Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity

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Can You Have Too Much Empathy?

In these last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about vocation and finding a job. In between informational interviews, some common questions keep coming to the forefront of my mind. Is my personality suited for this type of position? Would I actually be able to help people and accomplish good in this role?

It seems that being an artist carries with it a certain kind of condition—a condition of having a heightened sense of empathy and ability to relate to other people.

*Photo Credit: seyed mostafa zamani, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: seyed mostafa zamani, Creative Commons

Artists are storytellers, and, like all good storytellers, have the ability to put themselves in different people’s shoes in order to bring a particular story to life. Even without having personally experienced a situation, a true artist can effectively take on a role and convincingly express that character’s perspective—think of Jodie Foster’s poignant portrayal of a woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the 2007 movie “The Brave One.”

Blame it on an artist’s imagination, but sometimes it feels like having a lot of empathy is a bad thing.

Maybe empathy doesn’t make a person look tough, but is it possible to have too much empathy? Is it detrimental if you have a knack for putting yourself in other people’s situations and glimpsing some of the hardships they face?

In some regards, I think being an especially empathetic person can be a very beneficial quality for a lawyer to have because, after all, lawyers win cases by developing persuasive arguments and telling a vivid, relatable story.

On the other hand, as I read this past week in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” too much empathy can get you fired. Oprah Winfrey was fired from one of her first jobs as a co-anchor for a Baltimore news station because she often had to fight back tears while reporting stories and couldn’t distance herself enough to maintain a stoic countenance.

*Photo Credit: Tomas Sobek, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Tomas Sobek, Creative Commons

Not only can having too much empathy appear unprofessional and get you fired, it can wreak havoc on your own life, burdening you with more than you can carry.

Under the weight of such an added burden, could too much empathy impair a person’s ability to help other people who are hurting? If you relate too well to another person’s situation, are you not able then to provide the strength, encouragement, and advice they need to help them heal?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions in my head right now, but I think there must be a way to keep empathy under a certain level so that it doesn’t overwhelm a person with added stress and also allows a person to still be able to help those in difficult circumstances. What are your thoughts?


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Founding Artists

The year is 1776. It’s August, and General George Washington and his troops are in Manhattan hoping to hold off a British attack. In the midst of preparing for battle, George Washington sits down to write a letter to his land manager at Mount Vernon sharing some of his new garden design ideas. He’s requesting that groves be planted on either side of his house. Although he will be away for the next eight years leading the Revolutionary War, his thoughts will continue to drift towards nature, art, and design.

George Washington. Beloved general. First President. Gardener. And artist.

Mount Vernon, painted by Edward Savage

Mount Vernon, painted by Edward Savage

This past week I attended a lecture by design historian and writer Andrea Wulf, author of the book “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation.” It made me realize that gardening is an art form in itself, and revealed that our nation’s early history was forged not only by brilliant thinkers and brave people, but also dedicated artists.

It turns out Washington wasn’t the only Founding Father who viewed plants and soil as a medium of art through which beauty and truth can be portrayed.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all were garden-artists.

Though different in many ways, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson bonded over a two-month garden tour trip in England in 1786 when both of them were serving as overseas diplomats. They noticed that many of the plants growing in England were American species, grown from specimens shipped to England by American botanist John Bartram in the 1750’s. As they toured ornamental farms in England, they each were captivated by the beauty of America’s native plants and began planning their gardens back home made entirely out of native American species.

For the Founding Fathers, gardens were a form of political art—showcasing the beautiful and useful all-American plants thriving without non-native plants.

Monticello, Terrace Vegetable Garden. *Photo Credit: Southern Foodways Alliance, Creative Commons

Monticello, Terrace Vegetable Garden. *Photo Credit: Southern Foodways Alliance, Creative Commons

Thomas Jefferson’s landscape design at Monticello represents the history of the American landscape—from its wilderness days to its civilized colonial times. A visitor to Monticello is lead up the hillside estate through a rugged forest, past neatly manicured pastures, beside the terrace vegetable garden, and lastly to the formal flower gardens that surround the mansion. Jefferson’s artistic eye is also on display in his design of a utilitarian vegetable garden which combines the beautiful and functional aspects of nature. Purple, white, and green vegetables are beautifully displayed in adjacent rows, while lovely cherry trees provide the gardener shade on the outer-walkways.

Montpelier Grounds. *Photo Credit: Mike, Creative Commons

Montpelier Grounds. *Photo Credit: Mike, Creative Commons

James Madison loved gardening too and argued for the protection of American forests, which he saw were in danger of complete destruction. With the rise of tobacco farming, many forests were being cut down and replaced with tobacco fields, which depleted soil nutrients in about four years. Madison knew it was agriculturally and economically unsustainable to destroy the forests in such a way and urged for change. On his estate at Montpelier, Madison set aside an old forest of oaks, tulip trees, and hickories, which he would explore for inspiration while drafting the U.S. Constitution.

It’s inspiring to learn that our nation’s founding leaders were also avid artists with an eye for garden and landscape design. Along with teaching children how to draw and paint in school, maybe we should be teaching about gardening as both a part of art and science education.  Regardless, we can all take a lesson from the founding fathers in making time for art and allowing our creativity to let loose. If they could find time to imagine and garden, we surely can too.

Did you know that America’s Founding Fathers were gardeners and artists?  Do you think gardening should be included as a part of children’s art classes in school?

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Are You Satisfied With Your Approach to Composition?

Have you ever heard the riddle about a man, his boxes, and the bridge? A man had three boxes. Each box weighed 5 lbs. The man weighed 190 lbs. The bridge could only support 200 lbs. How did the man make it across the bridge with all his boxes?

*Photo Credit: Tom Thai, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Tom Thai, Creative Commons

This is from a scene in one of my all-time favorite television shows—Joan of Arcadia {a show about a high school girl who talks with God and learns from the various “assignments” God gives her}. In this particular episode, Joan learns that the only way the man can get across the bridge is by juggling the boxes.  Life is full of all kinds of juggling acts:

people carrying more weight than they alone can bear;

the delicate proportion of predators and prey in an ecosystem;

the forward motion of a planet offset by the pull of gravity on it by another planet.

This past week I had the pleasure of attending a talk about the art of composing by Augusta Read Thomas, a professor of composition at the University of Chicago and former Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2007. In hearing her speak, I noticed a theme to her approach to composition:

making art is all about juggling.

Just as our lives and nature balance several inter-connected variables, music is full of distinct parts that are balanced by the composer: flux, harmony, rhythm, flow, density, resonance, counterpoint, ornamentation, spontaneity, form, etc.

*Photo Credit: Jesus Solana, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jesus Solana, Creative Commons

Depending on the purpose of the art, the balance amongst the musical variables will differ. For example, Thomas meticulously plans and revises her compositions, focusing often on the balance between nuance and spontaneity. A unique quality of her work is what she calls a “captured improvisational” sound that she creates through writing highly notated music. She strives to create “the feeling that [her music] is organically being self-propelled.” Listen to Thomas’ “Double Helix” for two violins for an example of her captured improvisation style.

The next time you sit down to compose, write, or sculpt, consider what you are juggling. How well are you balancing your art-form’s variables? Are all the parts working together to form a cohesive work of art? Taking the time to recognize your work’s unique balancing schema will help ensure your art meets your aims.

Have you struggled with balancing different variables in creating your art? What kinds of practices have helped you in your compositional process?


Allowing Your Mind to Wander Is More Valuable Than You Think

Last summer, I was getting ready for work one morning when a new melody popped into my head. I hummed the tune to myself so I wouldn’t forget it as I rushed about. Just before I dashed out the door, I whipped out my cell phone and made a quick recording of me singing the melody so that I could return to it later when I had more time. While I loved the new melody I thought up, I couldn’t figure out where it came from and why I thought of it at such a chance time as when I was brushing my teeth.

Have you ever noticed how some of your greatest ideas pop into your head when you are least expecting them? It may seem like our ideas are coming at random times, but when we allow our minds to wander we open our awareness to new possibilities and increase our creativity.

*Photo Credit: Zach Dischner, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Zach Dischner, Creative Commons

There are two basic states of mind: focused attention and mind-wandering. Research by cognitive scientists has revealed that our “default” mode is mind-wandering. We innately prefer to drift from thought to thought rather than ponder any one idea deeply.

That’s why if we are not careful, we can find ourselves losing our concentration while we are trying to focus on our work. I know all too well what it’s like to read a paragraph or two only to realize I have no clue what I just read. Sometimes I wind up reading the same sentence over a few times just because my mind has drifted on to some other place.

While having focused attention is important for a lot of tasks, it can be the enemy of creativity.

When we allow our minds to wander we free ourselves from the devil’s advocate playing in our mind, cynicism, and judgment. As Daniel Goldman puts it in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” allowing our mind to wander brings us “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.”

*Photo Credit: William Warby, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: William Warby, Creative Commons

Having a wandering mind with freely roaming awareness can allow us to make new connections and associations. Often the ingredients for our next great idea are already in our mind—they just need to be connected, combined, and drawn to the surface of our consciousness.

Instead of trying to force creativity or being hard on ourselves when our mind wanders (both are creativity roadblocks), what if we could allow ourselves to relax our minds and see where our open awareness takes us? We can, and this freely roaming awareness is invaluable to our creativity in many ways.

Have you noticed increased creativity when you are daydreaming or allowing your mind to wander?  

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What Does the Artist See?

When I was little, my family had a Norman Rockwell wall clock of “The Doctor and the Doll” that I used to spend hours staring at. I loved Rockwell’s crisp, realist style and his spot-on depictions of facial expressions—his art was relatable to me. I distinctly remember disliking Claude Monet’s art when I was little because I thought he did not do a good job painting the world realistically. I wondered if he realized life wasn’t as blurry as he portrayed it. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood that art wasn’t about just holding a mirror up to life. Art was a way of seeing the world and sharing that vision with others.

*Photo Credit: Jeramey Jannene, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jeramey Jannene, Creative Commons

Ways of Seeing

Some artists look at a sunset and want to capture its expanse and grandeur in their work. Other artists want to emphasize the sunset’s brilliant colors, its unique formation of clouds, or the glowing, fleeting atmosphere it creates.

Art reflects an artist’s vision, and that vision is based on what a person knows or believes. It is also based on what a person chooses to look at.

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.” –John Berger, from “Ways of Seeing”

Finding Inspiration in Our Surroundings

Oftentimes I’ve found I have turned off my senses and failed to give much notice to my surroundings. Just this summer I discovered the most beautiful purple peonies blooming in my backyard. It turns out they have been there for several years, but I failed to notice them before because they only bloom for about a week. How does life get so busy that I don’t look out my back window for a week? Good question.

Finding inspiration is as much about opening our eyes as it is about being present in our surroundings. To be artists, we must take in our surroundings. This might involve changing our perspective from time to time, and it should definitely involve us noticing how we interpret what we see—and understanding why. Once something stands out to us and we know why, we can find inspiration for creative ways to highlight that point to others.

“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” -Henri Matisse

Still Life with Apples on a Pink Tablecloth by Henri Matisse, *Photo Credit: Cliff, Creative Commons

Still Life with Apples on a Pink Tablecloth by Henri Matisse, *Photo Credit: Cliff, Creative Commons

How Ways of Seeing Are Affected by Our Times

In this technological age, websites like Pinterest change the way we see things. People now make and share inspiration boards with each other online rather than just clip images, letters, and drawings to a bulletin board in their bedroom. While it can be useful to self-curate images and texts to match and express our own vision on a “bulletin board,” (whether real or virtual), websites that collect data on our interests and feed us only more things like it can negatively affect the way we see things.

1. Seeing only similar or related things can isolate us and prevent us from growing, developing, and challenging our beliefs and tastes.

2. Sharing our personal interests and vision can subject us to more manipulative advertisements that use our own preferences to try to speak our language and get us to buy their products.  

An Artist’s Vision

Ultimately, as artists, we should make it a practice to always be mindful of our surroundings, for we never know when inspiration will strike. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to miss any more purple peonies.


What do you think? Has technology changed the way you see things? Does it tend to make people aware of more perspectives or does it tend to encourage like-minded thinking?


Getting Past Creativity Roadblocks

I sat at my piano last week in the glow of the afternoon composing the second half of another ragtime tune. I felt like I was fully alive, soaring in the wind. I could see the lives of imaginary characters coming to life under the backdrop of my song, and was completely immersed in my fictional ragtime world. You see, regardless of whether I’m composing, performing, or listening to music, it sweeps me off into another world where I watch a unique story unfold.

Music makes me feel whole. At peace in the world. And last week at the piano, I experienced that unmistakably beautiful feeling again as I worked through a new section of my ragtime piece, putting an end to a season of creativity obstacles and unproductivity.

For a while it felt like my creativity was gone, like maybe I had used up my creativity allotment in life. I would sit down at the piano and try to compose, but nothing would come. I was uninspired. I started doubting myself and my abilities, slowly building up pressure and stress to the point of being frozen by fear.

*Photo Credit: Doug Geisler, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Doug Geisler, Creative Commons

After rediscovering my creativity during last week’s ragtime escape, I’ve been reflecting on my creativity roadblocks, trying to figure out where they originate from and how I can get past them in the future.

Why does a once-enjoyable act of creating art turn into a burden?

Most of my creativity roadblocks can be traced to my tendency to strive for perfection. While perfectionism can be helpful in small doses, too much can quash any artist’s creative endeavors. Even though I don’t compose to make money or to get famous, I still feel the desire to make all my work really good (at least to my ears), so when I don’t think I’m living up to that goal I get frustrated. The frustration just reinforces the roadblock by keeping me from even trying to be creative.


*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

How can we get past our creativity roadblocks?

  • One way is to make ourselves vulnerable as artists. Sometimes we need to grow as an individual before we are ready to create again. There may be certain lessons we need to learn first to better understand our self and our world and to bring us to a state of vulnerability in which we are open to inspiration.
  • Create. Just give it a try. We can do ourselves a big favor too by not worrying about whether we’ll be able to write or paint again. Don’t beat yourself up if everything you create isn’t great or your favorite—that’s setting the stakes too high. Great artists create lots of not-so-good works amidst their really great works (they just usually don’t tell you about the not-so-good works).
  • Be patient as you learn and grow as an artist. Many authors of bestsellers admit they experience creativity roadblocks when they set out to write their next book, fearing it could be a total flop and ruin their career. Growing means change, and so as you grow in your art some of the changes will be not-so-good, but some changes will be great and worth the wait.

Have you ever experienced your own creativity roadblocks? How do you get past them?