Are you a polymath or a butterfly brain?
Firstly, what is a polymath? A dictionary definition has it that a polymath is a person of wide knowledge or learning and Wikipedia states “a polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. “
An example will illustrate it perfectly – think of Leonardo da Vinci.
He is not the only one in history (Benjamin Franklin, Jagdish Chandra Bose, Aristotle, Nikola Tesla among many others) but perhaps one of the most easily accessed and appreciated through his incredibly detailed drawings.
He was an artist, yes, but also an extraordinary designer. His observations of nature led him into all kinds of different fields of life and his connections between topics led to insights and then inventions that we are still learning from today. His drawings of the human body and musculature were invaluable to a deeper understanding of the human body for scientists, for medicine, for artists and sculptors. His delight in looking down at towns and villages and the Tuscan countryside from high hills gave the first aerial perspectives of landscapes, towns and fortifications and brought in his interest in geology and natural history, as well as military and civil engineering. His observations about the physics of flight in insects and birds led to designs for gliders, plus aeroplanes and helicopters which could only be realised in more recent times because of the development of the engines required to power them.
So what’s the difference between a polymath and a butterfly brain?
My mother had a butterfly brain. She was very talented with many things she did and she did so many things. Her children were cruel as only children can be – we called her interests ‘fads’. She would move from one thing to another – from quilting to silk painting to card stamping to crewel to free-hand embroidery to jam-making and baking for the WI market to drama and so on. In a way, it was hard for her because she was so good at pretty much everything she tried. The one thing that she didn’t really get on with was, funnily enough, weaving. Her heavy floor loom had her first (and only) rug warp on it for over 30 years. It became covered in washing needing ironing, clothes that needed mending, cloth for cutting into patches for patchwork, then a tent that needed to dry out.
I too have many interests. I love nature, geology, I enjoy reading about physics, maths, the cosmos, philosophy, history, I love glass, woodwork, textile techniques, design, optical illusions and so on. However, when I discovered weaving when I was a new mum, I found my forté. Mind you, within weaving there are so many avenues to explore and it’s really easy to try out so many and never want to settle on one thing. And why should you settle for one thing?! Many people are very curious about different aspects and content to dive into one for a while before moving on to another.
In fact, that was me until I came across deep texture. Then I realised that this particular area was one that really interested me and I wanted to hone down my attention and dive deep into the explorations.
Funnily enough, having delved so deeply into texture over around 10 years, I now find my weaving broadening out using that accumulated knowledge and bringing other elements of my interests into my weaving. I now have a weaving vocabulary that allows me to bring in geology, sea forms, inspiration from glass makers, woodworkers, other artisans, sculpture, optical illusions, physics, the cosmos, but the basis of my weaving is dimensional, whether physical, tactile or visual.
Weaving is my tool, my means of expression, my way to make sense of the world and bring to life ideas fostered by my interests and passions. Am I a polymath? Probably not. Am I a butterfly brain? Probably not. Do I use my knowledge across many different areas of interest to come into my work and resolve issues that I might have in my life and my weaving and to inspire my forward trajectory? Most definitely.
So what’s the point behind this post? For me, it’s that the labels don’t matter. What matters is the thinking, exploration and curiosity behind everything we do. For me, that’s a philosophy for life!
Image: Tuscan Hills, Val d’Orcia