Creative Contributions of Differing Cultures – The Artist as Storyteller

Throughout time, artists have been the scribes, the recording secretaries, and the caretakers, that both carried forward and left behind the languages, histories, and religious stories of cultures from around the world. This is particularly true of artist and craftsmen who carve. Both stone and wood carvers have held a special place in cultural history as the interpreters of visions, as religious conveyers of teachings, of historians, and as storytellers.

Collective creativity within one culture, and across many has been at the heart of the artist as storyteller. Culture defined as ”shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives and are transmitted across generations”. These “collectives” or groups, tribes and societies have consistently used artists as an essential part of the cultural collective.

Sawyer’s description of “habituated collective” in traditional societies where the artist takes the vision of the Shaman and carves a spiritual mask for ceremonial uses, is an age old example of how artists have collaborated with indigenous tribal leaders, kings and popes to document the history of their peoples’ across the globe and throughout time. Artists, and in particular carvers have been interpreting these stories and recording them in stone and wood since the dawn of man. Remarkable cave paintings dating back 30,000 years aside, it has been the carvers that have best kept the historical record of thousands of indigenous tribes and cultures alive throughout time.

Cultural variations are spread across the globe; yet regional variations are directly linked in style, materials and technique. The carver creates both as an individual and as part of the creative collective in the context of societal needs. The time between these two societies is at least a thousand years; yet, the similarities between Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Assyrian Bas reliefs are remarkable. Across the Pacific, aboriginal societies have been creating some of the world’s most beautiful woodcarvings man has made for thousands of years. Each tribe having its own style, its own tools and materials, and each tribe telling their personal histories, yet all of them are connected by wood, by hand, and by artists. These remarkable collective works, these stories in wood, can be seen in canoes, tribal long houses, weapons, totem poles and thousands of other artifacts that have been left behind to tell the stories.

I recently had the opportunity to see an exhibit of the Cyrus Cylinder (http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/cyrus_cylinder/) , from Babylon at the Getty Villa in Malibu, the Cylinder is more than twenty five hundred years old and the similarities in both style and substance between the carvings on the cylinder and the carvings on the Rosetta stone (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/the_rosetta_stone.aspx) are remarkable. Both these treasures were carved by an artist, who was part of a creative collective that left behind two of the most important historical artifacts from ancient times.

Just a stones throw across the Aegean, was Greece and of course, Italy. The museum I choose to take a virtual tour of is the Institute of History of Science, Florence, Italy, now renamed the Museo Galileo. The museum contains many interesting science exhibits and cultural artifacts, from telescopes and calipers, to drawing and dissection tools. The virtual exhibit that I chose to represent from this museum is Archimedes, The Art and Science of Invention, (http://exhibits.museogalileo.it/archimedes/section/Introduction.html).

The exhibit presents Archimedes as a key universal, cultural and scientific figure in the early stages of math, science, engineering and design. It shows his enormous significance as an innovator, inventor, mathematician and writer, and places him at or near the top in the pantheon of interdisciplinary (STEAM) figures throughout history. The exhibit also lays the foundation for Archimedes work by putting it into the context of the importance of the center of higher learning that was Syracuse in 300-250 B.C.

Archimedes is a classical example of how STEAM thinking is dates back to early antiquity. Archimedes was the preeminent mathematician of his time and is generally considered to be one of the top mathematicians of all time, along with Newton, Einstein and others. His is the father of integral calculus and the mathematics of physics. His works in industrial design and mechanical engineering are legendary. His innovative designs for moving water and lifting large objects are still studied today. The invention he is most remembered for today bears his name, the Archimedes screw, which moves water uphill for irrigating fields and helping to carry water through aqueducts to cities.

Archimedes disappears from history for some time after his death in battle, but reappears in the thirteenth century as a major influence to the thinkers of the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo himself continues on with some of Archimedes designs, including improvements to the Archimedes screw. Leonardo was fascinated by the power and flow of water. Many consider Archimedes to be the father of Renaissance thinking.

Archimedes was an exemplary example of creativity, culture and STEAM thinking. There seem to be no boundaries between his writings, his mathematics, his innovative industrial designs and his science. He has taught and influenced countless brilliant people throughout history with his interdisciplinary way of seeing the world and trying to explain it. He is a fascinating character in the history of science, engineering and cultural history.