The Creative Life


By Kathy Pate, National Music Chair

Evelyn Swensson with NLAPW National President Evelyn Wofford in Wilmington, Delaware.

A person involved in the creative arts is generally a nonlinear thinker. The very definition of creativity is the ability to think “outside the box”; to be inventive and put together unique combinations of colors, shapes, textures, sounds, musical tones; to achieve a new painting, sculpture, song, etc. We learn our craft, the rules of form and why they are relevant, and the history of style and expression within our chosen artistic discipline. However, in the end, we develop a style unique to ourselves.

It is helpful to create works that are appealing to others, in order to draw an audience who will support our creative habit by buying pieces of our art or paying to hear our musical compositions.

The stereotype of the poor artist or composer is based on a common reality. Many very famous artists and composers struggled to support themselves and their families throughout their entire lives. A composer willing to work as a music director and write and conduct several symphonies per week (e.g. Haydn) had a better chance of thriving. But many composers (e.g. Chopin, Mozart, Schubert) died young.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a writer, mystic, artist, and visionary who founded two monasteries. She was also an accomplished composer of around 70 works, many of which were recently recorded by the Anonymous 4. However, these creative pursuits may have been possible because she lived in a monastery her entire adult life, which gave her more control over her available time for creating. She also was not dependent on the sale or performance of her works for income.

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was the sister of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Fanny and Felix were both well educated and highly accomplished artists and composers, yet their father and Felix both discouraged Fanny from publishing her works. Many of her compositions were originally published under Felix’s name. She and Felix were very close, critiquing each other’s works throughout their lives. When she died unexpectedly at age 42, Felix was devastated and died within a year.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896), the wife of composer Robert Schumann, was one of the most accomplished pianists of her time. She wrote her Piano Concerto at age 14, but lost confidence in her ability to compose in her mid-30s (around the time of Robert’s death), believing that she did not possess true creative talent. Her 61-year concert career, however, was remarkable, and she was very helpful to composer Johannes Brahms with his compositions over several decades.

Over the past 100 years, women have made great strides in independence, legally as well as on the home front. This has created new opportunities, as evidenced by Pen Women music members such as Amy Beach, Gena Branscombe, and Evelyn Swensson. Greater numbers of women are now professors, independent artists, successful composers, and performers in their own right. We can marry or remain single. We can also reinvent ourselves as new opportunities arise.

Evelyn Swensson, of the Wilmington Branch, Delaware, is a contemporary example of a vibrant, creative life. At 65, after decades of singing in and directing choruses and musicals, she began composing songs for musicals when the need arose. She has written 14 musicals, which have been performed in Wilmington; at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; in 30 states; and in Canada, New Zealand and Holland (in Dutch). She still receives royalties for her works.

In the past year, Swensson has entertained residents of eight retirement homes with nine songs from the “9 Decades of My Life,” and this past April, she performed for her Pen Women friends and their honored guest, National President Evelyn Wofford.

She founded and directs a chorus that presents two shows per year, and serves as the pianist or soloist for chapel services. In May, she sang in Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague with 75 singers from the Hickory Choral Society of North Carolina. Now in her 90s, she is still making music, at home and around the world.

NLAPW was established to give creative professional women an organization of our own and to recognize, celebrate, and inspire one another. Our members are composers, artists, and writers who are active in their fields; creating unique music, art and literature; and mentoring others in the creative arts. We continue to reinvent ourselves, grow, and change with every new opportunity, and foster a positive mindset. The creative life, lived with passion, is an amazing journey.