The Grace of Perfect Danger

The Grace of Perfect Danger workshop (an Artists’ Day) took place at Henlow Bridge Lakes on 17 March 2012. Here is a report of the day that showcases how Seeds Creatives’ workshops are run. This particular workshop is one of the origin stories behind the Artist in your Own Residence scheme.

The phrase ‘The Grace of Perfect Danger’ is taken from the famous John O’Donoghue poem ‘For the Artist at the Start of Day‘ (from his collection, Benedictus: A Book of Blessings). This poem was one of the inspirations for the workshop – an opportunity to explore the theory and practice of creativity.

Workshop report

Seeds Creatives welcomed 13 participants to Henlow Bridge Lakes for an Artists’ Day based on the poetry of John O’Donohue and the theories of Jeanne Carbonetti concerning the life-cycle of creativity (in her book, Making Pearls: Living the Creative Life).

Poem reading

The day started with Michael Oliver reading the O’Donohue poem ‘For the Artist at the Start of Day’.

The delegates were encouraged to start to think about a creative response to the poem, using a creative medium of their choice (e.g. drawing, painting, writing, music)

Making Pearls: the creative life-cycle

Christopher Norris then explained how Carbonetti identified seven stages in the creative life-cycle, using the analogy of an oyster creating a pearl (PDF: Making Pearls chart). These stages reflect the chronology of artists feeling inspired, researching many ideas, concentrating on one idea for delivery, followed by a series of stages when the giving of the project to the world has to be faced and assimilated. Carbonetti calls these stages:

  • Waiting
  • Opening
  • Closing
  • Holding
  • Releasing
  • Emptying
  • Sitting

She equates each stage to a phase of an oyster creating a pearl (further information: on how oysters make pearls).

Chris then asked the group to compare the seven stages to the O’Donohue poem, ‘For the Artist at the Start of Day’, to match up words and phrases that fit the creative life-cycle.

In this video, Jeanne Carbonetti talks about her art and philosophy from her Crow Hill Gallery in Chester, VT, USA.

Feedback discussion

John Robinson then managed a session where the group shared their views about how the poem fitted the stages of the creative life-cycle.

Here are some of the comments from this sharing session, listed in sequence:

  • The metaphors in the poem were interchangeable with the seven stages
  • The process of being creative carries on all day, not just in the early morning
  • There is a triangle of connection between the poem, the seven stages and personal issues in our lives
  • I have an image of the irritants acting like refiners’ fire in the smelting process. When metal is heated, the irritants come to the surface and the irritants are skimmed off. Different irritants come to the surface. This is an important part of the process. The irritants on the surface stop the oxidising of the metal; this is useful, and the irritants are only poured off at the end of the process
  • I think the irritants are like clarifying eggs when I produce stock
  • I think the foundation stone of the life-cycle of creativity is described by the lines in the poem: ‘To reach beyond imitation, And the wheel of repetition’
  • The phrase ‘the grace of perfect danger’ is the Releasing stage. Launching a project is the dangerous part
  • I find that at a dinner party, sharing a meal with guests is the dangerous part
  • Why is the danger perfect? Can it be imperfect? The Arabic term for ‘perfect’ means ‘complete, whole’
  • I see ‘the grace of perfect danger’ as the Closing stage. I see this as the grace of perfect commitment
  • John Martyn was a singer who became famous in the late 1970s. He released an album called Grace and Danger, about his turbulent relationship with his wife, who was called Grace. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and died an alcoholic. This album is about Grace, his wife, and agonises about what he should do about his relationship. The music is beautiful and ugly at the same time
  • John O’Donohue deals with irritants in his writing
  • The poem talks about multiple phases in the process. When you move from the cusp of one stage to the next you can be in more than one stage at once

John then handed out a summary document for Making Pearls as background reading for taking away from the Day (further reading: an online copy of this summary). He then asked the group to think of symbols for the different stages in the creative life-cycle process and to turn their thoughts into a creative work of art. The group really got stuck into this task.

Michael Oliver then read ‘For longing’, another poem by John O’Donohue in the Benedictus collection.

Appreciative Inquiry

After lunch, John introduced an afternoon of Appreciative Inquiry work. This session was about the participants sharing their ‘pearl-making best’ experiences in each of the seven stages of the creative life cycle. Artists paired up to tell the other person about the best times they had experienced.

John invited each person to give attention to what they did best. He told everyone not to look at negative thoughts; it was ‘okay to deal with pain as long as looking at what is good … as chunky grit makes pearls’. John encouraged people to love themselves, as creatorship is heroes’ work springing from the divinity within ourselves, our agape love.

This exercise resulted in an excellent discussion with the following comments shared within a group feedback session:

  • I think the making pearls anaology is useful: it includes what is of the moment, thinking for the future, the irritant that drives the creative process, and the need to move forward. I have been at the Waiting and Opening stages for a long time; I’m now moving towards Closing and Holding. Grit is a ‘positive irritant’. I have a feeling of not being able to ignore doing something any longer.
  • I found it difficult to think of something I have created, until I thought of an event I organised and produced as being shared with loads of people. This event relates to all the stages. Making a commitment to an event comes out of structure and discipline. The stages form a protocol for a plan for the future; they show the way to make the time to be creative.
  • I found it difficult to put together my thinking. I think spirituality is separate from creativity. My most creative act was having children: I’ve spent 30 years as a vicar’s wife, with all the ups and downs, and busyness. I occasionally think of doing artistic work, like painting. Thinking about pearls, I found it irritating to be in the same space as other people; I needs to find space to get away from other people. The Closing stage needs focus, away from other people. Yet I’ve discovered that spirituality and creativity are not separate – my painting today comes from the poem. I shall work on the painting later, and photograph the completed picture to send to you by email.
  • I’m frustrated: I’m still at the Waiting stage. The poem is really deep and I want to sit and look at the poem to find deeper meaning. I find the environment at this venue different, as I’m used to being alone: being with other people is difficult. I find that producing something on the spur of the moment is difficult; it can’t be done. My memories of the Releasing stage when I finish a project are: feelings of pleasure; and frustration. I download my feelings – the personal struggle inside myself – to find meaning, relief and a release. I do not make a work of art to share with others. I want to listen to inner being more… take time to listen… get into the present and listen.
  • I don’t think I’m creative, but I’ve been thinking about a project I did a long time ago. I do relate to the process, but I find that the irritant analogy doesn’t work for me. I simply feel an impulse to create: I say to myself, ‘I’d like to do that!’, which is usually to commemorate something special for other people. I have pride in creating, and take joy of ‘giving it away’ in the Emptying stage. Yet I think that creativity always belongs to you. The artwork I gave to my friend is displayed in a prominent place in her house, which is important to both of us. I feel special that she values the piece so much. I also think that the process of creating the art is more important that the beauty or ugliness of the piece.
  • My current project – a book on the evolution of Eastern religion – fits neatly into the stages of creativity. I have brought a seashore scene to recreate here, using shells, stones and paper to make a physical collage. The image of ‘oyster pearls’ inspires this artwork, and I realised that I had an oyster shell to bring to the Day. The ‘Pearl’ is a pebble painted in iridescent oil pastel, the coral is the Grounding phase, it is secure; the irritation comes from different shells, representing different ideas; one small shell is the main kernel, an idea that explodes into new life as the other shells/ideas float to one side. The Emptying phase is not depicted; the Releasing phase shows an order and progression. There is a dynamic flow of colour.
  • I’m not a visual artist, I’m a musician, so I don’t have any end product to show. This is a very rich day: the poem is very meaningful. We need to love ourselves, and then to love our neighbour as ourselves. The protestant work ethic instils the thought in me that we are born sinful and are ‘rubbish at things’. I took a course with the Quakers that taught that we all have creativity within us; we should not put ourselves down, yet we should not boast. This is a big muddle for me.
  • I’m entering a new cycle of Waiting, but I’m ready to step forward. I am painting again, but I felt moved to write today. I am encouraged by people’s comments that I have written a ‘poem’; I felt the piece was more of a stream of consciousness. I will leave the Day in a ‘hiatus’, not feeling like I have been productive but yet having produced meaningful work. I feel in a liminal space, on the threshold of the next phase of my journey.[John said: The poem drew other spirits towards her and that her voice was important, using the gifts and resources she has.]
  • My project story is a collage, from a few months ago, which is the most personal thing I have done. I am dyslexic, so I have a particular way of looking at writing. I explored the concept of making other people understanding how I feel when I look at writing. The title of the piece was given as a task by my college. I used quotes from fairy tales, and then created a new alphabet of letters, based on the English alphabet, but using 37 letters. I used so many letters because people can’t then understand the words I’ve written down. I have no base for comparing against when I read, and I find this difficult. My experience of the stages is to bounce around between Waiting and Opening before going on; I always have more ideas than I can use, but I run with the better idea. My breakthrough on the project was my decision to use extra letters in the alphabet: 26 letters was not enough, I wanted my piece not to match with English words. I got this feeling from writing out the quotes from the fairy tales. Going through text became a quick process once I had hit on the idea.
  • I chose a recent project to talk about, William Tyndale’s Bible in English: a storytelling project I’ve taken into schools. This project made me feel angry and frustrated by working in partnership – yet it was important to keep going. In particular, I found it hard to get into the one character in the piece, the relic seller. When I write, I usually feel head-focused, and cerebral; I have learnt more about physicality by considering what the relic-seller character wore? I found some cloth from a textile shop in Barnet as well as a bottle to contain Thomas Becket’s blood. Wrapping the cloth around my body, I became the character. I had found the right prop. For a deadline for the next day, I had to present one story to the director. Doing the piece felt like taking a ‘risk’: at this dangerous stage I always have a quiet time after performing. I got the story directly from the character. What stage of the creative life cycle did this process represent? Maybe the Releasing stage, This is a messy process: I like things to stay messy and dangerous. Storytelling is different every time. It depends on the audience and atmosphere, and takes on a different flavour.
  • I painted a picture inspired by the poem. In this part of the picture, my mind is clear, hopeful of new inspiration, and is ready for a new day. Over here, the Earth is shaded from the galaxy: there is an innocent beginning. Light and inspiration comes, which is hard; you have to look for the spark, keep your eyes open and work with the silence. Here is the ‘grace of perfect danger’: the mind is powerful; it is often used for destruction. Artists need to create, to help people through life. They look for something new that impacts on people’s lives – they look for new light and new sparks. Here is ‘Grow stronger in your heart’: life-giving water, seeds – ideas that start in the heart and grow into big plants – trees and the greenery… all this is work that can inspire other people. The different areas show the different ways of being creative. This is sometimes stormy. Don’t go into the bad patches, forget about the bad side; instead seek out the new, what’s waiting for you. For new projects, don’t let negative criticism get you down. Keep pushing through, find what you are looking for, the good soil for your work. As for the stages? Set yourself on good ground; act, don’t wait, carry on Closing and Holding through the hard times. When there is no life, seek out the light and keep going. Move towards Releasing: see what you want to achieve as soon as possible in your life.
  • I am enjoying today. I have unlocked something, but not I’m not sure what yet. I am battling. Edyta said ‘shut your mind and just draw’. This is the start of something new.

Dream walk

At the end of the feedback session, the group were encouraged to go outside ‘to take their dreams for a walk’. As the previous exercises had teased out many people’s plans for the future, this section – normally a time of rich self-discovery – became an opportunity to relax and recoup in a country setting.

Case study: Slowing the Pace of Life

On returning to the venue, Michael Oliver shared the thinking behind inspiration he took from a previous Artists’ Day – Slowing the Pace of Life (a bread-making workshop) – held on 6 November 2010 at St Paul’s church in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. This is a summary of his talk:

‘There is a common thread to culture. I can be equally inspired by the recent Claude exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum and by a photograph of my parents, sitting on a bench.

‘Don’t try to be brilliantly original. Stand on the shoulders of others. Build something that is fresh to the world. Ok, I pinched these phrases, but creativity allows you to borrow and ask the question: ‘Isn’t this a bit better?’

‘I love Rembrandt’s work – his work translates into paint, it is not photographic, it coverts human beings into paint. Learn to appreciate what others do.

‘Creators present work; others receive it. Art takes two sides to make it; the meeting point may create a new idea. It is about communication, not about ego; it is not about a pat on the back. Don’t look for praise; look for sharing and community. Move forward with new ideas. For example, how do we understand the Bible? We all have ideas that are just as valid as the vicar’s.

‘I went to a Seeds Creatives’ bread-making workshop held at St Peter’s church, Letchworth, in November 2010. The creative opportunity on the day was to ‘find something to look at in detail’. Trees, buds, ripples on water, we are surrounded by so much that requires translation. Be open to God’s world, we are part of creation. See the world as God’s plaything, making something for his Son. We name stuff by looking, appreciating and feeling – let it sink into you, the emotion of the moment. Think about mathematics: 2 + 2 = 4 … Can you feel that? Feel the moment, the little sensation. I am always angry, while I am working on getting the feeling; there is a gestation period, then the idea comes. Play around with it in your mind. I once did an annunciation picture: I wanted to be powerful. The quasi-child clicked eventually; he was completely serene, an answer true to me, true to the moment, true to the art.

‘Now to my “Leaf’ project” … I used Chinese ink, giving up the colour palette. You grind with the other hand with which you paint. The ink is applied with different density. I produced five images, four in situ on the day and one later on:

  • Image 1: ‘I tried to capture the dynamic of the hand, translated into movement, the body into the leaf as it moved’
  • Image 2: ‘In this image I attempted to capture a feeling of loneliness’
  • Image 3|: ‘This image is a darker version’
  • Image 4: ‘This version has a cross shape, which tried to encompass the movement of the leaf’
  • Image 5: ‘This picture – the leaf in profile – was painted later, on further reflection’

‘These images gestated about a fortnight later into poetry, haiku. This is different for my English work, poetry in quatrains.’

Sun, leaf

Hanging, waving
The setting sun
The single leaf,
Beneath a bud

‘Practice daily, to get the feeling – there is something of us in our art, a miniature self-portrait in everything we do. Don’t be frightened of that.

‘Creativity in an on-going process; always practise a creative life and never be frightened of your art. Don’t worry.’


The Artists’ Day closed with notices, prayers and another John O’Donohue poem: ‘Beannacht’ (once more, taken from the Benedictus: A Book of Blessingscollection).

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