One of the questions that people like me get asked a lot is where do you get your inspiration? But, as soon as I tell people that my dad is an artist, they nod and give you that look like, oh, it must be in the genes. Question answered. Likewise, my kids are expected to be artistic and creative since they’re around me so much. If you’ve ever heard any of my talks on creativity then you know I believe it’s something we all have, regardless of your genes. We just have to learn to pay attention to the things around us that switch it on.
Yesterday I was chatting with a very introspective friend who stopped by and we discussed how life becomes more meaningful the more attention you pay to the things around you. I consider myself a pretty observant person, but I was telling her that the exercise of keeping a weekly blog helps me to really focus my attention, to not only notice things and try to attach meaning to them, but to connect them like a chain that links day to day, week to week, month to month… In a career where I sometimes resemble an attention deficit disorder victim on steroids, this focused chain of meaning is a powerful way to keep myself from feeling rudderless.
Paul Gauguin, the French Post-impressionist painter, said “art is either plagiarism or revolution.” In other words, the artist is either copying something else or coming up with something completely new and amazing. One could argue that Gauguin was this revolutionary artist and maybe even he, himself, believed this to be true. I’ve never been so sure, however, that there can really be revolutionary art in the sense that anyone can think up something completely unthought of. Because how can you stop the flow of ideas, images, metaphors and motifs that the Universe is flinging at you every single moment and not want to use them for yourself, even if they come from others? How can the artist not be constantly stirring up a big pot of this stuff, especially when she works hard to train her eyes on the world around her, to search for the meaning in and between those ideas, images, metaphors and motifs? And, isn’t true creativity being able to grab the stuff out there in the Universe and mix it up in a whole new way? Even the laws of physics tell us that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and everyone knows that physicists are way smarter than artists. What if we are all just recycling (or upcycling) each other’s creative matter?
I am fortunate to know lots of artists of all kinds– illustrators, painters, writers, photographers, dancers, musicians, and actors. And, one of the best things about knowing these people is the free-flow trading of ideas that happens when we get together. Yesterday I was in Bernardsville, NJ at a reception for an Illustrator’s Exhibit in which I’m participating. When you get a group of artists together at a gig like this, they are always excited to see each other because over time we’ve become friends, but almost instantly, we’ve all got our notepads out, scribbling out web addresses, the titles of books, ideas for using different media and the names of people to network with. We’re telling each other what’s worked, what’s not. We’re sharing stuff. Now, not all creative people are like this and I know plenty of people who hold their ideas secret, afraid of them getting “stolen” and indignant over their own personal notion that they aren’t going to do the work for someone else.
I say, they’re missing out.
The heady theory of emergence says it best… “Emergent properties are properties of the ‘whole’ that are not possessed by any of the individual parts making up that whole. For example, an air molecule is not a cyclone, an isolated species doesn’t form a food chain and an isolated neuron is not conscious: emergent behaviors are typically novel and unanticipated.” (Aziz-Alaoui, p. 130) Or, perhaps more simply put, we are greater than the sum of our parts. I love the line about emergent properties being novel and unanticipated, and, now that I think of it, maybe this is where we find Gauguin’s revolution.
So, where do I get my inspiration? Visually speaking, some of my favorite favorites are Jane Ray, Wolf Kahn, Nick Bantock, Marc Chagall, and Kveta Pacovska. And, I’ll admit to borrowing lots of little bits from these amazing artists–and others–to put in my own emergent creations but I would challenge anyone who might call me a copycat.
On the flip-side, I’ve given art demonstrations before to have other artists come up to me afterwards and ask, incredulously, why are you giving away all your secrets? I tell them, you know, if someone is crazy enough to try to be me, they better start soon, because it’s taken me 42 years already and I’m still working on it. Come to my studio and see the mess I have to prove it! Many teaching artists (check out Thaneeya McArdle, Robert Genn and Carla Sonheim, just to name a few) know that you really do get more when you give more. And, anyways, who knows how many more novel and unanticipated things are out there just waiting to emerge? If I link my chain to yours, and you link yours to someone else’s and they link it on and on and on… well, that’s the kind of chain of good ideas that could hold people, communities, neighborhoods, states, countries and worlds together.
Now, that’s a revolution I want to be a part of.
TRY THIS WEEK: Create a “meaningful chain.” Pick a theme for this week (family, sacrifice, surprises, injustice, balance, learning, etc) and then focus on finding it in your life–from people, places and images that influence you– every day for 7 days.