With the focus recently on the 50th anniversary of man’s landing on the moon, I am reminded of the inspiration provided by President Kennedy, whose support of the space program made the landing possible. His inspirational message has never been forgotten.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, . . .”
Creativity depends on inspiration — from teachers, leaders, life experiences, and especially the arts. Whether traveling to the moon or writing a string quartet, one does not work toward new endeavors without knowledge and examination of the past and seminal experiences. President Kennedy was an inspirational leader and his wife Jackie also was inspired by her experiences as a student in France to bring an international flair to her tenure as First Lady. Her impeccable style, clothes, state dinners, and love of culture were informed by her exposure to French culture. The book “Dreaming in France” by Alice Kaplan examines her time in France.
As a young student, I was inspired to make my career in the arts during three summers at the Indian Hill Summer Arts workshop, led by Mordecai and Irma Bauman. Their New York connections provided us with notable professional mentors, such as dancer/choreographer James Waring, conductor Harry Salzman, and numerous other actors, visual artists, musicians and filmmakers. We learned about the new music of John Cage, made pottery, acted in short films, produced plays, and performed in the orchestra Everyone began their day by singing in the choir (whether or not they were singers by training), culminating in a performance of a major work each summer (such as Schubert’s Mass in E-flat, Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Handel’s Messiah). In the evenings we viewed classic movies, learned to throw the i-Ching, learned about famous artworks, performed concerts and plays, and generally were encouraged to be inspired by the arts. On the weekends we heard concerts at Tanglewood, attended dance at Jacob’s Pillow, visited local museums, and we’re in the audience for plays at the Berkshire Playhouse, where major actors appeared throughout the summer. It was immersive, exciting and intense for eight weeks each summer.
I also met my summer colleagues in New York City for performances, plays and ballet at Lincoln Center. Following my second summer at Indian Hill, I was fortunate to be asked to be a member of the lighting crew for a dance performance at Judson Church in Greenwich Village, which hosted some of the most cutting edge events at the time, including performances of works by John Cage, Merce Cunningham and many others.
When I later attended the Tanglewood Music Center as a fellow for two summers, the intense pace was familiar. We were inspired by the resident Boston Symphony Orchestra and the world class faculty and conductors. Forty years ago I met my husband Jeff von der Schmidt at Tanglewood, and I cherish this photo of Jeff with Leonard Bernstein following a performance of the Prokofiev Symphony #5. It couldn’t have been more inspiring!
As my career progressed, I began to notice a recurring theme for creative artists. No matter the discipline and practitioner — composers, playwrights, visual artists, choreographers, architects, writers — all were inspired by those who created before them. Whether it was William Faulkner inspiring Mario Vargas Llosa, Ruth St. Denis inspiring Martha Graham, or Rimsky-Korsakov inspiring Stravinsky, creators looked for inspiration from their predecessors and teachers, and often from other works of art in their own or other disciplines. I am convinced that no creator works in a vacuum, instead looking back before looking forward. Historically, important works of art lend themselves to ongoing exploration and reinterpretation.
In Picasso’s 1957 Las Meninas series of fifty eight paintings based on the famous painting by Diego Velázquez, you can watch the artist’s disciplined daily process as he explores the positions of the subjects, even down to the dog! He began with a black and white study of Velazquez’ famous painting full size, then proceeded over months to dissect every aspect of the work, making it his own. The subsequent series, in color, with various angles and poses, different sizes of the dog (or no dog) gives an intimate view of the creative artists’ daily process of working through the “puzzle” with discipline and focus. Picasso wrote about his process:
If someone wants to copy Las Meninas, entirely in good faith, for example, upon reaching a certain point and if that one was me, I would say . . . what if you put them a little more to the right or left? I’ll try to do it my way, forgetting about Velázquez. The test would surely bring me to modify or change the light because of having changed the position of a character. So, little by little, that would be a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter, but would be my Meninas.
Architects traditionally look at many elements, such as local culture, environmental concerns, and building materials, as they design new buildings. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright was greatly influenced by Mayan culture and temples as he developed his projects. In California, we are fortunate to have a very diverse culture with many residents from Asia. As modern architecture developed, noted architect brothers Greene and Greene looked to the east as they developed their Craftsman style, deriving inspiration from the machiya houses of Japan.
At the recent exhibition The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the selections included many striking works. The work below by artist Ai Weiwei, Untitled, Divine Proportion 2006, is constructed of a special rosewood used for many centuries. The description of the work points out his numerous sources of inspiration:
“This geometric work is made of highly precious huanghuali wood, a yellow rosewood that has been used by furniture makers in China for centuries. It was constructed using traditional mortice-and-tenon joints, without any nails, but the many-sided sphere has no precedent in furniture-making. The title references Leonardo Da Vinci’s illustrations of this form for mathematician Luca Pacioli’s 1509 treatise The Divine Proportion. However, the shape was initially inspired by Ai Weiwei’s fascination with one of his cats’ toys. Following more than a year of deliberation and planning, the artist’s craftsmen translated the ball’s shape into wood. Lacking any conventional function, the monumental ball highlights the exquisite detail of its craftsmanship.”
As our society looks for more inspiration from its leaders and artists, it is helpful to keep ones eyes and ears open to influences from every direction. We never knows when inspiration will occur. Inspiration is all around us – we need to keep looking every day. Friends, teachers, artists and everyday encounters can help us feed the fuel for our imagination.