David Bouchier: The Creative Hut

Nov 27, 2017

A sketch of Thoreau's cabin in the woods.

Halfway up a hill behind our local art center there is a small building – a hut or a shed really – just about big enough for one person. It has plenty of windows, and I would be willing to bet that it was built as an artist’s studio.

If so it is a perfect example of what I call the Creative Hut, a very ancient device to promote serious thinking. Diogenes, an eccentric Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC, spent much of his time living in a large jar in the marketplace because it helped him to concentrate. Concentration is the operative word. A small space blocks out many distractions, most importantly, the distraction of other people. Leonardo da Vinci said, “An artist’s studio should be a small space because small rooms discipline the mind.” You can’t really argue with Leonardo, especially when one of his paintings just sold for $450 million.

It is almost a romantic tradition for writers and artists to retreat to a shed at the bottom of the garden, or some equivalent, so that they can work in peace. T.E. Lawrence, that is Lawrence of Arabia, wrote his masterwork work, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in a tiny hut that is now a National Trust monument. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built a hut in the woods near Concord, as a place for contemplation. As a kid, when I wanted some peace and quiet, I would retire to the garden shed. I had to squeeze in with the chickens, but they were peaceful companions.

The tradition continues. There is a flourishing business in ready-made Creative Huts. Companies will sell you the entire package, complete with furniture, heating, carpets and electrical wiring, so that your hut is more like a tiny home. But not too much like home, because that is exactly what you are trying to escape. The bad news is that the electronic umbilical cord, wired and wireless, must be cut. E-mails, tweets, perpetual infuriating commercial phone calls – all of them are death to creativity, or even to rational thought.

You don’t need a literal hut of course. A cozy room with a “Do not disturb” sign works well, and I have always preferred to work in a small room. A car is a good place for thinking, if you are alone, although not so good for painting or sculpture. So is the bathroom, if you can lay claim to it for a while. But any room with a firmly closed door can be a Creative Hut, if you are determined about it. The author Nancy Mitford was famous for keeping the world out when she was working. Anyone making a demand on her would receive a printed postcard with the message: “Nancy Mitford is unable to do what you ask.”

There have been creative geniuses, like Johann Sebastian Bach, who could apparently work in the midst of chaos. Most people are utterly distracted by a single child, but Bach had twenty children, and managed to compose over a thousand pieces of immortal music. It sounds impossible I know, but I suspect that, for much of his life, Bach was hiding out in his own Creative Hut down at the bottom of the garden, concentrating on his glorious work.

Copyright: David Bouchier