Mark Hopkins, a sculptor in Loveland, Colorado, was offered a commission by the director of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, but the proposed subject was a bit odd. “He wanted me to do a sculpture of Noah’s Ark, including a dinosaur or two,” he said. (The Creation Museum “brings the pages of the Bible to life,” according to its Web site.) “I thought, ‘that’s ridiculous.’ I told him, ‘it will look like Dinotopia.’ It just wouldn’t make any sense, so I rejected the idea.” But he said it nicely, diplomatically, “something like, ‘Let me think about that for a while,’ because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.”
Art requires a lot of different skills, but tact is one that most art schools do not teach. Like turning down a date, an inappropriate suggestion to an artist needs to be handled in a way that makes an awkward situation not so terrible.
Many, perhaps most, artists get suggestions from people – their dealers, their collectors, their (artist) friends and spouses, someone who shows up at an exhibition opening – for new subjects. “People say to me, ‘I know an interesting person you’d want to paint,’” said Jamie Wyeth. “Well, I’m not interested in painting interesting people, thank you very much. I don’t say that to them. I say something like ‘fine’ or ‘Oh, great!’ and just forget about it.” He doesn’t want to be rude, either.
Sometimes, the recommendation isn’t for new things but old ones. Dealers have told Northampton, Massachusetts artist Scott Prior, “’this painting I could have sold 10 times,’ and I guess the suggestion is to keep doing the same thing.” Other people come up with ideas for him, based on other interior or exterior views he has done at some point in his career: “You should paint my summer place. You’d love the view from the deck.” Things like that. Prior takes a deep breath, also wanting to be agreeable, and says “something like ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ or ‘I’ll have to check that out,’” hoping that the subject gets changed.
Where do an artist’s ideas come from? From dreams or their own experiences or someone else’s art? Quite often all of the above, no doubt. Sculptor Petah Coyne claimed that “travel gives me so many ideas. The world is full of amazing visuals.” Julian Opie, a British sculptor, claimed that “I get loads of ideas from past artists, from history.” Artist Tula Telfair stated that she isn’t particularly interested in other people’s ideas because she has so many of her own, based on themes she has pursued in earlier imagined landscapes. New ideas have to get in line. Still, the suggestions from other people keep on coming and, at times, they get taken up. Painter Eric Fischl noted that a dealer of his work in Germany “suggested I should explore making paintings based on the bullfight.” He liked the idea and pursued it.
Fischl isn’t a sports or animal artist, but the subject allowed him to explore a long-standing theme in his work, the rituals of masculinity, but this time seen from a different vantage point: The toreador faces down the brute force in himself.
Telfair said that she “once had a dealer who kept telling me what I should do. He seemed like a frustrated artist,” but most suggestions are meant well and reflect the fact that these viewers are connecting to the art in some positive way, something that triggers their own ideas or memories.
A different type of suggestion occurs with sculptor Alan Magee, who has incorporated old dolls and household objects into his work as though these were archaeological finds. “People who know my work have given my gifts of metal objects and other things they have dug up in a field,” he said. Fellow artist Lois Dodd “gave me a rusted metal cup she found under her barn, because she knows I like these kinds of things.” And, he does like these things. “They act as a provocation to me. They seem to be saying, ‘What do I remind you of? What can you do with me?’”
That wasn’t the only time. Magee must be known for taking inspiration from what otherwise would go to the town dump, and he recalled that a writer friend, Barry Lopez, “sent me this heavy gracefully bent screw from the ruin of a remote mining site in Alaska.” The resulting artwork, called “Timepiece,” he said, “was shaped by thinking about Barry and his work, about the reach of time (history and prehistory) in his books.”
By Daniel Grant