Beauty and Terror: Searching for Wells of Inspiration
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
As a child my art was fueled by child-like wonder, pure imagination and joy. I once drew a family portrait in crayon, taking time to include my extended family as well as “funny faces” to fill the whole page. I distinctly remember spending an evening painting page after page in our old playroom and having to search for more paper to paint on. I was curious about all things art-related and explored a variety of fun mediums: the squishy, thick kids paint; the streaky lines of watercolor; foam stickers and colored craft paper; shaving cream and food coloring-swirl designs; colored-glue and glitter pens; and so many bracelet-making kits, stamps, and anything craft related that I could get my hands on. The blank page was an enchantment of its own, allowing my mind to open like a Polly Pocket toy and story after story to unfold. It was unadulterated joy.
Entering adulthood that child-like wonder turned into angst and from that came the moody or “tortured” artist. I found myself subscribing to the belief that “good” art and inspiration can only be created from painful experiences. I had never leaned into the connection between art and pain before, but now the notion of the moody artist had landed at my doorstep and entered my creative mindset, rearranging the walls of my mind into a maze.
My senior year of college I wrestled with deep emotions and painful experiences that I had left buried too long. I drew inspiration from this well of my sadness and hurt. Each bucket I labored to pull up brought an overflow of emotions that trickled down my arms and hands and poured out right onto the canvas or keyboard. At first it was almost a therapy. My college creative writing classes had me finding inspiration in family struggles, failed relationships, and my continued questioning of God’s involvement in my life. The writing felt real and raw in a way my writing had never come across before. There was an honesty and introspection that added an element I had been missing for years. My visual art classes brought me to an intersection of creativity and pain: first pain poured out into large detailed watercolor paintings, then textured abstract acrylic paintings, and then the next week 3-D clay models. Each artwork and medium explored a new angle into my conflicting emotions. I felt my creative energy wrestling like Jacob and Esau out of the creative womb.
The inspiration was rich and dark, like a black velvet curtain. I cut and shaped personal essays and visual art collections. I was lucky enough to be allowed a meeting with an accomplished performance artist who had been a nun. The convergence of art and faith in her life enthralled me. Our meeting was a private art viewing. I laid out my favorite artworks from the semester and awaited her feedback and conversation. She was short and frail, but very sharp, wearing all black. Her eyes scanned my pieces with serious consideration and understanding like a bespectacled Mrs. Who from A Wrinkle in Time. She told me I needed to decide which voice I wanted to follow, because all my artworks had different voices that were talking loudly over each other. Later, I realized those voices were all my emotions taking up space through each medium. Acrylic was fueled by anger and confusion, watercolor was sadness and longing, and 3-D was political and relational.
It wasn’t until I came across an Elle article written by Taylor Swift titled 30 Things I Learned Before I Turned 30 that I finally realized art and suffering are not the only equation that leads to “good” art. As she wrote, “I remember people asking me, ‘What are you gonna write about if you ever get happy?’ There’s a common misconception that artists have to be miserable in order to make good art, that art and suffering go hand in hand. I’m really grateful to have learned this isn’t true. Finding happiness and inspiration at the same time has been really cool.” Her words struck a chord with me, a chord that had been sitting quiet for too long. Finally, I realized that happiness is not the end of inspiration, but rather another beginning. I had been drawing from my well of pain for so long it was shocking to me that the same wonder and joy I’d experienced at my art beginning could still stream life into my inspiration.
At the time I read the article, I had found myself creatively stumped for years. I had gotten married to the love of my life, moved to the desert of California, road tripped across the country, and felt more alive and in love then I ever had. Yet, everyday the blank page stared back at me and my well of sadness had finally dried up. For so long I was deceived to think that my happiness had stunted my inspiration all those years. Pulling from that well of sadness, cloaking my ideas in that velvet curtain, had jaded me and caused me to only know creativity as wrestling with art and emotion.
And so finally, I began to draw upon the happy times. I realized pain and art can intersect, but that it isn’t a prerequisite for every project and idea. Inspiration is not a slave to emotion and vice versa. Life is both beauty and terror, and it’s the creators task to capture both and pull from both: balancing the truth and rawness with the bliss and the enchantment. I have found I create my best work when I am being true to my experiences, and when I allow happiness and pain to coexist.