Category Archives: Gay Spirit
This week’s “Musing on Inspiration” features talented, eclectic artist and photographer–and my good friend–Peter Grahame. Self taught, Peter began his art making in 1982 by creating masks for the theater and as wall sculptures. He also created mixed media works using his own photography with found objects. Later, he found he really enjoyed making transformational photographs with his naked friends, and this led to his more recent digital imaging. “Whatever I create, it is about spiritual discovery,” he says. He makes photos of nature and the technological world, as well.
His work has been presented in numerous theatrical productions, and in many gallery exhibits in the Chicago area and in New Mexico. Peter has worked as an actor, director, advertising writer, designer and art teacher. He lives with his life partner, Henry Seale, in Albuquerque. They own and operate Ironic Horse Studio in their home. Henry plays the Renaissance recorder, so their gallery studio home is always filled with music, art… peace.
Peter is the author of CONTEMPLATIONS OF THE HEART: A BOOK OF MALE SPIRIT, which he describes as transformational, spirit-centered male nude photography and writing.. “It’s about self image and sharing our gifts with the larger culture from which we spring.” He also has designed, among others, the stunning cover for my own novel, THE REST OF OUR LIVES, published by Lethe Press.
Visit Peter and learn more about his work at http://www.ironic-horse.com.
TSC: How do you define ‘inspiration’ for yourself?
PG: I honestly don’t know how to define such a mysterious process. Yet I think maybe inspiration is simply getting an idea to create something, and I also think one must be open to it. You never know where an inspiration may come from. Over the years I think I’ve taught myself to “look,” to really “see,” you know? Recently I stepped out of a store and looked up to see a few small dark red leaves on a tree limb against a very blue sky, the light from behind coming through… It was quite breathtaking to me. I could easily have missed it, but I’ve learned to keep looking around me to see what there is to see. Maybe I won’t use that inspiring moment right away, but I do feel it enters my psyche to be added to whatever artistic sense I may possess, and it really does influence my work in that way, just by being in my mental file, you know? I may not even consciously recall it when I’m working on some project, but it’s there.
TSC: What do you think first inspired you to become a writer/artist? Can you identify a moment or experience or influence that turned you in that direction? And where did it lead you?
PG: I actually stumbled on the track to developing a visual art for myself because I needed a gift for a friend. It was in 1982, I think. I saw a decorative mask I was sure he would like, but the price tag was high, and I thought, “I could make something like that.” So I got some materials and made him a Mardi Gras-style mask on a stick. I simply figured out how to do it. The friend just loved it. And I fell in love with the whole idea of making masks, using every type of material, and picking up tips from friends who were designers along the way. I made masks for years, masks as wall sculptures, masks for the theater, even taught it in workshops, and also got involved in other mixed media work, too. Around 1991, I acquired a good 35mm camera to make my own slides of my artwork, but then I got much more interested in the camera itself as an art tool. Well, soon I got interested in making photos of my naked male friends! I found myself interested in expressing our Gay spiritual selves, which includes our sexual expressions, of course, although I didn’t get into making actual sex pictures. What’s been important to me is photographing the guys as they really are, all shapes, sizes, ages and colors. (Nobody under 18, of course.) I wanted to present something affirmative about self image – most especially for Gay men – that we’re all fine just the way we are. In 2000 I started practicing Photoshop, eventually acquired a very good digital camera, and now I’m really hooked on making art that way. My art life really did start with that first mask. I was about 37 then. I’m 65 now. Was there lots of self doubt and anxiety along the way? Oh yes.
But it’s been 28 years now of allowing myself to express myself in many different ways. I also love making photos of nature, architecture and everything else. My digital montage imaging is drawn almost exclusively from photos I make myself.
TSC: What is your most ‘inspired’ work? Why?
PG: In 2006, I was able to publish my book, Contemplations of the Heart, A Book of Male Spirit, which features male nude photography and digital imaging.To me, it is the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I have ever done – right up there with my happy and loving long time relationship with my partner, Henry. That book is my most inspired work because I really feel I opened myself completely to the process -–from the very enjoyable making of the images with these wonderful very open and giving guys, to the writing, the layout – the whole thing just flowed and seemed to create itself without too many problems. I really mean that. And I’m very proud of it and deeply gratified that I was able to do it.
TSC: Describe your muse, and how you invoke your muse, and do you use rituals?
PG: My loving partner Henry really is my muse because he is so supportive and encouraging – and inspiring! – of everything I want to create. And I do support and encourage him that way, too. Henry often points out my intuitive, sub-conscious imaging ability to me, especially when I don’t see it myself. He is also able, gently, of course, to tell me when something “ain’t quite it” – which I sometimes balk at, at first, but greatly appreciate, because in the end, he’s usually right! Oh, I do suppose I would enjoy having a lovely young hunky male angelic presence appear to me in my dark moments to simply pour inspiration all over me, but that hasn’t happened yet. My very real Henry is a much better muse for me, and I for him, and we’re very grateful for that. Besides, I think he’s hunky dunky anyway.
As for rituals, although I do like the whole idea of performing a ritual before beginning any creative process, and I have actually tried to create one or two rituals, the practice never lasts very long. I usually just want to jump right in whenever I feel ready to go. So I guess just jumping right in is my ritual.
TSC: What is your take on the notion that any artistic creative work is more about perspiration than inspiration?
PG: I don’t think you can have one without the other. If you’re not inspired, what’s the use of working up a sweat? And just working up a sweat isn’t necessarily going to bring on inspiration. Although it might. If you know you want to create something, and you have this basic idea but no real inspiration yet, sometimes just getting started can open you to the inspiration. But you know, once you get the inspiration, whatever it is your inspired to create isn’t going to just burst into being. You will have to work at it. That’s obvious and, depending on what it is, it might take a lot of sweat to get it into being. There are creative types who do like to get the inspired idea, but don’t much like seeing it through to completion. I’m an Aries and we Aries types are supposed to be like that, and sometimes I am. I think that’s why I often have several projects going at once so that if I get bored with one project, I can stop and move on to something else. I have taught myself, though, not to hurry a project just because I want to get it finished. If I do that, it’s never quite what it could be.
TSC: What do you think is the most problematic misconception about inspiration?
PG: It’s that if you feel you have received a genuine inspiration, then everything ought to just flow along perfectly, right? No. That notion doesn’t allow an inspiration to evolve and change with whatever might occur along the way. Here’s an example. Let’s say you get this brilliant inspiration and you start working on it, when suddenly something goes terribly wrong and you feel you really messed up – so you get upset and toss the whole thing out and start over. What’s worse, you may then doubt the validity of that initial inspiration. I think it’s far more rewarding to pause, take a deep breath, and then look at the whole thing a little deeper, and see what might come out of that so-called mistake. For instance, one time I was working on a project and suddenly I quite literally burned a hole in it. True Aries type that I am, at first I naturally got angry at myself and felt I had ruined it and had to throw it away and get new materials and start all over and maybe it was just all a dumb idea anyway! Well, after the tantrum, I had the sense to take that breath, and I kind of looked at the mistake sideways, you know? I wound up covering the burn in such a way that the project actually turned into something better than I had originally intended. The messed up inspiration evolved into a better inspiration. I’m sure this has parallels in writing and other art forms, too.
But sometimes, you know, you may indeed have to just start over. It takes practice and a growing belief in your abilities to know when to end it and try something else. Oh yes, and tangent to this is a quote I came across a long time ago that I really love: “Just because you’re an artistic genius doesn’t mean that every idea you have is a good idea!”
And lastly, inspiration is not the sole province of “The Arts.” Inspiration can happen to anybody for any reason. From housework to ditch digging to solving a business problem to raising children to having a relationship, you name it. Being open to inspiration can make anything and everything an art form.
TSC: What is the most ‘inspired’ work you’ve come across so far?
PG: Monet’s Haystacks. I was in a fine art museum, turned a corner, and there in front of me were several paintings from the series. I had never seen them in real life before. I was stopped in my tracks, quite stunned by Monet’s astonishing expressions of the mystical light on simple ordinary haystacks in a field. My eyes spontaneously filled with tears, because I was so moved by the beauty and the artistry. That was the beginning of a life long practice for me to see and try to express the great beauty in the ordinary world around me. But that’s the lovely irony, isn’t it? When we really look at the world, it isn’t ordinary at all. The natural world moment to moment is filled with the most enchanting magic.
TSC: List a few tools or practices or methods that work reliably for you to get you in the mood to create.
PG: Since I work primarily with photography now, I take what I call my “Buddha walks.” I use a technique that a fine photographer friend passed on to me years ago. It actually started because he had to conserve on the cost of film! He went on walks and allowed himself only 6 pictures per walk. I learned from him to not just go out and point and shoot hundreds of frames and then come home and hopefully edit all that down to a few good images. Rather, I walk and try to really look, see something engaging, and then carefully compose and frame the image in the viewfinder. It helps me connect, and be a part of it. And I feel I’ve gotten some very fine images this way. Even now, when a digital camera would allow me to make hundreds of images at a time with no extra costs, I do resist. I go out on a Buddha walk to practice seeing and try to limit myself to just a few images at a time. Of course, even so, not every single image is fantastic, but I have accumulated a collection I really like. I call them Buddha walks, or maybe I should say Zen Buddha walks, because this practice can be very serene and meditative and calming to my soul, as well as inspiring.
TSC: What are you currently feeling inspired to do?
PG: I have had the opportunity to design three book covers for Toby Johnson, for his Gay Perspective and Secret Matter, and for the upcoming new edition of his Getting Life in Perspective. And I also enjoyed designing the cover for The Rest of Our Lives. So I’m looking forward to doing more of this kind of thing. I also want to edit and compile quite a number of Haiku I have composed over the years with the idea of matching them up with some of my Buddha walk images, and I would like to create a book of these. I also want to return to creating mandala images using some of my natural world photos. And these days I haven’t stopped much to make something using mixed media, as I did with masks and other art forms years ago. I do want to step away from the computer and the camera and really allow myself to be inspired to do some work with my hands again. In any case, everything I try to create is reflective of inner spiritual discovery. And it’s all about “magical realism” for me. Because reality really is magic…
Thanks for letting me have the opportunity to answer some of your inspired questions !
This week in my continuing series of interviews with writers and other artists on the subject of inspiration, I present Wayne Courtois, author of the poignant memoir REPORT FROM WINTER, published by Lethe Press. I recently read and reviewed this achingly bittersweet account of Wayne’s return to his hometown and the events–internal and external–surrounding his mother’s death.
He was born in Portland, Maine, and currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his husband-in-every-sense-but-legal, Ralph Seligman. In January 2010 they celebrated 21 years together! A graduate of the MFA Program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Wayne is also the author of the novel MY NAME IS RAND, published by Suspect Thoughts Press. His short fiction has appeared in journals including The Greensboro Review and Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly; in the webzines suspect thoughts: a journal of subversive writing and Velvet Mafia; and in anthologies such as Of the Flesh, Love Under Foot, Best Gay Erotica, Out of Control, and Country Boys. Nonfiction work has appeared in I Do/I Don’t: Queers on Marriage; Walking Higher: Gay Men Write about the Deaths of Their Mothers; and the forthcoming The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered.
Wayne has served on his local Ryan White Planning Council, and as a grantwriter in the nonprofit sector he has helped to raise millions for HIV/AIDS services, hospice care, and the arts. Currently he is working on a book-length work of speculative fiction. Please visit www.reportfromwinter.com and write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
TSC: How do you define ‘inspiration’ for yourself?
WC: A speck of an idea, something that needs to be teased and worried into substance. It could be a feeling, an image, or even a title or opening line—something I can’t leave alone. Once I was driving home from work and a sentence appeared in my head—“Warren Stone was a big boy, with big hands.” It was an amazing moment because usually inspiration is more vague than that! But that became the opening line of my novel Hands of Stone, one of the unfinished projects I have lying around.
TSC: What do you think first inspired you to become a writer/artist? Can you identify a moment or experience or influence that turned you in that direction?
WC: It started early, I can’t even remember when; but I’ve always loved language, and the way words look on a page. Those connections among the look and sound and meaning of a word, and how they all come together—it’s magic! I tried to describe my childhood love of books and reading in A Report from Winter:
When I really liked a book I read it very slowly, not wanting to miss a thing—not a word, not even a space between words. I read the fine print of the publication history, noted how the chapter headings looked, felt each page between my fingertips. Was there anyone else in the world who lived only to experience these things? Was it normal to study the red ink edging the pages, and how it bled just slightly into the white margins?
It’s true, I didn’t know any other kids who were as nuts about books and reading as I was. I felt very much like a loner in that respect.
TSC: Describe the ‘inspired’ you. What does he/she look or feel like?
WC: Well, I don’t think I look any different when I’m inspired! ‘Quietly animated’ might be the best way to put it—completely focused on what I’m doing, creating it or making it better. It’s a great feeling, because for a few minutes or hours I’m no longer a square peg knocking against a round hole—I’ve found the place where I “fit” in the world.
TSC: What is your most ‘inspired’ work? Why?
WC: Here’s the easy answer: any work that makes it to the finish line counts as being more inspired than the unfinished manuscripts lying around! Now for the hard answer: I don’t know; perhaps it’s not for me to say. In the end, it’s up to the reader to decide whether a work is “inspired” or not—whether storytelling, language, passion, and metaphor all come together into a great reading experience.
TSC: Who or what or where is your muse? How do you invoke your muse? Rituals?
WC: I don’t believe in the concept of a “muse.” Once you ascribe your creative ability to something beyond your control, you run the risk of losing it. Living without a muse is easier: you don’t have to “invoke” it, or engage in a lot of OCD rituals just to get yourself going.
I’ve seen some authors describe their muses as contrary, uncooperative bitches. Maybe these writers are just letting off steam because the creative process can be so frustrating. On the other hand, Rollo May, in his book The Courage to Create, offered the theory that there has to be inner conflict in order for the artist to produce his best work. Only when there is an obstacle—something to be overcome—will the creative work be optimal. So perhaps you do have to engage your internal, uncooperative bitch, whether you call it a muse or not. I have to admit that conflict does make the sparks fly.
TSC: What is your take on the notion that writing—or any creative work—is more about perspiration than inspiration?
WC: I think people fall prey to believing that creative work “comes easy” to those who have talent. What they don’t realize is that there’s a lot of hard work involved. And “talent” is such an elusive concept—can anyone really say what it means?
I once heard an NPR interview with the late playwright August Wilson, in which he talked about his experience with the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center. For years he submitted plays to the Conference, and year after year they were rejected. August talked to the executive director and asked, “What do I have to do to get a play accepted for a workshop? I’m doing the best I can, I’m writing at the top of my talent.” The director said, “Well, then, you have to write above your talent.” Wilson was nonplussed: “How do I do that?” The director’s basic answer was, “You just do it.”
Somehow—who knows how?—Wilson figured out how to do it. The next play he wrote, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was not only accepted for the workshop but eventually put him on the map. I think this elusive thing called “talent” is just the correct formulation of inspiration plus perspiration. And yes, I’m sure the greater part of it is perspiration. You have to be willing to work to get the results you want. That’s why many people give up writing, or painting, or any kind of artistic activity: they find out how much work it is, and they lose interest.
TSC: What do you think is the most common—or problematic—myth or misconception about inspiration?
WC: A common misconception is the one that says inspiration comes from outside you, rather than from within. Kafka said you had only to become quiet and still and eventually the world would “roll in ecstasy at your feet.” I don’t know if it’s quite that simple—unless you’re Kafka—but I think it’s true that you have to become quiet, or meditate, or at least be aware of your thoughts, in order for inspiration to come.
TSC: What is the most ‘inspired’ work you’ve come across so far?
WC: There is no single work that I would call “most inspired,” but there are bodies of work by particular artists that I admire and return to again and again. John Ashbery comes to mind, because his approach to poetry seems so intuitive and original. I used to have a two-in-one edition of Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Houseboat Days, and for years that book was a kind of bible for me. I managed to lose it, back in the mid-80’s sometime, and out of all of the books I’ve lost over the years that is the loss that grieves me the most.
Ashbery has described his concept of a poem as a “snapshot” of whatever is crossing his mind at a particular moment. You must have to have a lively and highly educated imagination to be able to produce “snapshots” that aren’t just random views of a landfill.
TSC: List a few tools or practices or methods that work reliably for you to get you in the mood to create. How do you shift into your ‘zone’?
WC: Sometimes when I’m writing I like to listen to music. Most recently I’ve been listening a lot to Iron & Wine, because of the vivid, stirring imagery in Sam Beam’s lyrics. When I’m not writing, my favorite activity is still reading. We’re in a golden age of literary biographies right now, there have been such great ones coming out. First there was Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, which he followed up with the monumental Cheever: A Life; and now we have Flannery, Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka.
These biographies bring you up close to the writing life. A common thread among them is that they show how much these writers suffered. You’d think that might would drive a person away, but it only gets me fired up. I’m reading the Carver biography right now, and his tremendous drive to keep writing in spite of everything makes me want to get up—or sit down, as the case may be—and do something.
TSC: What are you currently feeling inspired to do?
WC: I’m inspired to get more books out there! My novel Tales My Body Told Me, which I started working on in 1997, is scheduled for Fall release by Lethe Press. I have two erotic novels, one of them in the spec fic genre, that I want to finish; I want to go back and revise a literary novel that I completed in the ‘90s and needs some retooling; I want to pull an anthology of short fiction together; and I want to complete a book of personal essays that would be kind of a follow-up to A Report from Winter. And…hey Dan, I forgot to ask, is there a word limit on this interview…?