Invoking the Muse

I started design work on my next phoenix project this morning. Right now there are only three sure things about it: it’s going to be evening wear, it’s going to have phoenixes, and it’s going to be faaaaaaabulous, dahhhling, fabulous.

I’m fairly certain it will have a bell-shaped silhouette (think “big floofy skirt”), and that the theme will be death/fire/rebirth. Colors, of course, will be red, orange, yellow, black. Other than that, it’s totally undefined.

Yeah. Sounds like total chaos to me, too. How does one birth a design, a finished piece, out of a few ideas and a lot of primal chaos?

Well, that’s what the Muse is for. The ancient bards started every tale by invoking the Muse, the divine goddess of inspiration who would come down and tell the tale, using the singer’s body and voice. The Romans believed in a thing called a genius – the creative spirit that guided the work of artists. (In fact, until Michelangelo, artists didn’t sign their work because they believed the genius was responsible for the creation – the artist was merely the vehicle.)¬†For me, there is definitely an aspect of divine madness when looking for ideas, and I start every project with an invocation to the Muse. If she doesn’t come down to sing, then the project is stillborn, and that’s that. I’ve had it happen lots of times, very frustratingly.

OK, but so how does one invoke the Muse? Deities of inspiration are notoriously fickle, as anyone suffering writer’s block can attest. How does one lure in divine inspiration?

Twyla Tharp approaches it by “scratching”, which is basically what I’m doing now. In The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use It For Life, she describes scratching like this:

You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving onward and upward.

Scratching takes many shapes. A fashion designer is scratching when he visits vintage clothing stores, studies movie videos, and parks himself at a sidewalk cafe to see what the pedestrians are wearing.

A film director is scratching when she grabs a flight to Rome, trusting that she will get her next big idea in that inspiring city. The act of changing your environment is the scratch.

…When I’m scratching, I’m improvising. Like a jazz musician jamming for an hour to find a few interesting notes, a choreographer looks for interesting movement. I didn’t start out knowing this; it came to me over time, as I realized that I would never get to the essential core of movement and dance through a cerebral process. I could prepare, order, organize, structure, and edit my creativity in my head, but I couldn’t think my way into a dance. To generate ideas, I had to move. It’s the same if you’re a painter: You can’t imagine the work, you can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas – when you actually do something physical.

Scratching, for me, is like playing with a kitten. You take a bunch of tinfoil, crumple it into tiny balls, and roll them past the kitten. Sooner or later, even the most jaded of kittens will pounce, and then you play with the kitten. For me, the tinfoil balls are ideas, and I simply flip through them in rapid order, trusting that the Muse will eventually be lured close enough to engage.

So my studio is now littered with books on haute couture (photo after photo of fabulous and occasionally bizarre outfits from the top couturiers), I’ve been listening to the same song on repeat for an hour and a half, and I’ve got five or six sketches and a whole bunch of ideas that need to be draped onto the dress form once my crinoline arrives. (I’ve also ordered Dior Couture from Amazon, as Christian Dior is the couturier that currently resonates most closely with what I’m doing.) Later I’ll do mind maps and mood boards and stuff like that, but right now I’m just scratching for ideas. It’s fun! I’m much less stressed out than I was when I got home.

I’ve also started drafting patterns for the yardage that’s going on the loom, working on adapting a 20-shaft straight draw pattern for a 24-shaft point draw. It’s trickier than I expected, but I really like the pattern, so I’m persisting.

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