Inspiration Interview / by Layl McDill

My friend Beth Wegener from the Polymer Clay Guild of Minnesota is going to be interviewing me soon for a talk at the International Polymer Clay Association about inspiration.  She sent me a nice list of questions that really got me thinking. So I thought, to get my juices really going on the subject, I would write a blog on the ever elusive subject of inspiration.

This is one of my favorite questions to answer: "Where do you get your ideas?" I never seem to answer it the same way twice because the simple answer is "everywhere"—but that isn't what people want to hear.  So I often talk about how I get ideas from different types of art, including children's book illustration (Dr. Suess of course!), Asian art, Indonesian art (my Grandmother's house was filled with Indonesian puppets and furniture from Indonesia), graffiti and pop art.  Or sometimes it's easier to talk about specific pieces and tell the story of their conception because every piece has it's own unique story.  

I have lots of different methods for getting inspired; sometimes I think for me it is hard NOT to be inspired.  I often say it is like a spigot in my brain: ideas want to flow in, non-stop. Sometimes I have to just turn it off so I can move through my day but, when it's time to get ideas, I just turn it on again.  It's often on when I am out for a walk, just looking at the world around me, or on long drives across the country.  It is especially turned on when I am traveling in strange places or in museums.  

 Let There BEE Windmills

Let There BEE Windmills

One question Beth had for me was about how nature has inspired my art.  I think most artists will answer that nature is a big part of their inspiration process.  I know I have recently been inspired more and more by nature.  Since I grew up in Wyoming, where nature was all the art I ever saw, I think for a long time I really rebelled against the concept.  But, in the last few years I found myself coming back, looking at landscape and nature in a new way. Through the lenses of the art I have been creating, I have seen how I can apply my technique of multi-patterns and repetition to the shapes and forms I encounter in nature.  My piece "Let there BEE Windmills" was inspired by driving for hours across Iowa where there are hundreds of windmills in the distance and wide open spaces.  I wanted to play with pattern and texture on each hill and try to replicate that ongoing expanse of land.  

Another intriguing question that Beth asked is "How do I know when an idea is good?"  To me this is a strong gut feeling that I can't ignore.  I just know I have to make it.  Most of the time I can't quite imagine the whole piece or how it will all come together.  There is a feeling of challenge and of the unknown.  I often have basic ideas in my head for many months before I get to make them.  But sometimes an idea is sparked by something I see or think of and I am compelled to make that piece right away.  Rarely do I start a piece and not feel like finishing it.  Most pieces I have started are worked on until done because I am so compelled to know what is going to happen next—like watching an exciting movie or reading a compelling novel. 

Sometimes I do have to pick and choose which idea I get to work on first.  Most of the time this problem is deadline dependent.  It's not a very romantic concept, but deadlines are essential for artists.  I am very self motivated because I let deadlines push me.  If I have a show at a gallery coming up, I know I need to finish a certain number of pieces of a specific size. This gives me the incentive (or excuse depending on how you look at it) to get art finished.  Or sometimes I have orders for particular pieces, which will push me to make those pieces first.  Art fair season always keeps me motivated because whatever I sell out of the week before is top on the list to make the next week. UNLESS I am totally tired of making that particular type of work; then, no matter how popular it is, if I am no longer excited and inspired by an idea, I move on to something else.

I often think of my brain as a big mixing pot that I keep throwing things into, never knowing how it will all come out in the end.  With some of my pieces I can really pinpoint the exact way that I came up with an idea for it.  For instance, "Are There are Doorways in the Waterfalls?" is one that was inspired by a Japanese print of a waterfall.  I drew my own version of it in colored pencil and then transferred it into a polymer clay wall piece.  I also remember that when I was almost done with it, I went to see the movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which inspired me to put a gondola in it.  

 Detail of "Are there Doorways in the Waterfall?"

Detail of "Are there Doorways in the Waterfall?"

I've also come up with some easy methods to get the juices flowing.  One of my favorite art series is called "Scribble Scapes" which started with actual scribbles left in my sketchbook by my nephew.  Later, when I doodled on those pages, I let my mind just grab at whatever floated up, filling in the spaces in a sort of meditative way that left me wondering where all these new ideas came from.  I use this same open mindedness when I am creating with my clay.  At times I will just bring out a pile of scraps, basically doodling in 3-D with the clay.  Last fall I had a lot going on in my life; I really needed some meditative, creative time.  So I made multiple mandalas (doodling) that became part of "Color Overload," below.   

 Color Overload

Color Overload

Beth's final question to me was "What advice do I have for artists?" or "What words of wisdom do I have to give?"  I think a lot of times people think there is a trick to being creative, that only artists can use, but I really believe that anyone can become more creative.  Frequently it's a case of not trying too hard or trying to force something.  If I ever feel like I have to try really hard to think of something, like a title for a piece, I usually can't do it.  It's better for me to just let it stew in my mind and wait for the idea to percolate to the surface in it's own time.  In the meantime I just let my mind go and play. Something always pops up, eventually.