- Nia Alexander Campbell
The Whole Point was to Get Inspired, Right?
The trip was an arts field study, after all. The whole point of it was to get cozied up with Moroccan art and be inspired to do some art on your own. So how did that pan out for me? Well, it wasn't as straightforward as I had anticipated . . .
What art did I make in Morocco?
I was adventuring for 10 days, spending the majority of my time in a van, at a restaurant, or speed-walking through a tour. I was soaking in Moroccan art and culture almost nonstop, so when did I have time for actually making art? I made some art during group workshops, which included a lumpy clay pot, a visually dissonant painted vase (complete with puff paint), a splintery wooden spoon that I lost, and two undersized Moroccan knot buttons. However, even though I enjoyed learning, that’s not the kind of art I usually do. So, when did I have time for making my art?
Well, let’s first begin with this:
What kind of art do I do?
It’s a good question to start with having that every discipline of art is, well, different. They each have different prep work, different time constraints, different processes . . . the sorts of things that can affect the way an artist makes art on a trip like this.
So, what kind of art do I do? I draw, I paint, I make collages, and I write. I have a thing for portraiture, a liking of simplistic figures, I occasionally make very basic (but very funny) cartoons, and I avoid landscapes like I do brussels sprouts. I like to use mechanical pencils, fine-tipped pens, watercolors, oil paints, and digital software. I paint on wood, I draw on paper, I sketch in my sketchbook—I write in my sketchbook—I do a lot of things in Photoshop, and I write some more in journals and on word docs.
Some of those materials are easy to carry around, while others would have been a headache and a half to deal with. This meant I had to be selective when considering what kind of art supplies would accompany me on this wild new adventure, which in turn effected what kind of art I would be able to do. In the end, I decided to bring my sketchbook, pens, pencils, and computer.
I know I don't look too excited to be doing art, but cut me some slack. I had only been in the country for 24 hours.
What art did you do?
Long story short, I didn’t do much art.
I didn’t use my computer for any art or written work and, to my surprise, carrying around my sketchbook and pencil pouch became cumbersome. I thought I was going to have time to sit and sketch, which is why I carried my supplies around, but truly I was on the go the entire time. There was barely time for eating—let alone art-making—and by the time I’d get back to the hotel in the evening putting a pencil to my temple and connecting it to my brain was out of the question. I was soaking in so much inspiration, but I was consistently too tired to write or draw.
In the end, the only art I made was one half finished, uncolored drawing of a character in my sketchbook. It sounds like a sad situation, but I couldn’t be but so upset; I was spending my days soaking up a lot of inspiration, which I knew I could always use later. If there was something I could change, however, I would have brought my mini sketchbook instead of the full-sized one, and I would have left all my art supplies at home save for a pencil and a pen.
Also, another student on the trip opted to bring along his drawing pencils. Whereas my supplies were haphazardly tossed into a homemade pencil pouch, his were nestled neatly in one of those flat, zippered art cases with small loops on the inside where each pencil can slide into its own space. Well, homeboy got called out by both American and Moroccan TSA to have his bag inspected by hand. Maybe on the x-ray his pencils looked like weapons? Just something to keep in mind if you do choose to bring some drawing materials on a trip.
Did you write anything?
I wrote some notes in my sketchbook about an idea for a narrative, but I primarily wrote in my journal. Most entries were about what I was experiencing and, much to my surprise, I found time to write while on the bus. It was a surprise because I get carsick so easily while reading or writing, but the long stretches of smooth highway proved to be a lot easier to deal with than the bumpy, potholed, and occasionally cobblestoned Richmond roads.
I know, the act of writing in a diary doesn’t necessarily scream “art”, but here’s the thing: It later served as reference for my next art projects. Three months after returning home, I could flip through journal entries and read detailed descriptions about what I saw, smelled, heard, and how I felt. Specifics like that worked their way into the narrative I began working on later than year and, thanks to my journal, I had a basic idea of the setting, plot, protagonist, and each supporting character. Though I am still working with that narrative, having what is essentially a reference book was an incredible aid and better than trying to piece together memories.
How to not forget the inspiration
Speaking of memories—let’s face it—they can’t always be trusted. With time, certain memories will fade and others can get skewed or straight up falsified. To add, as an artist I’ve usually got close to a hundred art ideas in my head sharing room with other memories, to-do-lists, and thoughts about life. Sometimes the art ideas are concrete, like a concept for a piece or what shade of blue to use in that’s character’s dress. Other ideas, however, are sort of vague, like the certain way an earring gets picked up by the wind or the texture in the curve of a handmade nail. Many of the ideas are also just . . . there. I don’t yet know how I’m going to use them or even when I’m going to use them, so I’m forced to store these ideas in thousands of mental file cabinets, hoping I don’t completely forget them or lose them in the clutter.
So, is there a solution to having possibly too many ideas and not enough space? I’d like to think I’ve thought of some ways that may help and each of them involves removing whatever is in your brain and turning it into something tangible.
Bring things back with you
Remember that book I mentioned, Berber Women of Morocco? Well, that counts as making some ideas tangible! For one, the book included images of the pieces in the Berber Museum, which we were not allowed to photograph ourselves. As incredibly detailed as those garments were, the only way to remember them accurately is through a photograph and the book provided better images than I could have ever hoped to get. It also included images of women and dress more accurate and to the point than anything I could have found in an online search engine. The book provided me with a well of accurate visual references right at my fingertips, no WiFi, key words, or reverse-image searches necessary.
What’s more is that I purchased the book not only for the images, but because I knew I wanted to create a narrative that featured a female protagonist in a Morocco-inspired fictional world. It’s a vague idea, but I purchased a book that seemed like it could help fill in some gaps. I now had 200 pages of images and information, which meant my brain didn’t have to strain to remember every detail of everything I had learned.
I also recommend postcards. It sounds a bit corny, but postcards are pre-edited photographs of essentially things that look interesting (or beautiful, or nostalgic, or historical, etc.). Because they are pre-edited, the color, composition, and concept are usually on point, which means there will be a very clear path when it comes to your brain accessing the image. Unlike personal photos, which can be blurry, poorly composed, grainy, overexposed, crowded, or filled with random background people and other distractions, postcards are purposefully made to look good. Even if they’re nothing but commercial products, the perfect image of an old door, a tourist-free market street, or a Coca-Cola bottle with Arabic script still counts as a creative reference.
Other things you can bring with you? Pebbles, leaves, woodchips, beads, magnets, slippers, tchotchkes . . . if it can help you reference your Moroccan inspiration—and if it can get past TSA—bring it home, damnit. Some ideas are better remembered through objects.
These are all magnets with pictures of doors
Other ideas, however, are better remembered through photographs. To me, taking pictures of cool stuff is a no-brainer, so as a tourist and an artist, that urge is going to be tripled.
That said, I’ve gotten my fair share of negative comments when it comes to my seemingly obsessive photographing of meaningless objects, like wet leaves on a sidewalk or a chipped brick in an old building. I’ve also be criticized for not living in the moment, having been told that my desire to photograph everything means I am somehow missing out on the experience.
Well, screw that.
For a long time, I tried to limit my natural inclination to collect imagery in hopes of getting the judgements from others to die down—even while in Morocco—but then I realized I was catering to others in a way that became detrimental to myself, both as an artist and a person. I also later learned that taking pictures while experiencing something awesome usually means you are “in the moment”, that you’re soaking it up and that you care about it enough to want to record it.
That said, I did take a lot of pictures in Morocco in terms of quantity, but I wish I would have taken more in terms of quality; I wish I would have photographed more of the things I genuinely found interesting, the “wet leaf” & “chipped brick” photos. The ones I have are great and have been useful as references, but they could have been 10x better had I not held back.
So, I say to you, take pictures! Take pictures of everything you want because a few months later, or even 10 years later, your future self is going to reap the benefits. Our travel group also decided to pool all our photographs together in Google Drive, which proved to be a low-key genius idea for a group of artists. Even though not everyone uploaded their pics to the folder, those that did were able to see in photographs what they missed seeing in person. We could cross reference our own photos with others’ and get inspired all over again.
I will advise, though, to check out the post about photographing objects vs. people before you get too shutter-happy. (See OMG I Need a Picture of That!)
Make a scrapbook
Not all scrapbooks contain wedding photos, glitter ribbon, bits of string, and old movie tickets. A scrapbook can be purely for art too, a revolutionary concept that didn’t hit me until weeks after I returned home. I decided to turn my old & seemingly useless 11 ½ x 14 inch sketchbook, salvaged from a unsatisfying 6 week art class, into the ultimate Morocco art reference book. I printed photographs of everything on different sized and types of paper. I included scraps of objects, pressed flowers and mint leaves, advertisements, post cards, and notes. I drew on images, bookmarked ideas, and truly did whatever I wanted.
It was one hell of a monster to create, and it took me all summer finish, but by the time the Fall Semester rolled around I had a whopper of a reference book. Totaling in at 4lbs, it was part scrapbook, part photo album, part sketchbook, part notebook, and all powerful.
If I need images of sunsets or doors, I knew exactly where to find it.
If I need to remember the names of artists, I had it all right there.
It was like having an absurdly specific, but perfectly organized artistic encyclopedia tailored to me, my art, and my experience in Morocco. And, even though I love the uncanny usefulness of Google Photos, it can be a terribly overwhelming, not always accurate, and occasionally full of gaps (like when I switched from my phone camera to my Nikon, it was impossible for those photographs to be automatically be included in Photos). By creating my mega-scrapbook, though, I had made something physical, comprehensive, and tailored to my specific way of thinking. When I finally began to make art inspired by the trip, this book was an incredible starting point.
Make some art!
Making art totally counts as not forgetting the way another country inspired you!
Do you remember when I said Morocco gave me an idea for a narrative? Working with that narrative was essentially my art project for the summer and when my third year of uni rolled around in August, I realized I wasn’t ready to start focusing on a new idea for my Junior showcase. All I wanted to do was work on this narrative I had come up with; it was like a puzzle I just had to figure out and taking a break from it didn’t appeal to me.
But bringing in written drafts of a story—a story that didn’t know if it wanted to be a novel, screenplay, or series of short stories—just wasn’t going to cut it for critique in a painting class. I then thought that perhaps I could make some visual art about Morocco, some paintings or collages that clearly suggested my extremely visual experience in the country inspired me to make some visual art. But the truth is that Morocco hadn’t inspired me to make some epic, fully realized works of visual art; it had inspired me to write. So, what to do in a situation like that?
That’s easy. I kept working on my narrative.
The only change is that I expanded my means of figuring out the narrative.
I started making some preliminary artwork, akin to concept art, except these images were more experimental than the illustrations and sketches I typically see for movies, videogames, and books. They weren’t extraordinarily descriptive images of environments and characters, they barely had a sense of depth, and most of them were staged at pretty boring camera angles. These images were more like raw ideas tossed onto whatever surface I could find leftover at my parents’ house. Through these collages and paintings, I didn’t try to figure out what exactly the characters or their world looked like, but instead I wanted to figure out what the world felt like and how these characters thought. I tried to answer questions like:
What was the color palette like in his house and what does it say about his character?
How would he look if I paint him from another character’s perspective?
What are the problems in this world and how can I convey that weight visually?
I wanted to better understand the world, characters, and problems I was writing about so I could convey it to my audience in the clearest way possible, and the best way for me to understand all of those things was to create some imagery. Creating the visuals allowed me to look at my narrative from a new angle, which proved to flesh out the story much better than I could have anticipated.
So, make some art! A sketch based on a vague idea of a memory, an abstract interpretation of an atmosphere, or just a stupid doodle, spit out whatever is in your brain to see what it looks like on paper. I know this sort of activity is reminiscent of a 9th grade art class exercise, but it really can lead to something you’re passionate about and it’s a good way to start trying to translate your experience into artwork for others to explore.
Collaged conceptual paintings for my Morocco-inspired narrative. You can view the whole collection here at niaalexanderart.com
One last thing: Not every artist thought like me
I’d like to think that as an artist, I’ve got this bizarre ability to see art everywhere, to make connections that my peers may not always understand. I can hear the sound of a bell or see a saltshaker in a restaurant and suddenly get the idea for how a character dresses, how she speaks, and what problem she is trying to solve. It’s one of my many superpowers.
But not every artist thinks like me, and it’s something I had to keep reminding myself of throughout the trip.
During the adventure, there were a few people who asked how I thought the country was going to affect my art practice. They asked if I was inspired and I gave them my honest answer, explaining that “I’ve got an idea for a narrative about a princess and—”
And by then they had already stopped listening.
No matter how passionate I was about my new idea, people just weren’t interested even though they were artists with ideas of their own, and even though some of them inspired characters in the story. At first it was frustrating because I really wanted to have some artsy conversation with the other artists who were being inspired by the same things I was being inspired by. I wanted to vibe with them, I wanted to get excited about art with them, I wanted to get to know them as artists, but it didn’t pan out that way. Maybe it was because I was the only fine artist, or maybe it was because I was the only writer; maybe it was because I was the youngest in the group or because I looked like a twelve-year-old, or maybe everyone else was just tired, but for whatever reason it felt like no one was taking me seriously and it was disheartening.
But it’s okay.
It’s okay because even though I barely received any initial feedback, and even though I was disappointed, I still pursued my idea. I think that being surrounded by people who are disinterested in what you are doing shouldn’t discourage you from following through with whatever idea you have. If you are inspired, keep that inspiration with you!
I know positive support can make any task go a lot smoother, but you have to remember that it is your inspiration, your art, and your experience; you shouldn’t let any of that go because no one wants to listen when you want them to. Once you create whatever you’re going to create, eventually you’re going to capture peoples’ attention one way or another, and they’re going to be there ready to listen to what you have to share with them.