Photo by Bill Armstrong
SHE’S NOT THERE: The Myth of the Muse
This group show of 21 photographers images of a single model, Marlene Tupy, photographed at my Vision Quest workshops in the Badlands of South Dakota and at the Trade River Retreat Center in Wisconsin are joined by several studio photographers from the Minneapolis Photo Center to provide an intriguing kaleidoscope of different vision, approaches and execution, all using the same subject.
What artist wouldn’t like a muse - something- or better yet someone - outside of them selves to provide creative inspiration. At best, it’s a romantic notion that we are not responsible for our own creativity and at worst it is giving power over your creativity to unseen or uncontrollable forces, again absolving ourselves of responsibility to our own creative forces.
The myth of the muse persists throughout the ages. Marlene embodies this classic notion of muse: beautiful, remote yet approachable, off-beat personality, fiercely intelligent, engaging yet emotionally unavailable. The perfect artist’s gift: totally present and at the same time inaccessible. Unlike most models, she does not use the gaze of others to reaffirm her self-worth, her ego remains healthily detached from our results. Marlene deeply cares to collaborate and inspire the art of others and unlike most objects of beauty, she knows that it’s not really about her but you.
As photographers we think we’re ‘capturing her essence’ (a phrase I think should be banished from our vocabulary) or at best feel we are conveying something about who Marlene is, but really we are revealing more about ourselves. We are using the external, her physical form, as a catalyst for our own internal artistic exploration.
At age 52 Marlene continues to captivate the attention of photographers, who are often criticized for only portraying youth. It is both a tribute to her and way of showing that art is not what you see but how you see.
• Muse (noun) goddess of art n Greek mythology, one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. The Muses inspired and presided over the creative arts. They were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania, responsible for epic poetry, history, love poetry, lyric poetry, tragedy, sacred song, dance, comedy, and astronomy, respectively.
• (muse) a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
"Muse: A person who awakens something in you that you didn’t know was there.”
–Musician Hk Christie
A Muse is A Muse is A Muse
She was born in the still swollen heat of the month of the Lion, stunned by her own ferocity, humbled by her gift of silence. A guiding visual voice creating sense & nonsense, a mirror reflecting harmony and contrast from which comes beauty & sorrow, balance & imbalance.
Her presence reveals the secret without involving herself in what is before her. Recording, in image, what the artist must remember. She reminds them of what they need before they find it or, before they lose it.
She is a thought, a look, a gesture arranging sensibility or, unleashing reckless abandon. The muse and the artist become one. They are one, they always have been one? She is a guiding genius, an illusion.
Her anonymity intensifies a sensual, sometimes erotic effect. Her body sculpts gradual deliberate unfolding of ideas. Alone in her strength and the ever shifting movement of the lines that form her, she engages the viewer. A concrete, yet abstract sculpture suggesting structure & limits, igniting spontaneity & experience. Each event is a unique detector of truth.
Is the muse, with her gift of meaning and fascination the seducer or, the seduced? She holds a secret. The secret is in her presence; the secret is in her eyes.
The concept of the Muse is a dangerous one. It is steeped in the notion of the chosen artist, that only those worthy of the Gift will have it breathed upon them. It carries with it certain advantages though. For when we cannot touch pen to paper, or brush to canvas, because the well we draw from feels dry as bone, we can blame her. We can channel our frustration at her, shaking our fists in anger at the sky, proclaiming, “if only!”
But for every artist who has professed to have tasted the sweet kiss bestowed upon them by the Muse, there are countless other, silent voices who wander in obscurity feeling abandoned, yet blameless. For like a young lover who feels they have been slighted by their partner, it is easier to contest that there is no spark, no chemistry, no magic. When what is really at the heart of it all is an unwillingness to put in the labor. While it may be that the most magical of artistic expressions come in the form of effortless bliss, these fleeting moments are, in fact, the sum of countless others filled with toil, sweat, tears and intense personal sacrifice.
So, while the obvious danger in waiting for the Muse to speak to you is never moving forward, there also lies the danger of losing awareness of the role that one’s self plays in the euphoric moments of success and release. So, perhaps, it is best if we discard the notion of waiting for a mythical spirit to fill us to the point of bursting, and instead infuse ourselves into our work, our labor, our love, our world.