On an autumn afternoon during my first year of design school, I sat near a low chain-link fence in Central Park, sorting leaves by color. Then I wove them through the links of the fence, creating a gradient that turned from bright green to golden yellow. Around me, my classmates were occupied with building small sculptures out of twigs, stones, and grass—resembling the work of either dedicated children or very coordinated squirrels. The sun was warm and the park smelled pleasantly of cut grass and horse manure. Tourists and dog-walkers gave us curious looks.
This wasn’t a case of art student whimsy; we were dutifully completing a class assignment. We had just watched Thomas Riedelsheimer’s 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time
. In it, we saw
, a lone figure surrounded by nature, creating sculptures in his peculiar and dogged way: carefully balanced stones, sticks held together seemingly by magic, and leaves floating in a unwinding spiral formation as they followed the current of a stream.
Goldsworthy creates ephemeral works from unstable materials like light, water, and ice that mainly survive only as photographs. There are also more durable, public installations of wood or stone, such as Five Men, Seventeen Days, Fifteen Boulders, One Wall (2010), a 2,000-foot-long fieldstone wall that winds like a ribbon between the trees, disappears into a pond, and emerges on the opposite bank.
Riedelsheimer has just released a follow-up documentary on Goldsworthy, Leaning into the Wind, and watching it reminded me of that long-ago afternoon in the park. It made me ponder what I’d learned playing Goldsworthy for a day. Can exercises inspired by his practice teach us how to best approach our own creative work? Like transcendental meditation or the board game Go, the rules of Goldsworthy’s practice seem tantalizingly simple—something that anyone can attempt, without ever really mastering.
When I speak with Goldsworthy, I ask him to imagine a hypothetical school based on his work—a place for others to follow his lead. He is polite, but horrified.
“I think that would be really strange,” Goldsworthy tells me. We’re on the phone, but I suspect he’s cringing a little. What he does isn’t intended to be didactic, he explains, and instructing someone to imitate the work would run counter to its very purpose. “Also, I’m not a great teacher,” he adds. “I know my limitations.”
Sadly, the Andy Goldsworthy Institute of Creative Exploration will never exist, but here’s a consolation prize: five lessons Goldsworthy’s work can teach us about how to live a creative life.