Inspiration

Much has been written about inspiration, its sources and triggers. Artistic energy is devoted to capturing it; consumers of art wonder about it. Where do ideas come from?

The original meaning of inspiration was breath, from the Latin verb spīrāre (breathe), the equivalent for which means life force in many languages: pneuma (Greek), ruach (Hebrew), chi (Chinese), reiki (Japanese), prana (Hindu), manitou (Algonquin), among others. To inspire is to receive breath.

For an artist of any stripe, discovering a piece of art that inspires is precious, like breath. It infuses our minds and hearts with life force, it propels us to dig deeper, reach higher, search longer. It offers insights to help us open up our own worlds. We sustain each other this way, trading calls and answers not bound by time and space. John Updike wrote Run, Rabbit in response to the question he heard in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Vincent Van Gogh’s brushstrokes helped Emily Carr understand what she called “unity of movement,” which became an essential part of her own style (the influence is especially easy to see in Straits of Juan de Fuca). And on it goes.

So here, in my first blog entry, it seems appropriate to pay homage to works that helped inspire scenes and characters in my first novel, The Umbrella Mender. I’m grateful to the artists whose minds birthed them and whose hands made them.

I don’t remember how I first found this pair of snow goggles, sold at auction by Christie’s in New York in 2006, but its reach across the millennia was immediate and lasting. The art historian’s notes say they were made by a member of the Punuk community in St Lawrence Island, Alaska (600-1100AD) for hunting. Shielding the eyes from the reflective glare of the low sun on brilliant white snow prevented snow blindness, a painful and dangerous condition, and decorating them helped secure favour of the spirit of the prey.

This ornamentation on these is far beyond the boundaries of the usual. I loved the delicate tracery of the decoration and its asymmetry; I loved that the hunter was moved to elevate something so utilitarian to a work of art. I saw his hands on a piece of walrus tusk shaped to fit his face, making sure, delicate, spiderwebbed strokes. The image held me by the throat and didn’t let go until I better understood the character I’d given them to.

I discovered nickel carving via another character who was a generation late but aspired to the purity of the hobo lifestyle, much like Kerouac. Hobos carved coins as a way of both defacing currency (the practice began in Napoleonic France with Napoleon’s image transformed into a pig’s) and making something beautiful that they could sell at the next stop to buy necessities. I haven’t been able to verify that this coin is original, since there has been a renaissance of the art among modern hoboes and hobbyists, but something about it makes me think it might be.

My character, obsessed by birds of prey, transforms the image of King George on a 1951 nickel into the head of a falcon. I wrote the scene, imagining how the elements of the king’s silhouette might become a bird’s beak, eye, feathers. And then I found this. It’s the wrong bird, but the (modern) craftsman gave his eagle many of the features my character gave his falcon. It could be done!

Thank you, carvers all, for inspiration, for beauty, for breath.

 

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