For Issue 3, we’re asking artists to be inspired by one another. Visit a local museum, look through our previous issues, find art in public spaces. Read, listen, watch, look, immerse yourself in the work of others and be inspired. Guest writer, Margaret Winikates, is a museum educator and advocate with great ideas about how art is always in conversation with other art, us as artists and our lived experience in the world.
By Margaret Winikates
A mother and thirteen-year-old daughter stand in front of a painting in Brussels’ Musée des Beaux Arts. The mother points out how the title of the painting doesn’t seem to match the main focus of the composition at all: the ploughman in his field overlooking the bright green sea doesn’t merit a mention, but without Pieter Breugel calling this painting The Fall of Icarus, one could easily miss the flailing legs in the corner of the canvas, the tiny splash and the absence of wings. Then the mother mentions a poem, named after the very building they’re standing in, and recites the opening lines by W.H. Auden:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”
That was the day I fell in love with ekphrasis, though I didn’t know how to say or spell it at the time. I already loved poetry, having grown up on a steady diet of read-alouds from my parents. I also already loved museums, and was many years into a museum-going habit that continues to this day. As a kid living in Boston, Massachusetts, I was fortunate to be surrounded by amazing art, music, and a consciousness of history that’s more common in Europe than in some other parts of my native country. In fact, New England as a region has the highest per capita concentration of museums of anywhere in the United States, according to a 2014 survey by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and my travel-minded family took full advantage of it.
But the day I stood in front of that Breugel painting and talked poetry with my mother was a turning point for me. Since then, I’ve worked inspiration from other art forms into my creative writing, both poetry and prose, both consciously and unconsciously. Museums have also become my career, both as a museum educator and as a museum advocate. Fortunately, one creative practice informs the other in a rewarding cycle.
Pablo Picasso once said, “Art is theft.” T.S. Eliot countered that “The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” Even David Bowie said “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” Ekphrasis is somewhere in the middle of this discussion; an ekphrastic piece of art in its simplest definition is simply inspired by and descriptive of some other work of art. I like to think of the ekphrastic pieces I create as being in conversation with another piece of art; that reading or looking at or listening to the one gives you new, different, or deeper insight on the other.
This does not hold universally true: I do not know that I have any new insights on ancient pottery thanks to reading Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but I know that I looked at Rodin’s sculpture with more interest and empathy after watching the dancers from the BoSoma Dance Company perform in the galleries of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts during the run of Rodin: Transforming Sculpture this summer. Seeing actual human bodies move in ways inspired by the poses and contortions of his sculptures made me look more closely at the frozen movement in cast bronze, and made me appreciate the beautiful weirdness that the human body is capable of.
I worked for the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) for several years, and in that time grew to appreciate the role museums have in encouraging, fostering, and even commissioning ekphrastic works. PEM’s contemporary art initiative, FreePort, was designed to bring in working artists to study the museum’s collection and create new artwork inspired by it, most of them installation pieces. My favorite was the first in the series, in which Charles Sandison created a moving immersive projection of the words, images, and figures straight out of captains’ logbooks. Those logbooks record the voyages which brought back the founding objects of the original museum in the 1700s. I loved his visual expression of the idea that the spaces humans inhabit are full of all the words of those that came before us.
Other museums locally have done similar projects and collaborations. In 2004, the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA), the Boston National Historic Park, the Paul Revere House, and the Longfellow National Historic Site (now the Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters) worked with artist Niho Kozuru to create art pieces inspired by the architecture of the historic houses of Paul Revere and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. More recently, the Heritage Museums and Gardens on Cape Cod hosted a set of landscape art installations called Secret Shelters, during which they explicitly invited visitors to sit in these artspaces to meditate, write, and create. In my more than a decade long career in museums I have been pleased to see museums embracing their role not just as protectors and preservers of human memory, but as places for inspiration, creation, and generation of new experiences and artworks.
Sometimes, however, the correlation of inspiration to end result is not always clear. In one of my current writing projects, I wanted to tell a story about a new kind of dragon. I have read a lot of books involving dragons: telepathic dragons, dragons that love music, dragons that like books more than gold, dragons that are wily or wise or resolutely wild. No matter what their other characteristics, and despite my conscious effort to search out stories from other cultural well-springs, the majority of them biologically conform to the Western/European archetypes, and I wanted to do something different.
Having worked for the New England Aquarium, and being interested for story purposes in writing an amphibious dragon, I decided to work in some turtle biology to the creation of my (charming, opinionated, strawberry-gobbling) Gwydion. I was so proud of myself for coming up with something really different.
And then, next time I was in the Japanese galleries at the Peabody Essex Museum, where I worked at the time…
There was a dragon-turtle sake flask, staring me right in the face. I’d seen it, enjoyed it, and yet not paid it conscious attention for months if not years. After that, of course, I went and researched the dragon-turtle variant, which appears in permutations in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art, and have worked that into my world- and character-building going forward.
Though this is the most blatant, and recent, example, it’s far from the only one. I have definitely rounded a corner into a gallery I know and love, only to see it afresh and think, “oh, that’s where that came from!” Characters express opinions in my stories about things like pre-Plague Christian statuary (‘back when the saints actually smiled’) and wield the tools of their trade (harps, fountain pens, blacksmithing tools) which have been directly, though not consciously, influenced by my experiences as a museum visitor and a museum educator.
Now I research in museums deliberately. I take pictures not just of artworks I enjoy and want to share or remember, but of pieces that feel like they have a story to them. Portraits from periods in which I am setting stories are great for character and wardrobe reference, of course, but sometimes you just look at a person’s face and think, “I’m sure she has a story, so what is it?” and take a picture so you can look at her until you can figure it out later.
In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon says, “The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.”
Of course, apprenticeships take time, but museums are great places for this sort of thing. Occasionally a piece will rotate off view for conservation or loan to another institution, but in general, the works aren’t going anywhere, and invite you back to peruse at your leisure, or with new goals in mind, as often as you like. Look once for pleasure, again for inspiration, again for analysis: and if you decide to give that portrait of the handsome young man with a book of botanical studies in front of him a diabolical history as a mad inventor bent on preempting the Industrial Revolution, neither artist nor subject is around to complain anymore.
The other thing museums are best at is offering up the joy of the unexpected. So many of the people I’ve met in the museum field will admit that part of why they entered this profession was to find out what was behind the ‘staff only’ doors, in the attics, archives, and annexes. Professional curiosity is important to both museum workers and to artists. A core tenet of my family’s philosophy is that “The best thing for being sad is to learn something,” and it holds true for if you’re bored or lonely or blank as well. Writers’ blocks crumble in the face of new knowledge and fresh ideas. Obviously going to places you have never been is the easiest way to find new experiences, but even a familiar museum offering an exhibit on a topic you know can still surprise you, as the Rodin show and its dance company did for me. Pick up a pencil right away, or find yourself mulling over a half-familiar smell, sound, or insight half a year later, and you have a museum to thank for it.
“After all, isn’t the purpose of the novel, or of a museum, for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?”
― Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence
Further Reading for the Curious
“Notes on Ekphrasis” by Alfred Corn https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/notes-ekphrasis
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Margaret Winikates is a poet, writer, and museum educator from Boston, MA. Although a great fan of caper movies, she keeps all her heists creative and theoretical, which allows her to still work in museums and satisfy her endless curiosity about what’s hidden behind the ‘Staff Only’ doors. Find more creative writing at mwinikates.com, museum and education musings at brainpopcorn.com, and a mixture of both @mwinikates.