Music. Art. Culture. Writing.
An Interview with David Robinson
Interviewed by Rafael Otto
David Robinson is an artist based in Seattle, Washington. His paintings appear in collections throughout the United States, and his work as a theater director, storyteller, and writer, has appeared nationally and internationally. In recent years, he has combined his experiences as an artist and an organizational innovator with his study of systems theory, communications and organizational behavior.
For several years he has provided design, education, training, and coaching for organizations and individuals seeking to expand their creative potential while maximizing collaborative processes. As a systems thinker, he works to envision and create new possibilities, and to design integrated approaches to addressing complex challenges.
Robinson is the co-founder, with Patti Digh, of The Circle Project, a small consulting group working with individuals, organizations and communities to inspire inclusion, spark creativity, unleash authentic leadership, and open space for new stories by enhancing their capacity for innovation.
Rafael Otto: You recently started a blog called the “The Direction of Intention.” Could you tell me about the concept of intentionality as it relates to your work in the theater?
David Robinson: When working with young actors, one of the first things you have to teach is intentionality. When you get on stage, it’s very easy for the focus to come back on yourself. That kind of inward looking is what we call a negative direction of intention. Everything becomes about you and you lose the ability to connect with your audience. If you work to place focus on the audience, it opens a space between you, and that will allow an audience member to go on a ride with you. If you don’t create that space, that negative direction of intention can actually block someone from participation, keeping them out of the story.
Rafael: How does that relate to your life and your work as a painter?
David: Earlier in my life I spent most of my time painting. I was desperate, alone in the studio all day every day, and my mind would start to twist because all I could focus on was myself. I would end my day by going to a coffee-house with a good friend because he knew I would need help becoming verbal again (laughter). That helped me bring my attention outside of myself. It was an imbalanced existence. In order to be really good as an artist, I have to put as much attention and intention into the quality of my being as I do in the quality of my doing. Part of the work of being an artist is to first become aware of the story you tell yourself, so that you can let it down. Maybe it’s the story of who you are as an artist. But when you let it go, you can actually see what is there, not what you think is there, and then you have the ability to become a potent artist.
David: The Greek story of Sisyphus is a good example because it gives such great image that ties into the direction of intention. The gods have taken Sisyphus’ soul to the under world. He can’t get out and at one point he has to cross the river Styx. He’s trying to figure out what to do so he sits in the boat and watches all these other souls coming to the underworld. He sees that the first phase for these souls is to play out their personal story – the story that you tell yourself about yourself. They don’t even realize that other souls are there because they are too invested in their own story. Once their stories play out, they begin to see each other for the first time. I think that’s how we live. We are surrounded by the stories that we tell ourselves. It acts like a mist that prevents us from really seeing each other. Young actors go through a phase of being hyper aware, learning to use the body as a tool, an instrument. It’s difficult to place your focus outside of yourself and simultaneously listen to yourself. When you sit down to play a piano, for example, you have to be aware of your fingers and what they do but the action has to become second nature.
Rafael: The awareness has to disappear so that it doesn’t interfere.
David: That’s well said. It has to disappear, ultimately. The thing that keeps me painting is when I absolutely disappear, those moments when something happens, the experience happens through me. You give yourself over to this thing, this act, and you become the witness of yourself doing the work.
Rafael: Those are classic images, the writer at his desk, typing 12 hours per day, you alone in the studio day after day, perfecting your craft. But there is this idea that the artist is not simply creating work for himself. There is energy in the work and it needs to engage with the public. Can you talk about that in terms of individualism and collectivism?
David: That calls for an examination of our mythology, and this has always been an important issue for me. I believe that artists play a significant role in culture because the arts serve the identity function. In a culture that is connected to its art, issues of identity can be worked out through artistic expression.
Rafael: That’s a key question, “Is a culture connected to its art?” What do you find in cultures that aren’t connected to their art?
David: That’s what I see in the United States. I had an opportunity to go to Bali for several months and it helped me see how the individual nature of our culture is continually reinforced. Art for us is about innovation. In Bali, I found a relational culture where art is about maintaining traditional forms that have survived many generations. The artist isn’t primarily innovating. The artist is holding the container and maintaining the integrity of the form. The Balinese only tell two stories and they are both epics. If you are primarily mastering the craft and maintaining form, then innovation has to happen within the traditional form.
Rafael: How does innovation occur in that kind of relational environment?
David: If a story is working, people who listen to it or read it can identify with it. In a way, we become the main character because we can recognize ourselves in the story. The story has the capacity to help us understand our own life, to help us navigate change. Often, the story is about a passage from one way of being to another way of being. In a relational community, the story gets told and people begin to identify with it. One of the key differences is that answers aren’t provided. The stories are meant to take you into the question. This is true for the Balinese and true for many indigenous cultures in the United States. The expectation is for you to wrangle with the question on a personal level, and that’s where the innovation happens. Maybe you’ll have to hear the story 15 times before it starts to make sense, but that’s part of the process of coming to understand the story’s relevance to you personally. This is drastically different from the way mainstream education works for our children in the United States. We are schooled with teachers providing answers, giving us the ending, and so western audiences have trouble hearing stories that don’t clearly end.
David: I don’t think we are connected to our stories. Often, we watch them as movies or television shows, but they don’t necessarily guide us and help us function from day to day. Participation is extremely important and the arts demand that we participate.
Rafael: When we participate we have the opportunity to make choices, and those moments are points of creation. It reminds me of the idea that culture is arbitrary. It’s based on choices, and so in a way imagination becomes the source of our culture.
David: I love that, that’s exactly it. When you read organizational books from the 70s, people made 10-year plans with specific goals and timelines. We can’t do that any longer. We have to story ourselves through scenarios and possibilities and start walking down those roads. We have to imagine ourselves into the future. Carol Dweck from Stanford University wrote a book called Mindset. In it she explores her definitions of both fixed and growth mindsets. Schools and businesses need people who can imagine possibilities and cross boundaries, and those are traits associated with a growth mindset. I think the vast majority of us are locked in a fixed mindset while simultaneously desperate to reconnect with our creative impulse, the artist’s way. We know it’s there but don’t know how to connect to it. We operate in a culture that tells us that someone else has the answer and we need to go find it. We’ve forgotten the importance of inquiry while learning.
Rafael: Could you talk about the parallel between your path as an artist how it mirrors the way our society is moving forward?
David: I went through the standard educational system for the first 20 years of my life and I know that I was locked in a fixed mindset. I was constantly copying other painters, trying to find value in other people’s eyes. I was miserable and couldn’t find my own voice. So, having walked that path, it is very clear to me that my journey back to a growth mindset was through story.
Rafael: Story in what way?
David: I’ve always been interested in mythology and comparative religion. One universal concept that shows up is the use of story and how we make meaning through story. Culture is arbitrary because it depends on choice, and when the choices agree, it gives communities cohesion. The moment this broke open for me was when I listened to Joseph Campbell lectures while painting. I needed to feed my left-brain while I worked. I listened to one particular lecture repeatedly where he would describe our current mythology as dead. The story we tell ourselves now is based on fear, based on locking ourselves up, that no one is safe. That’s a community that is not cohesive. It made me wonder what it would be like to have a mythology that was alive, and that pursuit led me back to this place of questioning the story we tell ourselves as a community, and the story that each of us tells ourselves on a daily basis. We all operate with an ongoing internal monologue that helps us interpret experiences and make meaning of our life. Once I became aware of that, then I could start to doubt it and ask, “Why is that true? Why am I telling myself a story at all?”
David: Absolutely. One of the first things we learn is that we stop engaging with things directly and we start engaging with the symbol of the thing. But becoming aware of the story you tell, you can change the way you tell it. You can tell yourself a different story, or minimize the story telling at all (laughter). I think this is what a visual arts teacher is trying to teach – to see what’s there, not what you think is there. What does it take to actually look and see what’s in front of you instead of your interpretation of it? I had a great teacher in college who held up a yellow number two pencil. We all had one in front of us and he asked, “What color is your pencil?” Of course, we all thought he was an idiot (laughter). But he told us to look closely and after about five minutes a beautiful thing started to happen. We started seeing green and purple and red, different shades of light, and suddenly this little yellow number two pencil became a feast of color. I’ve learned that lesson over and over again. We learn to see what is there, but what is there is so much richer than what we think is there. I’m constantly holding up yellow number two pencils and telling people to have a closer look.
Rafael: Tell me about the obstacles that we encounter during that process of discovery.
David: One of the most important first steps is helping people see the power of their language, the language of their personal story. Many people use words that lead them to believe that they are not in choice, such as “should,” “can’t,” “couldn’t,” “supposed to.” It is relatively easy to test those words and see what happens. “I choose not to” is a very significant change from “I can’t.” In our culture we underestimate the power of our language. For example, the way you ask a question determines the possibilities you’ll receive for an answer. So, what questions are we asking ourselves? The story you tell yourself isn’t passive. It creates your reality and helps you determine where you put your focus. And at the end of the day, the only choice you really have is about where you put your focus.
Rafael: But first we have to become aware of language choices, the questions we ask ourselves.
David: Once you become aware of the building blocks of the story, a remarkable thing starts to happen. You can start to use a language of choice, and then slowly start owning those choices. You can also begin to see the role you cast yourself in, the role you play with your parents, your wife, others in your life. Those roles are based on choices and if you aren’t happy in that role you have to ask, “What is preventing me from playing another role?” That leads you to the place where you are the storyteller, and if you don’t like the story or want it to be different, you have the capacity to change it. Robert Olen Butler talks about the idea of the obstacle when teaching fiction. A story needs an obstacle. We are so invested in removing the obstacle, but the obstacle is the thing that propels us forward. In that sense, it’s the opportunity. Once we realize that, everything becomes an opportunity for engagement.
Rafael: It echoes the idea of participation and the importance of it. In the creative process, engaging with your medium is an important first step.
David: A writer writes, a painter paints. If you want to be a writer you write, that’s all. Ultimately it’s about doing the thing that you do.
Rafael: You have a story on your website about your first art show. I’m giving away the ending, but as you follow these two men around the gallery, one of them says, “So, do think this Robinson is insane?” And the other answers, “The good ones always are.”
David: Yes, (laughter). That’s a true story. For my entire life I’ve had to learn about my paintings through what others see in them. I remember at one show, a man came up to me and said, “Tell me about the spheres.” I had no idea what he was talking about, so he escorted me around the gallery to show me that every single painting had three spheres in it. I was God-smacked because I painted the damn things. It must have been a symbol I was working on. But that just reinforces the idea that if you have 500 people in an audience, there will be 500 interpretations of what is going on. The idea that you can control what someone else sees is craziness, and you miss people discovering your spheres if you keep telling them what to see. So that’s how you know an artist doesn’t like you, if they tell you what the art is about (laughter).
Rafael: Okay, say no more (laughter).
David: (Laughter). There’s a school of thought that doesn’t see the need to explain the work with a plaque on the wall. That’s where I’m coming from.
Rafael: How about influences instead?
David: Of course.
Rafael: When I look at your images and paintings, I immediately think of Picasso, famous works like La Guernica, and cubism. Can you talk about fragmentation of image and story in your work?
David: I think you hit it on the head. When I was a kid I had three art books, one on Picasso, one on Michelangelo and one on DaVinci. Many painters from the Renaissance had an impact on me, but Michelangelo was of special interest because in the last years of his life his images became very abstract. He was breaking away from form 500 years before anyone else. Picasso was alive for the first ten years of my life, and I remember pouring over his images and studying what he was doing with perspective. Picasso was interesting for me because I felt he was doing with art what Einstein was doing with science. The Theory of Relativity made the location of the observer supremely important, and that’s what Picasso was doing visually. He was trying to give a 360 degree image of many two-dimensional planes all wrapped together. It became a deconstruction of objectivism.
Rafael: What kind of connection do you see between art and science?
David: Art and science have in common the work of interpreting the world. We make meaning through language, and scientifically we do that with math. Mathematics is the language we use to talk with the universe. When we engage with the world, whether through art, science, or our daily personal experience, one thing becomes clear, and that is that we’ve been pinned down by two beliefs. The first is that there is an objective truth that exists outside of you, and the other, coming from our religious traditions, is that there is a God that exists outside of you. In this kind of thinking that relies on the concept of an objective truth, there is no place for subjective experience. It also implies that your internal truth is not as valuable. The uncertainty principle in physics tells us that as one piece of information becomes more certain, another becomes less certain. In the past century, science has moved further and further away from objective thinking, and that calls into question what we mean by truth, and how we can access it individually.
Rafael: If we consider that parallel between science and art, where do you think we are headed in terms of thinking that goes beyond subjectivism? How does art follow the new science, or help create it?
David: It was a very different experience working on a play manuscript when I was in school. Editing was much more laborious, and the change in process has definitely affected my work. I also used to paint in oil, but now I paint in acrylic because they’re fast (laughter).
Rafael: You don’t need three days of dry time.
David: Right, and sometimes I think that these things are connected. The capacity to work fast, share ideas, access information, all of those things are changing the way we think. I have a friend who sends emails that are several pages long, and I tease him because emails are supposed to be short, a paragraph. I’m always aware of how I’m putting information into the world, questioning the impact of engaging others in less than 140 characters, the way in which our stories are evolving.
Rafael: And even while subjective thinking seems to emphasize the importance of the individual, we seem to be continually searching for ways to connect with each other.
David: When I was growing up, education had become about specialization, and in the past 10 to 15 years, I’ve seen things move toward generalization. My impulse has always been toward global thinking, whole systems, finding connectivity even while looking at disparate things. In the last show that I had, I featured a kind of painting that I’m interested in exploring more. One of the members of my art collective mentioned something to me that makes perfect sense, but was very surprising to hear. He said that the piece is rooted in cubism, except that the images aren’t pulling apart, they are coming back together. I think there is something to that, a kind of movement that is pulling fragments into a different kind of cohesion.
Rafael: I look forward to seeing how that work develops, and I’m glad we had a chance to connect. Thank you.
David: Let’s be sure to do it again.
For more information about David Robinson, visit:
Upcoming: “Working with Widgets,” David Robinson and Patti Digh on the state of our educational system.