Talk to any professional artist or designer you can find (seedy bars and discount grocery stores are good places to look) and chances are they will agree that inspiration is probably the most misunderstood ingredient in the murky chowder of creativity.
In movies, inspiration looks much like the manic half of manic depression. The artist runs amok in montage, flinging paint around in a large, white studio while loud bits of Mahler (or possibly the Pointer Sisters singing "I'm So Excited") flood the soundtrack. He is hyperkinetic, unfettered, unstoppable. He is not the person you want living in the apartment upstairs. But he can't help himself...he is inspired.
I admit that occasionally, out of nowhere, the Inspiration Fairy socks you in the gut with a full-grown idea so damned good it almost lifts you right off the barstool. But if you intend to make a living from your ideas, and you only sit down to work when that happens, you'd better have a rich uncle or a back-up plan in something nice and stable like accounting or dog grooming.
Inspiration (for me, anyhow) is less like a lightning bolt than like being constantly pecked by a flock of unfocused chickens. Here a peck, there a peck, until the combined pecking reaches critical mass and you can't take it any more and you scream, "Stop, chickens! Stop! Stop!"* and you sit down and draw the cartoon.
This can be every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.
The only way to avoid going mad, which usually happens to artists in movies shortly after the Pointer Sisters stop singing, is to learn to love your chickens. Think of the pecking as their way of alerting you to little details that will move you along, by slow inches, towards something good and whole and new.
And now I want to show you some drawings of old wedding dresses.
That sounds like a non sequitur, I know, but the old wedding dresses were inspiring. Everything you've just read was intended to lead up to them. But then I introduced the chicken motif, and it hasn't come out where I thought it would, and it's almost dinner time so I'm not going back and rewriting it. Sorry.
Inspiration at the Chicago History Museum
This is my second year as a member of the Chicago History Museum, which not so long ago was the Chicago Historical Society. In the old incarnation, it was just as clubby and dusty as it sounds–mostly of interest to the people around here who have major streets named after them.
After a grand renovation and expansion, however, it has become one of my favorite places in the city. Along with a first-class permanent exhibit about the Great Fire of 1871 and several rooms of Lincolniana unmatched by anything at the Smithsonian, they have frequent and splendid shows of items from the textiles collection.
The latest is called "I Do! Chicago Ties the Knot," and it's a doozy. Wedding gear from the mid-19th century (when Chicago sprang, almost overnight, from the mud) to the present day, including bridal gowns, corsetry, going-away attire, and men's costumes–including a pair of matching tuxedos worn by a gay couple, thankyouverymuch.
Oh, and there's a perfectly preserved 120-year-old top tier from a wedding cake, just for good measure.
They don't allow photography in the exhibit, but I spent a fun afternoon there, sketchbook in hand, drawing interesting details under the puzzled eye of the guard.
Here are a few. I plan to go back soon and collect more.
I would write something about the chickens here if I could think of a good tie-in, but it's Thai delivery night and I want my panang curry.