The first thing you have to do is separate your true muses from your false muses. Your true muses are those that turn you on, interest you, excite you and motivate you to explore further. Both true and false muses are generated in early childhood, and sorting them out can save a lot of trouble in later art and life. Fact is, we’re often pretty true to ourselves until our teenage years. That’s when derailment happens — jobs, obligations, family and social pressures, love interests.
Artists often find themselves trying to sort things out in middle life. These folks need to go back to their earliest dreams. By recalling the places and occurrences of childhood, they can bring up and clarify both positive and negative muses. You need to go with the positive ones — the ones that give good feelings. There are such an abundance of positive ones. Here are a few of my own so you get the idea: collecting stuff, drawing stuff, observing wildlife, countryside rambling. My list would also include cars, boats, planes, libraries, museums and art galleries. I’ll not bother you with the negative ones.
Identifying your early positive muses gives keys to life’s direction — at least to paths worth checking out. As a kid I was struck by the design of things. On my ramblings by bike and on foot I noticed design in trees, rocks, clouds, water, darned near everything. My earliest drawings were fancied designs based on Nature. They were doodles like automatic writing on the margins of school books. For a while I turned to automobile design — but the spectre of “design teams” and the auto bureaucracy sent me packing. This was a breakthrough — my muse needed me to be my own team — to design alone.
Artists who dig up true muses need to connect them to exploratory work. Without this step muses stay dreams forever. The works themselves need only be seen as assays. They become a continuing evaluation of the nature of the given muse. Some are infinite in complexity and may require many lifetimes. Here lies the miracle of making art. Connected to the part of you that is true is the key to an eternity of somewhat pleasant frustration, occasional quality and joyous satisfaction. Not a bad job when you think of it.
PS: “So cheat your landlord if you must, but do not try to shortchange the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality.” (William S. Burroughs)
Esoterica: Several subscribers wrote of their love of flowers. “What can be done with them that’s not been done before — close-ups, tangled gardens, abstractions, giants, miniatures, flowers in pots?” The answer lies in the childlike exploration of specificity. The great painters of marigolds have not yet been born. Think of a series of everything you can find out about marigolds. Let your muse find her way among marigolds just as in your innocence as a toddling child you stood among them. In the words of Free Play author Stephen Nachmanovitch, “The most potent muse of all is our own inner child.”
Seek your bliss
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
Robert, your piece, Working the muses, instantly reminded of Joseph Campbell, who implored us to seek our bliss. I have been a devotee of Campbell since 1989, when I heard his interviews with Bill Moyers. Eventually it became clear to me that I had to follow my calling, which came later in life, and in 1995 I made the decision to make art full time. I left a lucrative and satisfying career, but one that had lost any semblance of bliss. It takes courage and I might say chutzpah to call yourself an artist. For me, life has been a joyful exploration of my muses with just enough success to feel it was the right thing to do.
Jung’s object fixation
by Carol Spicuzza, Indianapolis, IN, USA
You have reminded artists of something very important here — the eminent psychologist Carl Jung‘s idea that we are born with the pattern of our fate and it is our task in life to become this person. It is not predestination but a potential, so personal responsibility is critical. He hypothesized that there is a factor in the unconscious that knows who you are and who you are meant to be. We connect with this factor through dreams, synchronicity and other experiences of the unconscious. As an artist, I experience this factor in four main ways: dreams, suggestions from the inner voice, spontaneous visualizations and numinous experiences of the object. The numinous experience can be described as a feeling of being transfixed by an object. The object seems to exude an aura of meaning and existence beyond its apparent worldly one. A vital connection to the object is felt that belies its mundane reality. There is a feeling of being caught in an electrical current, an energy that would convey the significance of the object in the form of a feeling.
Children as mentors
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada
Robert, as I read your letter on muses I couldn’t help think of the annual school art show that is held at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon every spring. What a wonderful collection of art, in particular the art from kindergarten to grades 3-4. These tiny artists achieve what many adults only dream of. The youngest children are able to produce art that comes straight from their muse as you can sense that the pieces are really not contrived at all, but purely formed from that place where us mature adults need to go in order to produce our more satisfying work. I am sure that there are many other children’s art shows out there and that your readers would agree with me that the children have something that most of us have lost. I agree with you that it is not lost forever because an individual can use methods to “get back there”, just as you have suggested.
Sketch book invitation
by Mary DuVal, TX, USA
The inner child itself is a muse that often hides behind corners of the studio (or under that massive to-do list!), until there is a moment where a heartstring is pulled and you are taken back to the times when you doodled and sketched, with complete abandonment and freedom, those favorite subjects (horses, girls with fancy dresses, flowers, doodles of swirls and patterns — just a few of mine). These are the moments when you are drawing for no one but yourself with no other intention than to spend time in the pleasure of creating. For this reason, I find that keeping a sketch book is a wonderful invitation to bring that inner child back into the picture and highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t already have one. Besides, it’s fun!
Connection to the Nature muse
by Marguerite Larmand, Simcoe, ON, Canada
During August of my seventh year I made a two-seater couch and chair from burdock burrs. All the burrs faced inward except two rows of purple blooms that faced outward. It was located in my secret place on our hundred acre farm where I kept many special found objects. One morning in late August, I came to my place to find the larva of a luna moth on my couch — so special a guest that to this day, it still has me looking for another! I could write pages of wonderful things I witnessed on that farm near Georgian Bay, Ontario. Everything on my list would demonstrate how connected I was to nature — my great muse forever! I have been an installation artist for a number of years and there is not a work that I do that does not reference my childhood play.
(RG note) Thanks, Marguerite. I wonder if anyone will ever do a study to find out about the correlation between early, natural collectorship and later artistic development?
by Amanda Jackson, Lincoln, UK
This take on “the muse” resonates beyond the world of artists. No-one I have ever known had money for a childhood muse yet many a friend and loved one set their eyes on this prize in early adulthood, never looking back. I often meet those who tell me that if they won the lottery they’d be a painter, a potter, a racing driver, an astronaut. Look over your shoulder folks, your real muse may yet be tagging along behind. I’m still intrigued by the prospect that there may be new muses, yet undiscovered, in my life; though I plan never to retire and would only stop painting the day I cannot lift a brush perhaps I have yet to discover the joys of night diving, or biking across a continent, or tango dancing… who knows!
by Charlene Lau Ahier, Paris, France
Thanks for your recent letter on “working your muses”. I was curious about what you meant about negative muses, though. Can you elaborate? Obsessiveness could possibly be seen as both positive and negative… There was a recent article in the Manchester Guardian about Lucian Freud’s truthful obsessiveness in his portraiture, his art seen as systematically unkind to his sitters. But powerful indeed.
(RG note) Thanks, Charlene. For some reason a lot of folks wrote to ask about my early bad stuff. If you take the “muse” to mean that which sits on your shoulder and nags you to follow, I can relate a few negative ones. Being an observant, overly sensitive and staring sort of kid, I was also laconic and lazy. The tendency to live within and feature my imagination did then and still is a powerful force, allowing procrastination and avoidance. We fight our demons. My Grade Two report card said, “Bobby has lazy habits.” Ive spent a lifetime trying to erase this muse.
Being awake on this planet
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
One of my muses is the vast wonder of the universe and the mystery of what the hell I am doing here! It can be so overwhelmingly beautiful to live awake on this planet.
I think we are meant to master having a really grand time at all we CHOOSE to do.
Tonight, the sun set the sky mauve and creamy yellow in soft moist clouds, as the horizon turned crimson. The thin line moon hovered vertically, an opening in the atmosphere of dusk. Let the direct experience and love of life in all its sensual intricacies, variations and subtleties be your muse! Let the muse lead as you surrender, yet walk side by side.
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Repeating childhood drawings
by Karen McLaughlin, Philadelphia, PA, USA
This actually is kind of weird, gotta tell you, because the pencil drawings I’ve been working on for that past year have a real strong resemblance to some of my first art work. I remember having this wallpaper in my bedroom — I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 — that had flowers on it. I used to get into SO much trouble because I would make them into people. I even remember pulling the bed away from the wall to draw in it and pushing it back so I wouldn’t be caught! Hah! SO THAT’s why I’ve been drawing these shapes. I’ve been unconsciously following my childhood muse!
Critters from childhood
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
I grew up on the third largest lake in Minnesota in the Chippewa National Forest. All kinds of critters end up in my paintings which often just appear to me from the paint on the page. When they appear, I develop them because I think they are asking to be seen. I also often find that critters jump into my mind and come out in a drawing to paint. The critters often are not realistic or even in places where they would be expected. For me, this is listening to my true muse.
Virtual tours still happening
by Gavin Calf, Cape Town, South Africa
There is no doubt about my muse even since childhood. I used to frequently visit friends whose mothers I found attractive, and this is when I was eight years old! One time, a friend of my father gave me a huge spread sheet book to draw in so I created my own city starting at page one, much like road map books. Then I constructed a cardboard city on a large tray. I was gone in my world for ages. These days, at age 58, I continue these fantasies. I plan to hot spot areas and create a virtual tour, just for fun! The one Ive included began with a tree stump covered in mushrooms I saw on a walk in Newlands Forest on Table Mountain. You can see Cape Hangklip on the horizon looking across False Bay.
Thanks to a childhood mentor
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
For me, this is probably one of the most meaningful letters you have written. From 7 to 11 years old, I used to visit a painter/illustrator in his barn studio way up in the woods. He was a big, warm, welcoming, kind man.
Fred Freeman, a phenomenal draughtsman, created amazing marine illustrations and paintings with his layering process. He gave me my very own table, paper, paints, pencils — everything I wanted and needed to make whatever I wanted. This experience waited a long time to come forward. At 53, I began drawing again, with armloads of encouragement from my wonderful wife. And a few years later, having never had an artist’s brush in my hand, started to paint. Oil wash on thin paper. Portraits. Personalities, Huge sizes. Five years later I closed my design firm and started painting full time — praying that I could make a living at it. I am still doing it. For the first time in my life I am comfortable with myself, and have some kind of inner confidence which I never had before.
This man showed me something in early childhood that I somehow had missed until just a few years ago. I have no regrets about my design firm which was successful beyond what I thought was possible. But there is something different about the paintings, they are me, my experiences, my ups and downs, my dreams. They are stories about my life. Thank you Fred! Thank God you were part of my life. Thank you for seeing some creative talent or aptitude in me that I did not. And for giving me this unique special desire. Above all thank you for helping me to become me. Life is not a bucket of roses as an artist. So what? It seems to be me, and helps me give myself something and others something unique and special.
acrylic painting on canvas by
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Cheryl Braganza who wrote, “No matter how brilliant our attempts to inform, it is our ability to inspire that will turn the tides” (From Jan Phillips in Marry your Muse)
And also Sarah O. Mcleod who wrote, “Every letter I get from you guys comes at exactly the right moment to provide thoughts on a dilemma I am having- talk about the universe answering when you are open!”
And also Nancy Bea Miller who wrote, “Very true! In art as in all other aspects of life, what you feel, think and experience as a child, helps create the path you will walk into adulthood.”
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man. (William Wordsworth)
Enjoy the past comments below for Working your muses…