From Flights of Fancy to Literal Inspiration

You’ve got to go to the mountaintop! There you stand, your feet firmly planted on the only solid ground you find, and you listen. Or perhaps you lift your fist in an anguished cry against the gods, demanding that they release the tongue of your muse. It may only be a finish on the powder room walls that you’re after, but you still need inspiration. And the gods don’t part easily with this precious energy. You’ve got to go the mountaintop. Or so I once thought…

While rummaging through the basement of the house he was renovating, my client found four tarnished and dirt-caked sconces. “Here,” he said, “…do something with these.”

I didn’t have a clue. And when I don’t have a clue, I usually think of attempting something dramatic.  An “over the top” finish, my anxious ego tells me, just might hide my lack of inspiration.

But none of my flights of fancy produced the earth-shattering results I was after. So I convinced myself that I was making progress by just cleaning the sconces. Scratching the back of the face-plate revealed solid brass. So I began the slow process of refurbishing it. But I couldn’t get into the cracks of the relief designs… which was a good thing, because the antique effect I was achieving seemed appropriate. I think this was when I finally got myself out of the way long enough to see the sconces. Recognizing what lay before me as something to work with rather than as a blank canvas on which to cast my magic spell diminished my desire for flights of fancy. Right before my very eyes, something more substantial was suggesting itself. But I didn’t like everything I saw. The stems into which the light bulbs were screwed were covered with white, plastic cylinders. While I had always disliked these sleeves, I had never realized why. Looking closely now, I saw that the flame-shaped bulbs were rising from them like fire from candles. That’s it, I said.. .the reason I don’t like these plastic cylinders.. .they are one sorry excuse for candles!

In realizing the need to transform these sleeves into more convincing and aesthetically pleasing faux candles, my inspiration became clear. The “do something” my client wanted me to achieve could be accomplished by creating antique patinas on both the brass and redesigned sleeves so as to suggest aged elegance. It was an obvious design choice for the restoration context in¬to which they would be fitted.. .which is precisely the reason it took me so long to discover it. But this happens all the time, in life as well as in design. What seems obvious after the fact was a baffling mystery before it appeared. Consider any discovery.. .the fork, for instance. The fork, with its hand-like shape and its finger-like tongs, seems the most obvious tool in the world for skewering a hot chunk of meat and lifting it to your mouth. But just try explaining that one to the cave man whose only eating utensil was a sharpened stick!

We can’t do much about the gap between this mystery of the uncreated and the obviousness of familiar discoveries. What we can work on is inspiration. And while inspiration cannot be commanded, it can be in¬voked. And yet, this invocation is not automatic. We have to work at it. We begin to understand this work of invoking inspiration if we first consider the word itself. “Inspiration” derives its meaning from breath. We inhale; we exhale. We inspire; we expire. And if we expire without subsequently inspiring…well, we expire permanently! The liveliness we associate with inspiration derives from this literal function as the means by which we receive the breath which sustains life. To become inspired, then, is to take something in. We don’t ex-press inspiration…we receive it. This is so simple that the reader may wonder why I mention it. But think twice. Next time you are trying to create a new design and you get stuck in the artist’s equivalent of “writer’s block,” remember that inspiration is received and stop pushing.  There can be no expression (at least nothing worth noting) without inspiration!

But what do we receive? To live a healthy creative life, we need to inspire the right kind of air. While inspiring physical breath may be more or less automatic (except when we’re climbing stairs), the act of invoking creative air requires a peculiar kind of action. It is an action not unlike listening. Drawing upon the experience I have described above, I want to suggest three forms of receptivity— that is, three forms of listening— the decorative artist can work at in hopes of invoking inspiration.

First, pay attention to tradition. What, you ask, does tradition have to do with creativity? Everything. Tradition forms the shoulders upon which inspiration stands. For example, consider my sconces. My personal inspiration for this project was hardly an inspiration for the decorative arts tradition. A more experienced artisan might have seen, as soon as the client handed him those sconces, that the aged elegance I settled on was an obvious choice. Nor was the dripped-wax patina I created on the white plastic sleeves all that original. Both of these choices draw upon standard decorative effects. Studying what has been done before can suggest possibilities for the future. (In fact, some would say these new possibilities are themselves but the tentative suggestions already whispering to us from the past.) One way to keep track of this past is by maintaining a picture file. In folders with labels such as “cabinets,” “fireplaces,” “bathrooms,” etc., I place pictures of interesting designs cut from decorating magazines. When I am called upon to create a faux marble finish on a fireplace, for instance, having pictured examples of marble fireplaces at my fingertips fills my creative lungs with good air. Despite the current trendiness of the decorative finishes, there’s a long tradition upon which to draw to reinvent this particular wheel.

A second source of inspiration is perception. I don’t mean the kind of superficial glance we give to most things. I mean the more energetic perception that is strong enough to break through habitual blinders like the ones I was wearing when I couldn’t figure out why I disliked those white, plastic sleeves. Duh, a candle!!! Well, maybe my readers aren’t as blind as I was. But habitual blind spots are inevitable. By looking at whatever we are working with from as many different angles as possible, in different frames of mind, we are able to break through superficial and conventional perceptions into epiphanies of sight.

To facilitate this shift into an inspirational mode of seeing, we might distinguish between ordinary and creative perception. Ordinary perception is what we adopt to get us through the day. Because it relies largely on familiarity, ordinary perception requires little energy. For instance, we use this perception when we drive a route that we’ve driven a thousand times before. Creative perception, on the other hand, draws upon an energetic mode of seeing similar to the one we use when driving through an unfamiliar city at night.. .in a driving rain.. .looking for the street on which we hope to find the house where we will be spending the remainder of the night.

Of course, creative perception hopefully contains less anxiety, but it is no less diligent. The perception of a child, for whom the world is new, is a closer equivalent to inspirational perception. When one is trying to create a new design for a particular space or object, taking the time and making the effort to move into this deeper mode of percep¬tion is what prompts the discovery of unexpected transformations.

The best thing the decorative artist could do for herself (when called upon to recommend a finish for a particular room) might very well be to bring a lawn chair to the space and sit in silent meditation for half an hour (though she might want to choose a more discrete method!). To introduce the third source of inspiration, I want to describe a different project. Recently, I painted the interior of a vintage bungalow for a bookbinder. He was having trouble deciding on a color scheme, so I suggested the next time he was in his shop he choose, from along the piles of book cover material lying around, his favorite material. We painted the trim the color of this cover (moss green), then finished the walls in a parchment texture with a patina not unlike aged paper. The effect was a perfect match (or should I say “book match”?), not only for the homeowner but also for the vintage space.

Chevy Chase once said, in remarking upon the completion of a book he had written, “I think I did pretty well, considering I started with all blank pages.” For most decorative projects, however, this is rarely the case. The walls may be blank, but unless it is a newly constructed space, the surrounding area is clearly marked with previous design decisions. And the design of the architectural structure itself also asserts its own influence. The client’s desires, interests and preferences form an additional consideration.

And so, a third way to invoke inspiration is to allow one’s imagination to be influenced by what has already been established. Beginning with the given and pushing it in some imaginative new direction, be it something in the client’s world or something in the space itself, encourages integrative inspiration. The new design harmonizes with other design decisions so as to form an organic unity. Because I had at-tended to what had been suggested by the sconces my restoration client had handed me, my eventual design decisions integrated well with the overall character of the space renovated. Had I insisted on pursuing my flights of fancy, I would inevitably have ended up with a Monty Pythonesque “and now for something completely different” result.

But I am enough of a realist to know my reader is compelled, as I myself must be, by the “bottom line”…the check at the end of the job.  And so, to conclude, I present Exhibit A–compelling evidence to draw your inspiration from what is already there.   This sky-finish (shown on page 26) was rendered on the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the main bathroom in the bookbinder’s home I mentioned before. He hadn’t intended on doing anything decorative in this space. But I convinced him to do it by explaining how appropriate this finish was for this particular space. The architectural structure in question made a nearly audible, barrel-vaulted suggestion of the firmament and its horizon. And the playfulness of the similarity between sky and ocean made the bathroom a fitting space in which to render this subtle suggestion of sky. How could he argue? And he didn’t.

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