Ghosts of Columbus

Sometimes people ask the oddest questions. For example: “Do you draw and paint every day, or only when you are inspired?” What, I wonder, is the assumption underlying the question? That artists laze around, waiting for Inspiration to arrive like a package in the mail from Amazon? My answer is: “I work in the studio five or six days a week. I draw nearly every day and paint as often as possible. If Inspiration happens to visit, I consider myself fortunate.”

But this answer avoids a more interesting implication of the question. What in the world is Inspiration, anyway? I’d like an answer, but I don’t have one; Inspiration is a mystery. However, I have some thoughts about it, but first, let’s have a story.

Ghosts of Columbus – Watercolor and pencil sketch – 8 x 11 inches

Some years ago, Connie and I were enjoying a holiday in southern Mexico in the green world of Yucatán. One afternoon I was drawing plants in the jungle that seemed to surround us. The heat and humidity were intense and hoots and squawks came from birds never heard in California. Perhaps I dozed off, but suddenly the rusted hull of a wrecked ship appeared, tangled in the leaves and stalks in front of me. I couldn’t hold the image in my imagination long enough to draw it, so after the vision faded, I put the unfinished sketch away and forgot about it.

Months later however, I accidentally discovered in an old magazine, a photograph of a wrecked ship washed up on a beach somewhere in the world. I remembered my vision and wondered how beautiful the ship might look if it were to appear in the Yucatán jungle. So I began to paint a watercolor.

Ghosts of Columbus – Watercolor – 11 x 14 inches

One evening, during the weeks it took to finish the painting, I unexpectedly remembered a scene in one of Gabriel García Márquez’s stories. I didn’t remember which story, but it related an incident in which some exhausted explorers in the heat of a remote jungle in Columbia feared they were losing their minds because, in the thickest part of the forest, hundreds of miles from the distant sea, they came upon the rotting, moss-covered ruins of a Spanish galleon.

Many peoples of the ancient world associated Inspiration with Divinity: Something sacred was revealed. But the revelation was only the first part: The revelation then needed to be communicated. Looking back at the development of Ghosts of Columbus, it seems that Inspiration happened at least three times: while drawing in Yucatán, when discovering the photograph of the shipwreck, and by remembering the hallucinatory incident in García Márquez’s story.

The tantalizing question about all this is the sequence of revelations. That is, which Inspiration came first? I think it was reading the books of Gabriel García Márquez years ago, although I didn’t know it at the time. So here we are, decades later, and Inspiration remains the same mystery it has always been. However, after many years of drawing and painting, one insight seems to me to be incontrovertible. Whether it be writing, music or painting, if you are not actively working on developing your skills as an artist, the Muses will not visit you. Why would they bother? To bring a vision to someone who did not have the skill to communicate it would be a waste of time, wouldn’t it? Muses are fickle and perhaps they have time to waste, but I doubt it.


4 thoughts to “Ghosts of Columbus”

    1. I know it’s a cliché, and you as a fine writer did not use it in your post, so I will. I guess it was Thomas Edison who is reputed to have said that creativity is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. In your case the discipline of making art all the time, in the studio, at home or on the road, is the perspiration part of creativity. I for one, admire that discipline and perseverance. I find it inspiring if not an inspiration.

  1. Michael, another beautiful rumination. I offer that Inspirations are like Inhalations from the Muses…and like “Aloha” – which is not only a greeting of love and compassion, but also means “to be in the presence of the divinity” or in the presence of (alo) the “divine breath of life” (Ha). Aloha

  2. Hey Michael – Think of inspiration like the gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. The more you shake your foot to get rid of it the more frustrated you become. Only when you dig into it are you satisfied and the work is completed.

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