Create & Release 06: The Thing About Inspiration

In this installment, I want to tackle a question that I get asked all the time that really doesn’t have a simple answer: “how do you stay inspired?” The short answer is that I don’t, and frankly I would be suspicious of anyone who tells you they are inspired all the time, but maybe that’s just me. Regardless, since that’s not a very helpful answer, let’s see whether we can unpack it a little.

There’s a very famous quote from an artist named Chuck Close that gets batted around quite a bit. It goes, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” And if you’ve seen or heard the quote before, you know that’s usually where it stops. But that’s not the entire quote – and I think the rest of it really makes the point of what he’s trying to say. Without the rest of it the quote sounds a bit glib, as if creativity is merely mechanical, which in my experience couldn’t be further from the truth. The rest of it goes, “If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” That addition completely changes the tone and I think the meaning of what Close was trying to say. The full quote acknowledges the importance of process as a catalyst for the inspiration that follows. In fact, it puts process center stage. We get a similar idea from a quote by Picasso who said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” As with the Close quote, Picasso is saying it’s the process — putting ourselves in motion and doing the work — that allows us to receive those lovely “a-ha” moments that can take our work in different and often unexpected directions. And notice neither quote says it’s going to be easy or that the work on the back of it will be any good. I hope this doesn’t come across that I’m trying to minimize what inspiration brings to the table, because that’s not the case at all.

For me, I think inspiration affects my work in two main ways — and for the sake of argument, I’m taking mostly about my paintings here, though I think it applies to other areas as well. The first is when I’m trying to find the bigger picture of a project, “setting my course,” if you will. I’ll watch movies, listen to music, even play video games to get me thinking about potential narratives or subject matter and how I want a project or body of work to feel. I’ll also pull from notes I’ve made about previous work — directions I didn’t end up taking or responses to previous work that I didn’t explore at the time. The other way inspiration shows up for me is once I’m underway and I’m present enough in the making to allow the work to evolve independently of my conscious input and the work goes in a direction that I otherwise would never have seen.

For example, during lockdown I made a series of 12 paintings that I initially called The New Propaganda. It was the first time that I had worked on so many pieces at once. Typically, I work on a single piece at a time, which because of my process often can take weeks to finish — long enough that I sometime lose the throughline or just get bored with the piece and end up painting over it to start again. For this series, I lined the 12 panels up in a grid on my work table and proceeded to arrange various collage elements and found objects on each of the panels. I also mixed up some color swatches for several of the panels. Once I was happy with the “pre-viz” of each of the pieces (something I do for every painting), I photographed them all for reference. I then placed the collage elements into separate folders so I could add them in at different stages of the painting/texturing process.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Once I started the actual assembly, I found that certain elements worked better compositionally or thematically on panels other than where I had originally planned to use them. Also, because I was in sort of an assembly line flow state, I ended up improvising outside of how the pre-viz versions initially appeared and ended up with a dozen panels that resembled the original layouts, but in many ways were completely different. I also had a bunch of elements left over that I knew I still wanted to use somewhere, but didn’t end up “fitting” where the initial 12 panels ended up going visually, inspiring me to add a “vol. 1” to the end of the name, since I know there will be more to come on this particular theme.

Inspiration can feel both elusive and obvious at the same time. If you’re at all like me, you’ve had plenty of experiences that involve an “a-ha” moment or two, and when they happen you think to yourself “Now, why didn’t I see that before?” I think sometimes we are looking so hard for inspiration that even when it’s right in front of us, we miss it. Maybe it’s not exactly what we thought or hoped it would be (for example, there’s so much pressure to have everything we make be “good”) or it seems so obvious that we keep waiting for something else — something more “dramatic.” Regardless of how it happens for you, sometimes you just need to jump in and get underway on whatever it is and – as Picasso said – let the inspiration find you working.

How does inspiration appear in your life? Are you able to recognize it if and when it appears?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or, if you prefer, click here to email me directly.

As I was writing this edition of Create & Release, Adrianne sent me a terrific article she saw in the Harvard Business Review about training your brain to be more creative. The big takeaway from the piece is to stop trying so hard to be creative — take a walk, meditate, have conversations. Give your brain the chance to solve whatever creative problem(s) you are trying to tackle. I don’t meditate, but I do practice yoga, which because I have to really focus on what I’m trying to do, feels very meditative. I (we) also take multiple walks a day in the forest behind out house, and many of those walks have yielded ideas for new projects or potential bodies of work.

When I went to Florence, one of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting Palazzo Pitti, which was purchased by the Medici family in 1549. It’s a gorgeous structure and it’s filled with incredible art by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, van Dyck, Caravaggio, and host of others. If you ever make it to Florence, I can’t recommend it enough. Recently, I was reading an article in Smithsonian magazine about a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that looks absolutely fascinating. It’s called The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570 and it features more than 90 works by artists including Raphael, Jacopo da Pontormo and Benvenuto Cellini. The show traces the Medici family’s patronage of Art and artists and how the family helped to establish Florence as the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance.

While reading more about the Medici show at the Met, I happened to see something else that caught my eye: a feature on a kinetic sculpture by artist Alex Da Corte that pays tribute to both Jim Henson and Alexander Calder. The piece is called As the Sun Sets and features an eight-and-a-half-foot Big Bird rendered in blue rather than the vibrant yellow familiar to American audiences (Big Bird actually appears in different colors around the world) perched within a crescent moon on one end of the Calder-inspired mobile. The article features a terrific video interview with Da Corte who does the entire thing dressed as Jim Henson as an homage to Big Bird’s creator.

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