Artist’s Block and the Development of an Idea

A block in developing ideas is something that all artists encounter at some time in their lives.  It is a crushing feeling that can build up on itself, the longer you are without inspiration the harder it becomes to be inspired.  I find that the more pressure I put on myself to come up with new pithy works of art, the fewer things come to mind.  Sometimes I will have the germ of an idea for months, but not be able to flesh it out.  When it resolves itself into something tangible that I can use to hopefully make something good it tends to come in a rush all at once.  It feels like a flash of inspiration from nowhere, but in the back of my mind I know it comes from the all the time I spent struggling to get to that one satisfying flash of seeming brilliance.

I have developed strategies over time that help me to feel like I am doing something while waiting for ideas to resolve.  They give me something to build from, and can be practical tools once it comes time to execute the idea.  The two main things I do are to continually build a library of reference images and experiences, and keep on making work derived from my last idea.  For me the work I make in between flashes of inspiration is my bread and butter every day tableware.  I use it to explore new materials and surface design techniques, and just to keep myself going so that when the time comes to make something completely new my skills are not rusty.

This last summer I got the opportunity to travel to the UK for the purposes of doing research to build new work.  This was fantastic, and awe inspiring, and intimidating.  Here I was spending so much money and time and energy traveling around to all of these places I had spent months dreaming about, it felt like I had better come up with something pretty extraordinary as a result.

While one is traveling one is generally completely exhausted, which is good and bad.  Exhaustion can break down barriers that block ideas, but it can also leave one unable to do anything about the ideas one is getting.  The first flash of an idea I experienced on this journey was while standing in the rain in the middle of field in Devon on my fourth day in England trying to reach a tow truck for my rental car (with 2 flat tires) on a very bad cell service.  I was exhausted, and angry and cold and wet, and suddenly I stopped and took the time to look at where I was standing and appreciate the beauty that was around me.  June in southern England looks like mid spring in Pennsylvania where I grew up.  The spring flowers were blooming, the fiddle head ferns were coming up, and the drops of water on all of the plants were reflecting sparkling light back at me.  The uncurling fern struck me as an opening opportunity, a connection with my childhood and what had inspired me to become an artist in the first place.  It changed my outlook on the day and made me start thinking about what art I wanted to make from the experiences I was having.  Of course, I then had to go back to more practical things like how to get a functioning car so that I could get to the next stop on my itinerary.  The feeling I had looking at that fern stuck with me the rest of my journey, but did not come to anything more concrete than that.

By the time I reached my last week of the journey I started to feel like I was going to fail in coming up with anything I could use in the form of a concept for a work of art.  I had hundreds of pictures of plants and landscapes and ceramic artwork I had seen, and even some casts of specimens I had collected, but I had no idea what I was going to do with any of it.   

mold making in Edinburgh using alginate molds and resin plaster to make the casts

We had reached northern Scotland, and there wasn’t much time left.  It was cold and wet and wonderful.  The landscape was so different to what I have experienced before that it gave me new energy.  Part of why I was there was to look at Neolithic sites. (I have long been a fan of Lucy Lippard’s book Overlay which made me want to think about how these ancient sites could effect my contemporary practice).  We spent a day hiking to sites with very fun names like, the Hill O’ Many Stanes and the Cairn O’ Get.  The stones themselves were a bit of a let-down, but the walk through the sub-arctic landscape was breathtaking. It made me remember Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking.  I started thinking about recording the walk and making the journey and the experience into a work of art. 

As a result, I took many photos, collected plants I was seeing along the way, and tried to memorize the feelings I was having being cold and wet and tired and joyful all at the same time.  What really sticks out in my memory are the colors of the landscape, brilliant green, and pale grey and light pink, and dark boggy black.  The openness of the treeless glacial valley was part of what was so inspiring. It made me feel open inside.  I brought all of this home with me and stewed about it.  

The Walk to the Cairn O' Get

grasses including bog cotton
moss and lichen

Making molds for casting in plaster in the breakfast room of my holiday let in Thrumster Scotland.

children's modeling clay with plants impressed to make plaster casts from

I knew there was something there, I just couldn’t decide where to take it.  Nowadays for me I tend to have ideas about functional things before sculptural ideas come to me, even though I trained as a sculptor and still tend to think of myself as a sculptor.  The first idea to resolve itself into something concrete was a cup.  I had made pictures from my trip into the wallpaper on my computer so that I would see them every day and think about them.  One photo in particular of lichen in a circle on a stone was what got me started.  It gave me the idea of making a cup with a saucer that looked like the stone.  Of contrasting the roughness of the earth with the softness of the sky.

The resulting cup has the deep soft black of that stone for the saucer, contrasted with the lightest of greens like the lichen for the cup.  The form of the cup is very refined, compared to the roughness of the saucer, like the comparison between the delicate lichens and grasses next to stones and bogs of Scotland.  I was able to include casts of the plants from the walk on surface of the cup, bringing the actual place directly to the cup. 
The finished cup
original drawing for the idea
the first attempts at executing the idea from the drawing were done using slabs, rather than slip casting
The first cup out of the mold did not turn out well, as with any process using clay there was a lot of experimentation involved in bringing this idea to life, and a lot more room for tweaking the idea left

I like the result, but feel that so much more can come from this idea.  I have in the past couple of days had ideas for sculptures to execute as well.  I will update as I resolve them.