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He stirs the paint, crouched at the edge of his canvas. Paint drips from the brush making a pattern on the floor. He notices, and he is intrigued. “What if, ” he muses, “I dripped the paint on purpose?” One moment of inspiration that resulted in an iconic painting style which turned Jackson Pollock into a legend.
Romanticized or not, I enjoy discovering what inspired art movements, classic films, moving musical scores, ballets, anything that resulted in a great work of art. Often the story behind the piece is as interesting as the piece itself. Knowing what fueled the creativity behind a great work of art humanizes the piece and helps us to relate to the artist in a more personal way. After all, every one of us knows what if feels like to be inspired.
As a seasoned artist it is easy to find inspiration in the most mundane and ordinary as well as extraordinary things. We accumulate suitcases of inspiration just by living our lives and seeing the connections between our art and everything else. But as arts educators, how do we teach inspiration to our students? Is it teachable? Or, like so many other things, does the flame of inspiration grow with age?
The first step is probably to acknowledge what inspiration is. My favorite definition of inspiration calls it “divine guidance”, as if a power greater than ourselves is calling to us. Inspiration is what motivates us to act in a creative manner. It is what stirs us to create. It is a connection between the outside world and our soul. Something touches us, and we respond.
Getting students to understand and react to this esoteric and somewhat ambiguous concept, however, is tough. And ironically, the older the student is, the harder it is to help them grasp the concept. Young children are continually inspired. If you take a group of young kids outside to look at the clouds you will hear shouts of “There ‘s a horse!” or “Look! That one looks like a mermaid riding on a wave!” They ‘ll imitate the shapes that they see in the clouds- freely and fully. But fast forward ten years and take that same group of kids outside to look at clouds and all you will hear is, “So. They ‘re just a bunch of clouds. No big deal.”
Too many years of public education and rote conditioning leave students with little room for inspiration. But it is our job to move them beyond the creative block. On her website, “Life of an Artist”, Darlene Eufaula outlines four methods that she believes helps artists find inspiration; meditation, having a network, walking, and studying great art. While meditation may be difficult to fit into an hour of instructional time, we can offer it to our students as a suggestion that they try on their own time. In a classroom, students have a built-in network of peers to observe performance skills, techniques, styles and to draw creative inspiration from. Walking is an extremely easy way to connect with our immediate environment and open students up to recognizing the extraordinary beauty in ordinary surroundings. Studying great art across all disciplines, including the background information regarding the inspiration for the piece, helps students
to understand that art can be a very powerful vehicle for communication.
Helping students to see connections between the arts and other subjects is another way to foster inspiration. Often students will complain about having to study World History or algebra, or chemistry. As arts specialists, we can help them to recognize the possibilities of incorporating the information that they learn in these other classes into their art in ways that they hadn ‘t thought of before. Reading a novel in language arts might trigger an emotional response so strong that it becomes the basis for a musical score, song lyrics or dance.
Ideally all subjects should reinforce the idea of interconnectedness. If they did, then students, no matter what age, would be able to look at the clouds and immediately find imagery instead of just water vapor. With the current emphasis in public education placed on standardized testing and instructional alignment there is little room to blend disciplines or share content. Until the rest of public education catches up to the arts, it will be on us to maintain the creative spirit in kids and build in them a sense of continual wonder by teaching them to cultivate their sense of inspiration and giving them the tools that they need to express their art.
Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.