Museums as Inspiration

Costumes at the Chagall exhibit at LACMA
Chagall at LACMA

I have always loved visiting museums and art galleries. The giant public galleries like LACMA or MoMA or the Art Gallery of NSW, share a wonderful sense of serenity and grandeur, especially in the permanent collections. The high ceilings, the quality of the light, both natural and architectural, and the general invitation to contemplation are wonderful.

Host and mentor of Project Runway, the genial Tim Gunn, described MoMA as his “church”, and I know exactly what he meant. There is a spiritual refreshment to visiting these places. Creativity is celebrated and explored.

“If I had to choose a single destination where I’d be held captive for the rest of my time in New York, I’d choose the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” ~Tim Gunn

Some years ago I had the opportunity to see a Picasso retrospective in Sydney, and was overcome by the brilliance. Every where I looked I saw other people with evidently the same dazed reaction. Walking through, all sense of time suspended. It was amazing. Then a few years later, I visited New York and saw some more Picasso – an enormous carved marble head resting on a tiny point. It was so perfectly balanced that it seemed like it was inflated and floating. How could this grey rock create such an impression of lightness? 

The irony of that is that Picasso himself was bemused by the idea of working in marble, while he preferred to use found objects and other more accessible natural materials:

” It seems strange to me that we ever arrived at the idea of making statues from marble. I understand how you can see something in the root of a tree, a crevice in a wall, a corroded bit of stone, or a pebble….But marble?” 

I also like other kinds of museums. One of my favorite outings as a teenager (yes as old as that) was to go to the Museum of Natural History in Sydney. I loved the miniature dioramas, boxes inside a frame with tiny models of dinosaurs or other strange environments. The NHM here in Los Angeles is just as fun – the deep, velvet quiet of the minerals and gemstones gallery, the neat miniatures depicting local California history (you can rent pieces for teaching purposes), and then the busy, loudness of the interactive dino dig for the kids.

When I leave places with dioramas, I always want to make my own. A few years ago I held a contest for kids to make mini-dioramas from recycled materials through Natural Life Magazine, where I wrote a regular column at the time. The creativity was wonderful. School kids sometimes are asked to make “shoebox dioramas” as book reports. So envious!

Exhibits at the Craft and Folk Art Museum here in LA always intrigue from the use of materials. When I see soft materials formed to make solid shapes, or mixed media layered and combined in a visual dialogue, or practical objects made whimsical, I get excited and inspired again. I want to run home and make stuff – dolls or visual art or garments or accessories.

mages of "Urban Light" by Chris Burden that is on display at the front entrance of LACMA
Available for anyone to see in front of the museum

I hit up the Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage exhibit at LACMA  last winter, a noisy, bright, vivid exhibit.  The individual pieces had a painterly, hand-made feeling – meant to move.  And the quick and brief illustrations that guided the team of makers were also interesting. As a former Costume Designer myself, I thought that the level of detail might be lost in some of the costumes from a distance, but the performers would see the richness of the texture and the fine details that would surely enhance their performances. Afterwards, I  was filled with the desire to create fabrics.  I have some ideas percolating around in my head and sketches.

This is why it is neat to go and breath in the art – even when the level of excellence is beyond anything I could hope to reach with my own artisan skills. 

My Challenge for You:

Choose a museum in your local area, visit it, and then be inspired to move forward on (at least) one idea that is a tangent inspired by something there. You need not create a finished project – just take the first action, the first step. Sketch your idea, or mindstorm the topic; plan a short story based on a painting or sculpture; think how an image might translate to a textile and pull out the color palette; plan to recreate a photo in embroidery or watercolor. 

I’ll play along, and post a video soon! In the meantime, if you’d like to talk about your inspirations and project ideas coming from museum visits, please come on over and join my Facebook Group. It’s the place to be to get in on giveaways of books and other cool things I get asked to review too. 

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