Northbound: Lake County, Colorado

"Slothful bitches": the artist muses on the capricious nature of muses (ArtsWeek)

Artists don’t decide what their calling is. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Northbound: Lake County, Colorado
Northbound: Lake County, Colorado

When I set out to become a photographer way back in 2012 I had an idea what I was going to be. I live in Colorado, you see, so I was going to shoot majestic western landscapes. You know, like every other photographer in the state. I even bought a wide-angle lens for the purpose, not really understanding that wasn’t what wide-angles were for. They can be used for certain types of outdoor expansive shots, but they’re really great for making the indoors look huge.

But then something happened. I accidentally wandered by a classic car show, thought what the heck, and all of a sudden I became a mid-century auto design specialist. This was a huge focus of my work for a couple of years and I’m proud of a lot of these shots, especially stuff like this 1933 Graham I found at the Greenwood Car Show in Seattle.

1933 Graham Hood Ornament
1933 Graham Hood Ornament

Sadly, my car shots didn’t sell very well. “One Mile” went a few times, and my Porsche image does well, but that’s about it. I love this kind of work, but a big part of the objective in becoming a photographer was to connect with an audience. I spent over three decades as a failed poet, and have plenty of obscurity to hold me. So these days I do very little car shooting. (If you’d like one of my car photos, or all of them, ping me – I’ll make you a deal.)

I loved architecture, but that didn’t sell, either.

I was always working to learn how to take other types of images, of course. My thing with cars gave me some insight into old trains, for instance, and I continued playing with landscapes when I found them. I also bought a macro lens and discovered orchids.

Brooks Locomotive Works #30: Colorado Railroad Museum, Golden CO
Brooks Locomotive Works #30: Colorado Railroad Museum, Golden CO
Ice Blue: Denver Botanic Gardens
Ice Blue: Denver Botanic Gardens

As you can see, I have explored some very different avenues.

But a curious thing happened on the way to the Pulitzer. Yesterday I hung a show at a restaurant in my neighborhood, the wonderful Mead St. Station. It features my most recent work, much of which was accomplished on my galavanting about Northern Wyoming and the Colorado mountains last month. After I finished I looked the main wall over. What I saw sort of stopped me, because I appear to have wandered back around to being the photographer I thought I was going to be in the first place. By accident. If you scroll down my Ello page (hi, I’m @doc), this show centers on the first Mint Bar neon shot I posted, the two railroad track shots (“Northbound” and “Southbound”), my new horse buddy (“Buck”), the Wyo Theater neon, and Twin Lakes/Mt. Rinker (I originally misidentified that one as Mt. Elbert, which at the moment I was capturing the image was looming pretty much directly behind me; hey, I’m a photographer, not a ranger). Add in the everpresent “Ed,” the train shot above, and “Sand Dunes: Dawn,” and we have an extremely western show, with plenty of emphasis on the expansive vistas that define the Rocky Mountain region.

And now, the part about art and muses.

I like where I am, but I didn’t get here through any particular act of intent.

In my last book of poetry I mused, if you will, on muses and on the ways in which they manipulate the artist, oftentimes in ways that are patently destructive. If you want to think of Calliope, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, and their capricious sisters as parasites, eating their hosts away from the insides, go for it. I won’t dispute you.

The most pointed attack on my fonts of inspiration comes in a poem called “The Muses of Whitechapel,” in which I ground a vignette of the psychic violence they wreak on the artist in a bitter soup of Jack the Ripper imagery (which probably most readers would miss, but that’s another post for another day).

The Muses of Whitechapel

Toffs, they was,
all collars and cuffs going
on and on about muses.

You've come to the right place, then, I says – the
Chapel's thick with 'em.
			And off they went, like
cocks after a ladybird.

'Course, they don't all want singin' or dancin' or
caperin' on a stage. Muses are slothful bitches, 'round here,
shivs or sawblades or
'round the corner with a sock full of sand.

Lizzy up the street last week? Gutted like a haddock.
Which muse you reckon that was?

I finally concluded that my writing career had not been what I thought it was. It hadn’t done me good. It hadn’t been cathartic. It hadn’t helped me toward happiness. Instead, my muse had compelled me to wallow in my misery, to indulge it, and worse, to create more misery for myself so that I’d have something to write about.

If muses were actual beings instead of metaphorical constructs, I could safely argue that no one in my life ever did me more lasting harm.

More to the point of today’s musing, though, is the ridiculous idea that we artists have any real control over what it is that we do. Sometimes a writer, for instance, will produce a commissioned piece – an inauguration poem, for instance, or a work lauding his/her patron. I have read a lot of these, up to and including Maya Angelou’s celebrated “On the Pulse of the Morning,” her inauguration poem for Bill Clinton, and I can say without reservation that they suck. All of them, without exception. Muses don’t dance on command. You also had, before the advent of photography, the trope of the Portait of the Famous Personage Striking a Noble Pose®. Many of these are quite famous today, and they were no doubt technically adept. But have you ever seen a portrait of George Washington that evoked passion in you? Or do these pieces affect you in much the way a dry high school history class did? When those sittings were taking place I imagine Mnḗmē sitting in the corner wishing someone would kill her, sort of like Penny when Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj are talking about science.

Now “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” that was a different story. Leutze’s muse was in full flight there. There’s passion, verve, joy, drama – in other words, Mnḗmē at her finest.

The point I’m getting at is that the greatest art results from the moments when ideas come to us. Artists don’t sit down and decide how they’ll be inspired. Their brains are wired into worlds they don’t understand and cannot control. When they’re in the midst of a dry spell, they can try to force it, they can say I’m going to write about/paint about/dance about X, but it’s always sterile. The audience can tell what’s real and what’s contrived.

If you are an artist, you’re not driving. The muse is.

In 2012 I thought I was going to be a landscape photographer. But instead, a complete accident turned me into a classic car photographer. Another semi-accident turned me into that least masculine of artists, the flower photographer.

Springtime in Colorado
Springtime in Colorado

And now, I have been led back around to the initial “plan.” I don’t know why. Why is unknowable. I merely follow whatever road I find myself on. I may have a professional agenda (become a great photographer, sell lots of shots, open a gallery, etc.) but the idea that I’m pursuing a creative strategy is pure folly. I may spend the rest my days shooting landscapes. I may never produce another decent panorama.

I have no idea where the muse is taking me. I suspect that photography affords her fewer opportunities to wreck my soul than did poetry, so that’s good. But other than that, all I can say is that I’m sitting in the passenger seat, camera in my lap, enjoying the ride.

US 285, Kenosha Pass entering South Park, Colorado
US 285, Kenosha Pass Entering South Park, Colorado
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