Inspiration is a fragile thing — an infant's frank gaze, a thought-provoking conversation, the last book you read.
We spoke to three women in the world of fine arts about what moves them to create.
Claire Sherman: It's all in the experiment
During a road trip with her husband through the Southwest, Claire Sherman pointed a camera out her car window and took a blurry image of the bleached landscape whizzing past, the kind of impromptu picture that also captures a highway sign and a bit of the dashboard.
Sherman, a landscape painter, dismissed it at the time; it was one of dozens of photos she'd taken on the trip in search of subject matter for future work, and not a very good one. Upon returning to her New York studio, she focused on creating drawings from the more calculated shots — but found they were too iconic, too recognizable as how the Southwest should look, and nothing seemed to work.
It wasn't until she sketched from the blurry photo that an abstract mound of pale brush strokes started to come together, eventually becoming a 6-by-7-foot oil painting she called ‘‘Butte."
"I wanted to go after something more strange," Sherman said. "I found it in the image that was taken by chance."
For Sherman, 30, who is represented by the Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, inspiration does not come as an "aha" moment, but evolves, through trial and error, over time.
"I can't just look at something and know that it will make an interesting painting," said Sherman, an Oberlin, Ohio, native and graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's the experiment that helps me come up with a new idea."
Sherman's work, large-scale canvases of boulders or caves or snowy trees, explores contemporary notions of landscapes, noting the failures of their heroic past.
Traveling to find images to work from, Sherman finds that usually the unanticipated shots are the most interesting — a strange pit, say, or the cracks and fissures in Yellowstone's acidic ground — and often it's not until she's home flipping through the pictures that she realizes their potential. It's important in her work that the viewer not be able to trace the image to a particular place.
Books also feed Sherman's perspective. She reads about explorers and early naturalists like John Muir and Isabella Bird to understand the context of her own exploration. She reads William Faulkner and David Foster Wallace, and finds their influence seeping into her art.
With Faulkner, for example, she sees a parallel between his construction and destruction of language and the way in which paint can destroy and disrupt an image. The imagery and chaos of language in Faulkner's stories "The Wild Palms" and "Old Man" influenced how she put together her "Palms Wild" exhibit at Kavi Gupta last year — not directly, but quietly, maybe subconsciously, because the stories were on her mind.
"It's not about trying to force a connection — it's more that the two were happening at the same time," Sherman said.
By pursuing new experiences, Sherman said, be it through travel or reading, you are able to wrench yourself from habit, step back and change your perception of the familiar.
"To have something else that feeds your experience is important," she said. "You may be looking at the same thing, but you've opened up a new possibility in relation to it."
Carrie Schneider: The rituals of home
If you want to work your way past a person's defenses and distractions and demons, and drill straight into their soul (and soul-drilling is what good art does, is it not?), it helps to take a gander at your own stuff first.
"I think channeling the specificity of your own life is a way to connect with people," says photographer Carrie Schneider. "The things you already know about, that you can talk about in a real way, are a legitimate source of inspiration. Things you grapple with every day are endlessly interesting."
Schneider, 33, was born and raised in Waukegan. She earned her master of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 and headed to Helsinki to complete a Fulbright Fellowship at the Kuvataideakatemia Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. Though she resides mostly in Brooklyn, she travels to Chicago frequently and just completed her second solo exhibit at Wicker Park's Monique Meloche Gallery.
"My inspiration is never very far from home," Schneider says. "Friends and family, especially my relationship with my older brother. I think the loving and caring and element of tension in family is so worthy of exploring."
"Burning House," Schneider's 15-piece series of 40-by-50-inch color photographs of a small house in flames in the middle of a lake, is, at its heart, inspired by her grandfather's experience working in northern Wisconsin for the Civilian Conservation Corps public work relief program in the ‘30s.
"I have these beautiful old photos of him planting trees, clearing brush," she says. "I kind of grew up with these images."
Schneider's photographs tell a narrative — "each one is kind of a performance" — and "Burning House" is one that spans more than a year.
"Home is where we enact our rituals of comfort, safety and happiness, so it is fertile ground for artistic intervention," wrote Photograph magazine's Jason Foumberg in his critique of the show. "Burning House contains all the trappings of a good, potent myth. Schneider journeyed to Wisconsin from Brooklyn to light these small fires. She built the 8-by-6-foot houses and ferried them individually to the island in a rowboat. … In each sacrificial offering, the house effigy was released of its archetypal form and significance, only to be restored when Schneider returned to Wisconsin to build a new house."
Schneider has taught photography and art classes at Northwestern University and the Art Institute, and has a class now at the International Center of Photography in New York. She encourages her students to look inward.
"I always recommend culling from your own life and knowing that nothing is unimportant," she says. "Something that might seem banal or too small can be really meaningful."
Xan Aranda: Ephemeral, like love
Filmmaker Xan Aranda didn't have to look far for the inspiration for her latest project, a full-length film called "Mormon Movie" that she is producing and directing.
It looks at her former religion — she is a fifth-generation Mormon who left the church in her 20s — and her family's connection to the church's relatively unexplored movie industry, which has been producing religious-themed films for more than a half-century.
"(‘Mormon Movie') was inspired by an educational film my mother starred in in 1964," Aranda says. "Then when we found a second film she starred in, everything just opened up."
Inspiration seems to come easily to the 36-year-old Aranda, who was born in Elgin, lived in California for 10 years, and later in China before coming back to Chicago in 2002. She finds it everywhere.
"On bike rides, when I'm swimming, on road trips. People laugh, but flying really relaxes me. Being captive, without the Internet, cracks it open. Maybe it's just looking down on the Earth."
And don't forget to give mom some credit too.
"I was a voracious reader as a child," she says. "The Gail Borden Public Library was great. My mother got them to raise the limit on the number of books you could take out, I went through them so fast."
A steady diet of foreign films, limited television, a childhood of vivid dreams and being "raised in a cornfield, but with access to the city," also were factors in her development.
"I was also a bit of a compulsive liar because of my active imagination, and it makes for better stories."
"Mormon" — the demo was shot last summer, and Aranda is ready to go into production, anticipating a late 2013 or early 2014 release — comes on the heels of "Andrew Bird: Fever Year," her directorial debut. That 80-minute film, which premiered at Lincoln Center as part of the New York Film Festival and has received several awards, is a concert documentary on Bird, whom Aranda has known for 10 years and with whom she has collaborated on four projects. (There are no plans for a theatrical release, though there will be a showing in Chicago in August.)
Aranda (xanaranda.com) does what she terms "arts evangelism," speaking to students around the country. And one topic that comes up is inspiration.
It can be lost, she says. But it can return.
"When you feel it, it's like falling in love."
She lists other ways people can become inspired — read books, read the newspaper, volunteer somewhere.
She said she recently counseled a student and "told her to be active in a community that is not yours. Volunteer, be active in other people's projects."
(There will be a screening of "Andrew Bird: Fever Year" Aug. 1 at theMusic Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. musicboxtheatre.com or FeverYear.com. Learn more about "Mormon Movie" at kartemquin.com/films/mormon-movie)
—William HagemanCopyright © 2015, CT Now