The Rocket Blog

Creative Works 2016: Summer Camp in a Weekend

I’m anointing Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life” the unofficial theme song of everyone returning to their offices after attending the third annual Creative Works Conference (Oct. 6 - 8) last weekend in downtown Memphis. I’m typing this on a Wednesday afternoon, but every day since leaving the conference has felt like Monday on repeat (unless my bosses are reading this, in which case: j/k! I missed you guys the whooole tiiime.)

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Creative What-Now?

If you’re presently unfamiliar with Creative Works, you won’t be for long. Founded in 2014, the once-fledgling brainchild of Josh Horton, Memphis-based designer/owner at Hieroglyph, has grown at an unanticipated rate and is now attracting nationwide attention from designers, writers, illustrators, developers, storytellers and more.

Over the course of three days, creative professionals from diverse backgrounds gather to hear catalytic talks led by industry luminaries, sharpen existing skills or learn new ones in hands-on workshops facilitated by experts, and sell or shop in the curated marketplace comprising talented makers from Memphis and around the country. The activities are rooted in storytelling and learning, not networking, so fellowship happens organically, especially when everyone fully cuts loose at the after-parties (which, I’m pleased to report, mostly turn into dance parties). The conference has sold out every year and scaled up attendance each time, most recently accommodating nearly 400 people in the beautiful Halloran Centre for Performing Arts and Education.

The massive crush of interest and enthusiasm has made it possible for Horton to dedicate himself full-time to Creative Works and hire a co-director, Dan Price, to continue programming throughout the year. (Follow them on Instagram and Twitter @cworksco and on Facebook @creativeworksMEM to stay in the loop about ongoing events and opportunities.)

I have had the pleasure of serving as a volunteer organizer for Creative Works each year and seen firsthand the energy the conference generates in attendees, including our own RocketFuel creative team. There is no substitute for the joy evoked by spending uninterrupted time with people who think, feel and dream the way you do.

Girls to the Front

Another thing I’m pleased to report: this year’s conference had a decidedly feminist bend, from the offerings in the marketplace to the programming on the stage.

Artists like Chicago-based Vichcraft, LA-based Tuesday Bassen and Memphis(ish)-based The Crybaby Club struck a chord with pins and patches that unabashedly touted feminist slogans and reclaimed tropes commonly associated with female weakness as symbols of badassery: lyrical, handwritten calligraphy blasting formalism and patriarchy; rough-and-tumble vignettes suffused with soft pink; even the act of crying portrayed as a healthy (sometimes necessary) part of the creative process.

101216 RF Blog Feminist Makers

(All images courtesy of the artists' websites. L - R: VichcraftTuesday Bassen and The Crybaby Club)

Feminism In Creativity

A highlight of the girl power on parade was Friday’s Feminism in Creativity discussion panel, moderated by Meg Lewis (designer at Ghostly Ferns) and featuring speakers Jenna Blazevich (founder/designer at Vichcraft), Toya Levi (co-founder at Grits Co. Clothing), Tuesday Bassen (independent illustrator) and Matt Ladner (designer/developer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital). The refreshingly frank conversation touched on each participant’s idea of feminism before exploring other current issues, like underrepresentation of women in senior creative positions, and ended with an open Q&A with the audience. Because of the supportive environment, people felt comfortable asking tough questions (Hi, subtle microaggressions!) and giving candid answers (“Don’t worry about being a bitch.”), which made for a lively, memorable talk.

Michael Jackson vs. Prince

I really wanted to keep this write-up brief but decided I’d be doing the weekend a disservice not to talk about the man who closed the entire conference, LA-based poet/activist/musician/academic/emcee, Propaganda. (He deserves every single one of those slashes!)

It would’ve been easy for him to take the stage, talk about how successful he’s been, drop a few general tips about building a personal brand and then exit to great applause. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he leaned into this year’s theme, Build With Conviction, like a punch. Hard. With surprising vulnerability, Prop discussed the pain of being confused about his calling and the many ways an artist’s misgivings can undermine his or her will. His candor was biting and resonant. When Prop brought up imposter syndrome and discussed how susceptible creative people are to its internal siren song, there was an audible gasp of recognition across the audience: yes, even hugely talented people you admire also think of themselves as frauds sometimes.


“You can’t be afraid to be misunderstood,” he said, jokingly referencing Michael Jackson and Prince. One musician was a slick, commercially packaged (though still excellent!) amalgamation, designed to redefine hip. The other was a wholly untethered artist, unafraid to pose naked on a unicorn and generally be seen as a weirdo. Neither took the wrong route to do what he wanted to do, but that’s the point, isn’t it? There is no right or wrong route to becoming a successful creative, so long as the conviction is there. Being misunderstood by others doesn’t invalidate an artistic endeavor, just as being accessible to others doesn’t automatically equate a lack of complexity, and we must learn to utilize deeper criteria than initial impressions when evaluating our works and ourselves.

In closing his talk, Prop focused on the place of creators in society. Oftentimes, designers, writers and the lot can feel a bit abused by other sectors, our work consistently in high demand, yet frustratingly devalued.

Virtue’s at the mouth of the river. You sit upstream. You are curating how I walk through the world around me. You’re shaping culture. What is downstream from you is politics, education - you shape them.

- Propaganda, on the role of the creator

When Prop uttered those words, the theatre around us melted away for a moment, replaced by pews and stained glass windows. He was reminding everyone that the measure of an artist’s reach is not always immediate or quantifiable, not always evident in a singular way, if ever. People may not google to find out who designed their favorite brand logo, but they still slap the stickers on everything they own.

The legacy of most creatives is a quiet, persistent nudging that gains momentum when the germ of an idea is adopted, advanced and re-presented over and over again. Creatives sit upstream, trickling the ideas that build into a roiling current, wearing down huge boulders over time, giving rise to expanding cities and transporting people from one age to the next.

Lady pins and thoughtful mens,

Lindsey Butler