You may be surprised to hear that reclusive poet Emily Dickinson was also an avid baker, or that Salvador Dalí, known undoubtedly for his Surrealist paintings, was also a book illustrator—even creating watercolor illustrations for copies of the Bible. In fact, many creatives have pursued a variety of side projects outside of their primary passions, which ultimately helped them break through creative blocks and develop new skills that made them even better at their craft.
Studies have shown that the benefits of cross-training your brain are endless. Pursuing a multitude of activities, rather than becoming specialized in a single area, has been proven to strengthen both professional and soft-skills. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.”
Though these side projects garnered little recognition from art historians and literary critics, they provide insight into the creative minds of iconic artists.
Ayn Rand, Stamp Collector
Ayn Rand spent the majority of her time writing and developing her philosophy of Objectivism, which she describes as, “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” However, in her free time the avid writer was a passionate philatelist—a collector of stamps—and used this hobby to help when she experienced a creative block.
Rand once said in an interview with The Minkus Stamp Journal, “If I feel tired after a whole day of writing, I spend an hour with my stamp albums and it makes me able to resume writing for the rest of the evening. A stamp album is a miraculous brain-restorer.” In 1999, the United States Postal Service even issued a stamp that recognized Rand and her literary accomplishments.
Emily Dickinson, Baker
American poet Emily Dickinson also had a passion for baking, and often baked for family, friends, and even neighborhood children for whom she’d lower baskets of cakes to from her window. Dickinson won second place at the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show for her round loaf of Indian and Rye bread. It appears as though Dickinson’s creative and culinary works greatly influenced each other, as she would often work on poems while she baked.
According to the Emily Dickinson Museum, the kitchen “was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.” She would write lines of poetry on the backs of recipes and food wrappers, evidenced by a poem written on her coconut cake recipe, which is still in circulation today.
George W. Bush, Painter
Forty-third president of the United States George W. Bush took up painting in 2012. After his initial paintings were revealed in an email hack in 2013, the former president was open about his hobby, often jokingly referring to his “inner Rembrandt” when asked about the side project.
Bush has been trained by a string of prominent art teachers including Jim Woodson, Sedrick Huckaby, Roger Winter, and Bonnie Flood. Many of these teachers champion his artistic abilities. Most recently, he released his “Portraits of Courage,” a collection of 66 portraits and a four-panel mural that honors military veterans.
Madeleine L’Engle, Pianist
Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her young adult fiction and 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time; however, the author was also a skilled pianist. In fact, whenever she struggled with writer’s block, she’d turn to music as a way to get “unstuck,” describing in an interview, “What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.”
Salvador Dalí, Book Illustrator
Throughout the second half of his career, eccentric Surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí, turned to illustrating. He illustrated many respectable books including Don Quixote, Macbeth, The Divine Comedy, Alice in Wonderland, and even copies of the Bible. Though he did instill his trademark flamboyance into certain areas, Dalí seemed to approach these projects with skill and professionalism, and he illustrated many significant works so well that critics couldn’t deem them a prank or ironic joke. Much like he did when painting, Dalí continued to explore controversial themes such as witchcraft, the end of the world, and sexuality, among others.
Sylvia Plath, Beekeeper
Before the tragic death of American writer Sylvia Plath, the poet published a series of five poems about bees after taking up beekeeping as a hobby. Many believe this was her last-ditch effort to stay grounded. Her father, Otto, was an entomologist who specialized in bees, and his book Bumblebees and Their Ways (1934) is still highly regarded today. In her final poems that depicted the hobby, Plath entertained thoughts of her own death and explores contributing factors.
Victor Hugo, Draftsman
Afraid his drawings would overshadow his literary accomplishments, Victor Hugo only shared his artwork privately. However, Hugo produced over 4,000 drawings throughout his lifetime, many of which were praised by leading artists of his era. Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix once praised Hugo’s artistic skill in writing, noting that had he become a painter instead of a writer, he would have outshone the most prominent artists of their century.
Hugo was a skilled draftsman. He experimented often, drawing with his non-dominant hand or looking away from the page. He would even use soot, dust, and coffee grounds if pen and ink were not available.
Walt Disney, Model Train Collector
From childhood, American entrepreneur Walt Disney was an avid train enthusiast. He would often watch trains pass near his house when he was a child, and his uncle was a train conductor, who inspired his collection of model trains. After visiting the Henry Ford Museum, Disney was so enthralled with the locomotive that pulled guests around the estate that he decided to build his own. He created a half-mile scale model railway in his backyard, and would give guests rides. His love of trains is reflected throughout Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, with many train-inspired attractions such as Walt Disney World Railroad, Expedition Everest, and many more.
What We Can Learn from Adopting a Side Hobby
Studies have shown that having hobbies and maintaining creative pursuits beyond our professional lives and specialized area of expertise can have many health benefits — including helping to lead a more happy, productive life. See what you can learn from these prominent creatives about harnessing the power of extra-curricular creative pursuits.
As new research emerges about the benefits of cross-training our brains, it becomes more obvious that nurturing a side gig and alternate hobby has immense benefits. Undoubtedly, famous artists from all disciplines take time away from their craft to find inspiration and overcome creative blocks through other outlets. Much like Emily Dickinson used baking, Victor Hugo used drawing, and Ayn Rand used stamp collecting, these passions have helped shaped their artistic endeavors and career paths.