Welcome to day #12 of the 30 Day “One Question” Series. If you want to learn more about the series, be sure to check out the first interview.
Yesterday, PRDaily.com reported that Google+ is now the second largest social network in the world. As a huge G+ fan who joined the platform as soon as I could beg a beta invitation, I felt both vindicated and sad at the announcement. The world has now discovered G+ and that means I will no longer have a super secret source for discovering amazing artists like today’s guest, accomplished oil painter Lena Levin.
Lena is one of the shining stars of the G+ art community, leading or co-leading popular art initiatives such as G+ with Brushes and In Studio with Masters and an active participant in the First Friday Art Walk and Friday Art Critique communities.
Although my tastes generally lean toward abstract art, I love Lena’s landscapes and still lifes because of the vibrancy and energetic expression of emotion that I find in each one. Her pieces seem to whisper a story to me… and not the simple tale you might expect from a study of a lily or a tranquil landscape. Lena always amazes me with her ability to not only draw inspiration from a myriad of place, but use that inspiration to instill a surprisingly complex depth of meaning into each seemingly simple composition.
This is especially true for her latest works, a series based on translating each of Shakespeare’s 164 Sonnets into paintings. It’s this talent that I chose to explore with her one question:
A common concern I hear in the writing community is how to find inspiration for new stories… it’s not uncommon to hear writers (especially new writers), complain that they can’t find anything to write about or (as a secondary concern), they can’t find anything unique to write about. What I find extremely appealing about your new series is how you take a written medium and use it to inspire your visual work… and generally, not as a direct “illustration” of the written work either.
Would you mind sharing the strategies you use to craft your own original art piece as inspired by another artist or creator; specifically how do you translate your inspiration into a new vision versus a copy or illustration of their vision?
Your question touches a very fundamental aspect of my practice, my approach to painting and art in general.
I feel that to answer it properly, I need to establish a context, to outline the worldview within which I live and work. Not because there is anything original about this worldview (I have not invented, but rather inherited it), but because it differs from what seems to be widely believed (or assumed) by artists nowadays (in any medium, be it words or colors). The difference has to do with the relative role of the unique and the universal, the “self” and the humankind, the subjective and the objective.
For lack of a better term, I use the one introduced by Wassily Kandinsky in his book, “Concerning the spiritual in arts”: the inner spirit of art, or “pure artistry”. For Kandinsky, this inner spirit is an objective element in arts, independent of all differences between personalities, times, cultures, etc, which all add their subjective, outer, elements, or forms. As an aside, this means that when people talk about all art being subjective, they simply disregard this inner spirit (maybe because they don’t sense it?), reducing art to its outer forms, to its external, meaningless shell.
I feel I have to stress at this point that this concept of “inner spirit” of art as an essential part of humankind’s spiritual life transcends the still highly divisive religious boundaries (theism vs. atheism, idealism vs. materialism, etc.).
That is, depending on one’s beliefs, one may think of it as God’s gift to the humankind or as a one of miracles of evolution.
It doesn’t really matter, because either way, it is grounded in what we all share as members of this species, not in what divides us. It doesn’t matter what came first – the body, the soul, the spirit – because they are indivisible anyway. What is essential is the artist’s access to this universal power, their connection to the inner spirit of art, and their inner need and their ability to convey at least part of it to others, “externalize” it in the outer world in some form and medium, express it.
When all is said and done, there are but two pathways, two kinds of connection to this universal power. One goes through one’s own self, also known as “soul”; and the other is through the rich world of outer, external manifestations of art created by our predecessors.
It may seem that I’ve come back to the “self” after all, yet in the context I am trying to establish, the “self” is not at all what one should strive to express. Rather, it is viewed, for the purposes of art at least, just as an instrument of access, a window to the universal and eternal, to what is shared by all. One’s peculiarities, one’s uniqueness, one’s style – all these things which many nowadays hold as a goal to achieve – they limit and weaken one’s connection to the universal, inner spirit of art.
The goal should rather be to break out of the prison of one’s uniqueness; not to cherish, glorify and express it.
The “self” (the soul) is, as it happens, the only means of direct access to the universal: so, the only way to “get” the pain felt by every human being is to feel one’s own pain; and the same with joy, love, awe, wonder, inspiration and everything else. The point is, though, not to construe one’s feelings as unique, but understand them as shared, universally human, experiences.
The whole enterprise of art aims to break the prison cells of our bodies, to connect us to one another in new and powerful ways, to share our insights into the universal, our feelings and thoughts, our worldviews. The art-mediated pathway to the universal might not be as direct as the “self”-oriented one, yet it may be more powerful and liberating.
It might seem that a human being of our time, rich as it is with centuries and millennia of recorded and preserved history of arts (literature, painting, sculpture) and its arguably unsurpassable achievements, could have nothing more to say, nothing of value to add; anything seemingly new would be just a forgotten old, just not quite as good. To tell you the truth, that’s the way I used to think myself. But then, doesn’t this way of thinking devalue all this history of arts, all the nearly miraculous achievements of human spirit?
These achievements are here, accessible, recorded and preserved, to enrich us, to open broader highways to the inner spirit of art, to refine our feeling and thinking “selves” – not to silence us in barren admiration.
This, in short, is the context from which I approach painting Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Sonnets in colour III: Shakespeare 19-34, 80″x80″ (Collage of individual paintings by Lena Levin)
See, as a human being he is about as far removed from me as I can hope to reach meaningfully: any further in time, space, language, culture and the whole endeavor would be hopeless (or should I say, even more hopeless than it is?)
On the one hand, we are separated by centuries, oceans, political boundaries, devastating wars, cultural and industrial revolutions, medium of expression, language, religion, gender. And still he can and does reach me and touch me (along with millions of others, of course) – to the very depth, so as to influence and shape my worldview, my understanding of life, love, and death.
If this is possible, if I can feel his pain as my pain, and his love as my love (and vice versa) – this as close to the universal pain and love of humanity as one can imagine.
Yet in an even grander scheme of things, we do belong to the same time and culture, the post-Renaissance humanistic European tradition: I still have access to the language, even though nobody speaks it anymore; all in all, we still live in a culture shaped by his stories and his time. And, for me, poetry is the second most essential art form, after painting – at least as far as responding to art is concerned; familiar from before I can remember myself, in the voice closest to me, that of my father. This means I can also directly open my senses to the art and form of his sonnets, without intermediaries of translators, without insurmountable cultural divides. I can still “get”, to some extent, the subjective, “outer”, temporal aspect of how these poems are done, their whys and wherefores.
In sum, Shakespeare sonnets promise to broaden for me both pathways to the universal spirit of art: both through my own emotions and through the great art of the past. In terms of “inner spirit of art”, I hoped to achieve a place universal enough to obliterate even the difference between a poem and a painting, and return from this place with a painting.
It must be obvious from what I’ve said that I wasn’t looking for a source of inspiration to create something uniquely my own; something original.
What I’ve really tried to do was something nearly opposite to this:
I’ve been guided by a hope to find the universal painting equivalent for each sonnet, both in terms of the feelings it conveys and in terms of how it is done; to find that place within myself that directly connects to his emotions and that place in the domain of painting which translates the sonnet.
To this end, I’ve learned each sonnet by heart, listened to it recited by others, recited it to myself, read various commentaries and analyses; and then, having soaked myself in it, tried to see it (most often, in my sleep, having read and reread it to myself in my head as I was falling asleep). The image emerges gradually in this process, sometimes clarifying itself only after I’ve started painting. But once it emerges, it has this compelling force, at least to myself, as though it is the “true”, the only possible, painting counterpart to the sonnet.
Of course, it isn’t really so; and cannot be: I have to fill the paintings with my own experiences, both visual and emotional; and stylistically, I am inevitably of our time (in spite of various stylistic “quotes” from the past in the sonnet painting). So the form these paintings take is necessarily subjective (exactly as Kandinsky says, by the way), colored by my own life, shaped by the spirit of my time.
And yet my path to them is lit by the hope that on the inner, objective, spiritual level they are indivisible from the sonnets. That their core is not “mine” and “original”, but belongs to the universal; that it comes from the same place where Shakespeare’s sonnets came from.
I am not sure I’ve adequately answered your question about strategies of creating original artwork inspired by others. But that is the point, isn’t it? The worthy goal, I believe, is not to try to do something uniquely your own, but to touch the universal, or at least something much larger than yourself, to feel oneself as a wave, or even just a drop, in this eternal ocean of art and human spirit. And this what the works of great artists help us to do, if we don’t just see their outer forms, but are touched by their innermost core. It’s “easier”, in a sense, to find this real source of inspiration through works in other medium, since you cannot directly “borrow” the outer form of a poem for a painting: you are forced to go deeper than that by the very difference between art forms.
And you know what?
For better of for worse, the result is bound to be original, whether you want it or not.
Russian born Lena Levin is a painter and linguist whose work can be viewed on her website, LenaLevin.com and purchased by clicking here. Visit her blog to read the latest updates on her journey of translating Shakespeare’s Sonnets to paintings and connect with her on Google+ or Twitter.
I’m particularly interested in what you guys think about Lena’s idea that the purpose of art should not be to create the unique, but to explore the universal as reached through our personal experience. It’s uncanny how that seems to echo Ksenia’s thoughts on writing from personal experience.