Art by Christian Birmingham
Once upon a time, in a far away land, there was a castle. In that castle was a king and queen who had one daughter, Aurora…
What kind of story do you expect to hear when the story begins, “Once upon a time…?” It might include royalty, knights, dragons, a princess and some magic.
Art by Christian Birmingham
But what about the author of this story? What was his life like that inspired him to write such a tale?
Art by Christian Birmingham
The original origin of this fairy tale was written by a man named Charles Perrault, and called “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood.” Mr. Perrault lived from 1628 to 1703 and was an author and influential literary figure in Paris at the time. He was instrumental in the construction of the Louvre, designed a guidebook for the gardens of Versailles, and served as a secretary of state. In his upbringing , he attended the best schools, and was born into a wealthy family. One can only imagine that his surroundings: rubbing shoulders with kings, queens, princesses and the explosion of creativity that was alive in Paris at the time inspired him to write such a classic, enduring tale.
Charles Perrault, author of the first version of Sleeping Beauty
I want to introduce the idea of place and environment, and what our environment has to do with what we create as artists, writers, and creators. The author of Sleeping Beauty was influenced by gardens perhaps because of his heavy involvement with designing the gardens of Versailles—if you recall, the palace in Sleeping Beauty is overgrown by a garden overrun—of the happenings of royalty because of his familiarity with queens and kings—and with a romantic tale because of the extreme romanticism prevalent in the art and literature of the time. He let his life’s experiences seep into his writings, and created a new genre in literature derived from oral folktales, the fairy tale.
Ernest Hemmingway is famous for his blunt, bold and strong writing style, something that was developed from his years working as a newspaper writer—and the topics he wrote about: wars, violence, desolation– from his time serving in World War 1. These were all parts of Hemmingway’s environment and life that became part of his stories and legacy.
Paul Gaugin was an artist originally from Paris but because of family ties in Peru, spent much of his childhood there. He returned to France for his young adult life, but grew disheartened by the “conventional and artificial” life there. He desired something more free, more natural, so he ended up moving to Tahiti towards the end of his career to create his vision of the life he wanted. Because of his bravery and experimentation with color, his work laid the foundation for the Primitive movement in art and a return to the pastoral. However, if Gaugin had not spent his formative years in exotic Peru, would he have had the same hunger, and made the same decisions?
Edgar Allen Poe grew up as the child of two stage actors and struggled with tragedy in his early life, his father abandoning the family and mother dying the year after. He was taken in by a kindly family in Virginia, and had a brief career in the military before devoting his life to writing and literature. His wife died of tuberculosis shortly after he married her, and he seemingly never recovered. Truly, it was a life filled with tragedy, but Poe turned that tragedy into art, creating haunting pieces of literature that laid the foundation for the developing genres of mystery, horror and science fiction.
Original book published “The Raven” by Poe
But the elements that made him who he was—the artistic temperament of both of his parents, the tragedy and pain he felt, the Southern Gothic atmosphere of Richmond, Virginia…they all were part of his environment that helped create the person he became and the work he made.
There are many more countless examples, but pretty much any artist or creator that you can think of has been strongly influenced by their environment, whether they like to admit it or not. Our experiences help form who we are, as much as the choices that we make amidst those experiences. In graduate school, I began dissecting the kinds of paintings and imagery that I used again and again in my work. I returned again and again to imaged of people lying under trees—picnicking, sleeping, climbing the trees. I realized that some of my best memories from childhood were playing underneath the trees in our pear and apple orchard in the backyard, reading books, picnicking, making forts, playing, These experiences had embedded themselves in my mind so vividly that they kept coming to the surface in my art. Do you have imagery, sounds or themes that keep coming up in your own creative work? They may be worth examining to see where they may be coming from, even if you cannot pinppoint the origin of influence. As Lera Auerbach states in her book Excess of Being, “Explainable doesn’t mean imaginary.”
The Reading, by Jessica Libor, oil and gold leaf on panel
Some of us have memories and have experienced environments that we would rather not dwell on. To that I say, art is some of the most cathartic ways of dealing with bad past experiences, and who knows but your creation may help someone who has been through the same thing? It may be the catalyst someone needs to change.
Another thing to consider is, that if environment truly does shape who we are, then we have the power to choose our environment. What kind of art do you want to make? What kind of book do you want to write? What kind of music do you want to play?
Then, put yourself in an environment that supports that idea. Like the painter Paul Gaugin moved to the islands, you can move to somewhere more inspiring, even if it is temporary. I have a friend who lived in Philadelphia for a long time, and worked as a graphic designer. She made artwork here and there. This year, she bought a cabin in the mountains and moved there, still supporting herself part time with graphic design work, but has made an explosion of paintings that stem from the environment that she now lives in: the deep woods, the stars, the pathways and forest animals.
But what you digest in you mind also becomes part of your environment. So in addition to thinking about where inspires you, think of what. What kind of paintings leave you in awe? What kind of books? And music? Listen only to the best, learn from the best, surround yourself by what you truly admire, and your own skill will slowly but surely (yet sometimes quickly!) rise to the level you have set for it.
In my own life, I noticed that as I move into a new house and set up my studio, kitchen, bedroom, and living room, a new environment produces new ideas. A more organized studio begets a more organized mind. A beautiful place makes me want to create something that lives up to its surroundings.
May your art be true and a singing expression of your soul, wherever that place may be.
Article by Jessica Libor