the high purpose of purposeless play


The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all.
– John Cage

My mind has returned, these past months, to the delights of playing without purpose in (and out of) the studio – especially embracing aspects of chance in my work.  Early in my career as an artisan I played with processes that were very fickle – applying wax, winding, clamping, dipping fiber in dyes, bleaching, discharging and manipulating textile surfaces. These processes were instrumental in showing me the hidden gift in the “goof-up”. Eventually, as I relaxed with the unexpected ways that the process would defy my expectations and spur my curiosity, I came to regard the unexpected as pure magic. Those “failures” would always open a door onto what might be possible if I surrendered my expectations and pushed the process a little further…


Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons: EarthWorks Series, detail

earthWorks series India.
Khadi papers, textile fragments, coconut twine,
thorns, pigments from walls, mud

In India I folded Khadi paper and buried it in mud for days.  When I unearthed the folded wads of paper I was enchanted to find that there were lines and tones etched into the surface by the action of the earth and water – and sometimes a worm had left evidence of its journey or a hearty meal.  In the work above, this was just the beginning of my journey – there would be rubbing, collage and stitching added before the work reached its resolution.

It’s the unexpected and uninvited occurrences in the studio that excite me the most. I’m not at all temperamentally suited to production-by-design. What’s more, I’m far enough along the via creativa now to have learned that genuine creativity has little to do with the known. Or with innovation of old ideas. Or with work repeated ad infinitum because it was acclaimed and commercially successful in the past. I’ve come to be convinced that creativity and play are a “goes-with”, as Alan Watts would say. Play is the heart of the matter, and it’s time we made fun of it, as children do. I love Laurence G Boldt’s description of playfulness as a “kind of rascal”:

Playfulness is the dew-fresh, childlike spirit of wonder.
A roving, wandering, wondering, “what if” kind of a rascal.
Unconventional, lightning flash, sailing through the cracks…

If play doesn’t come easy for us we can easily sidestep the “get-serious” inner critic by resorting to chance. We can surrender every decision to the roll of a dice, the selection of a random card, or the way the sticks fall using the I Ching. We can invent our own aleatory devices, and be genuine in our commitment to obey them – just for now, just while we’re playing. (There’s no need for anxiety, the critic will still be there when we stop our game!)

It seems to me that the creative life is actually one big game of chance – whether one’s an artist in the studio or a gardener in the backyard, or a family-absorbed young mother. Chance rolls a situation under our feet; we meet it with open curiosity. We make a gesture, which chance plays with before serving us another … chance.  There have been a few renegade artists who have made the use of chance a formal aspect of their work – in music composition and performance, in writing, and in visual art; I am particularly inspired by the work of John Cage. Influenced by his studies of Buddhism, Indian philosophy, and the I-Ching in the 1940s and 1950s, Cage incorporated “chance-controlled” elements into his ground-breaking work in all media, including watercolors, prints, drawings, and scores.

The function of art is not to communicate one’s personal ideas or feelings,
but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation.

– John Cage

For Cage, nature’s “manner of operation” was purposeless play. Although he embraced randomness with the use of chance operations, he insisted that this “helped him make choices”, as the crucial ingredient in the process was finding the “right questions” in the first place. In the context of painting, for example, “What colour palette?” “What tools?” “What options for layout?” The painting below is the result of random composition dictated entirely by chance; the outcome is serenely contemplative.


John Cage: HV2, No 17b

John Cage, HV2, No 17b

Maybe I am such a play-enthusiast because there was little allowance for it in my childhood years, when creativity was constrained by the need for productivity and usefulness – in other words, purposefulness. But there’s another reason: it was the best strategy I ever came upon as a teacher of art and design. Whether my students were working towards formal exams, or taking art subjects for the love of it, they all responded to the encouragement to play – and indeed, one of the enduring effects of playing with chance (they reported) was that they learned to find the right questions. And that’s a great life-skill, wouldn’t you agree?

It is play, not properness
that is the central artery, the core,
the brain stem of creative life.

No play, no creative life.
Be good, no creative life.
Sit still, no creative life.

The impulse to play is an instinct.

– Clarissa Pinkola Estes


making fun of play is one of the ebooks in my empty canvas – wondering mind series
(free download)



daily details 24.10.12 - miriam louisa simons


images of personal work cut into strips, acetate, off-loom weaving, stitching

Antidote for pride and preciousness re one’s work:
Pick up scissors or craft knife. Cut, weave, rip, stitch …


Just for now,
just for this moment,
pretend you’ve nothing to say…

– mls

antidotes for creative constipation


Miriam Louisa Simons: detail from scroll - Mu

220 x 220
Detail from a scroll  (980 x 355)

torn Khadi papers, acrylic paint, light-reflective paint, gauze
ceramic fragment, textured card


I’ve been pottering away with color and texture, dyes and pigments, paper and textile, for almost half a century.  Mostly incognito, outside the commercial circuit.  And, by great good fortune, with astonishing students to guide me.

Two things have driven my practice.  First and foremost, an addiction to the mysterious movement of creativity as it takes over and renders me (artist-designer-me) redundant.  Then, and this is a flow-on from the former, inquiring into what steps – if any – can be taken to invite, encourage, cajole or coerce that movement to come and play.

Now that I’m longer in the tooth, it’s obvious that my preoccupation with a kind of religious experience – which manifested for me in the studio – was a crucial part of my wider search for non-dual understanding.

My life took me down the via negativa.  I ended up with teachers like Krishnamurti, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Wei Wu Wei, who unpicked my felted fantasies with their ruthless questions.  And as far as the specific topic of creativity was concerned, it was David Bohm who was my mentor – not a visual artist, but a physicist!

This little preamble is my way of explaining that I’ve always been more interested in what sabotages or prevents creative working and thinking, than defining what it might be.  I now suspect there’s no computable answer to the latter.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many activities to see which ones might be effective antidotes to the creative constipation we call block.  When I’m in a painterly mood there’s nothing better than simply getting out the tubes and mixing hues.  Simply mixing, mind you.  No plans, no designs.  I just mix; I make tonal ladders and color ladders.  I simply worship and celebrate color without any agenda.  By the time a morning (afternoon, day, sleepless night) has passed, I’m overflowing with ideas.  Color does that to me.

If the painterly mood is awol I tear things up.  Sometimes I tear up ho-hum work and weave it into – whatever.  Sometimes I tear up lovely hand-made khadi papers from India, or washi and tenguji from Japan.  Then I collage them down, avoiding figurative temptations, just overlapping and juxtaposing.  Sometimes the fragments are already colored, sometimes not.  But I find they will always ask for light and shade so out come the tubes.  Color goes on.  Breathstrokes might float across the surface.  Stitches too.

The names come much later.  As E H Gombrich always insisted: making always precedes matching.