Embracing Spilled Paint, Part II

In an earlier post (“Embracing Spilled Paint”), Melanie Rothschild wrote about the powerful aftermath of spilling paint and how it gave her a tremendous respect for mistake making as part of the creative process. Here, she continues that conversation.

Buffalo, New York had never been on my radar but it turns out to be home to Buffalo State College and the only graduate level program in the Study of Creativity in the United States.

So there I was, a grown woman with a family in California, sleeping in a dorm in Buffalo. Luckily, the program had a distance option and I had to live on campus only two weeks a year.

Initially, this program on the study of creativity was not what I expected. For the most part, the focus seemed to be on innovation in a business context. I didn’t really think it was for me. But then, I couldn’t help notice the parallels between the creative process in this more formal academic context and the creative process as I experienced it when making an utter mess in my workshop. We were taught that going for big ideas and not being afraid of making mistakes, is the backbone of developing creative ideas. True enough, but one problem: it’s easier said than done.

When I heard other people discussing the tools of their trade, I initially cowered internally as I thought about the low-tech status of my paints and brushes compared with their snazzy, high tech gadgets. I thought about my spilled paint and about all the other design ideas I’d created which came about because of some sort of blunder or mistake I was trying to cover up. I realized that the tools of my trade actually seemed to be . . . mistakes.

Even though we all talk about learning from mistakes, the truth is that we’re awfully invested in trying to steer clear of them. In school the focus on testing is prominent earlier and earlier with even young elementary age students talking about their permanent records. By the time high school is coming to a finish, everyone knows that a few extra mistakes here or there on one or two standardized tests could determine where you’ll spend your college years, or if you’ll even go to college. Regardless of what nice things we may say about mistakes, we’re constantly conditioned to avoid them and we spend a lot of energy trying not to make them; energy we could be putting in other directions.

I began to consider the importance of mistakes as part of the creative process more seriously and became fascinated with everything about mistakes. I started to notice the way in which various people think about mistakes and saw that it actually reveals a great deal about them in general. Our thinking about mistakes affects not only artistic output, but basically the very foundation of how we perceive our lives. If we can’t tolerate mistakes, we’re demanding a level of perfection from ourselves – and others – we can’t possibly achieve.

But we can’t be casual with mistake- making at all times. We certainly don’t want to make a mistake when we’re accelerating onto the freeway, and thinking about a surgeon making mistakes verges on unbearable. When does it matter? How do we know? When does it save our lives and when does it hold us back? Nuance is so problematic, but in this case, so vital.

Watch Melanie’s Spilled Paint! Check out these videos:

Click here to see more of Melanie’s artwork and a short preview of her documentary, MISTAKE.

Melanie Rothschild is a self-taught artist whose elaborate interior accessories have been sold in stores throughout the United States including Neiman-Marcus, the shops at the Smithsonian Institution, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and hundreds of others for almost two decades. Her work is shown in fine art galleries and has been licensed to Target. She considers moxie, an irreverent nature, and a respect for mistake-making to be the tools of her trade. Melanie has a master’s degree in the Study of Creativity and an undergraduate degree in Anthropology. She is from and lives in Los Angeles.



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4 Responses to Embracing Spilled Paint, Part II

  1. cyndi.burnett says:

    What a fascinating and interesting read. I agree about people and mistakes, it shows a great about a person. What would happen if we changed education, and gave kids a mistake quotient? I wonder if they would enjoy the learning and creative process even more!

  2. Beth DT says:

    Love the film links. They are beautiful illustrations/meditations on how a “mistake” might actually be a step towards something greater than originally intended. Or more lovely. Or both.
    This piece really made me think about my own attitude towards mistakes and opportunity. And the attitude I model for my children. Great read.

  3. tapenade says:

    Where would we be without happy accidents? This was an excellent morning read-a nice reminder that every moment is a vital part of the process. set me up with good feelings for the day ahead. also i just want to say that one of my new goals is to have a room in my house where one of melanie’s dripping paint films is projected on a wall in a permanent loop. forever.

  4. sara.g says:

    So much has been said about learning from our mistakes, about how wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from doing things over and over again until one has become skilled and knowledgeable in a given area. This process implies making lots of mistakes. It also implies attaining a certain level of perfection. But I like the way Melanie has taken the mistake and made it the foundation of a creative process. Taking this a bit further, one can say that learning from and working with our mistakes cultivates an open mind. Instead of always looking for ways to “fix a problem,” by searching for ways to use the mistakes as Melanie does so beautifully and creatively, one develops tolerance for and open mindedness to other ideas (and, really, to others). Teaching our children to look carefully and creatively at mistakes is perhaps one of the most important gifts we can give them. Thank you Melanie for your thoughtful work in this area!