What is inspiration? How do we define the strange, rare “light bulb” moments that help shape our understanding of a visual atmosphere? I don’t believe that inspiration is something that resides in hidden troves waiting to be discovered. It is significantly more important to know how to look for inspiration or, rather, how to notice that you already have it.

On Inspiration

John Du Val 5/1/12

How does one ‘find’ inspiration to create things, to develop things that earn them fame, success, and eventually inspire others along a similar path? Creativity in the art world has become growingly cryptic, an unspoken mode of reinvention and reshaping that is more competitive than ever. However, this does not mean a furtive, flaky behavior is necessary to an artist’s success. The stereotypically flighty artist that seems to populate multiple spheres of the now ‘environmentally conscious’ society grants secrecy to his or her agency as a creator. One demands to be respected through a hushed process of deference to past artists and a simultaneous isolation and shunning of all things not solipsistic. This contradiction is easily resolved if we come to a realization about the relationship between inspiration and creativity. It’s simple: creation is impossible, only re-creation exists and only re-creation is inevitable. Though an artist may claim to create a mood or method of perception out of deference toward a previous genre of artists, he or she does nothing more than borrow or steal for the sake of art. This is perfectly acceptable, but should most definitely be acknowledged. Writing this article involves borrowing very common words from the English language, not creating words to suit my argument. In fact, all art involves theft of one sort or another. To recreate a Rubens or a Leonardo (however poorly done) is no less original than to ‘create’ a painting that bears an ‘accidental’ resemblance to various pieces all stored within the subconscious of that artist’s mind.


This dream drawing was inspired by the female figure of Rubens' mermaids.

The color relationships that I’ve explored through my work on this site are nothing new. They are merely shadows of things done before. So why make them? Why would anyone want to make something that has been made before, perhaps even better? Inspiration is deference. Many successful artists often refer to seemingly mediocre or insignificant aspects of quotidian life as their inspiration for some of their greater works. But how do we distinguish this inspiration from the ‘inspiration’ acquired from someone else’s work? Are they different? Is one more credible, more justifiable than the other?

For instance, I recently constructed an installation that involved the mixing of light with primary colored acetate to create secondary color effects with the use of a ‘dreamachine.’ The idea first hatched while considering the phenomenon of light changes throughout the day. How well do we notice subtleties of light differences from hour to hour? I was intrigued by this, and knew that I wanted to recreate light mixtures using artificial light in a dark room. But that’s not enough for a complete work. Then my teacher suggested I look into Brion Gysin. I typed his name into Google, finding numerous results for his ‘dreamachine,’ which he developed during the 1960s. That was it. I had experienced my inspiration. There was no flash of genius, no light bulb, just an inkling of confidence that with this idea as my foundation, I could ‘create’ something interesting. Some would say I stole his idea, or that I lack originality. However, from word-of-mouth I received the spark that ignited a long process of constructing and deconstructing an installation piece that was performed for merely 15 minutes. However, this was plenty of time for the light phenomenon to take place and for me to demonstrate my open deference to an artist that experimented during the 60s (no pun intended). I borrowed his idea, changing it slightly by adding colored acetate to his design. This, in turn, changed the entire focal point of the dreamachine itself. Am I forever in Gysin’s debt? Does he take the credit for my work? Absolutely not. But then again, do I alone take credit for my work? Art is not a sole effort of talent and ability. Rather, it is a glimpse of the collective in any given context. It is comprised of collective individuals, phenomena, mindsets, natural occurrences, emotions. Those who claim to generate their own inspiration are not liars; they may in fact draw from their own experiences or sensations. However, these experiences are always an effect brought on by an external source.

dreamachineMy recent installation of the dreamachine

Where does inspiration come from? I don’t believe an answer to this question can be provided in concise terms. All surrounding things give one material to think on, to build upon, and to question. Therefore, inspiration is a daily occurrence that very often happens subconsciously. It is not, then, a question of finding inspiration, but of realizing the moment you experience it. The performance artist Ann Liv Young has said in interviews that she is not familiar with preceding work that bears resemblances to her own; however, it is important to notice this as a direct rebuke of an artistic reverence that is often associated with political correctness or social appropriateness, both of which Ms. Young chastises. Similarly, the remarkably talented Coen brothers denied ever having read Homer’s Odyssey prior to making their film O Brother, Where Art Thou? upon which the film is based. Rather, they were inspired by a comic book version of the classic epic. One is never void of inspiration, and one never needs to seek outward in order to find it. Artists are sponge-like creatures that absorb and release on a daily basis. It is the artist’s job to be conscious of what he is absorbing and how this may benefit his artistic creation or, rather, re-creation.

So where should you go for inspiration? Start by looking at where you are while reading this, what's around you, is there a dominant color of clothing among those standing around you? Why are you wearing clothes that color? What does it mean to choose a color? What mood are you in right now? Where was the last place that you remember feeling happiest? Think of a piece of artwork, an work at all. Why did that work come into your mind first? What do the building around your home look like? All of these small inquiries will beg for answers, and in attempting to provide them, you will become, I hope, inspired.

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