Inspiration, Influence, and Instruction (ramblings by Olga Norris)


Recently I have been mulling over thoughts about these tricky three Is.  At first Instruction seems easy enough to separate away from the other two.  But I don’t think that it’s domain consists only of workshops, lectures, and how-to books.  We learn so much by perception, by example, and yes, by influence.  We even receive instruction by pursuing inspiration.

 So, a tangled ball of threads.  It is not always worth spending time separating out individual threads from such balls; but the activity sometimes forms an appropriate distraction while the back burner is sorting out more serious stuff.  And in any case I thought it was long past time that I contributed something to the Cafe.

 Which of these three Is comes first?  I vividly remember travelling home from town on a coach, wetting my finger to fill in the magic drawing book: the colours were embedded in the paper and released when wet.  I also remember my great uncle taking me to see mosaics being restored.  And the moment of decision when my portrait was painted at the age of four: ‘I want to be an artist’.  So much is coming at us, and we are grasping so many different elements and aspects of life in those earliest years that I cannot separate influence, instruction, inspiration.  I can just be happy that I received all three.

 After my career in publishing was over I drifted towards work with fibre and design because these were areas in which I had some little hobby experience and some adjacent practice respectively.  I plunged way out of my depth by deciding to enter the world of knitwear design.  Not enough instruction there – but on the other hand it was a fun learning curve which I would never have enjoyed had the instruction come first.  But it was lucky that disaster was not financial, because such ventures can be costly mistakes.

 Inspiration in the form of an exhibition of international contemporary embroidery drew me to a more focused instruction at workshops in the UK Embroiderers’ Guild.  There I learned so many specific skills, but also learned new viewpoints.  The question then arises – ‘how do I want to use these skills?’  So many of the brilliant teachers were artists whose work I would never want to copy, because what they made did not express who I am.

 Was it the inspiration or the influence of the coincidence that I took up the Embroiderers’ Guild workshops in the year celebrating the anniversary of India’s independence?  I went to a fascinating lecture given by Anne Morrell on Kantha quilts, followed by a workshop on quilting with silk where I tried out the Kantha running stitch on my samples.  Bingo!

 Background instruction in looking at and learning about art came not only from my seeking out as much input as I could, but specifically at university where I took classes in Aesthetics as part of my degree, and a year’s course in History of Art influenced not only by my pre-existing leanings but particularly because the principal lecturer was David Talbot Rice, an expert in Byzantine art (which I had been surrounded by in my childhood in Thessaloniki, Greece).  While at university I was also filled with inspiration by the gallery owner and artist Richard Demarco who was extremely generous with his time and his experience.  All this instruction on how to look was influencing me in seeking out inspiration.

 When I first thought about making serious art I found it extremely difficult to extract my thinking from the influence of my previous expertise in commissioning illustrative art.  Both ideas and how to illustrate them were filtered through my publishing experience.  It has taken me a long time and much re-adjustment of thinking to let my mind flow into my own expressions.  It can still be an insidious influence to encounter wondrous art in a style to which the immediate reaction is ‘I should make work like that!’  It can take so long to get past such a self-destructive approach, and I still find from time to time doubts creep in about what I’m doing and how I am doing it.

 It is essential always to want to improve, and to welcome instruction, influence, and certainly inspiration – but all as nourishment to becoming better at what we do.  Because in the end the real question is not which is which, but what are we doing with it all?

8 Responses to “Inspiration, Influence, and Instruction (ramblings by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 shiborigirl September 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    i can relate to the persistence quality that jude refers to here. persistence leads to so many things. it continues to carry me along. i will also say that these three things, influence, inspiration and instruction are so tangled together in my mind and life that trying to separate them out seems futile in the moment. i do agree that what we do with it is what is important.
    as i have gotten older my answer is to pass it on. one reason i am teaching more than before…who knows if i will be here tomorrow?

  2. 2 olganorris September 4, 2010 at 9:19 am

    For Pamela Hardesty:

    I have not come across a particular article on the textiles as fine art/craft debate recently, sorry. And I’m sure that with your teaching you must have a greater reference base than I have. Good luck with the new course.

    • 3 pamelahardesty October 13, 2012 at 6:55 am

      Just found the article and am passing it along—from Surface Design Journal Summer 2002: The Importance of Being Fiber by Twylene Morris (was managing editor of Sculpture magazine at that time)

  3. 4 June August 28, 2010 at 9:56 am

    This comment was posted on the FAQs page, but the query really should go to the larger group, so I’m reposting it here. It isn’t really a response to Olga’s query, but the question at the end is meant for all of us.

    pamelahardesty August 28, 2010 at 3:56 am

    Greetings from Ireland! I welcome this forum; I crave discussion and resource. I am an American artist living here since 1986, pursuing issues around the fine art of textiles–making and matter–in an evolving body of work using paper and stitch, or glass, wire, and stone. I also teach (since 1990)Textiles within a Fine Art Degree programme in Cork city. Currently I am preparing to embark on a new adventure: I have proposed and created, had validated– a new Certificate course in Fine Art Textiles, part-time, for the many textile-motivated artists out here who wish some group interaction, context of Fine Art, context of Textiles history and theory, College credit. We start in three weeks! I am working on the course content and structure, and benefitting from the discussions and references on your site.

    I do have one question:

    Last month in all my trawling of net and library I found a recent article/editorial addressing the issue: When is textiles fine art? The author tackled the fine line between design and art; I made a mental note that this article would start our new course discussion quite well–since many of the new participants come from a design/craft background. Unfortunately I did not make a written note–and have lost the source. Does anyone out there know of such a recent article? Or any other concise and wise authoritative musing on this subject?

    Many thanks!

    Pamela Hardesty

  4. 5 olganorris August 27, 2010 at 12:47 am

    It’s that most difficult trick: to know oneself (or keep trying to, at least). To step back and digest that which comes in, in order to extract the nourishment which will feed the output. Like counting to ten before spilling out anger or whatever, we should be pausing for breath as we absorb, before trying to produce in echo. It’s perhaps something we never quite learn to do. I fall into the trap so often myself. But because I work in such a slow way, that very time saves me and brings me back to myself.

    Yes, this is a most difficult time, when we are surrounded by access to more and more work, and when competition/exhibition submissions are increasingly lotteries – therefore tempting us to emuluate the successful. After all it seems to be a human trait to be seen as ‘one of the winners’.

    If we think of great artists as huge comets with wide tails, then we start off or even continue our artistic lives as sparks in the tail – perhaps flitting from one tail to another before we aspire to bright comet-hood ourselves.

    How much we push ourselves? Well, I guess it’s a question of need.

  5. 6 june August 26, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    The voices in our head, the visions that fill our eyes — how to make them work for me rather than against me — that’s the question I ask myself over and over. Of course, the “for” and “against” are judgment words, and so I judge what I do against what I hope I can do, which is always something beyond what (or different from) the influence, inspiration, instruction.

    Jude’s idea — taking the voices and visions and pushing them further, and then further and then pushing again is my best strategy. My second best is to get it out of my system by imitation the influences/inspirations.

    My influences run like Olga’s “I should make work like that” (I often think that when I look at what she does) and from the opposite direction — “that needs to be painted.” The first leads to “like Olga, only not so good” and the second “like the scene, only not so good.”

    It’s the dilemma that I too find myself conning over, again and again. I am better at stopping myself from the influence of other artists (the difficulty of emulation becomes immediately obvious) than I am from trying to replicate a scene that I love; even though I know Ma Nature (or the fingers of time) have done it better than I can, I often can’t resist just trying. Sometimes I simply give into the impulse to report on what I see, in the hopes that that will lead me to report more deeply on what is there, rather than merely what I see.

    But Olga, you are circling a dratted problem that must exist for a lot of us, particularly now, when reproduction is rampant and we are often not even seeing originals of the art that we “should make work like” 🙂 Which leads me to the other dilemma — that of actual seeing rather than seeing what we think we should see. But that’s a different topic.

  6. 7 nAncY August 26, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    interesting post and
    lovely piece of art.

  7. 8 jude August 26, 2010 at 4:26 am

    This is a great post and so to the point in a way that makes so much sense to me. It doesn’t matter really but the persistence in regard to personal processing interests me the most. I experience over and over the lack of that which really makes the stopping point copying. How far are you going to take it all, will you do that? That is my question.

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