Several days into break, I was still having trouble mentally disconnecting from work and reconnecting with family and creative life. Our family had chosen to skip the bacchanalia of presents under the tree, filling each others’ stockings with small items instead. We had all enjoyed shifting focus away from obsessive shopping, but, even as we enjoyed a low-key day and prepared for a lovely family meal in Columbus, Ohio, I was in limbo.
But my present was about to arrive.
My parents had invited friends — a professor and an artist – to join us for Christmas dinner. We had known of each other for years, and the two sets of strangers were friends by the time coats were hung. The professor chatted with the rest of the family in the kitchen, while the artist and I brought hors d’oeuvres over to the living room.
The artist is also a professor, and, through my parents, knew that I painted and drew. We had barely traded cheese and crackers before she asked about my work. I had seen some of her work and, knowing she was a serious and classically-trained artist, was a bit nervous showing photos of some of my work. Like most of the committed artists I’ve known, however, she was genuinely interested in seeing others’ work.
“I’m getting away from landscapes,” I said as she scrolled through images of mountains and trees and then through abstract images. I explained a desire to make art that was more than decorative. “I connect with nature when I paint them in real life, but it still inspires the abstract,” I told her.
“I love landscapes,” she said. “I don’t paint them very much.” She told me about her work painting portraits before teaching and creating more abstract pieces. We talked more about creating work with meaning, and then she said, “I like nature, but I don’t really connect with it. It doesn’t inspire me.”
She told me about her recent work painting flowers using a more academic approach and how her search for castoffs from grocery florists had added a new facet to her project. As she talked about mountains of plastic and dying flowers that were thrown away each week, it occurred to me that her project was as much an investigation and revelation as it was the result of inspiration.
My brain was suddenly churning, and, for the first time in weeks, it was from enthusiasm rather than apprehension. Dinner preparations and the gathering of other guests in the living room were about to redirect the conversation, and we dug in deeper for a last few intimate moments of art talk. We talked about giants of art like William and Elaine de Kooning, Pollack and Krasner, who had found inspiration but also frustration in nature, and I began to think of how much of art emanated not from waiting for an impulse from something beautiful but from seeking and investigating.
The Big Guy and Thing1 and 2 and I continued talking about the ways a creative spark is fanned as we drove back to our hotel after dinner. We were still talking about it when we drove home from Ohio a few days later.
As we plodded through miles of shopping malls to get from our hotel to the highway, I realized how difficult it might be to pack up a plein air kit and connect with the natural world there. In a landscape of strip malls, an artist has to create their own vision.
Years of being surrounded by mountains and woods have made made connecting with inspiration easy for me, and I wondered if it had made me lazy as well. Waiting for it to hit, rather than seeking out revelation also made it easier for anxiety to settle in where creativity should have been raging during the downtime.
My mom’s friend had inadvertently given me the best Christmas gift any artist could give another. She had opened a window to a new way to connect with creativity.