Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Where Do Ideas Come From? Finding the Bottomless Cup

Where do ideas come from? Every time I sit down to write about this I draw a blank.
So I went for a walk, a swim and a hot shower. As usual, these activities of motion unleashed a torrent of wordy narratives in my head, even a concept or two, possibly valuable.

Cup of the Day #95
Raining Words, by Gwyneth Leech
India ink on upcycled white paper coffee cup

For me there are two distinct kinds of ideas - the wordy ones, and the visual ones.
Apparently the visual ideas reside in a completely separate part of the brain from the words and since production of visual ideas generally relies on sitting or standing still, bringing them forth can be a trickier proposition.

When I am painting a large canvas in the studio, it is all about executing an idea already conceived. Discoveries and new directions certainly happen as I go along, but for me the struggle is about how to get the painting to more closely match the images in my head. Having said that, the first brush marks reveal limitless possibilities. Then as a painting progresses and decisions are made these options diminish, until at last only one brush mark will fit. I often feel a sense of loss as I paint. Each state could be the starting point for innumerable new artworks, but unlike in the digital realm, going back to an exact prior state is never possible.

But where does the initial idea spring from, the vision bright enough to launch a painting?

Listening for the muse in the Flatiron Prow
Yes, I think about those cup and string phones all the time!
 Photo by Theresa DeSalvio

I was having lunch at Eisenberg's Coffee Shop with composer and singing colleague, Martha Sullivan after finishing up in the Flatiron window and we were discussing the topic. (As a quick aside, there are a number of things I like about Eisenberg's, an unreconstructed lunch counter on Fifth Avenue at 22nd Street: their hot pastrami sandwiches, the owner's flamboyant shirts and the sign outside which says "Either you get it or you don't.")

Drawing with composer, Martha Sullivan 
and sculptor, Hu Bing in the Prow
 Photo by Theresa DeSalvio

Over my pastrami sandwich, I had a sudden insight. (Yes, ideas also come from conversation + food!) I have been making art since I was a kid and there have been only a few periods in my life when I made no art at all: during my first year at the University of Pennsylvania (no Fine Art major back then), right after I had both my children and after 9-11. I did plenty of writing in those periods, but my visual muse fled and was nowhere to be found. And how did I get back into art-making? By drawing on things that had no apparent value - envelopes, programs, photocopies, music. No one saw these, they weren't meant to exhibited. I did them while I was busy with other things - like taking notes in anthropology classes, feeding children or sitting on the subway. But eventually, these drawings led me back to my sketchbooks and from there to the painting studio. The ideas came pouring out as very small drawings - brain to hand to paper - which I then labored to turn into larger compositions.

 Drawing in the Prow
December 2011
 Photo by Theresa DeSalvio

The coffee cup story is similar. While my narrative brain was otherwise engaged at school meetings, artist meetings and at my part-time job as a choral singer, my art brain just took care of itself and made friends with the surface of handy paper coffee cups. It crept up on me while I wasn't paying attention. Now each time I sit down with art materials and a cup, the shape, the surface, the curve, the variety of colors and prints, all continue to act as catalysts and set my hand on a new journey. This time, the artwork is finished directly on the cup - no digging things out of notebooks later, no copying and scaling up from sketches which can be a deadening exercise.

Passing Christmas Tree
Cups in the Flatiron Prow
December 2011

Making art on cups is currently the core of my studio practice and for three year now the ideas just keep coming, each one different. Talk about a bottomless cup!

Readily available and of no value to anyone else but me in their used state, paper cups allow me to risk everything. Nothing lost, everything gained. In short, they are a very useful form.
I like to say, Bach had inventions, Shakespeare had sonnets - and I have coffee cups.

Cups in the Flatiron Prow
December 2011

1 comment:

  1. Gwyneth- you deserve all the applause and praise - your installation at the Prow is magnificent. I have seen it a number of times now - I think 8 times - sometimes as a destination and sometimes by chance - I see and get pleasure from your cacophony of color and gently swirling shapes as I write this from 30 miles away. Thank you, Alli Berman