying”? Is it useful, boring, comfortable? What about learning something by following the instructions? How important is the knowledge of the technique and what is its role in the creative process?

These questions can open a discussion both within an art and educational context, looking for the right balance between rules and freedom, between structured activities/guided workshops and an open studio setting.

I don’t think one choice can be always right. Let’s consider a concrete example: a very simple, popular technique which consists of joining some pieces of cardboard or other material by inserting them through cuts (see the image below).

Image from the book “Così per gioco” by Elve Fortis de Hieronymis

This techique can be explored through endless possibilities, themes and variations, from the most basic activities of children books (like the image above) to the higher art works, like the cardboard animals by the designer Junzo Terada published by Chronicle Books or the futurist flowers by Giacomo Balla (images below).

Knowing these works, you could choose to copy one of them or to invent a new one, applying the technique in a creative way. I think no choices are definitively “good” or “bad”. In fact, “copying” does not necessarily implies laziness or lack of ideas. Sometimes it comes from a need of security, reassurance or imitation as a social strategy, from wanting to learn or strength a skill or a knowledge.

Creating something new is not necessarily related with the context and consistent with the goal of the activity, as in the following case. I designed the cardboard animals below for a workshop in a women’s prison. After the workshops, participants could sell their cardboard animals to earn some money. They were not interested in creating new ones, but to build the maximum number of nice animales in their limited time available. Thus, I think the question is not about copying vs inventing. The central core is the reason, the meaningfulness of the choice, its accessibility and connection with the context.

For example, what about the white plants of the cover image, inspired by the futurist flowers? I created them for a preschool’s opening: a celebration and collective event where an extemporary “garden” of great effect was very appropriate. I copyed the ​flowers by Giacomo Balla but also re-contextualized them according to the new context, and changed them through new variations of size, shape and function. In fact, visitors could create paper flowers in the dedicated workshop and then put them in the cardboard plants (by fixing brads in the plants’ holes).

The same idea can be offered in other ways, depending on other needs. In the case of the “Literary Forest” (see the image below), it was set up for the birthday of a public library. Each tree was dedicated to a poet and had some sheets of paper with poems in its branches. The participants of the workshop chose a poem, cut it out and use the words to decorate some special flower-pencils.

Of course, flowers and animals are not the only possible themes. The architect Francesco Bombardi used this technique for his research about wood finger-puppets. In this case, digital tools can support children’s work by allowing them to immediately cut their puppet drawing from the wood surface, so that everyone will have their puppet and will interact with others.

All these thoughts are also part of a wider picture: what value does our social, cultural background assign to tradition and innovation ? Our usual, implicit way of using techniques and examples – following what we already know rather than exploring the unknown – is influenced by this fundamental aspect.

If you reach a high level of a creative techique, you know that, at a certain point, you will find yourself along a continuum between adherence to the canon on the one hand, and free experimentation on the other – explains the psychotherapist Estella Guerrera. When you know very well how to do something, you have – at least – two choices: continuing the same way or breaking the pattern and using your skills to do something different. Both ways make sense, but this apparent dichotomy confronts us with the concept of risk and “evolutionary change”. In the psychology of the life cycle, we are called to precisely pronounce ourselves on these issues, during the different life stages: do you stay that way (“knowing to know”) or do you change and risk failure?

Both tradition (so repeating, copyng) and change play an important role in life: can you dance between these opposite sides without being stuck in one position? Here is how a technique can even provide us a meaningful metaphor for exploring our creative and life processes.