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How to Cope with a Creative Calamity

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It’s Summer 2012.

The hot Spanish sun is unforgiving as it beats down on the quiet streets of Borja, a medieval town a few hours north east of Madrid. Cecilia Giménez, an elderly resident, pictured below, takes shelter from the heat in the church of the Misericordia Sanctuary.

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As Cecilia sits in quiet contemplation she’s unable to take her eyes off a painting of Christ by the artist Elías García Martínez. Already over a century old the paint on the fresco is starting to flake. It upsets Cecilia. The church is a special place for her, it’s where she married some sixty years ago. And Cecilia knows just how bare the church coffers are and how unlikely it is that the painting will be restored.

So she makes a decision. A decision which will change not only her life but the life of the ancient town in which she lives. Cecilia decides that she will restore the painting herself.

It’s not long before the town’s historical association discover what’s she’s up to. Outraged, they photograph her work and post it online. Although Cecilia claims that she’s not yet finished, it’s too late. Within hours the image of the fresco before and after she took out her brushes and paint, which you see below, has gone viral.

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In the UK The Daily Telegraph leads with the headline 'Elderly woman destroys 19th-century fresco with DIY restoration'. Le Monde in France is somewhat more emphatic, 'HOLY SHIT – the restoration of a painting of Christ turns into a massacre', and on Saturday Night Live in the US there’s a sketch called Potato Jesus that has the audience weeping with laughter. The internet is alive with memes.

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One can only imagine the psychological effect of global ridicule on the 81 year old Cecilia. A woman who loved art, who loved Jesus and who loved her church; a church which many felt she had now desecrated. Sure enough, she soon went into hiding and, it was reported, lost 17 kg in weight.

A calamity.

A well intentioned creative endeavour which went spectacularly wrong.

And the thing is that even though few of us are likely to fuck up quite as badly as Cecilia, if you’re a creative in the service of your muse the likelihood is that at some point you’ve messed up too.

If you’re a creative in the service of your muse the likelihood is that at some point you’ve messed up too.

How should we deal with this kind of failure? 

When you seek a creative solution to a problem and end up not solving the problem, but actually making it worse …

Well, there’s an illuminating Buddhist parable about a farmer which I’d like to share with you.

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The farmer has a horse. One day the horse escapes. The farmer’s neighbour comes by to commiserate. But the farmer is sanguine. “Thank you for your concern, but who’s to say what is bad or good?”

The next day the horse returns. And not only does it come back but, miraculously, it comes back with six wild horses it has encountered on the plains. The neighbour visits again to congratulate the farmer on this reversal of fortune. But the famer shows little emotion. “Thank you, but who’s to say what is bad or good?”

The following day the farmer’s son is trying to tame one of the wild horses. He falls and breaks his leg. The neighbour expresses his sorrow at the accident. The farmer replies simply, “Who’s to say what is bad or good?”

And sure enough a day later, the army visit the farm looking for able-bodied young men to serve in the war. The farmer’s son is spared the draft because of his broken leg. And what had appeared to be a terrible misfortune turned out to be quite the opposite.

This story can go on and on. But you get the point.

We deceive ourselves if we think we have the capacity to say whether something is a success or a failure. Of course we can make a call, based on the available evidence at the time, but if you take the long view the truth can turn out to be different.

So what of Cecilia Giménez, who we left, shrunk with depression and in hiding?

Well, within a few days of her becoming a global laughing stock, something unexpected happened in Borja. Tourists came. And not just a few. Thousands. All of them wanting to see the Monkey Christ, as it had now become known, for themselves.

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Between August and December 2012, 45,824 people visited the Misericordia Sanctuary. And almost all of them dropped a few euros in the collection box.

Within a short amount of time the coffers of this dilapidated church in a long forgotten Spanish town were bursting. The money was enough not only to provide ongoing care for impoverished elderly Borja residents, it also allowed for the restoration of the church. There was only one part of the building the restorers dare not touch … Cecilia Giménez’s Monkey Christ.

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So next time you feel like you’re responsible for an unspeakable creative calamity, step back, take a deep breath and ask yourself this …

‘Who’s to say what’s bad or good?’

Discover more about the 4 part virtal workshop I'll be running for creatives and designers in May – Great Ideas & Where to Find Them.
 

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