Wind Stories
Tunes for a Monday Morning

On the subject of influence, Part II

Clock by Rima StainesStirring the soup of creative influence. (Clock by Rima Staines)

To go back to the Didier Graffet quote that started off my reflections on creative influence: "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'd like now, after discussing the value of influence (in Part I of this post), to turn to the second part of the sentence and talk about when it's important for an artist to stop looking at others' work. This happens periodically throughout life, I think; there are periods of time when it's useful to read, look at, listen to, and otherwise submerge ourselves in the creations of others, and periods when we need to tune it all out in order to fully focus on our own. But what I want to examine in particular is that potent moment in the life of a budding writer or painter when we first deliberately turn our gaze away from the work of our mentors and heroes in order to follow the muse into the landscape of our own imagination.

Down the Deep Lanes by James Ravilious

For any serious creative artist, this act of "turning away" from influence and onto the path of ones own work is crucial -- it separates the men from the boys, as it were; the women from the girls; the student/apprentice from the artist. It is a vital moment in our creative journey -- but here's the rub: it's a moment that can't be forced; it can only happen when the time is right. Some people find their personal vision and artistic direction at a relatively young age; others search it for years; and others still, a lifetime. It comes when it comes, that magical moment when you finally start to understand what you have to say to the world through your art, and the ways that you alone can say it. When the voices of your creative heroes dim and you hear your own voice at last.

These days, deep into my middle age, I have been wandering the length and breadth of my inner landscape for so long now that it takes an effort to cast myself back to the early days of my career, when that landscape hadn't fully opened to me yet. I recall it as a fretful period of time, producing work that was earnest but derivative, and I felt myself lost in the forest of artistic influences all around me. I had a deep, urgent, passionate connection to the books and poems and paintings that I loved, and my deepest desire in all the world was to make art like that too. But that art had been crafted from lives, times, and experiences that were nothing like my own; my feeble attempts to walk in the footsteps of William Morris, say, or Vanessa Bell, or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or any of my other creative heroes had value as learning exercises, yes...but as art? Well, no; not so much. Yet it seemed that every new trail that I traveled on in my beloved forest of Mythic Arts had already been neatly sign-posted, and always by someone older, wiser, better, than me. I knew, theoretically, that what I needed to do was go out there and blaze my own damn trail...but I didn't yet know how to do such a thing, and I feared that I never would.

Jo Curzon and her Flock by James Ravilious

What I didn't quite understand was that I was still in the apprenticeship stage of my creative journey (as discussed in Part I of this post). I was honing my skills, stirring my soup -- which needed more time to simmer, despite my impatience to dish it out and serve it up. I was not only learning how to write and paint, I was accumulating life experience so that once I'd acquired those hard-won skills I'd have something to say with them. My soup was made from good, rich stock, but it needed spices still unknown to me, ingredients I had yet to gather.  And even when those flavors were finally added, it needed time to cook.

When I speak with young writers and artists who are eager to find their own direction, to move out of the long shadow of the artists who have gone before them, what they want is the magic word, the key, the secret handshake that will make this happen. And in fact, there is a magic word, but it's not one that anyone really wants to hear, not in this fast-paced, digital, mobile, media-saturated age we're living in, for the word is patience.

Wistmans Wood by James Ravilious

The German/Czech poet Rainer M. Rilke had this to say about time, patience, and the making of art: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”

A friend of mine who has worked with some of the greatest opera singers in the world explained to me that in her profession there's a term for ripening as an artist: it's called "finding your voice." It's understood that this can happen fully only with age and experience, and as a result many singers are in their 30s or 4os before they develop into the world-class artists they are destined to be. As literary and visual artists, we too must find our voices, and this doesn't usually happen fast.

No young artist wants to hear this, of course. I certainly didn't when I was starting out. We want to find our vision, our style, our success, our bestseller, our Newbery winner, our American Dream, and we want to find it now. To be sure, there are young prodigies who produce good (or at least popular) work at a tender age, and in our youth-fixated culture they are often singled out for particular attention. But there are many, many more of us whose voices ripen with age as opera singers' do. And by the time we're producing truly good work, we're older and greyer in the book jacket photos; it's impossible to promote us as the latest hot young thing. But that doesn't matter.  It's the work that matters. If it's good, then it is worth the wait.

Moving the Sheep by James Ravilious

It is my belief that the muse can't be forced. She comes when we're ready; or when she deems us worthy; or perhaps she just comes when she damn well wants to come. She can't be forced but she can be coaxed, and there are things that make a visitation much more likely: Practicing our craft, mastering our materials, showing up at our desks each day and working. Reading, looking, listening,and experiencing the world around us. We have to breathe the world into ourselves before we can breathe it out in our art; it's a circular motion. Inhale. Exhale. Artists who don't practice the art of living alongside the practice of their craft rarely do their best work, it seems to me. They've forgotten how to breathe.

Part of what we breathe in, of course, is the influence of the work of other artists. There are times, as we've discussed earlier, when this can be a good and helpful thing -- and there are other times when it's not, and it's rather important, I think, to learn the difference. Now I'm not claiming that every artist experiences this distinct passage from imitative/apprentice work to originality -- there are, of course, those blessed souls who seem to step out of the very womb fully formed. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I'd like to speak about my own experience as a developing artist in order to see if I can shed more light on this difficult stretch of the creative journey.

Snowy Tracks by James Ravilious

For me, as a young writer and painter, there came a time when I realized that the voices and visions in my head, created by the books and art I loved, were drowning out the sound of my own voice: so tentative then, so quiet, so unsure of its right to be heard. I remember a long grey time of casting about for a way of making art that seemed truly my own -- not imitation Rackham, not warmed-over Angela Carter, not wannabe Edward Burne-Jones. I was trying each of their styles on like trying on clothes in a vintage shop (something I did a lot of in those days too), looking for a style, an era, a borrowed glamour that would suit me. But unlike a fashion style, one's personal artistic vision is not something you find or chose. You can't shop for it in the marketplace of ideas. It grows within you.

For some people it grows slowly. You can look at their early art or writing and see clearly each small, steady step that has led them out of the shadow of influence and onto the path of their own work. For others, the change happens suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, usually provoked by an outside circumstance: the discovery of a new medium, for example; the influence of a new teacher or a mentor; or a life event, whether large or small, that pushes the artist in a new direction. I am definitely in the latter camp. It wasn't a slow change for me; I can date the exact period of time when I turned abruptly away from imitating my heroes and started making art that felt like my own. It happened suddenly, with the force of an earthquake. And it happened because I moved to the desert.

Icon by Stu Jenks

Until that time, I'd always faced firmly East, gazing over the ocean to Europe. Everything I loved -- from the fairy tales I'd adored as a child to the art I poured over, the books I read, the Victorian-era history I devoured, the fiddle-and-harp folk music I craved, the ivy-draped landscape that moved my heart --  was European, primarily rooted in France and the British Isles.

It was sheer happenstance that I traveled West to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona -- an alien, inhospitable place that held no romance, no allure for me; and sheer happenstance that I stayed there long enough to lose myself to it, both heart and soul. I won't go into the details of how and why that happened here -- I've writtten a whole novel about it, after all. (Well, not a novel about me, exactly, for the protagonist of The Wood Wife is a woman very different from myself -- but a novel about my experience of being seduced by a strange and powerful landscape, and how this can impact ones life and art.)

Secret Place by Stu Jenks

The point that I want to make here is that my muse finally came to me in a place that was stripped of the many familiar influences with which I'd clothed my creative life: the colors and scents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the green moss palette of the English woods. And I think this was no accident. There's something about leaving ones comfort zone and traveling into the great unknown that sets the spark to the tinder of our inner fires, helping us to see the world, and ourselves, and thus also our art, from an entirely new perspective. It was a kind of shock to find myself in love with a whole new landscape, a whole new color palette, a whole new region of history and stories -- and in that shock, the door finally opened into the realm of my true work. It's a realm that has its mossy green corners, yes, and its Burne-Jones rose vines and twisty Rackham trees, but which turns out to hold so much more besides --  like the smell of cottonwood burning in a ceremonial fire on a cold desert night, and the taste of fry bread, and the prickle of cactus, and the tip-tapping of  tiny hooves as javelina whisper through a moonlit wash. And in the stirring together of all these things -- rose vines and cactus, English thyme and desert sage, my broth finally turned into a proper soup: the distinctive taste of the tales I tell and the books I write and the paintings I paint. Mind you, it happened about ten years later that I'd wanted it to happen as an anxious young artist, but it happened, that's the important thing. And it couldn't have done so a single day sooner. The flavors of mesquite, mole, and fire-roasted green chillis were all still missing.

3 Amigos by Stu Jenks

To those of you reading these words who have already found the path of your personal vision, I'd be curious to know when and how that happened. And to those of you still waiting for the pathway to open: Take heart and have patience. It will happen. It may be that a vital ingredient of your soup is still missing, but it will come -- often in some unexpected way. And when it does, I feel honor-bound to warn you, it may surprise you. The work that you find yourself called to do may not be what you ever expected; it may not even be entirely what you wanted. (Hey, I wanted to paint like Burne-Jones or Waterhouse, yet it's bird and fox and bunny girls that are stubbornly determined to come through my hands.) Patrica Hampl expressed it best in this passage taken from The Writer on Her Work: "Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

So go ahead, breathe those influences in. There's nothing wrong with influence, and with finding inspiration in the work of others. But when it's time (and you'll know when it's time), don't be afraid to leave that forest, to face in a new and unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable direction, and to listen for the quiet sound of your own voice. You'll find the way, I promise. Just remember to keep breathing. And then get back to work.

Archie Parkhouse and his dog Sally by James Ravilious

About the art: The Dartmoor photographs here are by the great rural photographer James Ravilious (1939-1999), who lived and worked in Devon, England. You can see more of his photographs on the James Ravilious website, and watch a lovely trailer for a film about him here. The Desert photographs here are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the Fezziwig Press website to see more of his beautiful work. The painted clock at the top of the post is by Devon artist Rima Staines, whose gorgeous work you can see at The Hermitage. Please note that these images are under copyright, to the James Ravilious Estate,  Stu Jenks, and Rima Staines respectively.

Comments

Thank you for this.

As a not-so-young artist/writer (41) I often get impatient with myself for not yet having found my true voice in either of these pursuits. (Funny, I trained to be an opera singer - long, long time ago - until I realized that wasn't the right path for finding my voice at all.)

The point you made about how the voice we find might not be the one we were expecting resonated deeply with me. Perhaps we sometimes fight it - rather than accept it and allow it to grow, and for us to grow with it.

Thank you. I really needed to read this.

Thank you for this inspiring posting. I am searching for my art at a much older age than most (having worked and raised a family) and your postings yesterday and today have been a timely reminder for me to slow down and to enjoy the process of seeing, learning, and searching. The one thing I can do is to show up at my work table every day and to learn the nuances of my craft by observing and studying those who have trod this path before me - and someday I will find that break in the trees into which I will turn and explore by myself.
I also want to say that The Wood Wife is one of my favorite books, and when we lived on a sailboat and I could only carry a few books with me, your book was one of them. Thank you again.

This has come at the best time for me - thank you so much for writing this wonderful passage. In truth I don't know what stage I am at on this journey but your words have given me a destination - the place I want to get to.

Chris, are you familiar with the art of Jeanie Tomanek? She's one of my absolute favorite contemporary painters, and didn't start painting until after she'd raised her family. We did a little article on her in the Journal of Mythic Arts a few years ago:

http://www.endicott-studio.com/gal/Tomanek/Tomanek.html

And here's her website: http://www.jeanietomanek.com/

It's truly inspiring work.

Also, your comment brought to mind a quote I love from Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabithia, etc., etc.), from her nonfiction book Gates of Excellence:

"I had no study in those days, not even a desk or file or bookcase to call mine alone....It might have happened sooner [the writing of work worthy of publication] had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who took away my time and space are those who have given me something to say."

And thank you for your very kind words about The Wood Wife.

Jane Yolen suggested your blog on Facebook. I, like yourself, do not immerse myself in lots of other blogs or workshops less I become their work. But this was different. I will become a faithful reader to your blog. It is deep, intense and so honest. Thank you. I am a writer in a small (Mayberry type) town in northern Indiana.

As I understand it, traditionally one moves from apprenticeship to the journeyman stage and eventually (one hopes) on to mastery. I'm firmly in the journeyman stage myself, but find much inspiration in the work of folks like Jane Yolen and Ursula Le Guin who have crossed the line to mastery.

Thank you for another wonderful post. I needed to read this. I am still looking for my own path (or my 'long tale'!), so I am definitely in the apprenticeship stage. I'm 45 this year, so am never going to be an exciting young discovery...but I've decided that I'm a 'late bloomer', it takes me longer than other people, but I'll get there. There will come a time when I don't get distracted by every new artist/technique/style/medium that I come across, when I find my path and don't need to continually disappear down side tracks for days on end, when I'll be able to appreciate without the need to see if I can do. I will work, and wait...and try to be patient in the meantime!

Thank you Terri.
You know sometimes how some words or ideas keep hiding from you as others can catch them... Well I'm glad you share these!
They actually shed some light on my misty path...

What a beautiful inspiring magical post which I really needed to read today after not getting selected for an upcoming exhibition that I really wanted to be in!
Here's Brett Whiteley's (an Australian artist who died nearly 10 years ago) advice to the aspiring artist
"aim at virtually whatever is in front of you...
and then one day you'll see something that you have truly never seen before
and that is the beginning of yourself
& that heralds the beginning of difficult pleasure."

http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/difficult-pleasure/clip3/


Those words have helped me find my way over & over from the past 21 years!

Thank you, Terri. The image of artist-voice as soup is a perfect metaphor. I think I'm still simmering and rummaging through the spice-cabinets looking for that right ingredient.

I've really enjoyed these latest blog posts. A sort of 'Chicken Soup for the Artists Soul', but less schmaltzy ;)

Oh & when did the work suddenly fall into place?
when I stopped trying to make "my" work & started listening to Ariel our cat & muse who was making Rod write the words that ended up being the illustrations for our book & now I'm onto the next one, illustrating the lyrics of Old Man Crow with crow protagonists of course & the local crows are being very encouraging!

I can't thank you enough for this post. I know it's one I will return to again and again.

Thank you for your beautiful words. For me finding my voice was quite a sudden experience. I am an artist and rhyme-writer in my mid-thirties and have recently moved to the Pacific NW (US) from the Arizona desert. I have drawn, written, and made things my entire life, and have struggled mightily to find my own way. Moving to the Northwest was like finding the missing ingredients (I moved, initially at least, for reasons other than creative work). The way you describe discovering the desert reminds me of my discovery of the coastal rain forest. The colors, the scents, the sounds, so new and strange, awakening something within me.

dear terri, oh my, your post today gives me hope that i may be able to re-kindle my creative spirit. having been suffocated by chronic illness and deppression,for twelve years now. the fact that i am able to write this, is ahuge step for me. your blog has been a positive influence on my spirit. i am 62 and have not given up hope. although the void is hard to bare. thank you for encouraging words. xxx

Margaret, you have my sympathy, but even more, my admiration for the daily courage it takes to live through illness and depression and still keep the spark of ones spirit alight. For me, creativity requires *energy*, and with chronic illness energy is never in abundant enough supply. On the days that I haven't enough energy for my own work (the "breathing out" part of the creative cycle), I'm always so grateful to be able to touch a part of the creative spirit through the work of others (the "breathing in" part of the cycle).

Did you catch the earlier post on the "spoon theory" of chronic illness? It's a theory that really helps me understand how to better manage my strength and time.

http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2010/10/doling-out-the-spoons-.html

May life give you more spoons!

From the desert to moss and rain; the exactly opposite of my journey!

Listening to birds and animals always works for me too. And trees and stones and hills....

Many thanks to everyone who has commented so far for your insights and generous words.

Thanks for visiting my little corner of cyberspace, Lou Ann. I was very "chuffed"(that means "pleased" here in Devon) to see that Jane had recommended the post, the sweetie.

Thank you for that post. I think somehow we know we have to be patient, but most of the time it's a hard business to just.. wait. That unopened door is made of a hard wood and gives you a nasty headache when you hit your head against it.

Thank you, Terri, for that delicious ingredient. I will keep stirring and tasting. It's getting pretty yummy these days... Watch this cauldron :o).

Your words and wisdom come at the perfect time right now - this morning I logged onto my computer, really needing to hear something along these lines. I'm in my mid-twenties and after years of studying and working in the field of health, I made a discovery. One day I was in a dusty, dimly-lit secondhand bookstore downtown when I found a pile of Charles De Lint books. I practically tripped over them, if I remember correctly.

I had never heard of the author before, and hadn't read fantasy or fiction since my early teens. Never-the-less, I found myself catapulted into the world of storytelling, fairytales and literature. A passion for everything beautiful and magical caught to me like fire. The smell of depression and anxiety with my life started to dissipate, and two years later I find myself working as a full-time writer while studying painting on the side.

Obviously an apprentice in my stage of life and creativity, and patience has never been my strong suit - but I really needed to hear those words right now. The temptation to "be normal" and "earn a living" is so strong still, when the unsurity about the future looms in my barely-awake-and-haven't-made-coffee-yet mind. I worry that I am kidding myself, dancing in childish fantasies.

All I can say is that, the heart loves what the heart loves. So I'll try and be patient!

How strange. I guess I must be one of those artists you can't swear experience this. :) I have never had to look for my own voice, in art anyway. In reality, in life, yes; I am only just finding it now, at 41. But in art? I have in the past tried to paint or draw things in the style of whoever, Harry Clarke, Burne-Jones, Waterhouse, but it never looks like anything but mine. It's almost frustrating, in a weird way. And I won't say that bits and pieces of influence haven't found their way into my art—I can look at something and say, oh I learned that from such-and-such artist—but it's like my art has a strange stubbornness to it, almost. (As, I suppose, do I.) In other words, I can't make my art look like someone else's if I try. And I've tried!

Oh Thalia I'm envious of that because I'm one of the ones still struggling. I;m in my 20s so I guess I have time to figure out what I want to say that doesn't sound like an imitation of the painters I admire, but I look at other artists not much older than me like Virginia Lee and Rima Staines and they seem to have such a distinctive style of ttheir own already, perhaps like you they've always known what it was, who they are creatively. Or hmmm, I just realized that both the artists I've named are the children of artists-unlike me-and i wonder if that somehow makes a difference? I just know that for me, I am doing art that is I supppose technically accomplished but it doesn't yet feel like MINE somehow. I'm comforted by the words in this essay that style isn't something that you find, it grows inside you. Maybe I'm just a slower grower than people like you. So I emvy you, but I'm also going to try to accept that about myself and be more patient.

This is similar to how some kids grow up knowing what they want to do and others struggle with that decision when they get close to adulthood. I always knew I wanted to work in film and had a hard time relating to my brothers' struggle when they had a hard time figuring out where to go to college, what to study, what to do with their lives afterward. (One of them who is in his early 40s still doesn't really know.) I've just always known, in the same way that some artists seem to have always known just what their voice and style is.

Joel, Just wanted to wish you unlimited creativity and blessings for your journey ahead and to send some words by Rumi your way....
"Let the Beauty you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth".

What a wonderful post, Terri, thank you for reminding us that the muse cannot be forced. I tell myself this when I'm frustrated and losing heart because of course, the journey seems to take so much time. In my late forties now, I think I couldn't have progressed much further any earlier though, no matter what decisions I had made. So much of one's craft is derived from the essence of our particular choices and chance experiences. It's how it all moves. So -- I hope it's not too costly to have your computer fixed (!), it's the thing I fear everyday with my cat jumping up on my desk and missing the coffee cup by a hair.. :)
All the very best to you.

Terri, I wish I could share these amazing posts about the craft and apprenticeship and finding and honing one's own voice to every single artist/writer/singer/etc. out there. I myself have been guilty of wanting it now, now, now--after all, "everyone else" is already "there. . ."

*laughs ruefully*

Well, at least I can bookmark the posts for myself. Thank you for them. ♥

As for your computer, I wish a speedy and inexpensive recovery!

Thank you Shveta, and everyone else who has left comments here.

(And yes, my trusty workhorse of a computer is up and running again, thank heavens!)


Thank you - I will be returning to this post again and again.

Warmly,
Karen

Oh it's true my mother is an artist, landscape paintings and stuff, and was always very encouraging of my art, though she didn't herself do it for a living and was a housewife. I guess I am lucky. I never said 'When I grow up I want to be an artist' because I've always known I already *was.*

I had a teacher at art school (don't remember who now!) who told us, 'Don't worry about finding a style; just do what you do and it will find you.' I'd agree with that.

Also, heavens, no one in their twenties knows what their doing yet! :)

Terri - what beautiful words and pictures... and inspiration..... Thank you, thank you! I love the messages, the images, the music.... and what it is doing inside of me! I hope to see you again someday.
Love,
Lauren Mills

Since I read this post, I've been troubled. Laughing. But in a good way. I've made all sorts of new choices. Uncomfortable choices. But I feel good for the first time in a very long time about writing. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

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