Six Innovators in Isolation
Artists and Visionaries Whose Ideas Were Bred in Solitude
For close to four months, we have been battling a pandemic the likes of which our generation has never experienced — and hopefully will never have to experience again. Throughout this battle, isolation has been a much-discussed topic and, for the most part, described as a negative force, driving people into fits of unbelievable boredom and creating a strong desire to see the outside world and missed friends and family.
As creatives who often work in isolation, we’ve listened to these conversations with interest. Yes, we work on teams and collaborate to brainstorm and ideate. But, when it’s time to put pen to paper (or stylus to screen), we usually retreat into our own heads and work alone. Indeed, it’s an inevitable necessity of the creative process — we alone must face the vast emptiness of the blank page and begin to fill it with our words, thoughts and designs.
In this way, isolation is an ancient and, dare we say, a positive force. Luckily for us, many brilliant minds have utilized isolation as a creative resource — and have produced amazing results. Below are six examples of astounding creatives or visionaries who have brought inspiration or hope to the world, whether through art or self-discovery.
Henry David Thoreau
In terms of using isolation for self-discovery and self-induced creativity, Henry David Thoreau has few peers. Thoreau is widely famous for his writings in “Walden,” which were produced in solitude in a cabin near Walden Pond, where he used his time in nature to reflect upon his own limitations as a human and solidify his beliefs as a transcendentalist. Thoreau believed that simple living, as well as giving up unnecessary pleasures, would help one achieve happiness and allow for less distraction from what he deemed the important aspects of his own life. Thoreau praised chastity, abstinence from alcohol and practiced vegetarianism, citing meat, sex, and drugs as luxuries that could detract from focus on one’s self- improvement and self-transcendence.
Thoreau’s unselfish, though self-focused, and minimalist view of solitude can help us see some good in isolation — especially as a vehicle to evaluate all the things that are important to us.
James Hampton and Henry Darger
James Hampton and Henry Darger were two artists who belonged to an artistic “genre” known as outsider art. These artists are defined by their lack of any professional guidance or training and by their habit of working in total isolation. Because of this, most pieces of outsider art remain unknown until they are discovered posthumously.
Both James Hampton and Henry Darger were largely antisocial and revealed very little about the artwork they were creating in secret. Darger’s main body of work consisted of a hand– and typewritten, handbound fantasy book manuscript (“In the Realms of the Unreal”) that totaled to over 15,000 pages and more than ten volumes. This included several large pieces of art illustrating certain scenes described in the book. Made from newspaper scraps, paint, and tracings, Darger’s art would not be found until after his death in 1973, when it slowly began to captivate many in the artistic community. His artwork is catalogued online by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which can be visited from the comfort of your own solitudinous locale.
Similarly, James Hampton created almost 200 large ornamental and religious sculptures made from recyclables and trash he found as a janitor. The large pieces of art, kept in a rented garage in Washington, D.C., were decorated with verses from the Bible, creating what he called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. Hampton also kept a notebook, written in an undecipherable system, thought to possibly be an example of asemic writing. Hampton’s work, too, increased in popularity after his death, and is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institute.
While we might be tempted to dismiss Darger and Hampton as lonely artists turned crazy by isolation, we would benefit from a more generous point of view. After all, they stand as evidence of what can be accomplished with uncompromised focus and how any creative vision is possible, despite the lack of access to education and resources. Plus, these artists depicted wondrous forms of fantastical art that take viewers into other realms — something especially useful when the world is as grim as it is today.
Emily Dickinson is one of the most popular American authors of the 19th century, owing largely to her posthumously discovered collections of poetic works. During her lifetime, Dickinson would publish only 10 of more than 1,500 pieces of writing and would choose to remain largely disconnected from much of the outside world. At the end of her life, she refused to leave her bedroom at all.
Dickinson would produce a prolific corpus of poetry and letters that would incorporate aspects of her own isolation and solitude, as well as her fascination with death and loneliness. Tuberculosis was the looming danger of her own time, and this may explain why she avoided the public and why she dared to confront death so candidly in her own writings. She was especially creative and productive in her solitude, during which she created an astounding number of poems. Slowly, however, she became more and more disconnected and her last published work was completed close to a decade before her death. The poems that were left unpublished were discovered posthumously and have grown in popularity ever since, as has her reputation as a great American poet.
Dickinson’s works explored a number of important themes, such as the roles of women in society and death as part of the life cycle, and experimented with unique slant rhymes and meters that separated her work from most other contemporary authors and poets. Her work continues to be widely read around the world, despite its origin in a small, secluded room.
Though Darwin gained notoriety and worldwide acclaim for his writings in “The Origin of Species,” it would not be possible for him to discover these hidden pieces of evidence for evolution without a bit of self-imposed isolation. Darwin, a medical student, traveled with the crew of the HMS Beagle to unpopulated areas of South America in hopes of studying general wildlife and exploring the geological phenomena of the continent. It was a series of voyages to the Galapagos Islands during this expedition that would lead to his discovery that sent shockwaves through the scientific community.
Hopping between islands on a small boarding ship with a few crew members, Darwin explored the islands and found something curious. In their own isolation, birds on several of the islands had gone through changes that made them well-suited to survive in the unique environments of their own island. Variations in physical traits and behaviors between similar finches on each of the islands hinted at the possibility of several of these distinct finch species coming from the same ancestor.
This discovery that isolation from similar relatives could lead to the creation of new species with noticeable physical differences astounded scientists across many disciplines. Furthermore, these ideas helped to form the biological foundation of evolution, which would forever alter our understanding of how life on the planet works. Darwin’s research on these lonely islands would prove to be the greatest discovery in the history of biology, and his work continues to be the foundation for all biological research.
Does he need any introduction? Albert Einstein is likely the one who comes to mind when anyone pictures a famous scientist, and his equation for mass-energy equivalence is rightfully known as the most popular equation in the history of physics. However, not all of his discoveries were made under the best conditions. One of his most famous, the theory of general relativity, would emerge as a cultural touchstone in a time of turmoil, following the destruction of World War I, as well as another global disaster: the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
The Spanish flu killed millions, cutting across all ages and nationalities. Quarantines, mask-use, and distancing were all commonplace, akin to the situation we find ourselves in today as we remain in our homes to protect ourselves and others. The pandemic of 1918 made people feel isolated and desperate to feel connected and rejuvenate, something we can empathize with today. As the pandemic ended, the world turned its attention to distractions from the horror and death of the war and the virus.
Enter Einstein’s work on general relativity. Although he published his theory in 1916, it was a solar eclipse in November 1919 that supported Einstein’s prediction that gravity could bend light — and ignited the collective imagination of citizens and scientists who had been traumatized by recent events. Einstein didn’t conceive of relativity in isolation, but the warm public welcome of an opaque theory owes everything to a general isolation weariness that pervaded around the world.
In Einstein, people found a charming, gentle champion of the scientific quest. In his theories, they found a shining beacon that brought light to a dire situation and a general promise that science could help explain even the deepest secrets of the universe.
J. D. Salinger
Known for his stream-of-consciousness and vernacular style, J. D. Salinger was certainly a modern recluse. Despite the popularity and instant success of his most famous novel, “Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger avoided all public attention for the rest of his life, even requesting that his portrait be removed from the dust jackets of copies of his novels.
Salinger’s works displayed an understanding of the inner workings of an adolescent mind in an age of counterculture and upheaval more effectively and realistically than any writer before him. The dark themes he explored in his stories continue to captivate readers to this day, perhaps because of his isolation, and the struggles with isolation his own characters experienced. Unlike prolific authors who produce for decades and give us plenty of foils for comparison, Salinger’s meaningful career barely spanned 15 years. That means we cling vehemently to his small body of work, knowing that if we let go, he could slide into obscurity.
Salinger explained his choice of solitude in a succinct and direct remark: “I love to write, and I assure you I write regularly. But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it.”
The COVID Crucible
As you settle in for another day of monotony and boredom, try to take advantage of everything isolation has to offer. Explore the world around you: find a cabin by a pond; express yourself in art, whether it’s mainstream or not; let yourself get lost in the mysteries of the night sky; or try crafting some poetry or fiction. Though isolation can be difficult, it allows for you to explore yourself and your creativity. And perhaps when we emerge from our time in isolation, we will all be beneficiaries of a wave of COVID creativity.