Monday, September 28, 2009

10 Ways To Revitalize Your Creative Muse

I had written this in hopes of having it published, but the magazine declined so I'm posting it here, instead!

10 Ways To Revitalize Your Creative Muse

If your muse is feeling droopy, has gone on vacation and left no cell number, or has simply gotten stuck in a pattern that chokes off spontaneity and fun, then it’s time to be proactive and remind your muse of the beauty of creation. It’s easier than you think!

1. Remember your bravery.

Edgar Allen Poe once said, “There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge.” Courage is everything to an artist. The courage to make a mess, the courage to ignore what others are doing and take your own path, the courage to face a blank canvas or an empty sheet of paper or a yard of stark white fabric and blaze ahead with color, stitch, marks, sketches- some of the very elements that are the bread and butter of artists. So reconnect with your bravery. You don’t have to go skydiving or swim with the sharks, but if that’s what felts your wool, do it. Sing in the grocery store (yes, out loud!). Look total strangers in the eye, smile and ask how their day is going. Listen when they tell you. Take that favorite piece of fabric that you dyed back in 1980 and then loved too much to do anything with and rip it into pieces. Reassemble it, with other torn scraps of paper and fabric in your stash, into a quick and sloppy collage. And then don’t rearrange endlessly until you’re blind, leave it as it is and enjoy the textures, movement and abandon of the process. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself that right now, today, no one is creating art that’s more relevant to you than what comes from your own hands.

2. Zoom in.

Train yourself to notice details. If you can afford it, get yourself a good camera with excellent optic zoom and macro settings (forget about digital zoom- I just about guarantee you that you’ll hate the grainy, pixilated photos they produce). Then get down on the ground and crawl around, taking close-ups of the grass, shrubberies, bugs, the nap of your carpet. Everything has texture and the closer you get, the more abstracted the object becomes- art lies in those details, I promise you.

No camera? Break out the sketchbook and try to capture what you see, and don’t let the old bugaboo, “But I can’t draw!” stop you- this isn’t fine art meant for your next gallery show, it’s just for you. As long as it comes close to capturing the essence of your subject, you’re doing just fine.

3. Spend a week at a folk school or artist’s retreat.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. A week or a weekend, cloistered away with other artists, is not only refreshing to your muse- it can also be a transformative experience that impacts you and your art forever.

My personal favorite retreat is the John C. Campbell Folk School, but there are dozens more schools and retreats offered around the country- and around the world, if you’re inclined to explore new cultures. Nothing reinforces your confidence in yourself, re-energizes your desire to just make art, or gives you a better sounding board than spending time with craftspeople who understand what you do and accept you as the artist you know you can be.

The blacksmiths hovering lovingly over their forges, the wood-turners who change a hunk of lifeless oak into sheer poetry, the fiber artists who share their love of textiles and fine craftsmanship- these people get you. They understand the crazy and sudden impulse that pops up at three in the morning to jump out of bed and start a new piece of art. They know the frustration when a piece goes wrong, and they can often help you find its proper voice. And they love their art as much as you love yours. Lifelong friendships can come from such experiences, but even if you never hear from any of them again, the memories alone that you’ve generated can pull you through your darkest periods of inactivity and lackluster inspiration.

4. Buy a box of crayons.

And don’t skimp on the 8-pack, either, go all out and get yourself the 120 unit box with the little sharpener at the back. If the waxy smell and bright color palette alone aren’t enough to get your muse excited, it’s time to scribble. Forget coloring books, though- we’re artists, we don’t want to color in the lines! Use plain copy paper to make some rubbings of items around the house, doodle your name in different typefaces, scrub hard to lay down a thick coating of wax and then scratch into it with the back of a paint brush, your thumbnail or fork tines, peel the paper off the crayons and enjoy feeling the smooth texture between your fingers. Let all of those glorious colors take you back to a simpler time when creating art was about how joyful it made you feel, and not about meeting deadlines or stressing over juried entries.

5. Clean your studio or workspace.

Nothing will keep me out of my studio more effectively than a huge mess. My muse freezes up, my housewife sensibilities flee, and all I want to do is shut the door and sneak away quietly before The Art Guilt digs in its heels. But conversely, nothing screams, “Create art NOW!” to me more than an empty desk and cleared out work surfaces. I defy you to walk away from a clean studio without even the slightest desire to get in there and mess it up again. Yes, cleaning is a terrible task that no one should ever have to undertake. In a perfect world, The Cleaning Sprites would show up the instant you fall asleep every night and begin their work- by morning, your house would be shiny and new. If only.

6. Teach a kid (or ten) to fingerpaint.

If there are children in your life- your own or someone else’s- introducing them to art is not only a delight for both you and them, I believe it is a responsibility that every artist shares. We can no longer count on our schools to scrape together the funding for art programs, and parents are often too busy, tired and distracted to give much thought to art education. As artists, we can fill that gap and in the process, reestablish a link with our own creativity.

Gather your favorite children, throw together some pots of paint and large sheets of white paper and start splashing paint around. Mix colors together until they’re muddy, mash painted papers one onto the other and then peel them apart. Encourage your budding protégés to sign their work and display it proudly. Laugh, play, and most of all, watch your young charge’s fearless approach to creating and remember it. If you can see art through their eyes, even for an afternoon, you can possibly lure your muse back from the Caribbean vacation on which she’s slipped away.

7. Take a long walk somewhere beautiful

Inspiration exists everywhere in the world immediately around us- we just often can’t or won’t see it. It’s not stubbornness on our part, or a lack of imagination, that prevents us from keeping our heads up and our eyes scanning our environment- usually it’s as simple as being out of practice. Take some time to explore the forest behind your house, the local city park, or your back yard. And if you’re city folk, prowl the older sections of town and seek out the aging architecture you find there. Notice the mature landscaping and the old growth trees lining neighborhood streets. Photograph or sketch everything that catches your eye. What you’re trying to achieve is an understanding that art is everywhere, existing in everything, if only it could be seen with eyes that understand. Let those eyes be your eyes.

8. Mine the bottom of your stash for treasure.

This can easily go along with number 5 in my list, as both tasks can be accomplished at the same time. However, even in a pristine studio space, I bet you have containers hidden from view that are overflowing with the detritus of creating art. These boxes are jam-packed with inspiration. Scraps of fabrics and papers that you’ve ripped, sewn, cut apart, tossed aside, forgotten about, remembered later and then forgot again- they are all fodder for jump-starting your creativity. Dig through them again. Reach in up to your elbows and pull out the first ten pieces you can get your fingers around. Then challenge yourself to assemble them- as is, with no further alteration- into a collage. You’d be amazed at where that one little messy collage will take your muse. You could even wind up creating the pivotal series of your career from that one, seemingly insignificant, exercise. Or maybe nothing else will happen with it- but at the very least, you can end your day knowing that you finished something, that you created art and followed through on it until it was complete.

9. Go to galleries and museums

This bit of advice may seem like a no-brainer, but really- when was the last time you visited an art gallery or museum as an artist, rather than as a tourist? So often, when we walk into the hushed, expectant atmosphere of an art gallery, we’re suddenly left feeling like outsiders, coming to gawk at the pretty paintings. We forget for a while that we actually understand this stuff, that it lives in our blood and that, while we may never achieve the status of “Master”, we are nonetheless active participants in the culture that produced such works.

So visit a gallery. Take your time with pieces of art that capture your imagination. Try to determine what it is about the piece that clicks for you. Deconstruct the art so that you can better understand the artist and his or her vision, and if you’re lucky enough to have the artist present, talk to them. Ask questions about their work, delve into their intent, their vision, their technique. Most artists who attend their own shows are eager and enthusiastic to discuss what they do and why they do it. They want their art to be understood- just as you want yours to be similarly examined and understood.

10. Cut yourself some slack

You are an artist. But no one can be in the process of creating art every minute of the day. Life, family, friends, play time away from the studio, time for quiet contemplation- all of these are essential to balancing our lives. They are equally as important as our art and deserve to have our full attention. Feeling guilty because you’re too busy to make art today or next week, punishing yourself because you just don’t feel like doing anything this afternoon but sit and watch TV or read a book, convincing yourself that you’re just not good enough to be counted in the ranks of the artists you admire- these are all the little self-defeating games we play with our muse. The longer and more fervently you repeat these mantras, the more likely you'll convince yourself that your muse will leave and take up residence with someone more willing to be open to the gifts it provides.

So allow yourself to take a break, guilt-free. Don’t worry- if you want it, your muse will still be waiting for you when you return.

Your Muse Isn’t Dead, Honestly

I used to fear that my creativity would eventually dry up altogether, that some day I’d run out of ideas or the desire to make art- as if talent is finite: once you use it up, it’s gone. But really, that was just a fear, an irrational belief that I didn’t really deserve an artist’s life, that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough or filled with enough vision. Baloney! Creativity just asks for one simple thing: commitment. Commit to yourself, commit to your muse, and the art will follow.


laura west kong said...

Great tips! I can't decide which is my favorite. =(^_^)=

Gina said...

Excellent article! As I was reading it I was thinking 'this really should have been published'. Thanks for the great tips - very inspiring! And super photos from your vacation!

Nancy said...

Judi, totally worthy of publishing, great article with some interesting perspectives. Going to get a new box of crayons tomorrow!

Anonymous said...

Judi -

Cynaera here! I got this link from RadioParadise. I signed up for NaNoWriMo AGAIN this year, and I have no idea about what I'm going to write! Your article gave me some definite inspiration. I'm off to take a long walk in a pretty place and nurture my muse. You rock!!!

Natalie Sack said...

These are great out of the (crayon) box ideas--beyond the ordinary pep talk. Thank you for this!