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Tapping the Long Tale...

On the subject of influence, Part I

My inspiration board

I've been thinking about a comment Didier Graffet made in the interview I linked to in yesterday's post. He said, "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work, but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."

I've been reflecting on both ends of that sentence: first, the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us; and second, that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.

I'll talk more about that necessary turning point in a subsequent post. Today, however, I'd like to focus on the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart -- those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.

Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.

Our daughter, for example, wants to be a top chef; so right now, in addition to formally studying Culinary Arts, she also works as an apprentice to a Michelin Star level chef in one of London's most exacting kitchens. In learning to cook as he cooks, which she's expected to do without deviation, she is taking the first steps toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art. Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work . . . until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.

J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own. Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia (somewhat dated now, and decidely non-pc, but it rocked my world at 16 nonetheless); or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (...and would you have guessed that last one?) Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.

The "Inspiration Board" above contains art by some of the people whose work has in some way influenced mine. I suspect many of you reading this blog will be able to identify the artists through the pictures themselves (hey, it's a party game, how many can you name?!)...but if any of them stump you, you'll find a list of all of them here (scroll to the bottom of the page).

By Charles Vess

In a similar vein, Charles Vess  is running a terrific series of posts called "10 Artists I Like" over on his Facebook page. For those of you who don't have access to Facebook, these are the artists he's listed so far: Hermann Vogel, Felix Lorioux, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Edwin Austin Abbey, Margaret & Frances Macdonald, Hal Foster, and Harry Rountree.

No doubt there are younger artists out there for whom "Charles Vess"  and "Didier Graffet" are promient names on their own lists of "Artists I Love."  I imagine them now, pouring over books and prints, discussing their favorite writers and artists on chatboards, creating stories and drawings in which their influences are still too raw, unfiltered, and obvious...until slowly, slowly, something magical happens, and a style distinctly their own emerges. The work matures. Apprenticeship ends. They are artists.

And so the generations turn....


Part II of this post can now be found here.