Sunday, January 18, 2009

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Probably the one question I get asked most by folks whenever doing a show & tell. There is no one answer, no cause-and-effect, though there are some dependable triggers and cues I employ. Some times it takes deliberate conscious effort, working at a specifically designated time and place, focusing on a specific subject (there will be many postings here on the methodical processes used to dredge up ideas over the course of the semester). Other times they do just suddenly appear, usually when the mind is untethered enough to begin wandering and making connections, say for example during driving or right before falling asleep (not both at the same time though). Early morning is the most rewarding time, as the brain is fresh and clean, or in my specific case, at least without the accumulated junk that gets gradually piled on over the day’s responsibilities. And it’s no joke that I really do score at least one good idea while in the outhouse every morning, a combination of habit and environment I suppose.
Speaking of habits, I find the ambient background noise of a café or a bar is also good fertile ground in which to work. I joke at “going to the office to work” and striking the poseur act; absently stroking a goatee while staring off into space over coffee and sketchbook – it’s probably healthy to realize what a self-caricature you’ve become. At least it’s amusing and brings up the point that you get ideas first & foremost from yourself and your own life. Objective, detached observations of everyday, mundane activities can be the most rewarding. Plus it legitimizes eavesdropping while pretending to be lost in thought. But I am honestly baffled by the occasional student who complains of “not having any ideas” – sometimes indicative of not having much of a life; no interests, no activities, maybe not having much of a mind left to begin with. There’s simply no excuse, as there’s no end to the sources of inspiration that inundates every waking moment. Some argument could be made for training oneself to become aware of and cultivate this perceptive outlook on Life, and that is one of my underlying points at teaching; looking and thinking play as much of a role in creating art as doing it. To some extent we are also constantly fighting a battle to not have our own unique visions ground out of existence or overwhelmed by the social pressures to be consumers of other people’s creative products rather than producers of our own.
Sketchbooks function for me as a repository for the (rare) brilliant flashes of insight, ones that honestly do spontaneously appear out of nowhere, seemingly for no reason whatsoever, plus random doodles and stray, aimless ideas; at any given deadline I can cull from the accumulated nonsense and raw, unrefined material, and literally draw from this backlog of abandoned ruminations. So in a sense I’ll never run out of ideas, which takes the edge off the stress.
A notable side-effect is the old adage “99% perspiration/1% inspiration” which will inevitable kick into gear once the square, frozen wheels start thumping along – sure enough the ideas begin to begat once I’m at work, and one piece turns into two, two into five, etc. then they multiply like rabbits all over the pages.
The sketchbook also doubles as an informal staging area, a sort of a dry run on what the finished piece will eventually turn into. This is the preliminary chance to appraise ideas and think of how it could be drawn better, maybe resolve compositional issues, or choosing different words and better phrasing for the caption, maybe even isolated reference sketches for trouble spots like a particular expression or gesture or specific prop. As one’s drawing experience grows this becomes less of a task and reflexively defaults to relying on visual memory (for example I got Toyotas, doghouses and woodstoves down). Also some of the more spontaneous doodles require “translation” from scraps of paper, backs of envelopes or whatnot, as they can be unintelligible scribblings, a secret code that only I can understand what they stand for.

Being raised by two parents that each had their own respective garden, one metaphor in particular that I’ve adopted into my thinking has been that of a compost heap. The gradual aggregate of ideas evolves into an enormous creative mulch-pile; captions without accompanying drawings, idle sketches without any fixed meaning, pictures that haven’t yet had the right words attached, scribbles and crude, unedited text that get the concept down but still need to be polished. Eventually the sheer weight of these pages together with time, darkness and heat will give rise to a vast network of mycelium and give birth to fruiting bodies I can pick over at my leisure. Okay, maybe not the most attractive description, but it works for me. Basically I just keep shoveling shit in and let nature take its course.

“Apparently one impression that we are that creativeness consists of lightning striking you on the head in one great glorious moment. The fact that the people who create are good workers tends to be lost.” - Abraham Maslow

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, ideas aren't the problem except when working in a limited context like "come up with a great gag about chemical eradication of milfoil in a pond." The real problem is finding the time to execute all the great ideas with the craftsmanship they deserve.