A few years ago I was going through some of my old stuff at my parents house. Downstairs in a spare room sits a desk and shelves where I'd kept all my art supplies in junior high and high school. For a few years as a teenager I filled sketchbook after sketchbook. My mother while telling me over and over again that art was not a future and that my grandmother had been miserable in art school was also happy to buy me supplies.
I'd collected a nice range of Faber Castell markers, the kind that I now spend several hundred dollars a year on, as well as assorted other supplies that many didn't get access to.
In grade 12 I stopped drawing. I had a thumb injury from fencing that was bugging me. I was busy. I'd been told over and over again in different ways that I just wasn't very good at this art thing and that I had no future in it. Between teachers and my mother I said okay to the pressures of a world that somehow thought I had a brighter future as a writer with a poli degree than as a graphic design student.
Then I was going through those drawers of supplies. My mother is a hoarder. As a result of this it's very important to me that stuff be useful, that it have a purpose and a place, that you either use something or get rid of it. So I debated whether I should give the old art supplies away, throw them out or use them up. I ended up going with use them up.
The plan was to draw until all the markers were gone, do some pastels until all those were gone, paint until the box of acrylics and pile of paper disappeared. Then close the door on it all and say that's taken care of.
Instead, I rediscovered how much I'd enjoyed drawing and that I was actually pretty good at it. With Pinterest I had access to all the inspiration in the world. By looking at drawings I liked I taught myself to draw. I copied at first, then I took bits and pieces from different places. Want to figure out how to draw a toque on a fox or how a head would tilt when doing a certain thing? There's lots of sources out there.
At the beginning I didn't think about what was mine and not because I just cared about using up the art supplies. Then I started buying more and kept going. I never kept track of the changes or where things came from. It was only once I'd stopped doing as much of it that felt serious about my art, that maybe there was something here, that maybe that kid who always wanted to go to art school was about to get a second chance at a creative life.
So I wonder what's mine? Where can I take inspiration from? What belongs to who?
I have no plans to out and out steal or copy someone and pass it off as my own. There is no value in that. I just wonder if any of what I'm doing is mine enough to be mine. Does any of it really belong to me? Can I take credit for it? Can I do anything with it?
I've been reading Austin Kleon, who talks marvellously about inspiration and creative work. He wrote Steal Like An Artist and Share Your Work. It's really nice hearing about inspiration and learning. I am still just a beginner figuring out what it means to draw things in my sketchbook and put them out into the world, what it means to do creative work.
I also found this fine site about a book called Consumers, which talks about inspiration, sources and how all any of us are doing is mashing some different stuff we find together with our experiences and perspectives and personality to create something slightly new.
This is what I do in writing, on Twitter. I surf around finding ideas, comments, perspectives and I pull them together without thinking about it. I'm happy to give credit for where I heard this or that if I can remember. I don't feel like I have to own those ideas or even say more than I was at an event the other night and somebody said this and I thought it was great so now I'm going to use it. A joke I tell over and over again was literally taken from an architect I saw at a talk a year ago. I credit him — sadly often as that guy from the talk whose name I forget — but have no qualms using this joke.
I was an excellent student, and if I go back to school I anticipate that I will once again be an excellent student. I am competitive, hardworking, intense and obsessive. All traits that can be both good and bad but that are mine. What I learned as an undergrad was how to do a bunch of research, take the best arguments from different positions and research and make an argument based off of that. By the time I finished fourth-year I could pump out A papers no problem. Yes, I had to do the work but the method was tried and true. It just made sense. I literally just read a bunch of stuff, took what I liked and mashed it together.
If that was my process for writing papers and essays, one that worked really well, why am I so self-conscious about art? I am great at absorbing things, being curious, and mashing my varied interests together. Why do I put so much pressure on myself to have everything I draw be unique and truly mine? It often feels like none of this stuff really belongs to me. There's a way to draw a fox or an otter. You can change the bits and pieces but fundamentally it's something that's in our culture and you can learn. Who owns that? Who does that belong to? Do I get to be a part of it? How many variations of it are possible? Is my version unique enough? Has it all been done before?
I'm trying to take Austin's advice and share my work. So far no one seems to think that my fox is terrible or that I don't get to keep doing him. I think there's something there. I'd like to have it go somewhere.
Speaking of mixing things up: I call my fox Frederick, after Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the designers of Central Park in New York and the godfather of landscape architecture. That's a mix that only I can do.