Zoraida Cabrera-Mieles grew up in the little tropical town of Hatillo, Puerto Rico, only to move to the cold land of Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in English and History of Art and Architecture. Many still ask her why she would ever leave the warmth of the Caribbean, but Zoraida wants to discover as many places (and probably also climates) as possible. She enjoys writing stories about everyday life with a strange touch or a magical twist. Besides writing fiction, her passions include going to museums, rambling about art and architecture, and drinking coffee. Zoraida enjoys writing about art almost as much as she enjoys writing stories. Sometimes she muses at Arts & Thereabouts.
Seven Questions to Help You Gain Inspiration from Art
by Zoraida Cabrera-Mieles
The visual arts serve as a common source of inspiration for writers. However, writers are not exactly visual artists. We deal with words, not with paint. Nor do we necessarily have extensive knowledge of the works of painters, sculptures, or photographers.
For most writers, as for most people, visual art presents itself often as an overwhelming mystery. There are so many different types of art works that it’s hard to know how to approach art in general.
Sometimes it’s easy to see a story behind a painting, but what if that painting doesn’t have figures in it, what if it’s only a bunch of lines and dots? Does this means there isn’t a story behind it? Not necessarily.
Take a look at Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. There are no leaves or trees in it, no people frolicking outside, enjoying the chilly autumn air. Yet it’s easy to stare at this painting and get lost in its colors. In a way it does tell a story. This story, as the title suggests, lies not in concrete forms, but in the rhythm created by the paint.
It’s true that not all visual art intends to create a story. Donald Judd intended his sculptures to simply represent objects, nothing else. Yet as writers we need to appreciate different types of art as sources for inspiration. It’s useful to see a story where others do not.
Make your next trip to the art museum worth it! Next time a piece captivates your attention or confuses your senses, prod your imagination by asking questions. These will help set you off in the right direction to find inspiration:
- Does the piece try to represent something “beautiful” or not?
Art isn’t always beautiful—in the traditional sense at least. Maybe the piece intends to surprise or repel you, not to enchant you. It could be a tragic story, maybe even a horror story. The piece could also be trying to break the notion of what we usually see as “beautiful.”
- How do spectators relate to the piece? Can we relate to it emotionally, physically or both?
Sometimes the story lies behind the manner in which we can relate to the piece. Often Van Gogh’s Three Pairs of Shoes is appreciated for the manner in which he depicts labor. The boots, though objects, have the ability to produce empathy. A completely different artist, Robert Morris, did a series on plywood L-shaped structures. They were placed as obstacles for the observer. The story wasn’t so much about emotion but about the art work in relation to the body.
- Why is the picture taken/drawn/painted from this angle? Are certain objects cut out or is it a full picture?
The story could lie outside the frame or within it. Focus on what the piece shows you and then try to think about why it’s there and whether there is something missing. You can apply this concept to your writing as well; narrow or broaden your perspective to reveal new details about your story.
- Is there some sort of movement captured?
Maybe the piece represents a person-mid stride or entangled lines represent a struggle. The story could lie in these movements. Capture this concept of movement by using active verbs in your story, or by propelling the story forward with strong plot or character movement.
- Is the piece trying to document something?
The story could be behind historical events. This is sometimes the case of photography, which captures people’s lives. It’s also sometimes the case of sculptures that have items that belonged to someone. And there are montages that have pictures from magazines or other works.
- How are the materials of the piece employed? Do we see right away what the piece is made out of or are the materials hidden in some way?
The story could be about secrets or it could be about exposure. It could be about a fragile structure or a strong one.
- What does the title of the piece tell you about it?
Think back to Autumn Rhythm. I suggested the story might be in the rhythm of the paint of the piece. Sometimes looking at the title of a piece gives you glimpses of its story.
You may note that most of these questions have open-ended answers. This is intentional. Art produces multiple visions.
So next time you are looking for inspiration in a work of art, try challenging yourself, and your writing, with these questions. You may find unexpected stories.