Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (… an attempt to deconstruct the mystery of inspiration)

“Ideas are one thing and what happens is another.” – John Cage (experimental composer)
“I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do” – Francis Bacon (painter)
 “I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”  – Albert Einstein (physicist)
“The irritating question they ask us — us being writers — is: “Where do you get your ideas?”
And the answer is: Confluence. Things come together. The right ingredients and suddenly: “Abracadabra!”  – Neil Gaiman  (Author)
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while” – Steve Jobs (entrepreneur and inventor)
A painter, a physicist, an author, an entrepreneur and a composer, (and many others not here quoted above) all describe the creative process from strikingly similar perspectives.  Is it any wonder that as artists, when first posed with the question:  “where do you get your ideas?” we stand there, stupidly, gobsmacked that such a simple question is impossible to answer?  … So, where do we get those ideas, anyway?
Alfred Hitchcock said, Ideas come from everything, and I’m inclined to agree. Ideas come from all that I’ve lived, all whom I’ve met, all that I’ve seen, read, felt and experienced.  That sounds a bit pat, but is it not true?
This past winter, part of my mission was to revisit older, unresolved paintings, to drag them out of the closet and set them on the easel and in this process I was forced to study these works, several of which I’d not seen in some time.   One of these paintings, Torre del Mar, begun in 1999 (image, above right), needed something (what? I wasn’t sure) and while working on it, I found myself wondering at the roots of its imagery:  a woman in the foreground, two white cattle sauntering a beach, and a tower in the distance.  I know where the different elements came from, generally, but how did they happen to merge into this ambiguous narrative?
Torre del Mar – analysis of elements
a)       The title of this piece and the tower depicted in the distance, describes Spain with a generic view of its “towers of the sea,” these which dot the coastline of Spain’s southern region of Andalucia. It is no surprise that a tower appears in a painting begun in 1999, the third year of my visit there, while still enamoured with its mountain hikes and its dramatic shorelines.  These towers, despite their military past and function (to warn of territorial invasion), stand today as beautiful and simple architectural structures, their silhouettes rising from the edges of cliffs.  In the past they spoke of impending war but now they stand silently, with a voice of peace; for me, they conjure the sound of waves, the scent of the sea, the Mediterranean light and the taste of fresh calamari.
b)       The white beach-roaming cattle, however, are a flash from the past, born from experiences in Ecuador during several months of travels there many years ago, in the mid 80s.  Every morning from the window of my simple cabaña, I watched them pass, a herd of them, sauntering unsupervised, along the shoreline.   They knew where they were going.  They were not white-white as those depicted in this painting, but passed by my window in their soft tones of deep creams and browns  –  yet, now and then, a pure white bull or cow was born and, as with any anomaly (whatever the culture), it was regarded as special.  For instance, one early morning when the waves were wild with a pending full moon, a small, white bull broke maniacally from the herd and trampled head-force into the sea.  Men rushed in to rescue it but, too late.  The waves swept it away and, understandably, the villagers interpreted this as an omen of bad luck. –—  Again, due to this tragic episode, there is no surprise that white bulls or cows arise in my work from time to time, yet, I do not think of them as symbols of  tragedy or fortune. Symbolic of neither good nor bad, they are, however, ethereal somehow – they speak of magic, of silence and of mystery … because you never know where they’re going, nor from where they came.
c)         … And, lastly, there’s the woman. … She might be me. Indeed, she might be anyone who identifies with her.  But let’s look closely, now, at the new image (above left, 2013) juxtaposed with the old Torre del Mar (right, 1999).  As you can surely see, there is a drastic difference in the figure. In the old work, the figure is facing, if not challenging the viewer.  One might say she is drawing you into her world while simultaneously repelling you.  That’s not a bad thing – yet, I’d never liked this figure – her face, her posture, the stylized treatment of her dress and especially, that dark black horizontal line of her belt. For these criminal acts she was relegated to the closet for several years.  Simply, I couldn’t connect with her – didn’t like her at all, and in setting this painting once again on my easel this past winter, re-imagining the figure was my focus.  And, over a month or so, my brushes danced over this painting now and then, until, one fine morning with a shift of this and that, with the turning of the head, with lowering the defensive shoulder, and obscuring that damned black belt, well … suddenly, it felt right.  And, of course, as any artist knows, when you change one thing, you’ve got to change it all and, thus, the entire surface was reworked – not after the fact, not once the figure was “solved” but throughout.  In a painting, no element exists on its own.  The composition remained largely the same but the colours changed, becoming more complex, thus shifting the overall sense of the painting.
And, in the end, What does it all mean?   — Well, I truly don’t know.  I rarely set out to say “this painting is about…” As said, this is only an attempt to deconstruct ….  and as with the quotes at the beginning of this post, what is certain is that you cannot easily follow the creative process nor can one easily determine what the end result of such a process means.  I can sometimes define the roots of the elements within a given painting but rarely am I able to define how or why they fit together – I just know when they do. Were I a critic, knowing the origin of these elements, I might be inclined to read into this painting something tragic, sad, foreboding:  A.  towers (with a history of war and territorial paranoia), B. white (potentially maniacal) cattle, and C.  a woman who, after being many years in the solitary confinement of a closet, decides (one fine morning) to turn her head toward the sea. Thus, I concur with the above quotes of those far greater than myself:  Things come together, you don’t know why, but in the end, they amalgamate and transform into something like poetry.  For me, Torre del Mar infuses me with a wonderful sense of silence – at most, I hear the lapping of waves.  And whatever lies on the horizon is bathed in light. … Yet, I cannot predict how it speaks to someone else.
Art-making is an intuitive and interactive process.  As Francis Bacon, and many others have said, you begin with a vague idea and it shifts direction.  Bits and pieces attract each other like magnets and, in the end, the marriage of these elements opens a world that feels familiar. My work is often personal, the images arising from the nearly forgotten, and thus, when others connect with my work, it is a strange and humbling experience.
Just a few links which explore the idea of creativity:
John Cage (composer) speaks about motivation:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7O0VXzbV2Y
Duchamp Interview:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjecY4TrU5Q
An interview with Shelly Carson on the psychology of creativity, with a focus on “divine madness.”
Francis Bacon interview:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoFMH_D6xLk (This is a great interview, overall, but specifically, at the point of 12: 00 minutes onward, he speaks of the irrational aspect of creating, of suspending ‘rational decisions.’

About JT Winik

A Canadian visual artist whose figurative paintings are psychological explorations of isolation, interpersonal relationships, gender analysis and female sexuality.
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