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Roots of the Muse

By 12 Aug ’07January 21st, 2012Muse

I’ve been explaining to a lot of people about the roots of the “Muse” book project that I’ve been working on the last 18 months or so. I thought I would jot down the story while it is still fresh in my mind.

Back the winter before last, I was feeling creatively stifled and was looking around for a project that I could do on the side of my daily work that would get things moving. I found this great site Aeclectic Tarot where the author has compiled thousands of tarot designs. It’s a visual feast, and I thought that I would design a deck of cards. There is a great story element in the cards and a surreal quality to the visuals that appealed to me and the way I work and see things.

I played around with the cards a bit, and asked my friend (and muse) actress Catherine Taylor-Williams to help me out by modeling a bit. The results were mixed. I quickly discovered that the rules of Tarot imagery were quite restrictive, and trying to satisfy them was not liberating me much.

But in the process, I had toyed around with the idea that there would be a story that went along with the card designs. I had laid out some pages and used the ibook page size as a format with having the book comped up that way. The pages are letter size, horizontal oriented. In Apeture, you can create a full-bleed panoramic spread of 8.5×22 inches and I started playing around with images of these dimensions.

The panoramic layout is a joy to work with in a composite. It’s kind of cinematic. Over the course of about 4 weekends, a few hours in the afternoons, I compiled a catalog in ivewmedia pro (my preferred image cataloging program) of about 2,500 images from the 300K that I have on the server. I picked images from every part of my life, travel, work, personal, everything. Whatever seemed to stand out.

I started building composites in photoshop. I would open 6 new documents at a time and bring elements into the layouts. I gave myself a 3 strikes and you’re out rule. If it took more than 3 attempts to make the layer “work” I chucked it and did something else. In a few hours I had some 20-30 composites done.

I started to feel a theme, and subsequent compositions became more focused. After I had about 50 done, I sent the files in to Apple and made my first book. This was just a sequence of images that I put in order with nothing more than intuition and chance.

Having something bound and printed changes its qualities. It becomes more “real”. I showed the book around and it was interesting to see that while some people “got it” others were baffled without a text to lead them. This really got me thinking. How do you make a book with this kind of visual experience and bring the structure of text and story to it?

Within this moment, I had an epiphany, one of the few I can say that I have ever had. There is a small spring pond in the wooded park up behind my house that I have walked by for years. As I was working on the tarot project I kept imagining an image of someone in the pond. It came to be October, and the leaves started to turn and fall, and I just up and asked Catherine if she would go into the pond (she’s Canadian, so she’s tougher than the average model). She said yes. So we went up early one morning, she stripped down to a slip and started in. Unbeknownst to us, the pond dropped off quickly. As she stepped in, she sort of slipped and was instantly in the deep water. This was a surprise, but once she caught her breath she was ok. She swam out to the center of the pond (me snapping from the shore all the while). Out in the middle there were some weeds and lily pads. She swam out among these and for a moment, she was tangled up in them. It was scary, and she panicked a little, and I thought for a moment that I would be jumping in to help her. But the moment passed, Catherine recovered, we shot some pictures, dried off and went home.

But that moment of panic stuck with me. I started thinking about the root idea of the Muse in art; that notion of a godlike being that inspires artists to greater deeds. It occurred to me that Catherine’s willingness to put herself at risk was based on no particular reward other than helping me achieve my vision. It’s a strangely self-sacrificing kind of attitude, and one that I had encountered before, in the willingness of others to contribute to my creative vision. I imagined a “what if” scenario, where there actually was a real muse, a spirit that might inhabit a person for some period of time, creating this attitude, causing a person to “become” inspiration itself.

In any case, this event and these thoughts led to the creation of the story within my images. I imagine not the life of the artist, inspired by the muse, but the life of the Muse, an immortal being endlessly cycling through the mortal world, “charged” with the task of being inspiration. The book is her existence, a dreamlike chaos of memory and experience. Being immortal, I figured, would be a confusing state of mind, especially if you aren’t allowed to be entirely aware of it.

That’s it in a nutshell.