Friday, August 26, 2005

Riding The Waves

My nights were preoccupied by plumb-bobs and lines last week. The bobs that appeared in my dreams were not put to practical use, however. They were "primitive" constructions, fashioned from carved wood, rope, animal skin, and stretched intestine, artifacts of the sort one admires at the American Museum of Natural History. These crude bobs were hung as ornaments from the ceiling of a low-lit room and, sleeping, I walked among them approvingly.

But the strange tools soon preoccupied my waking hours, too. At work, I daydreamed of them. On the subway, I pondered their construction. After a few days of this obsessive thinking, I realized that I would not be rid of the bobs until they were fabricated. Nevertheless, I put off the inevitable, stubbornly continuing to work on the paintings already in progress. If, while in the studio, my thoughts returned to the plumb lines, I stopped working and went for a long run.

I was determined to fight off (or to ignore) the vagrant inspiration. Where were these bobs coming from, I wondered? By the end of the week, sketches littered my day job desk, only partially obscured by legitimate paperwork. But what do they mean? I began to feel like Richard Dreyfuss's character in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," frantically impelled to work at some odd creation.

Finally, I heeded the call; I could hold out no longer. I departed work on Monday evening and headed directly to Home Depot. One hour later, I was a hundred dollars poorer, but bob ready.

Such bouts of inspiration, particularly those that require a dramatic shift in medium or concept, are equal parts giddy delirium and raw self-doubt. Most worrisome to me was the fact that these inspired sparks usually mark the beginning of what I call the artist's trough phase. The sparks are the creative burst that precedes the violent thrust under. (See Point B in the above wave diagram).

The creative process has much in common with a wave. When the artist finds herself atop a crest (Points A and F), life is grand. This peak is short-lived, however, and plateaus are rare; the bow of the artist's little boat begins to nose downward soon enough. Heading downslope is not all bad; during the descent, the artist is generally content, busy producing work associated with her last creative crest. But as the boat's bow nears the base line, she begins to fret...about everything.

I'd been idling in this fretful stage for the last two months but, sometime last week, I was pulled under, troughward.

Generally, I'm an upbeat individual. Despite some seemingly pessimistic attitudes regarding long-term ecological health, not a day goes by that I don't appreciate being here. The world is an amusement park of ideas and discoveries, and I simply can't understand how anyone could be bored or uninspired. That said, the creative troughs do pull me very low. I become self-absorbed, distracted, pessimistic, and argumentative. In short, I'm not a pleasant person to be around.

There are two ways for an artist to ride out a creative slump. I might opt to stop producing work for a spell, hoping that a break will sort things out. Alternatively, I can work wildly, embracing whatever inspiration compels me. More often than not, the latter, active approach is the one I choose. Something useful may come of the mess.

The current trough, though, caught me unawares. I was so focused on the plumb-bob dreams that I didn't take notice when my little boat plunged into the wave's trough. Last night, I quite suddenly (and quite horribly) realized that I was soaked. Red-faced and ashamed, I stood in the center of my studio and felt as though my little world was collapsing. Now, I can only hang on and ride out the trough.

Sometimes they last months, sometimes weeks, sometimes days. The short ones aren't so bad. My last trough was pretty rough, but I used exercise and reading to carry on. I feared, then, that the dip was merely a preview of the next, and so now I hope that the current trough is the "Big One," the 9.5. I'd like to get it over with!

Curiously, I remain enamored of the plumb-bobs. Although I smashed the sculptures last night and returned the unused Home Depot purchases this morning, I'm still convinced that the bobs are significant. Why did I start dreaming of plumb lines? Excepting the many pages of scribbled construction plans and hasty notes, it seems as though the plumb lines I dreamed of will never be made. Too bad. I could use one now. I'd like to know how deep this trough is!

Photo credits: "The Lord's Daily Way" Bible Study at, "The Physics Classroom" Wave Tutorial, The U.S. Navy Science & Technology Focus

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