French Breakfast, © 2012 Paul J. Romaniuk
I have enjoyed collecting inspiring quotations and images from artists I find inspiring and love sharing them with others through venues like this blog and Facebook. But recently I’ve been questioning what “inspiration” is or should be, and how it fits into my artistic practice. Because the truth is, I have never felt a need to be “inspired” to go make work, but I certainly do struggle with distractions and decisions about what to work on.
My musings on the meaning or role of inspirational quotes/work has come more sharply into focus the past week during the Olympic Games. The television coverage includes up close and personal videos on the trials and tribulations of some of the individual athletes – the barriers or personal tragedies they had to overcome, or the sacrifices their families had to make to help them. I find these spots very emotional and touching, and I often think that the athlete in question is such an inspiration. Yet I have never found myself leaping up off the couch and establishing a training regimen, or bounding down the stairs to the studio to begin furiously working on projects. The same has been true for many of the quotations I’ve come across, or work that I’ve seen.
This introspection is helpful because it makes me realize that for something to be truly inspiring, it has to provoke an action, not just a reaction. Watching those Olympic features, reading those quotations can fill me with feelings of being inspired, but they are acting as placeholders for action, and really are just distractions. I get to feel something, but there are no concrete results. I’ve realized that there is a huge gulf between collecting inspiring quotations and originating them: the difference of having personally experienced something, and understanding its importance.
I now realize why there are a couple of quotes that have resonated very deeply with me for quite some time. Chuck Close said “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. 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. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”
Richard Serra said more succinctly “Work comes out of work”. I don’t know if Georgia O’Keeffe ever said anything on this subject, but she was known for going to the studio faithfully every day, even if she just stretched canvas or swept up. I think the key thing these artists recognized was the need to establish a habitual routine of working, which in turn strengthens the neural pathways that compel them to go to the studio and make work. And the benefits of that routine in jumpstarting productive phases in their practices.
For the past two months I’ve been working on a couple of projects on a daily basis: continuing a series of lumen prints and exploring the potential of wet plate photography. I found that each time I made something, I got excited, and was inspired to make more. Even when the results were disappointing, as they were recently when I attempted some photogravure prints, taking the time to sit with the disappointment brought inspiration because I found myself getting excited about making line etchings again. I know that I will sort out the problems with the photogravures, but by making those attempts now I also got inspired about pairing up gravures with line etchings. Reflecting on these experiences has made me realize why those quotations of Close and Serra resonated with me – I knew from my experience that true, pure inspiration is sourced internally, and comes from doing.