I remember going trick-or-treating once as a kid.
Now, we grew up out in the country, so there wasn’t any of this ‘roaming the neighborhood’ kind of thing happening. Instead, we’d put on costumes, load up into the car and drive to the houses of friends and family, where we would get fist-fulls of candy and mom would catch up on the latest small talk.
So, one year, I was dressed up in (what I imagined to be) a pretty cool ghost costume. I think I had a Casper mask on, but my mom had pressed an old sheet into service as a shroud, and the way it draped and folded looked pretty awesome.
We had just visited my Grandma and Grampa’s house, and while Mom was catching up, I went over to my uncle’s house next door and stood on his deck. (more…)
Ah, the artist and his Muse.
We have the Greeks to thank for the idea of the Muse. They were thought to be goddesses (there were apparently 9 of them) of inspiration to the various arts. The word “Muse” is the source word for “music”, and was associated with the arts to such a degree that the word actually meant “art”. You can check out Wikipedia for more information.
Inspiration is important to artists. It is as if each artist has a guiding star that leads him or her in a particular direction…that quietly coaches them to pay attention to some aspect of the world while ignoring others. In a very real sense, artists “see” the world through our Muse. It doesn’t seem to be a conscious choice on the artists part as to what they see in the world. There is a feeling of being led to it by some invisible hand. We only know we are there when we arrive…led by our silent Muse.
And she’s a bitch.
I say that because, while she will definitely lead, she will not ALWAYS lead. In many cases, she is completely absent from your perception…usually when you need her most. It’s like she gets you all excited to go on a road trip, you spend the night packing your things, the car is running…..and she doesn’t show up that morning. She’s not returning your texts.
Maybe this is because there are only 9 of the things and your particular Muse is in Hoboken at the time, teasing some other slob into waking up in the middle of the night to slap paint on canvas. I don’t know. I just know she’s gone.
Now, in the past, there have been many famous artists who would spend their time drunk or wacked out on drugs when the Muse was gone. They would waste away, pining for her like a fixated teenager, occasionally rushing to their easel to frantically work on some incredible masterpiece, finally collapsing as their life breath whispers away saying, “It’s…finished.”
Give me a break.
That kind of “suffering artist” idea has left a bad taste in the mouths of countless should-be artists over the decades….folks who could have had satisfying artistic careers except that they didn’t want to be “an artist” and die alone after drinking themselves blind on too much bad absinthe.
Well, you don’t have to.
Let’s say that you were inspired to create a really cool, new piece of work. You’ve gotten a promising start, but when you go back down and look at the thing, instead of feeling inspired passion, you’re like….”meh”. The Muse is gone! What do you do??
Well, you sit down and work anyway.
“But..I don’t even FEEL like….”
“But what if I mess it….”
“Maybe I should look for inspiration! Then I..”
DO IT! DO IT NOOOOOOOOW!! (Imagine Arnold Schwarzeneger saying it like that.)
I’m serious. I actually have my wife to thank for this, and I’ve wrote about it before: The 15-minute rule. What you’re doing when you sit down to do art anyway is making a nest. A nest for your Muse. Instead of wishing she was there, instead of trying to chase her down, make a spot for her by just sitting down and doing something. I can only think of ONE time when I sat down in a foul mood and the whole project went off the rails. Most often, I sit down, thinking I’m a lousy artist and not knowing what the heck I was doing…..and two hours fly by and I’m a happy artist again.
It happened last night, actually. See, I completed that watercolor of the “Stockwell Sycamore” and fell completely into depression….mostly because I tried to sell the piece (I TRIED ONCE) and failed. Immediately after that, I got sick and it knocked me out of a week of work. During that time, I was absolutely despondent. I was sure I wasn’t an artist. I was some kind of half-breed wannabe who was better off in a cubicle instead of doing art.
To put it bluntly, my Muse had checked out.
So, I forced myself to start a landscape painting and I still wasn’t feeling good about it. Last night, I came home, crabby from lack of sleep and depression. I looked at my wife over dinner and asked “What the heck am I going to do? I’m a horrible artist!” She didn’t even look up from her plate. “Just show up, dear. 15 minutes, and then you can quit.”
“Ok,” I grumbled. “15 minutes.” Maybe I could read more of that Jack Reacher book I was enjoying afterward.
And then, I was an artist for two hours. It wasn’t crap after all. Maybe I DID know what I was doing. My wife came over and said “Have you ever done this sort of stuff before? It’s pretty cool.”
Don’t wait for your Muse to show up. Just make sitting down to do art a habit…rain or shine. Not every piece will be a shining star, but more will be if you do something than if you don’t do art at all.
Make a nest.
Different is good.
Most of you know me as an illustrator of all things weird and spooky, which I really do enjoy, but not many know about my deep and abiding love for the place where I live. Well, I suppose if you enjoyed my stories you might…they all center around the same rural, small town, agricultural area where I grew up. I love this place. I understand its rolling hills, tree-lined fence rows and billowing sky like I do the back of my hand.
And well I should.
My mother and father are from this place. They grew up not more than ten miles from each other, were sweethearts in school, and married just before my dad was drafted into the army. Dad ran a dairy/tobacco farm, so I spent countless days (and nights) in the fields exploring, wandering and…looking.
See, that’s what artists do. By whatever weird gift of God or brain defect, we SEE things, and struggle to reproduce the essence what we see. Even when I do fiction, I try to write, draw or paint some of what I see into it. I suppose that idea is where the old writer’s adage “write what you know” comes from. If you put what you know..or see…into your work it somehow becomes more real or true. And people can sense true, my friend. They know when they are reading or seeing something that is from a genuine experience, and something that was false. They tend not to like the false works so much.
Anyway, that brings me to my latest project. I decided to try a landscape.
Now, I know it doesn’t sound that exciting, but here is how it came to be. Two years ago, I was walking through the streets of my hometown (Flemingsburg, Ky) enjoying the Fall colors, when I happened upon a tall sycamore tree that was reaching up, out of the shadow of the valley, and thrusting its branches into the last, bronze rays of the evening sun. “What a great picture this would make”, I thought, and quickly snapped a picture.
Now, TWO YEARS LATER, I was dissecting the past year in my mind, and the thing that really stood out to me is that I had grown more artistically and gotten more attention (and sold more pieces) by doing large, colored work than by working on my comic. I decided that it may benefit me as an artist (and financially) to do more large, color paintings and less sequential work.
So, I sat down and painted a watercolor. Well, it’s actually a mixed medium, but the watercolor is what makes it interesting, primarily, so watercolor it is. I call it “Stockwell Sycamore”.
So, it’s a new year. It is a time for looking back to see what we have accomplished, and for looking forward to see what star we want to steer by.
If you are, like most artists, striving for something, this can be a particularly challenging time. Most artists, serious ones, that is, are borderline neurotic when it comes to trying to decide what sort of steps they should be taking to further themselves artistically in the coming year.
Well, for those of my neurotic brothers and sisters, I have good news and bad news:
It doesn’t matter.
This is bad news because when all is said and done, there is an inescapable quota of damned luck that takes place that will either skew whatever result you have into being successful or unsuccessful. No matter how carefully planned and plotted, no matter how closely you follow your scheme, your wife gets pregnant, or you break your leg, or lose your job, and the whole thing goes to hell.
This is also good news because, in spite of your pitiful efforts, despite your (to you) obvious flaws, incredible and magical things, lucky things, will happen too….putting you into places you could not have foreseen and doing things that you never expected you would be doing.
So, now that you are staring down at your notebook scribbled with plans or your hopeful production spreadsheet in Excel with tears in your eyes after having read that last bit, what CAN you do in spite of such relentless luck? It’s actually simpler that you think:
You make art.
That’s all. That’s your plan. Do the work, show it to someone however you can. Don’t waste time obsessing over the best place to showcase your art for maximum visibility….concentrate on creating the sort of work that fills you with joy. Learn from your failures and move ahead with each new piece leaving you feeling like you’re going to ask that really cute girl out on a date. Nervous, hopeful, full of dread, but determined to do it anyway. Because after that piece, success or failure, is the next. And the next. And the next.
Don’t worry about luck. Play the odds.
Sooner or later, you’ll have successes. You’ll learn from your failures and make fewer of them. Slowly, piece by piece, you will become more of the artist you want to be.
And when the next year rolls around and you look back, you know what? YOU WILL HAVE BEEN AN ARTIST. That’s all you need to be.
Now, go do art!