My husband gave me an Apple Pencil for Christmas, to go with the lovely iPad Pro I gave myself for non-Christmas. It’s been a delight. I use it with the Procreate app and sketch away during TV time.
One day I looked at my work surface and realized that I’d just haphazardly tossed the pencil on there. It was sitting in the midst of the clutter of soiled rubber bands, an industrial-grade dust mask, Athlete’s Foot cream, and random scraps of paper. It struck me as disrespectful. I was being unappreciative of my husband’s thoughtfulness and the fact that he’d had to work for the money to buy me the thing. Plus, what if something happened to the pencil? What if I put a hot iron down on it or spilled wood glue on it? (Because, frankly, that’s the kind of household I run. Everything happens everywhere.)
I decided to put it in a safe place.
I’ll bet you know where this is going, don’t you? Oh yes. I had another project crank up and I didn’t need the pencil for awhile. When I did, it was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t in one of the tech drawers in my work area, where I keep things like chargers and keyboards. It wasn’t in the little tech basket atop my work surface, where I keep things like wireless headphones and graphics tablets. It wasn’t in any of the thousand little receptacles for holding drawing pencils or pens or paintbrushes. Oh no. I’d kept it really safe. So safe I couldn’t find it.
I freaked out. Losing the nice hundred dollar stylus my husband had given me was even worse than leaving it out on my work surface. He isn’t the sort to get mad or hold grudges; one of his frequent statements is “It’s just stuff. Stuff can be replaced.” I felt awful about it, though. Plus I wanted to use the pencil. I began to systematically rip my work room apart.
Here’s where I found it. Yes. This was my idea of a “safe place”. In one of the thread drawers. Do you see it? It’s that white pencil-like object, cunningly placed on top of a row of white spools of thread so that it will be very difficult to find. Because that’s where everyone puts their Apple Pencil, in a drawer full of totally unrelated objects.
Don’t do this. Don’t put things in a safe place. That’s the surest way to lose them. I know all about this: this isn’t the first time I’ve pulled this stunt.
I’ve found this philosophy applies to other things as well: making safe art. Having safe experiences. When we focus on keeping parts of our lives in a safe place, we can lose them. We can also lose our sense of self or even our sense of ethics.
In terms of art, this might apply to making art which we think will appeal to others or avoid offending them. We avoid putting too much of ourselves in the work.
Here’s the work of someone who, I suspect, isn’t keeping his work in a safe place. The artist’s name is Bren Ahearn, and this is possibly the worst photograph ever taken of one of his samplers. I urge people to go over to his website and take a look at his other work. He has nice photos there, photos that don’t make his work look blurry and rumpled.
I ran across this work at the SDA exhibit in San Jose a couple of months back. We both had work in the show; his was pretty special. This piece is huge, about five feet wide and seven feet high, worked in needlepoint style on a substrate that’s satisfyingly like a scaled up version of needlepoint canvas. It reads like a standard needlepoint sampler, something proper young ladies would have been stitching away at in the 18th century, right down to the alphabet, proverb, and creator’s name. However, he’s subverted and taken ownership of the medium in this and his other works, many of which contain touching autobiographical details both real and imaginary.
His work is real. Personal. Genuine. His own.
I brood now and then. I do. I’ve been brooding about a certain matter since last October. I’ve debated writing about it and changed my mind back and forth several times. Maybe I’ll just tap dance around it. Evidently not writing about it at all is throttling back my ability to blog.
Now and then, people will say that one of their works was “inspired by” someone else’s work. Here’s my eternal piece-in-progress Odalisque, for example. I didn’t invent the form of the odalisque in art; other painters did. Other people came up with the nude reclining on a couch and looking out at us coquettishly, and the throw and draperies and so forth. I claim that in this situation, my saying that my Odalisque was “inspired by” the ones which came before it is a fair use of the term. I’ve leveraged off all those other odalisque paintings by including similar elements. There’s a couch, a throw, drapes, and a reclining nude. True, the nude is a dog rather than a woman, but that’s the joke of the picture. The fact that we have a rich history of more standard nudes helps make it funny.
That’s the sort of thing I expect to see when someone says their work is “inspired by” someone else’s. A work which is their own. It may be similar thematically or in terms of the colors used or in terms of the composition. It may even contain visual elements which are very similar, although hopefully not to the point of being derivative.
Similarly, we can reference famous works such as the Mona Lisa and Grant Wood’s American Gothic. We’ve made a joke or a statement then, leveraging off the power or message of the original work.
Hokusai’s Great Wave
Ivan Bilibin, Illustration from Pushkin’s “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”
Many have leveraged off of Hokusai’s Great Wave, for example, including the illustrator Ivan Bilibin. The Wall Street Journal even ran a nice article on such pieces. Well-known works become cultural touchstones.
However, when no one knows the source of your “inspiration” and you don’t openly acknowledge it, you run the risk of simply plagiarizing or copying. What I don’t expect to see when someone uses the phrase “inspired by” is something along the lines of a work I saw last year. A photo had been downloaded from a free stock photo site, cropped, tinted, then rendered on fabric so precisely that when I overlaid the original photo with the resulting “inspired by” piece in Photoshop, even the details matched up.
I probably need to stop at that. I need to not describe how offended I was when I learned about this and a similar incident, and how I suspect that the person has done similar things many times. I need to not dwell on the fact that my respect for her plummeted when I saw that she hadn’t acknowledged the original photographer at all, and only wrote “inspired by thus-and-such photo” on her website after being prompted repeatedly. I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that I feel the urge to vomit each time I see a picture of her standing beside the piece, a broad smile on her face, and think about the fact that someone probably paid thousands of dollars for what’s essentially a copy of a free stock photo.
But I guess I really should thank this person. You see, I am so offended by her behavior and by the impressively low standards I see throughout the art quilting industrial complex that it’s made me rethink things. It’s taken the pressure off. Because really, what’s the point? Mediocrity and poor ethics win the day. Quite literally.
One of my art friends occasionally says things like “I’m making the next piece for myself”, meaning that she’ll be making something which fulfills her desires rather than fitting into the requirements of some mythical show. No, I want to tell her, you should always make the work for yourself. That’s perhaps the best reason to make it. Because that fire is burning inside you and the only way it can be quenched is by getting the art out.
Make that original work because you need to make it, and be ethical. Don’t fall into the trap of the “artist” whose work was “inspired by” the stock photo, of trying to churn out piece after piece which lives up to the crazy-eyed marketing fairy tale you’ve told over the years. That’s one form of trying to keep things in a safe place. That path can lead to making a deal with the devil. You lose your soul that way.
Of course, other things can happen when we keep things in a safe place. For example, we may never quite get around to taking risks or trying new things.
I used to visit family. One my family members was extremely toxic, the sort one might suspect had narcissistic personality disorder, but she deserved compassion. I can’t be around her because she’s cruel and awful, but you know, I keep hoping things will work out for her. We don’t have to like people in order to want good things for them.
She’d had some hard knocks, some rough times. Not everybody can rise above that sort of thing. Not everybody is able to look themselves in the mirror and say “Wow. Why, exactly is it that I enjoy it when people are miserable and I’m unhappy when they succeed?” I’ve done that kind of thing. “Wow. What do all of my failed relationships have in common? Oh. Me.” It isn’t fun. It’s damned painful. Once you’ve done that, you have to figure out what you’re going to do about it. Sometimes the answers aren’t easy. Sometimes it isn’t clear what to do.
Anyhow, this particular person had aspirations. Peering in from the outside, it appeared that many of them would get wrecked by her husband. He’d hear about one of her aspirations, rush in with some notion of how it should be done, and take over. Poof. End of aspiration.
Some of them just fell apart for the usual reasons, I guess. I don’t know if it was her experience, but I’ve found that the more I talk about doing something, the less energy and motivation I have to actually do it.
It was sad to witness. When I hear about somebody having aspirations, I generally want to applaud, even if I don’t like the person or relate to what they’re trying to do. I don’t enjoy seeing people’s dreams get wrecked. Reaching for dreams or goals is life-affirming.
One of her goals was writing. I’d visit; she’d describe some story that was in her head. “I’m writing a book. It’s about a young Indian girl living in West Texas. She sells crackers in a general store.” Or whatever the plot was. The ideas always sounded insanely dull to me, but that’s the beauty of ideas and aspirations – the rest of us don’t have to approve of them. Maybe she had some spark which was going to bring that plot to life. Maybe we were going to find out that the Indian girl had a side business making sanitary napkins out of dried cactus pads. Maybe she was the long-lost descendent of space aliens. Maybe she got on a train, went to Paris, and became a can-can dancer.
We will probably never know. I always eagerly awaited the news that she’d finished her book. Maybe she’d even have a publisher. Then I could lie and say that it sounded wonderful rather than like a steaming pile of horse feces, and I could sincerely applaud the fact that she’d achieved one of her aspirations.
It never happened. I never got to applaud. It made me sad. Seriously. I can’t stand her, and she’s caused me unbelievable amounts of pain and harm, but I always wanted to see her fly.
People can find all sorts of ways to not do the things they say they want to do. Maybe they don’t actually want to do them. Maybe, in the words of my husband, “I would like to write a book” really means “I would like to have written a book.” What they really want is the identity, not the process of doing the work. They don’t like the identity of teacher or grocery store clerk or insurance salesman, so they fantasize about being someone else. An artist, maybe. Or a writer. Those sound nice. Those sound less mundane. They want that doing thing out of the way so they can claim the identity.
I’m at a point where I’m not so worried about identities. I’m more worried about doing. Not doing frightens me. Maybe this is part of the “I’m not old … yet” syndrome. The unspoken half of that sentence is “but I will be.” Do you really want to try riding a motorcycle, visiting Paris or writing that novel? Get on it. The Reaper is coming. Maybe not today or tomorrow or in twenty years, but sometime. Figure out what the obstacle is. Sweep it aside.
At the end of last year, I decided to finally move past the “I would like to write a book someday” stage myself. It’s something I wanted to do for quite a long time, but I kept making excuses. I was afraid. I was keeping things in a safe place, sticking to the things I know how to do. The prospect of trying something new and finding out that I was downright lousy at it was scary.
Now I have two books and two short stories drafted. Probably they’re awful. “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” my husband often tells me. That sounds about right. I decided that I can live with that. I didn’t want to go my whole life without writing about my personal equivalent of the Indian maiden selling crackers at the general store.
I’ll edit the stories some more and then publish them on Amazon under a pen name, so that their stench hopefully won’t reach back to me. I’m glad I did it. It’s been quite an adventure.
I’m glad I quit keeping things in a safe place.