An Artist's Inspiration: What brings you alive?

Villa di Livia Fresco (detail)

Villa di Livia Fresco (detail)

All the best things in life are invisible-  Mr. Fred Rogers (paraphrase)

I met a friend downtown recently, and over a glass of wine we talked about the professional hazards of being an artist. She wondered how to stay inspired when administrative work (among other things) seems often to outweigh time in the studio. Degas must have been thinking something similar when he said, everyone is a genius at twenty, the difficulty is remaining one at fifty. Staying inspired, regardless of life’s challenges, is essential for artistic longevity so we started wondering if we could cultivate more meaningful connections for the long haul.

There are so many good things in life that we never see, only feel, such as wind, our breath, love and inspiration. The origin of the word Inspire, which we often use to mean influence dates from the middle ages, from Latin, from spirare “to breathe,” similar to spirit used in earlier texts as Genesis: ‘The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ C.G. Jung wrote that the interchangeable nature of words meaning Spirit and Life are ‘very old acquaintances in fact, pawns that for thousands of years have been pushed back and forth on the thinker's chessboard’.  In the twofold meaning of the word Inspire, we see the immaterial and physical entwined together-  and a surprising number of languages from diverse cultures have a similar word. When examined, the verb: inspire can be seen as a compelling metaphor, where divine breath creates, anoints and inspires the artist to their own act of creation- implying that before artists give, they need to receive.

My friend and I decided to invite a few people to an evening of conversation around the subject- the invitation read: We all play multiple roles- we make art and earning a living (often two very different things), are subject to the incidental elements of life with its attending bills, shopping, family responsibilities, doctors and e-mails. Over time it can be easy to lose sight of what inspires us. Please bring a picture, a poem or even a bit of random text, that reminds you of the person you wish to be and the art that you want to make. Come prepared to discuss what stimulates your imagination.

We met this Wednesday night over several bottles of wine and food on a low table in my living room.  Conversations started with stories of a broken oven and replacement iphone but quietly fell away as people started to describe being in the presence of a work of art that captured their imagination.

One woman traveled to Italy, and entered the dining room of  La Villa di Livia with its 40’x20’ frescos of a walled garden. The museum was shutting in two hours and she stayed in this room the whole time- her heart rate slowed, enveloped in the stillness of thousands of years of history. Yet another artist sensed the reality of God in a Tintoretto ceiling- “All the stories are true”, she said, her voice shook with emotion as she spoke, as if she was seeing it for the first time.  Another flew to San Francisco and ascended to a temple of art (the Legion of Honor Museum) and he left with a benediction. He spent most of his time before Ruben’s Massacre of the Innocents, awed by the movement, the skill and emotion. Several others described books that spoke to them offering wisdom and other ways of looking at the world. Our last guest spoke of playing a Tchaikovsky symphony so loudly it blew out his sound system seeming to keep all the darkness at bay. I felt humbled by the depth of experience and emotion expressed by this group of people. I didn’t know that all around me are such great souls. How many decades have I wasted not getting to know people in this way?  

Recognizing what enlivens our spirit, perhaps through art and nature, and meeting together with other artists are two ways that can help keeping us making art over a lifetime. If you have time this week, write to me about a moment you lost yourself in a book, a painting, nature or another person. Or seek out what fills your spirit and keep as your own private experience. Either way it will be an encouragement.

When you have been deeply touched you bring riches back for the rest of us and through your art, conversation and presence- your inspired life can take our breath away.