Thursday, May 19, 2011


“…gradually you come under the right influences, picking and choosing, and being selective, and then maybe your voice is the combination of 6 or 8 other voices that you have managed to blend in such a way that nobody can recognize your sources. You can learn intimacy from Whitman, you can learn the dash from Emily Dickinson…you can pick a little bit from every writer and you combine them. This allows you to be authentic. That’s one of the paradoxes of the writing life: that the way to originality is through imitation.”

- Billy Collins, at the White House’s Poetry Workshop

I've heard this put so many ways, this thing about how you find your own style and voice, and have suffered through many a discussion about copying and stealing from other artists. Collins, however, puts it in such a gentle way, this reality of being human and how it forms you into the unique person that inquiry and thought leads you to be. We do not live in a bubble; we cannot help but take on the bits and pieces we encounter daily.

I've also read so many interviews with artists espousing who their greatest influences were. I wonder if there's something wrong with me because I can't narrow my own field of influence to a couple of famous artists Or perhaps it's just because I have no formal art training. Because I come out of a traditional quilting background, my influences, when I think about it, can be found there - the precision borne of an innovative technique learned from Judy Mathieson, classic and restrained (yet also exuberant at times) quilting designs from my machine quilting mentor Diane Gaudynski, the quiet sophistication of Erika Carter's timeless designs. The rest of what influences my voice comes straight from nature, I think. The colors I use, the designs I choose, the texture I try to emulate...I think I bypass artists and go directly to the source.

That is not to say I don't study the great artists (and even the not so great) - I do. And so there may be dozens of voices subconsciously whispering in my head and being synthesized into my own without my being aware. I've often said that I am a sponge, absorbing information, some quite esoteric, and moving on to the next. Occasionally I'll make a connection between two seemingly unrelated bits and find that the best. Often I'll have an aha moment when information gathered over a long period of time suddenly makes sense, comes together to do more than just rattle around in my hazy memory. That too is exciting.

Perhaps that's why I've been picking up things on my walks and bring them home rather than just observe, absorb and move on. Things like feathers. I wouldn't say that I collect feathers, but my studio might tell a different story. My bulletin board has half a dozen feathers adorning it, from the one found on vacation that exhibited iridescence I had just learned about, to the red-spined one resting on my windshield after a walk along the city beach, to this rather large and ruffly one I spotted near the barn the other day. I rarely ever know what I will do with these things that catch my eye, intrigue me and beg to be brought home, but I've learned to trust that eventually I will. A veritable chorus of voices and influences continually at my beck and call.


Chris said...

That's a really cool feather!

I knew someone who wanted to be a writer, and made a point of not reading anyone else's work so as not to be influenced by it. Absurd, right? For what it is worth, I have found that even when I tried to do something "just like" some other artist, it would never work. It would still look like I did it.

The Idaho Beauty said...

I think your experience shows that you already had a strong voice, i.e. naturally put your own twist on someone else's idea. Your comment makes me realize that this is the way I've always approached quilting, especially in the beginning. Never making a pattern to specifications, always changing this or that and inserting my own voice, if only a little.

It occurs to me that it would be more difficult to connect with the viewer/reader if one worked in a bubble. I think it is that understanding of others (whether in common experience or mindset or perspective), that universality that seeps into our individual work that draws other to it.

Connie Rose said...

Love that feather. I have them all over the house, as well!

Re: voice, I copied this quote from somewhere a while ago ~

Embrace the process
Follow your gut instincts
Do what you feel compelled to do
That is your voice

Have a great weekend, Sheila!

The Idaho Beauty said...

Oh, that IS good advice. You have a great weekend too, and exercise your voice!

Sherrie Spangler said...

You've said it beautifully,Sheila. It's hard not to be influenced by those whose work really touches us. I prefer to think of it as inspiration rather than influence. Inspiration gives me that jolt of energy needed to do my own work in my own way. (I also love Erika Carter's work.)

The Idaho Beauty said...

Thanks, Sherrie. And nicely put yourself.

Anonymous said...

These are breathtaking shots. We would *love* your permission to print these and hang in a series in our apartment. I shall call you Auntie Ansel from now on...