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Chuck Jones? Einstein? Wile E. Coyote? A Nonprofit Boosts the Common Thread - imagination

By Orange County Register

March 9, 2018

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein.

Craig Kausen has a crazy childhood memory of his grandfather, Chuck. It takes place in the summer of 1972 in the backyard of Chuck’s Cameo Shores house in Corona del Mar.

Craig was 10 years old. His brother Todd was 11. Chuck told his grandsons to put on some swim fins. Then he tied them up with twine at their ankles, their knees and their elbows.

And he pushed them into the pool.

As the boys thrashed around, Chuck settled into his green vinyl crosshatch lounge chair to watch. And sketch.

“He wanted to see how sea lions moved in the water,” Craig says, laughing. “Tied up, we were floundering, just like sea lions. It was part of his research. … Of course we had to bark.”

Craig’s grandfather was the animator’s animator, Chuck Jones. He’s the guy who gave birth to Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote and Pepe Le Pew. And he’s also the three-time Oscar-winning director of Looney Tunes cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig.

Jones spent his later years as an ambassador of animation, traveling the country to speak to fans about his cartoons. But he also told fans to let their own creativity out to play.

“He believed there’s a creative genius inside of everybody, lurking about, in some way, whether it’s writing, science, education, medicine,” Craig says. “When you tap into the creativity, the byproducts are passion, curiosity and joy. There’s electricity.”

Chuck died in 2002 at age 89. But Craig, a computer engineer and instructor at Orange County community colleges, is on a mission to continue his grandfather’s legacy. He and his mom, Chuck’s daughter Linda, who is now 80, started the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, a non-profit in Costa Mesa.

In a world where standard education seems to devalue imagination and art classes are viewed as a luxury, the now 19-year-old nonprofit’s mission feels particularly critical.

“We’re getting taught out of creativity,” Craig says.

Hidden crisis

Leaders in education, business and healthcare are beginning to sound the creativity alarm.

Craig singles out Sir Ken Robinson, who was knighted after leading the British government’s advisory committee on the importance of creativity in education and the economy.

Robinson gives a famous TED talk you can watch on YouTube where he insists that creativity is as important as literacy.

“Our education system is predicated on our idea of academic ability,” Robinson says. “We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence. Intelligence is dynamic. It’s wonderfully interactive. (But) our education system has mined our minds in the way we’ve strip-mined the earth.”

The science behind creativity suggests it isn’t a trivial problem.

Dr. William Shankle trained as a statistician before he became a neurologist 30 years ago and now runs the Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program at Hoag Hospital.

He’s also a big fan of Wile E. Coyote.

Wile E., you might recall, spends every waking minute thinking up new, hilariously creative ways to off Road Runner. Explosive rabbit decoys, rocket-powered roller skates, earthquake pills, jet-fueled tennis shoes.

It was, among other things, creative problem-solving. And creative problem solving requires a brainstorm. And brainstorming, neurologists now believe, is critical to keeping your brain young.

“The creative process activates more brain areas than any other cognitive activity,” Shankle says. “It is more important for long-term development in life; much more important than just the standard learning of basic skills. When people do the same thing over and over throughout their life, they don’t engage in problem-solving. And when you don’t engage in problem-solving, you lose a brain area. It literally shrinks. It’s like a muscle. The fibers pull in, the synapses get weaker and smaller.”

MRI studies back this up.

“Maintaining an active, engaged brain might be just as important to brain health for people in their 50s and 60s as cardiovascular exercise is to heart disease prevention,” Shankle says.

That’s why Shankle, who is 62, takes guitar lessons and tennis lessons and math lessons.

It’s also why he is teaming up with the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. The goal is for the center to conduct workshops on the Hoag campus for the aging public.

A brain doesn’t have to be old to benefit from creativity, though.

The Chuck Jones Center also has after-school art programs in 11 elementary schools, mostly in Irvine. There are also free Drop In and Draw sessions for all ages on most Saturday mornings at its headquarters, an energetic, airy space at the OC Mix in Costa Mesa.

A few months ago, they hit a huge milestone, opening their second center: Chuck Jones Center Chicagoland just outside the city. The Plato Learning Academy, a charter school in one of Chicago’s highest-crime neighborhoods, has already retained them to begin after-school programs.

“They’re fired up,” Craig says.

Craig wants everyone to understand that the center’s programs are not just for the “artistic” kids.

“That creative genius exists in every person,” he says.

He quotes Pablo Picasso: “We are all born artists. The challenge is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

Shankle agrees. “Most people think of creativity as being the province of artists. I think that’s an incorrect concept.”

Creativity can be taught and practiced.

“Chuck believed that imagination is always in there, lurking about, it’s just not always apparent,” Craig says. “You have to learn your trade and your tools and put your discipline in. You have to understand the rules completely — so you know how to appropriately break them.”

In an interview that Chuck Jones gave before he died (which you can still watch on YouTube), he talked about how when he was 15 his father let him drop out of high school to enroll at California Institute of the Arts.

He considered himself creative, he says in the interview, but after arriving at CalArts he found himself surrounded by students “drawing like Leonardo da Vinci” and was quickly dispirited.

“I could draw a little bit, but I couldn’t keep up,” Chuck says.

After only a week he told his uncle that he wanted to quit, blurting out: “You can’t make a racehorse out of pig!”

His uncle patted him on the knee.

“No, but you can make a very fast pig,” his uncle told him.

Land of Yes

The Center’s mission is to start people on their own creative path. Craig describes it as “a gymnasium for the brain.”

As the Center’s lead teaching artist and program developer, Denise Dion-Scoyni is the head coach.

“She’s a godsend of energy,” Craig says.

Dion-Scoyni was hired three years ago after returning to Orange County from Kauai where she and her husband Mike raised their two daughters. Now she trains the center’s six teaching artists and the dozen or so volunteer artists (including a Rose Parade float designer and a digital animator).

Their mission, whether working with school children or memory-challenged adults, is to “nurture creativity,” using paint, clay and other media.

“We give prompts and guidance, but our projects are meant to afford individual outcomes,” she says.

For her the Center is as much a calling or a passion as it is a job. She believes creativity is as necessary as reading and writing, and worries that it is slipping away.

“We’re seeing a disconnect in young kids who are not doing handwork,” she says. “They’re just pushing buttons. Swiping with one finger.”

Shankle said it is not just sad, but dangerous, arguing that the less emphasis our education system puts on the arts, the less competitive America will become.

Ashley Merryman has spoken at the Center in the past. She co-authored a 2010 Newsweek article titled “The Creativity Crisis,” which references the Torrance Test, developed in the 1950s by psychologist E. Paul Torrance to measure creativity. Torrance administered the test to several hundred Minneapolis children and then spent years tracking them.

“The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than (it was for) childhood IQ,” Merryman wrote.

Many business leaders know this.

Craig points to a poll conducted in 2010 by IBM that asked CEOs what quality they most desired in leaders. The answer: Creativity.

“The race is on for doing something innovative,” he says. “Workers are being asked to be more creative, to think differently.

In a 2016 New York Times opinion piece, Wharton School professor Adam Grant made a case for creativity over intellect.

“Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world,” he wrote. “What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers… Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.”

According to Grant, compared to your average scientist, “Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.”

Craig recounts the time when he accompanied his grandfather to a speaking engagement at the Chuck Jones Gallery in Santa Fe. A group of nuclear physicists showed up from the nearby Los Alamos National Lab. They told Chuck that their scientific imaginations were sparked as kids by none other than Wile E. Coyote and his ACME contraptions on Saturday morning cartoons.

It’s not just scientists who benefit from creativity.

“Creativity is found in every line of work, because all lines of work require problem solving,” Shankle says. “When you give people the tools (to be creative), you give them the ability to do a much better job at whatever they do.”

The Center’s vision for 2018 is to move into community centers and possibly summer camps for kids.

“What we want to bring about is to start getting people to use their creativity at a younger age, to keep (brain aging) at bay,” says Dion-Scoyni. “So we’re not just the tiger chasing the tail. Creativity in the teens, 20s, 30s extends cognitive functioning in your senior years.”

At the same time, you’re never too old to start.

Shankle, the neurologist, has stories.

“One patient still blows my mind,” Shankle says.

The man has the fastest moving form of dementia, Lewy Body Disorder. He was in his 50s when Shankle first diagnosed him. Shankle put him on a medication, but it had ill effects on his vision and muscle coordination. So Shankle also prescribed drawing or painting.

His patient took up both, along with a course in Spanish. That was 6 years ago.

“And he’s had almost no progression, which is unbelievable, like impossible,” Shankle says. “I mean, you just don’t see it. Lewy Body goes much faster than Alzheimer’s and this guy has literally remained stable for 6 years. That’s the power of those kinds of things.”

Autism groups have also seen the benefits of creative exercise. The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana just retained the Chuck Jones Center’s services. And the city of Newport Beach gave them a $1,000 arts and cultural grant to do a brain health program at the Oasis Senior Center in Corona del Mar.

“There’s no lack of need,” Craig says. “But we’re limited by resources. We need to double our budget to really make an impact.”

About 50 percent of their $150,000 annual budget comes from fundraisers. A quarter comes from grants and donors. They get the rest from paid gigs, such as corporate team-building workshops. Neither Craig nor his mother draw a salary. The bulk of the budget pays for teaching artists and materials.

Even though Chuck Jones created and directed some of the most famous cartoon characters on the planet, neither his daughter nor his grandson get any money from them.

“We don’t own the characters,” Craig says. “Warner Bros. does.”

That just means getting more creative about finding money. All ideas are welcome. The only thing not welcome is whining. Or negativity.

Chuck’s one big rule was that you could not say NO. That went for whether he was at Warner Bros., writing cartoons with fellow animators, or at the Five Crowns Restaurant, challenging his companions to see who could hang a spoon on the end of their nose the longest.

“The biggest killer of creativity was ‘No,’ Craig says. “Chuck was adamant about that. As soon as somebody says ‘No,’ everything disappears. All the energy, all the creative juices go flat. It was one of those big ‘yes’ sessions: What if? How about? And then you could…”

One of Chuck’s drawings is actually of a huge granite NO.

It’s got all the weight in the world, and it’s suspended by a rope over this delicate golden YES. A pair of scissors floats above the rope, about to snip, crushing that YES.

“And that’s the way Chuck saw it,” Craig says. “There is this fledgling little YES waiting to be nurtured.”

To view the original Orange County Register article, please click here.