Make Your Mark

We speak with Sue Gardiner and Megan Shaw of Squiggla about the Chartwell Trust's new initiative, an essential tool that helps you develop creative thinking through the power of mark-making.

Date 19 April 2021 Interview Adam Bryce imagery Supplied

Squiggla postcards and mark-making activities.

Squiggla pop-up at the Mairangi Arts Centre, March 2021. Photo by David St George, courtesy of misterwolf – Creative Services.

Tell us about the original concept behind the Squiggla tool and how it manifested into what it is today.

Sue: It’s a project that was developed by the Chartwell Charitable Trust, and it’s one of the key elements of what we do. On the one hand, we have the Chartwell Collection, a contemporary art collection held on loan at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, which includes wonderful examples of creative visual thinking happening within the community of visual artists. 

On the other, we have Squiggla, our outreach project. It was developed so that the general public, the everyday person who maybe hasn’t focused on their creative thinking or might not see themselves as creative, could participate in an accessible exercise programme to foster a sense of freedom in making. We have learned so much about the creative process from the support we have with researchers at the University of Auckland and CAST, the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation, in particular.

We believe that the visual is one of the most dominant senses that we all, as human beings, naturally have; but we often don’t prioritise or acknowledge the visual language. Squiggla does this by focusing on the fundamentals — marks, dots and lines, in their infinite variations. The creative process is one of lifelong creative discovery as we begin to learn through our senses as youngsters and continue to be exploratory and curious throughout our lives.

We are in a Creative Age right now so it is a great moment for Squiggla. All around the world, people are having to think in new ways, to problem pose and problem solve. This now requires us to exercise our inventive thinking, our intuitive thinking, our imagination; and how we might include play in our lives as adults. Play opens you up to a whole lot of new experiences, a vital component of creative thinking. We also understand that, in the future, we have to develop new leadership that looks at the way we engage with well-being in our communities.  An important part of Squiggla is that it’s completely accessible as a private experience to help individuals benefit from their own creative thinking, but communities can also benefit by collaboration. 

We focus on mark-making because we believe in the visual, and the importance of the visual sense, which actually also involves the tactile and the spatial. Through direct improvisational mark-making and being in the moment, you can explore these sensations. Visual exploration is key, and all of the time you’re doing that, you’re strengthening creative pathways in your brain.

Megan: I think that there’s a myth, you’re either creative or you aren’t. You either have a left-dominant brain or a right-dominant brain. Neuroscientists at the University of Auckland and elsewhere are now reporting that the right/left brain scenario is a myth. A creative brain is one with strengthened patterns of connections all around the brain. And Squiggla, through the simple activity of mark-making and regular practice, helps to strengthen and build new patterns of connections.  

That’s interesting. A lot of my peers have recently been in discussion about how outdated the idea of the left and right side brain is in that context. Whether you’re creative or not creative, and either destined for this or destined for that.

Sue: There are lots of cliches, stereotypes and barriers that people put up about their own creative potential, that often becomes entrenched at a very young age. In fact, educationalists have shown that it’s around the age of nine that we become more self-referential, we get a sense of self-image and where we fit in the world. Peer pressure and judgement suddenly becomes extremely acute. It’s an integral part of child development psychology. When you become self-aware, you’re open to societal prejudices and judgements that influence the rest of your life.

One of the key audiences for Squiggla is the general audience adult who may have been told, when they were young, that they couldn’t draw or that what they may have joyfully created looked ‘stupid’ or ‘wrong’. The impact of this can be lifelong to the extent that many adults dramatically say they can’t paint to save themselves, or they can’t draw a straight line.  They never allow themselves to feel that creative joy again.

With Squiggla we’re trying to break down these barriers and re-introduce this idea of spontaneous joy that can so easily be accessed with the tool in your hand. We can feel that joy when our minds, eyes, hands, and bodies intersect and interact with the mark making moment on the page.

From there, you tap into both reason-based and sense-based learning, because you’re looking, feeling and reflecting, gaining insight and improvising and responding to the mark that you’ve just made. You’re thinking about and intuitively feeling what to do next. Eventually, you instinctively generate new creative ideas by enabling intuitive, inventive processes to flow.  

As you say, there are so many societal pressures impressed on us from an early age. I studied art, and if someone gave me a piece of paper and a pen, I wonder if I could be ‘in the moment’.

Megan: You have to unlearn it. It’s a process of unlearning, whilst drawing on your histories, your context, your memories, and your emotions at the time. Sometimes those emotions, and meanings, will emerge on the paper whether you like it or not. I think a part of what you’re describing is fear of the blank page. People who’ve been to art school will understand this. A blank canvas. Where do you begin? And so, we have two steps at the beginning that we usually talk people through.

We begin with a blank page and the first step is to make a line frame around the edge of the paper, usually in a rectangle. You are now working inside your Squigglaspace rather than just on the page. The next step is to make your first mark, which is what we refer to as a Startermark. That might be a dot, the letter of your first name, a wavy line, a shape, a burst of marks.

The hardest part, of course, is making that first mark. But we suggest ideas to get you going and, then, the idea is to respond one mark at a time or, if you’re confident, two or three at a time from there on out. You will find your body learns the movements of mark making, where the hand is leading, rather than your mind.

Squiggla gives people a starting point.

Sue: Yes. Because we want to be free from judgement, avoid preconceived meanings, and allow open-ended exploration, we focus on the abstract use of marks rather than representation or doing an observational drawing of ‘something out there’. 

Instead we use the word ‘Given’. I could give you a ‘given’ mark or you could give someone else a ‘given’ mark. It’s like a single note of music — everything unfolds in relationship to that first note/mark. In fact, Squiggla shares a lot with improvisational jazz. Your mark is your instrument, a noise, a sound. 

Neuroscientists at the University of Georgia have studied how jazz musicians’ brains responded while they were improvising. Initially, as a less experienced player, the improvisation is more of a conscious act — planning and testing out different scenarios. Later, with more experience, the process is lot more intuitive and subconscious. Squiggla seeks the same level of learning — as our creative thinking is exercised, it becomes enriched through new, novel and spontaneous experiences.

Eventually, what happens in a lot of these creative moments, is that you end up in this sense of flow. It’s when you’re right in the moment, time almost drifts away and you’re suddenly aware that you’re focused and unfocused, at the same time. As your senses are enhanced, you almost hear every drawn line like a musical instrument or you feel it like a body sensation. That is what happens when you’ve unleashed your creative thinking and Squiggla is a very accessible way of experiencing this.

Memories of colour, texture and tone often pop into our minds in the process of Squigglamaking.  

We become aware of how memories and learning emerge, always bringing in important moments of our context and environment. That’s important. We draw on those in an intuitive way to let marks flow freely on the page. Sometimes the marks will just unfold and you’ll be surprised or gain new insights into your creative mind.

And that would be really rewarding. Having that ‘aha’ moment where you step away and think, “Wow, so I did that?” If I was able to reach that point of being not so conscious of the decision, there would be an element of surprise.

Sue: Often people will start off by using a sign that is familiar, habitual to them — like a house or a cat, rainbow or tree. At this point, we ask them to disrupt this familiarity by focusing on each visual component, deconstructing the marks that make up that shape. Then they come to exist in their own right and we can vary, repeat, compose and play with those marks in different ways. Disrupting the familiar is incredibly valuable and disruptive thinking is one of the characteristics of creativity. We encourage people to change tools, swap to their less dominant hand, explore textures and embrace accidental marks.

Megan: When you’re new to something, everything can feel overwhelming but, when you break it down line by line, it’s very achievable. We’ve broken down the visual language to its fundamentals: a dot, a line and a mark. That’s why we use the phrase “it’s as easy as 123 or ABC,” because, for the written language, ABC are the fundamentals, and for the numerical it’s 123. For Squiggla the fundamentals are just as accessible: dots, lines and marks.

I’m thinking about my six-year-old and he never comes home with drawing homework. It’s always reading, writing or maths.

Megan: We’re encouraging various educators and schools to incorporate Squiggla into the general classroom. Not just in an art class.

You can also be very creative and work in a role that is not seen as creative but creativity is the ability to deconstruct, as you say, or to problem solve

Sue: Neuroscientists and educationalists say that skills such as collaboration, problem posing, divergent thinking and innovation are transferable across a wide range of disciplines. These are some of the 11 dimensions of the Creative Process researched by Professor Peter O’Connor that are applicable to a wider range of contexts, from schools and organisations to individuals. So if you’re the person who is trying to design what a new traffic system is going to be or if you’re someone who’s going to design the next America’s Cup boat, whether you’re a parent, whether you’re a teacher, whether you’re making cocktails in a bar at night, as humans, we all benefit from accessing our creative minds using invention, imagination and speculation, risk taking and visualisation.  

I see how Squiggla can enhance your mind, in terms of exploring different ways of thinking. Do you also view the initiative as a well-being tool for mental health?

Sue: We can all benefit from being more creative. Regardless of what we enjoy in our lives, whether it’s cooking, gardening, sewing. Why? Because we are more fully human, we expand our capacity for empathy and curiosity. Our capacity to engage with the world, to understand ourselves and the value that we place on our own creativity. Squiggla provides an easy way to participate in this process. Chartwell also supports the value of public art galleries as gymnasiums for the creative mind where people of all ages can access the kind of creative thinking we can all benefit from and understand more deeply.

Megan: And to reconnect with the innate sense of curiosity and creativity that you would have had as a child.

It’s also about creating those spontaneous moments. That is where the immediate benefit would come from.

Megan: The immediate benefit also comes from taking the time to slow down, to do something tangible, to put pen or crayon or pastel to paper. It’s about being in the moment.  And that’s really beneficial.

I recently interviewed Hans Ulrich Obrist for INDEX and he spoke about this idea of short-termism in the art world. We are too focused on who is the next artist, what is the next exhibition. Why can’t we be a little bit more focused on the bigger picture and long-term?

Sue: This is about the bigger picture. 

That’s what I’m thinking. 

Sue: This is about lifelong, creative possibilities. It’s a process of understanding and being yourself. Feeling your own reactions to the world and interpreting them through the process of mark-making.

I initially became aware of Squiggla through Instagram. How do the digital and physical aspects interlink? 

Sue: The offline experience is the most critical experience of being in the moment, making and letting your reasoning brain relax to allow your sense-based brain to emerge. The Squiggla Online experience, accessed at squiggla.org, is a way of recording what you’ve done — uploading images into Galleries, sharing them with family, friends or in a classroom context.

Megan: The Chartwell and Squiggla Instagrams are for sharing too.

Looking at past examples, I see a lot of patterns but the works that aren’t patterned stand out to me. I sense those mark-makers have probably progressed further into their subconscious.

Sue: Pattern is a useful way to get into the process because our brains naturally recognise patterns. It’s part of our evolution, to respond in pattern. But, for us, the challenge is moving beyond that pattern. That’s the more inventive state. Think of it in terms of music. You’ve got a pattern of chords, and that’s what you follow. 

But the real moment of invention, which are the moments that exercise your creative brain more, are when you venture from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This is when you start to use those patterns, generate new ideas and develop your own original Squigglaworks.

Squiggla pop-up at the Mairangi Arts Centre, March 2021. Photo by David St George, courtesy of misterwolf – Creative Services.

“Educationalists have shown that it’s around the age of nine that we become more self-referential, we get a sense of self-image and where we fit in the world. Peer pressure and judgement suddenly becomes extremely acute. It’s an integral part of child development psychology. When you become self-aware, you’re open to societal prejudices and judgements that influence the rest of your life.”

— Sue Gardiner

Squiggla installation at the Auckland Art Fair, February 2021. Image courtesy of Squiggla. 

Squiggla mark-making activity.

“Neuroscientists at the University of Auckland and elsewhere are now reporting that the right/left brain scenario is a myth. A creative brain is one with strengthened patterns of connections all around the brain. And Squiggla, through the simple activity of mark-making and regular practice, helps to strengthen and build new patterns of connections.”

— Megan Shaw

Squiggla mark-making activity.

Squiggla pop-up at the Mairangi Arts Centre, March 2021. Photo by David St George, courtesy of misterwolf – Creative Services.

Squiggla activity sheet.

Squiggla activity sheet.

Squiggla pop-up at the Mairangi Arts Centre, March 2021. Photo by David St George, courtesy of misterwolf – Creative Services.

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