What influences have shaped your artistic voice? I’m not asking about your teachers. This is something more holistic. I’m asking . . . What influences have shaped your aesthetic imagination?
To help answer this, here’s a fabulous exercise from author George Saunders. I learned it in his excellent Substack Story Club. I’m a huge fan and this exercise is great for artists of all disciplines.
Here’s the exercise
“Get a big sheet of paper (or set up a spreadsheet) and construct a table. The column headings should mark the years of your life – the first column should be labeled “Birth to 5 years old,” and every column after that should span five years. (“5 – 10 years old,” “10 – 15 years old,” and so on, all the way up to your current age, there across the top of the page.)
The six rows of the table should be labeled as follows: “Stories/Novels/Music/Movies/TV/Experiences/People.”
Once you’ve got your table set up, fill it in
George says, “list those things that truly rocked your world during those intervals, in those categories. When you were between the ages of 5 and 10, what did you read/view/experience that made you crazy with delight? With what album were you obsessed between the ages of 15 and 20? No, really.”
For me this was fascinating going back in time and remembering favorite books, ridiculous cartoon shows I was addicted to, movies that made a huge imprint, and of course, recordings and pieces that I became obsessed with.
You might not imagine that TV, novels, and movies contribute to your artistic voice, but you might be wrong.
“The focus here is on emotional engagement – what did you obsessively watch? What book did you read until the cover fell off? What story were you always fantasizing yourself into? What toys did you spend way too much time with? (That might want to go under Experiences.) What person springs to mind when you think of that period?
If you are, today, an avid reader or writer or artist – that began somewhere. You first got a sense of your own inclinations at some particular point. Something powerfully affected you – what was it?”
George says, “Tell the truth”
“The game is to get ourselves to think honestly about this. What truly altered the way you were thinking of the world? Admit it all. Hold nothing back, no matter how cheesy or low or cringe-worthy.
Try to shuck off the impulse we all (understandably!) have to seek out and name only the most elevated/literary/cool influences. The way to do this is to see what you were powerfully drawn to. What was the flame to your moth, at that time?”
For me, what showed up were favorite illustrated children’s books (“Harold and the Purple Crayon” was a big hit) and the cult classic Thunderbirds TV series (space-age rescue team adventures done with electronic marionette puppetry). Later on, there was my obsession with the old Perry Mason series, James Bond films, the Wodehouse novels with Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. And there was Casals’ recordings of the Bach suites and the Beethoven sonatas with Rudolf Serkin. And then later, Jessye Norman singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs.
George doesn’t suggest having rows for visual art, theater, or dance, but you can add these under “Experiences.” I can think of a number of live performances and paintings that made such strong impressions that I think they’re coiled up in my unconscious, available as connecting points to other “rhyming” influences.
When I bring these to mind I know that they shifted something in me originally and that now they echo with what moves me today. This resonance of influences is what has helped shape my creative voice and influenced how I see the world.
Why bother doing this?
Here’s the benefits I found in doing the exercise:
- It wakes us up to the fact that we’re standing on the shoulders of many other artists. That we’re all connected. So you’re not alone and in fact you have allies in all those who’ve come before.
- The exercise makes clear that we are the beneficiaries of multiple creative legacies. And that we are the products of what we consume, of who we hang out with, and the ideas we traffic with.
- It reminds us of the importance of regularly tapping into material that challenges and expands our imaginations.
- It shows us that our influences continue over our entire life span and that at every age we have the capacity to develop further.
Thank you, George!
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