Saturday, September 19, 2009

Odd ways to find your muse - by Robert Genn

"The man who arrives at the doors of artistic creation with none of the madness of the muses would be convinced that technical ability alone was enough to make an artist. What that man creates by means of reason will pale before the art of inspired beings." Plato
With permission, I have pasted somthing written by Robert Genn for this posting. It seemed fitting after my last posting. (You can find a link to Genn's blog by scrolling down on the right of this page.) Enjoy!
Almost everyone has heard about J.M.W. Turner getting himself strapped to a ship's mast and taken out to sea in a wild storm. His rationale was the need for "authentic fear." Evidence of painting naked and eating raw beets just prior to creative activity have also been reported, but are a little more difficult to analyze. New research into historical muse-hunting suggests we ought to indulge and embrace our oddest inclinations.

Dame Edith Sitwell liked to lie in a coffin before starting her day's writing. Was it the feeling of privilege to be still above the grass, or was it something to do with the musky smell? The poet Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk and inhaled them when he needed a shot of inspiration. In 1985, researchers at Yale University found that the smell of spiced apples empowered panicky people to stave off their panic attacks.

Amy Lowell and George Sand both smoked cigars in excess. The latter was also noted for going directly to her writing desk after making love. Coleridge without opium would have been a minor poet. No one can calculate the number of nicotine cigarettes that have been sucked into service. Balzac drank more than 50 cups of coffee a day, eventually dying unpleasantly from caffeine poisoning. Dr. Johnson, the dictionary writer, believed in drinking 25 cups of tea at a time. Voltaire used his lover's bare back as a desk. Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Truman Capote claimed they wrote best while lying down.

Going for a walk may not be that odd, but it's a muse-generator painters swear by. Music and muse are not an odd combination either, unless it be Cowboy in rotation. Mere repetition can be valuable--every time "Home on the Range" comes around it re-creates a mental state that gets the brush going.

"Whatever works" is more than the name of a Woody Allen movie. Artists need to canvas their history for habits, fetishes, peculiar activities or imbibings that worked in the past. Perhaps it's just part of the business of claiming your own uniqueness. But more often than not there's a genuine connection, perhaps going back to a dim childhood memory. Me? All I'm going to mention right now is my morning bathtub. Towel over my face, I ruminate the day ahead. Did I mention I like to be strapped in?

Best regards,


Monday, September 7, 2009


“Painters don't claim muses until painting begins to take itself
as seriously as poetry.”
Germaine Greer

“Really, I think one’s art goes only as far and as deep as your love goes…
you have to feel deeply to do this kind of thing.”
Andrew Wyeth

Historically, the Ancients believed that the muse was a gift from the gods. The nine Muses were daughters of Zeus. If you (a man) were favored by a muse, you were free from all concern. Life was a bowl of cherries!

When we think of an artist’s muse, we generally have the image of a male artist with a female muse. It would be assumed that the catalyst for the artist’s creativity was caused by the sexual tension between the two of them. If you have seen “Shakespeare in Love” or “The Red Violin”, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Think about Picasso. Each of his women inspired a different body of work. He would drop one woman for another, and, with each new woman, begin an entirely new series of paintings.

The Seattle Art Museum’s current exhibit of the late Andrew Wyeth will be up through Oct 8th. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend you do. Included in this intimate exhibition of the artist’s work (only seven in all) are a few of the many beautiful paintings of his muse, Helga. Andrew Wyeth sketched and painted around 240 pieces of Helga Testorf, a German immigrant and caregiver for another one of Wyeth’s favorite subjects, Karl Kuerner. Wyeth created these works in complete secrecy between 1971 and 1985. Not even his wife was privy to his obsession.

I still have the Time magazine that announced the Andrew Wyeth “Helga Series”. I remember the wave of speculation that swept the nation when the story broke. Did Andrew Wyeth have an affair with this woman? That is what everyone wanted to know. How could his fascination with her not be sexual?

(A side note: Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, sold the entire series to Leonard E. B. Andrews in 1986 for over six million dollars. Andrews later broke up the collection, with much of the series purchased for a large sum of money by an anonymous Japanese collector. The works on display at the SAM are from private collections and have not previously been on public view.)

Last night, my husband and I watched, “Immortal Beloved”. It is the story about love letters written by Beethoven discovered soon after his passing. Although Beethoven had many affairs, there is question as to whom these letters were addressed and why they were found in his home. Were they not sent? Had they been returned? We will never know. The movie suggests they were written to his sister-in-law. I could not find any historical documentation to confirm that. In any case, whoever his “immortal beloved” was, she was definitely the muse for countless masterpieces written by the deaf maestro.

For the contemporary painter, Lucian Freud, if he has ever had a muse, it would most likely have been the Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery. I do not believe, however, that Freud’s interest in Bowery was anything more than capturing his organic qualities in paint. He was mystified by the modeling and texture of Bowery’s bulging flesh just as some artists are infatuated with bulbous pears. This makes me it possible that Wyeth’s interest in Helga as a subject was no more erotic than his raincoat hanging on a hook or a sleeping dog? (I’m just asking…)

And, before we go any further, let’s just drop the gender thing right now. Please. I am a female artist who is all too familiar with this subject. (That’s all I’m saying about that.)

''Artists rarely create for the muse, to win or keep the Muse's love and admiration,'' Francine Prose writes in, ''The Lives of the Muses'', ''but rather for themselves, for the world, and for the more inchoate and unquantifiable imperatives of art itself. Their muses are merely the instruments that raise the emotional and erotic temperature high enough, churn up the weather in a way that may speed and facilitate the artist's labors.''
In other words, the purpose of the muse is to inspire the soul and penetrate the mind. It doesn’t have to be personal…or physical. Furthermore, the artist’s muse doesn’t have to be a human being. It can be a song, a thought, a color, or even something much more mysterious…something unexplainable. Something that just travels through like the wind blowing in your hair.

Listen, I don’t need to understand everything. Do you? I used to want to understand absolutely EVERYTHING…but I’m over it. I just want to be open to receiving and catching as much inspiration as I can…no matter where it comes from. Sound a little risky? Perhaps. But, if I am grounded in reality and truth, and committed to doing the right thing, then I should have no concerns as to where my inspiration comes from. My muse could be you, God, or even that bulbous pear sitting over there…

Follow this link to hear more on this topic:

Friday, July 31, 2009

Just Keep Moving Forward

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
Yogi Berra
My husband has been seriously ill for the past three years. This year began with him unable to move off the sofa without a great deal of effort. He was having seizures. He was in the final stages of Pulmonary Fibrosis, an autoimmune disease that turns the lungs to scar tissue. The VA rushed him to Madison, WI, for a lung transplant in February. We spent several months there as he recuperated. I am happy to announce that he is doing very well. You can read all about our journey on Just sign up (it’s free) and search “mikecavenderupdate” to read my posts and all of the wonderful comments of support we’ve received (almost 1,000!)

We are home and I am back to work in the studio happily painting the hours away. Life is finding its rhythm once again. However, as we passed the threshold of this last chapter of our lives, realizing that the other side was completely blank, we found ourselves saying, “Now what?” We were told to plan a funeral and now it appears this man is going to be around for a while. We’ve been given an enormous gift! We are overwhelmed with gratitude and acutely aware that there is a responsibility that accompanies this precious gift of life. What to do, what to do? More of the same? No way, man!

Mike and I are huge Francophiles and so, it didn’t take us long to make the decision. We are liquidating everything and moving to France. The timing will depend on Mike’s health. He needs to get past the one-year anniversary of his surgery without much ado. Then we will begin the process of the move. So, it is still a year or so away.

What will we do when we get there? Well, I will paint, of course. I will work on my own paintings, but I will also teach plein air painting. Of all of the classes I have taught (and there have been a few) plein air is my most favorite. I will also finish my memoir (ending in France; kind of nice, huh?) and perhaps write a second book about plein air painting in France. I will take my guitar down the street and play/sing for the locals. I will garden. Mike would like to sell French antiques online. I will buy him a chapeau and he can drive my students around for me. We will travel…a lot. It might be fun.

I’m smiling big right now. Can you tell?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Letting Go

Interviewer: “Master, how did you think of the divine motif of your Ninth Symphony?”

Anton Bruckner: “I sat down by a little brook, unpacked my Swiss cheese, and that darn tune popped into my head!”

Sometimes we simply think too much. I’ve written about being aware of your thoughts. But sometimes (more often than not) our minds are so consumed with what we’ve done or what we are going to do that we completely miss out on what is happening to us (in us) at the moment. Precious creative ideas can breeze right on by us and we miss out on them completely. This is a tragedy for an artist.

Bruckner’s account of opening a package of cheese only to encounter his brilliant Ninth Symphony is a perfect illustration. All he was thinking about was opening his lunch and voila! Genius knocked on the door! Do you have to “be” a genius for those moments to appear? I highly doubt it. I believe that we just need to be “aware” of the possibilities in the moment and be watching for them.

It is true that we need to practice our craft, be it painting, playing an instrument, writing, etc. We need to nurture our creative nature by “breathing in” the wonders of life. We need not be self-consumed. However, we do need to care for our body (one person calls it his “earth suit”), our mind and our spirit if we are to do our best at anything. But let’s face it…we too often allow our minds to become cluttered with too much random, useless and repetitive information. This is a bad habit that creates “busy-ness”, clouds our judgments and creates confusion. It is a huge distraction. In short, it makes us miserable.

I would like to suggest that the next time you sit down to create, whatever that may be, try to clear your mind of thoughts of the day’s trouble. Let go of yesterday and worries about tomorrow. Be present in the moment of your creative “right now”. Just let it all go and see what happens.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Metaphorically Speaking...

“No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.”
Edward Hopper

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

I love a good story. I can't really sit and tell stories like some of my amazing friends can. I love to sit at their feet and breathe in their imagination. It takes little effort for me to visualize the characters, the places, the atmosphere…I can almost decipher the fragrance of each new scene. It’s my favorite thing to do…listen to a good storyteller.

I dabble in poetry. I don’t profess to be a “poet”, but being a musician, I love to express myself with rhythm. I confess that I am easily enamored by a good word-smither. I will drink in line after line before I fall asleep at night and create the images in my mind while the words float across my thoughts and I drift off to somewhere other than the worries of my day. Poetry makes me smile. My poetry is very personal. And as I have said, I rarely share it with anyone.

Metaphor is something I habitually incorporate into my paintings. It’s just a thing for me. I have always done it. I know artists who don’t see the value in it. “Art for Art’s Sake” and all that. And I appreciate where they are coming from. But if I am going to be honest with my work, I need to work from my heart and my heart loves story. So…story finds home in my paintings on a regular basis.

I don’t always share what the personal metaphor is when asked. I prefer to listen to the viewer’s impression…their story. I learn so much from listening. Besides, my interpretation changes like the wind. Seriously. I think it is about one thing…then something happens in my life and voila…the painting is singing a different tune all together. It’s funny in a kind of marvelously mysterious way.

I did a painting of sunflowers years ago. Each one had their own personality. Pretty soon, I found myself attributing each blossom to a girlfriend. Before you know it, the painting was about my relationships and the goings on within our little group of the “Ya-Ya Sisterhood”. I still love that painting.

When you get accustomed to viewing artwork with “metaphor” or “story” in mind, the artwork becomes alive and pertinent. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

To Blog or Not to Blog…

That is the question… running through my mind for the past few months anyway. And I’m not sure I want to go into all the reasons why, but suffice it to say…I’m blogging again. I would like to say thanks to those of you who have hung in there with me and are still checking in. A special thanks to those who have written me encouraging words to keep it up. I’m back.

To update you: I have been in high creative mode. It’s a blissful and yet painful place to be at times. I am being stretched in every direction. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am learning so much about myself as a human being, as a woman, and as an artist. And it is, of course, showing up in my work, which is always affirming.

I have always lost myself in paint and I have always found myself through paint. But lately, I am also spending a lot of my energy with other creative outlets. I’m writing more poetry than I have in years and I’m singing in a jazz trio. I’m filing the poetry. I’m painting all day. And I am singing and dancing up a storm with my jazz band at night. Being creative has taken over my life 24/7. Even my dreams are more vivid. It is like I have been struck by lightening. Electric energy.

Painting, music and writing have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. There have been times in my life when music took front and center, but for the past twenty years, my life has been consumed with painting and a bit of music just here and there. Painting will always be #1 with me. But it is a great release to be singing again. A great release. Writing poetry…that has always been very personal and rarely shared beyond a few special people. It is, for me, completely cathartic.

My keyboard player is a pulmonologist of the lung surgeon variety. He is an amazing keyboard player. Phenomenal, really. I am in awe of his gift. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. I told him at rehearsal last night that I have a hard time trying to imagine him in scrubs. He laughed and said that he sees me only as a vocalist, even though he has seen my paintings. But he knows that my painting and singing come from the same place.

Kind of.

It is interesting that creative people generally have talent in more than one genre. I know a lot of artists who are also musicians, writers, actors, etc. If it comes from the same place, I would have to say that it comes from “spirit”. Because the spirit is creative. But I would add that each genre (painting, singing, performing, etc.) comes from a different part of the spirit…at least my spirit. I can’t get the same emotional connection or release with painting that I do singing and visa versa.

Some of you know that my husband is very ill. It’s not fun. But I am so fortunate to have so many great avenues to work out my emotions. I am not sure I would go so far as to say that it keeps me balanced, but it sure is a great way to live.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Just a Thought...

“In every painting a whole life is mysteriously enclosed, a whole life of tortures, doubts, of hours of enthusiasm and inspiration.”
Wassily Kandinsky
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about...well...thinking. Mainly how thinking affects everything we say and do. I know that sounds! But think about it. I mean, how often are you consciously aware of your thoughts? Do you know that you have control over them? Some people don't seem to. I didn't used to.

Like most artists, I listen to music while painting. I've come to realize the HUGE role music plays on how I paint. Well, actually, it plays a HUGE role on how I THINK and this plays a role on how I paint.

My husband has a serious lung disease. The news of this was, of course, very scary. I've had a year to adjust to living with this horrible news, but it still wants to control my thoughts day and night. When I am painting, certain songs conjure up certain emotions. Prior to this hard news, my thoughts would wax romantic and my paintings would reflect those emotions. Now, however, I battle fear all throughout my thought life...fear of losing my husband and all that it entails. Because my work is "honest", these emotions are creeping into my paintings.

The image in this post is a clear example. It is called, "Don't Confuse Me", oil on wood (with wooden buttons). The pigeon with string attached to its leg represents me...I'm tethered to something, and though I've broken "free", I am still dragging this string around. It seems that everyone around me has an opinion about it.

It's an okay painting, I guess. It’s honest.

But here is what I'm thinking: I am going to really work hard on governing my thoughts. I am going to make it a personal quest. A goal. I want to be aware of where my mind leads my will and my emotions. Since my work is honest, meaning there is a direct influence of my mind and emotions on how I paint, I expect that I will see results.