Almost everyone has heard about J.M.W. Turner getting himself strapped to a ship’s mast and taken out to sea in a wild storm. His rationale was the need for “authentic fear.” Evidence of painting naked and eating raw beets just prior to creative activity have also been reported, but are a little more difficult to analyze. New research into historical muse-hunting suggests we ought to indulge and embrace our oddest inclinations.
Dame Edith Sitwell liked to lie in a coffin before starting her day’s writing. Was it the feeling of privilege to be still above the grass, or was it something to do with the musky smell? The poet Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk and inhaled them when he needed a shot of inspiration. In 1985, researchers at Yale University found that the smell of spiced apples empowered panicky people to stave off their panic attacks.
Amy Lowell and George Sand both smoked cigars in excess. The latter was also noted for going directly to her writing desk after making love. Coleridge without opium would have been a minor poet. No one can calculate the number of nicotine cigarettes that have been sucked into service. Balzac drank more than 50 cups of coffee a day, eventually dying unpleasantly from caffeine poisoning. Dr. Johnson, the dictionary writer, believed in drinking 25 cups of tea at a time. Voltaire used his lover’s bare back as a desk. Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Truman Capote claimed they wrote best while lying down.
Going for a walk may not be that odd, but it’s a muse-generator painters swear by. Music and muse are not an odd combination either, unless it be Cowboy in rotation. Mere repetition can be valuable — every time “Home on the Range” comes around it re-creates a mental state that gets the brush going.
“Whatever works” is more than the name of a Woody Allen movie. Artists need to canvas their history for habits, fetishes, peculiar activities or imbibings that worked in the past. Perhaps it’s just part of the business of claiming your own uniqueness. But more often than not there’s a genuine connection, perhaps going back to a dim childhood memory. Me? All I’m going to mention right now is my morning bathtub. Towel over my face, I ruminate the day ahead. Did I mention I like to be strapped in?
PS: “The man who arrives at the doors of artistic creation with none of the madness of the muses would be convinced that technical ability alone was enough to make an artist. What that man creates by means of reason will pale before the art of inspired beings.” (Plato)
Esoterica: A lot of muse-gathering has to do with one’s current state of self esteem. Feeling good about yourself can be generated by reviewing past winnings, uncovering and exploiting unrealized reference, diving in, or sometimes just feeling the close warmth of fellow travellers. One needs the quiet murmurings of admired artists’ books. Holding a great one in your hands, you can often fly.
The muse of meditation
by Natalie Italiano, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I have found a really valuable “muse” in Zen meditation. It has brought a calm and clarity to my work that I have never had before. A regular meditation practice seems to clear away much of the mental clutter, and the often ridiculous interior dialog that I would prefer to do without! Worries about what others might think, is my work good enough, and similar ego-related nonsense seem to lose their grip when the mind becomes strong and clear from meditation. I also find the Zen Buddhist philosophy of “living one’s life as a benefit to others” to be a very liberating muse. It’s hard to ever feel isolated when you try to live from that perspective. This done not have to be thought of as a spiritual or religious muse, it’s simply an effective tool for living, and inspiring at the same time.
Surprise visit of the muse
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I haven’t found any reliable way to conjure up the muse. I haven’t tried opium or 50 cups of coffee a day, but back in the ’60s I sometimes abused Dexedrine, a sort of poor man’s speed. I was writing then, and I would stay up all night hammering the typewriter, turning out a continuous stream of conscious better than Kerouac or Joyce until the sun came up. But when I read these drug-driven masterpieces the next day, straight, I was always disappointed to find that they were no damn good and had to be destroyed. I can do things to prepare myself for painting — clean the studio, work on framing, look at art books, go to museums, etc. — but my muse is unimpressed by any of this and often abandons me when I need her most.
My muse seems to have her own life going on somewhere else and only occasionally takes notice of me — and usually at the oddest and most unexpected times. I may be at my lowest emotional state or at my highest, it seems to make no difference to her. It may be while I’m listening to music, or while looking at something I’ve seen a thousand times, while reading, or doing nothing at all. She seems to have her own schedule of ambushes, which is not synchronized at all with my own schedule. I understand that she is part of me, but it doesn’t seem that way. As Plato said, you can paint without the inspiration, turning out lots of technically correct and profitable work. But the great stuff only happens when the mad muse springs out of nowhere and impales you with her lightning bolt. The artist lives for these moments.
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Art and nudism
by Marco Bell, Sarasota, FL, USA
As a lifelong nudist, I can attest to the reality of awakening ‘the Muse’ amidst my surroundings simply by feeling the breeze around me. It is invigorating to paint plein air au naturel. Perhaps it’s less likely in northern climes, but here in the South one can enjoy it. My wife, Monica Spain, and I are long admirers of your contribution to the Arts as well as your paintings, and we look forward to every one of your letters. Keep up the great work.
Cooking up an omelette
by Margie Murray, Encino, CA, USA
When painting alone, I will often take a short walk before getting in front of my easel. Lately, I have been painting with artist Otto Sturcke on a series of large floral paintings. He will arrive early and we will cook up a beautiful French omelette, sides of fruit, and Mexican coffee. We will sit and discuss our goals and future projects that we plan on creating. It has enormously helped my daily planning and commitments to reach my artistic goals. The added benefit is that I am getting a cooking lesson from a wonderful friend.
Glanced beauty of inspiration
by Roland Ford, Baltimore MD, USA
I remember reading about Dante’s muse, Beatrice, of whom he saw twice in his life and only met once. So enrapt with her beauty he was never able to forget her even after she died at an early age. She appears in his Divine Comedy as a means of securing her immortality in the physical realm. But sometimes this is how inspiration can be built upon. As for me, I, too, have my Beatrice in the name of Barbara Long. I never really got to know her very well and even if I did it wouldn’t have changed anything today. I did not love her in the conventional sense but knew her value as an inspiration to “try it” just one more day. That and listening to Stravinsky’s Petroushka, or parts of it, before tackling the artist’s task of the day. For over 20 years she has remained my muse, haven’t as much as seen even a glimpse of her in that time frame, and unless something better comes along she will continue to be my focus of the muse perfected.
Cross-breeding ideas with books
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Your very last suggestion, books are what call my muses forward. There’s no going back since the Home Computer Age, but nothing will ever substitute for an old fashioned book. The most unrelated things can inspire, usually before the last pages on the first book are flipped, but sometimes it takes trying a few books about different subjects. Lately a cartoon-creating muse has been hanging around me, and I’m grateful to have found an outlet to lighten up. Somehow linking serious thoughts that are mulling around (anti-muses?) with serious fun helps gain back a sense of balance, and then I can get on with my regular work. I don’t know if anyone else “gets it” when I write or draw, but it works for me.
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Song, dance and other muse routines
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
I often listen to music while I work. Sometimes, I break out in singing, followed by a fake microphone performance, and then dancing. I find it loosens me up, helps me to think less, and enables me to put out more paint than I will ever need — which is a good thing! I never watch the clock.
The very act of putting on my painting apron gets me going. Working in a series also gets my adrenaline rushing. Lately, I have been painting petals on glass, and scraping them off to make layered sunflowers. Between using too much gel, stepping in my painting, and not waiting for things to dry, I have learned a lot! The mistakes I make throw me into high gear, to correct or start over fresh. Either way, my muse is laughing up a storm, as I frenetically make more petals, and paint over gel-whitened areas. Sometimes, my muse throws a temper tantrum when I try to do laundry. I often listen to it, and just let the clothes stay in the washer. I know it’s time to get back to reality when I have no clean underwear!
The long wait
by Elaine Fraser, Australia
I lost my muse since moving countries a few months ago. I put it down to the settling in process and the need for part-time work which takes me away from my brushes. I miss the place I was before, my studio there, the peace there, the muse that came so swiftly and stayed so long.
I think what’s needed is a period of quiet where my mind can drain itself of the business of life just for a while. We moved from a quiet town in one country to a big city in another, and I think perhaps there is a need to deal with the speed of life here.
I read art books and magazines, and spend hours online looking at art sites, in particular Painter’s Keys. This weekend I will spend wandering around local galleries, and I am entering a painting (completed last year) into a local Art Award show next month in order to help stir up inspiration by being among other artists and their work.
I know my muse will return, and I feel it won’t be long now. Perhaps my muse is just around the corner. If you see him, tell him I am waiting!
The muse is called ‘Start’
by Ed Pointer, Afghanistan
Regarding Odd ways to find your muse, I didn’t realize there was such a thing. I’ve read the morning muse in the paper and see the evening muse on TV but never realized I could actually have one of my own. Of course I jest but I’ve really never thought about a muse. Seems like I get to the easel, not as often as I’d like, and there’s that blank canvas challenging me, telling me it’s stronger than I am; I cannot touch or even threaten it with a brush lest it attack me with a poor value scheme — or worse, a failed painting; the canvas is a tyrant on some days! So how do I overcome that tyrannical canvas? If I have a muse it is the muse called “Start!” I remember an interview Edward R. Murrow did with Salvador Dali. Murrow asked Dali, “I notice your umbrella stand (which was beside Dali’s easel) is full of tree branches (switches actually), what are they for?” Dali responded by grabbing a switch from the stand and intensely beating the canvas from top to bottom. Murrow was obviously undone by Dali’s performance and asked him why he did that; to which Dali replied, “It is how I subdue the canvas before I paint!” I think sometimes the muse is more a wrestling partner than a creative influence, at least in my case and most particularly for Dali. BUT, muses are great things and it looks like mine likes to check my daily painting endeavors, however I have proven, so far to be stronger than he is, now if I only knew how to paint….
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The muse in illness
by Hazel Robinson, CA, USA
About a year and a half ago I was diagnosed with b cell lymphoma. This is my second bout with lymphoma and the first time around I was “cured” within a couple of years, so the word “cancer” didn’t scare me as much as it might have. BUT this time the lymphoma was actually killing me by killing off red blood cells faster than the bone marrow could replace them. The cancer is now under control, though I might never be cured this time. The point of this preface is to point out that a changed life could be really a changed life. My paintings have changed completely.
When I can’t sleep at two in the morning I get out of bed and paint. I am considering teaching a free class for non painters who need an outlet for depression or have uncontrollable feelings of being a victim. The object would be to teach a means of expression that doesn’t need a “listener” but would still be communication. Artists are entertainers. It seems to me that people who find life too difficult to deal with, and no one understands them, might be able to siphon off some of the helplessness into paintings. My muse ? sleeplessness? anger? being very tired? I don’t know, but I enjoy painting again and am producing paintings in my own unique style that look professional and are currently hanging in the only two galleries I’ve taken them to. I am an artist, NOT a cancer victim.
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acrylic painting, 42 x 42 inches
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 Kathy Legg of Lethbridge, AB, Canada, who wrote, “Delightful bit of research whimsy, Robert. One question: DO you put water in the tub? Just curious.”
(RG note) Thanks, Kathy. Nope. Linseed oil (boiled).
And also Ann Hardy of Colleyville, TX, USA, who wrote, “You are gonna get some wild responses on this letter. I am at my best when I paint up in a treehouse. You are too cute. Laughed out loud at picturing you and Turner both strapped in to your individual vehicles.
(RG note) Thanks, Ann. Yes we did. Your treehouse idea is mentioned among many other odd muses in an article in the New York Times by Diane Ackerman.
Enjoy the past comments below for Odd ways to find your muse…