Pancakes are familiar like a friend I've known my entire life.
I know exactly what to expect when I order pancakes at a restaurant. They will come in a stack of three flat disks, each on average 10” diameter (or as small as 3” if silver dollar variety). They will be 1/4 “ tall circles of buttermilk batter turned double sided golden brown. It is rare that pancakes surprise me. When my first-ever Dutch Baby pancake is delivered, however, it is a revelation.
The Dutch Baby defies concise description. It is an iron-skillet baked, puffy, fluffy, egg-battered, Frisbee sized, popover pudding pancake whose edges rise above the rest making it look like a giant cratered omelet. It comes with a side of powdered sugar, butter and lemons to sprinkle, spread and squeeze on top. No syrup required.
“One definition of the creative process is making the familiar strange,” says Zenkai Taiun Michael Elliston Roshi, the 77-year-old Zen master who is my Sensei (teacher). I glance at the colossal Dutch Baby – my white plate trembling beneath the weight of it. It is entirely strange to me.
I shrug a little and take my first forkful along the way to consuming the entire strange, savory, stupendous thing. Sensei continues, “For the creative mind to function freely and fully it has to take a break once in a while or it locks up like an overexerted muscle. We need to put away our set thinking patterns, drop assumptions and see differently. Zen meditation is the same process. We assume we know our own awareness but when we sit still enough for long enough our consciousness becomes unrecognizable. That’s why I consider simply, silently sitting in Zazen to be the heart of creativity.”
Making the familiar strange is the heart of the meditation and innovation workshop that Sensei and I are planning. He started the Atlanta Soto Zen Center (ASZC) forty years ago and it still struggles financially, surviving on donations from attendees that are never quite enough. We imagine launching an outreach program for the employees of local businesses that already spend money on wellness and wellbeing and who want to spark more creativity and innovation. If those companies would pay for us to help them, perhaps we can create an earned income stream for ASZC to supplement donations.
As a step towards that goal, we have announced a 2-day open-enrollment workshop which we have drolly nick-named, “Zenovation.” Sensei recommends that the first exercise in that workshop should allow participants to experience the “familiar strange” point firsthand.
“What’s the most familiar mark you make?” Sensei asks. “Your signature,” he says. “In design school, one of the first exercises is to take the most familiar mark you make everyday, your signature, and use it as a repeat element in a composition. You simply repeat your signature over and over for 20 minutes or so on a large sheet of paper with a marker then maybe with a large pen crayon or even a rag dipped in ink. When the time is up, the various studies are pinned to the wall and critiqued as to the creativity that this person or that student came up with in executing the assignment. Some turn into dense textures, others wild and extravagant large scale flourishes. Common to all is that your signature is no longer a familiar thing taken for granted. Write your signature 1,000 times. It will lose its familiarity. It has changed and your attitude towards your own signature has changed as well.” We have done this exercise before with business executives in earlier incarnations of our propose program and it has worked well as a starting point. We agree that we will start Zenovation with this exercise.
Sensei continues, “Repetition trains us not to take things for granted. Repeat the word “elephant” over and over and after a while, it will begin to sound very strange. Try it. Repeat the word elephant,” he says and after a few seconds I realize that he means right now. Together we chant, “Elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant.” Indeed, after saying elephant out loud a dozen or more times it does sound quite strange, especially to the diners glaring at us from nearby booths.
It must have been strange for the teenage Mickey Elliston to leave the familiar farmland of southern Illinois for Chicago’s Institute of Design, where he enrolled in 1959 after high school graduation. The Institute of Design was, since 1949, part of Illinois Institute of Technology but its roots were as the New Bauhaus in America, modeled after the famed Bauhaus art and design school that emerged in Germany in the 1920s. In Weimar (until the right wing government forced its closure), then Dessau (until the Nazis shut that down) and finally to Berlin, the German school housed groundbreaking architects, artists, designers and craftsmen that powered the modernist architecture movement and sought to unify art and design. Nazi disapproval of the “degenerate” Bauhaus artists and architects gave way to Gestapo raids on Bauhaus’ Berlin campus and to the complete closure of the school in 1933.
Bauhaus curriculum included a back to basics approach to materials. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, said, “Architects, sculptors, painters – we all must return to craftsmanship!" The preliminary Bauhaus Vorkors or “Foundation Course” required students to gain visceral knowledge of the forms and craftsmanship of the built and designed environment.
Under its originator, Bauhaus faculty member Johannes Itten, Vorkors included breathing and meditation exercises as a prelude to studying the form, structure, texture, color, contrast and rhythm of things at an intense level of detail. One of the famous maxims to emerge from the Bauhaus was “form follows function” but form follows essence seemed to be an equally important Bauhaus idea. For instance, Itten is said to have instructed his students to cut into and taste a lemon and become intimate with its acidic nature before attempting to draw it. This depth of relationship to an artist’s materials carried over to the Institute of Design in a way so impactful that Sensei continues to reference the experience nearly sixty years later.
Meanwhile, I have squeezed the acidic essence of lemon atop the melted butter and powdered sugar and am already intensely intimate with my Dutch Baby. It turns out that Dutch Baby pancakes are also known as German Pancakes or Pfannkuchen or, sometimes, Bismark Pancakes. That gets me wondering if the Gestapo and Polizei filled up on Pfannkuchen for breakfast on the morning they burst through the doors of Bauhaus Berlin, knee high black leather boots clacking on the concrete floors of the former telephone factory. Did the heft of Bismark-in-the-belly slow the violent dismantling of Bauhaus Berlin’s studios – tables flipped, stools askew, art supply cabinets tossed, canvases torn – in search of communist propaganda allegedly stored on site. Regardless, on that windy and wet April 11, 1933 day, the Nazis sealed off the building, literally driving the final nail into the school’s front door.
With a growing Bauhaus diaspora assembling in the United States, in 1937, former Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago and established the New Bauhaus school in a very un-Bauhaus-style red brick Chateauesque mansion originally built for the department store tycoon Marshall Field. The Foundation Course was rekindled and remained a core pedagogical element even as the school was renamed Chicago School of Design (1939) and then the Institute of Design (1944) and finally merged with Illinois Institute of Technology (1949).
By the time that Mickey Elliston matriculated at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, the school had established a global reputation as an incubator for creative genius. Mies van der Rohe, who had led the Bauhaus in Berlin, had been director of the IIT architecture department for 20 years after leaving Germany. John Cage, the experimental composer, had taught at Institute of Design as had a cadre of instructors who would later teach Elliston like the master printmaker Misch Kohn, photography innovators like Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind and the wild-minded visionary futurist, inventor and designer, Buckminster Fuller.
While Moholy-Nagy had originally named his Chicago school New Bauhaus, some of his fellow Bauhaus émigrés had already spent several years teaching their German-born curriculum to American students in a rather improbable place. Black Mountain College was a progressive arts-centered experimental educational institution founded in 1933 in the Appalachian foothills town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, which had otherwise been best known for its Christian retreat centers. In the ranks of making the familiar strange, situating the Black Mountain College in this bucolic backwater – with headquarters in Robert E. Lee Hall in the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly - is near the top of the list. In the 24 years of its life, this quirky college became America’s avant-garde, intellectual hub crawling with the kinds of gay, black, foreign, eccentric, liberal iconoclasts that drove Jim Crow southerners mad.
Among those Bauhaus students and teachers who fled Hitler’s Germany and made their home at Black Mountain College were Anni and Josef Albers. Albers – along with Moholy-Nagy – had been one of the Bauhaus instructors who taught Vorkurs after Johannes Itten left the school in 1922. In 1933, the year Black Mountain College was founded, Josef Albers was hired to head the fledgling schools art department. He brought the Vorkurs’ full immersion in media and materials with him. At Black Mountain, Albers experimented with new approaches to the Foundation Course all with an emphasis on experiential, tactile learning and “intimate contact with the material through one’s own fingertips.” Albers was confident that, with intimate contact, what we take for granted could be seen anew.
“One of the first classes, I told them to write your signature, what you put underneath your check, and then write it in the air. And I wrote my name in the air, but so that they could read it – not for my reading. I did it backwards, and then they didn’t know what I am doing, so I went to the blackboard and wrote it. Who got it? Who didn’t get it? Be honest. Who got it now? Let’s admit that we are visually underdeveloped,” Albers recalled years after Black Mountain had closed. “And so I came to another way to make them aware, and to experience right away.”
Back in Booth 4, my pancake plate licked clean of Dutch Baby, our conversation returns to the familiar signature. “The connection to Zen may be obvious to you, but let me just say that the most familiar thing of all is our own consciousness. Mine may be different from yours and vice versa, but we all have been living with our sensory awareness – our eyes, nose, tongue, body, and mind - since early childhood. It has become familiar to us as the self, the sum total of who we are and what we feel and think,” Sensei says. “Through Zen meditation, we simply sit still until our own consciousness begins to change. Like any creative process, this is a form of immersion, but instead of immersing ourselves and engaging with paint, stone, words, images or any other medium, the medium of immersion is awareness itself.”
Several weeks later, we kick-off our first Zenovation workshop by asking participants to write their signature repeatedly in a variety of ways, sizes, directions and with a variety of objects – from pen to handmade brush. We hold our finished signature scrawls up for our counterparts to see and critique. It is a strange experience and that’s how we know we’re off to a good start.
Say the word Pfannkuchen five times fast and let your throat be cleared by the excessive “Cccchhhhh” sound. Eat a Pfannkuchen and let your mind be blown by deliciousness.
Say the word “elephant” multiple times out loud in a public place and enjoy the strange glare of strangers.
- Write your signature 50 times in a variety of ways, sizes and directions on a poster size sheet of paper and experience its unfamiliarity.