Unsung

April 29, 2014 | By Nathan Heleine, Cofounder & Chief Creative Officer

“I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. […] At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions.

What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. […] And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Everyone is an artist, and here is what I mean.

My parents were musicians before their careers took hold. And thanks in no small part to their work ethic and endless encouragement, I’ve been able to form a career around my creative interests: music, writing, improvisation, design, technology, and a newfound dedication to understanding the art of storytelling through documentary and narrative cinema. Yes, these things can be cobbled together to form a way of living. A livelihood. And what a word that is when compared with the frightening weight and permanence often implied by the word ‘career.’

I make my living by being creative, most days, but I see that the word 'creative’ is misunderstood by many and is used carelessly, even dangerously, by those who identify most comfortably as creative individuals.

My mom will tell you that I am special. She will do so convincingly. But I assure you, I am not. I’m just a normal guy of average intelligence who is trying to find a way to live a meaningful life in this world. I’m even from Normal. Normal, Illinois. You can look it up. The only abnormal thing about me, especially when compared to the broad scope of human experience that exists beyond the borders of this abundantly confident country I call home, is that I was told from a very early age that I am special and can do just about anything. And although my upbringing was relatively modest, I was given more than ample time and materials to explore and refine my creative impulses. Maybe I’m stubborn and my parents’ work ethic rubbed off to some extent, but I’m not a workaholic. I work around 40 to 50 hours per week, sometimes less, sometimes more. I stick with things until I see them living up to a certain self-imposed standard and try to surround myself with people whose standard matches or exceeds my own. I seek new influences to alter this standard. And I deal with many of the usual detractors: procrastination, occasional lack of motivation, spotty decision making, an over-investment in films and video games (substitute your lazy vice of choice), and a moody sense of purpose. This is the general experience of a motivated working adult. This is normal.

My parents are highly motivated working adults. They work hard. And they stopped playing music many years ago as a result. They no longer treat their creative hobbies as strong priorities in their lives, in part because their world rarely serves up any meaningful reminder that they are creative people at heart. I will tell you, though, that my mother and father are artists. And I will try to do so convincingly.

Every human being is creative. The creative impulse is born inside each of us and lives within us for all the days we walk this earth. In this way, it is no different from the muscles that make the runner, the brain that makes the engineer, the eyes that make the driver, or the ears that make the musician. In fact, the universality of this creative impulse trumps even our physical likenesses as humans, because it transcends physical limitations, race, age, or gender. The basic ingredients that make a human are remarkably uniform. What matters then is how we use the ingredients we’re given, how we combine them, how we refine them. That said, we’re also products of our environments, which extend to our relationships and our realities. We can’t all form a livelihood around our creative impulses but we can all live better if we take small steps into the adjacent possible, and explore our creativity every day.

In my parents’ case, they’ve found a way to express their own distinct personalities and preferences through their work as civil & environmental engineers. They created a brand, found a team of like-minded colleagues, hustled for clients, and expanded their respective skill sets as the landscape of their industry shifted. After many years spent working for other companies, they’ve been doing it their way for over ten years. Does this sound like a creative process to you? Do my parents deserve a place amidst the rising creative class? Are they not artists within their own medium, despite the fact that their industry is not conventionally associated with creativity?

Let’s keep it simple, because creativity belongs to everyone. If you find a way to express yourself honestly by any means large or small, and if this form of expression feels like your own little patch of ground from which you can step out and face the world, then you are an artist in my book.

Unsung is a nonfiction series featuring cinematic portraits of everyday artists. What exactly is an everyday artist? Well, if you open your eyes to a broader definition of creativity, then you’ll begin to meet them anywhere and everywhere. Your mother, your brother, a friend or coworker, a local shopkeeper, a kind stranger. Who knows, it might even be you.

At its heart, this project is about broadening our collective definition of creativity. It’s about doing away with elitist misconceptions of a 'creative class.’ It’s about removing a pedestal that we have embraced, for a term that really amounts to nothing more than exceptional circumstances in which some are encouraged to pursue their creative impulses with arms wide open, while others are not. Does unique talent exist in this world? Of course. That doesn’t mean the clubhouse can’t hold everyone.

Unsung also aims to become a window onto working life in this century, and to examine how we bring ourselves into our work. It’s a quiet reminder to, in the words of Michael J. Fox, “Keep going until they take the crayons away.”

Our first two episodes were released on April 25th, 2014, and will be followed by one story each month for as long as we can sustainably produce the series. Once we get going, if this seems to resonate with you, our audience, we’ll invite you to contribute to the cause in various ways. For now, we invite you to take a step into this space during a quiet time in your week, and reflect on the story of an everyday artist.

What does it mean to be creative? Look again.

Episode One: Jessica

Episode Two: Albert

Episode Three: Betty (preview)

Unsung: Preview Film from Crush & Lovely on Vimeo.