04 May 2010

The beauty of a shadow

I have often claimed that all I have to do in order to be inspired is walk out the front door of the building I live in. But that’s not strictly true; I don’t actually have to even leave my apartment to find inspiration. Four stories up (three if you’re counting all’italiana), among the terracotta rooftops, there’s plenty to engage me. I love being able to hear and to watch the street life below, and lately I’ve been keeping a discreet eye on two pigeons who are building a nest under the eves (rather unpoetically in a gutter, to be precise). At dusk they perch, in profile, on opposing sides of a pair of arched shutters, often tail-to-tail—almost as if they’re ‘going to bed angry’. Sometimes they face inward, toward one other, or they might both strike identical poses, with all eyes trained on the nearby nest.

Even up here, in my own sheltered nest of sorts, I am surrounded by inspiration. From the apartment below us, notes from a grand piano resonate through the building for several hours each day, and I can glance into the studio of the painter who lives across the sdrucciolo as I work in mine. The woman across the hall is also an artist (as well as a mother of four); even her four-year-old’s exclamations of curiosity and general busyness often inspire me. Somehow it’s reassuring to know that those around me are also expressing themselves, in whatever form.


I have noticed that the new moon often ushers in an upward shift in my creativity level. Whether this theory stems from seemingly corroborated proof or mere coincidence, my creative habits definitely follow a cycle of perceiving/thinking/doing. There will be a period where I can hardly write down the ideas quickly enough—a time with much exploration and experimentation, which leads to more ideas. Next is more of a planning stage, when I tend to focus on working out the logistics involved in executing particular projects; the exploring/experimenting from the initial phase continues, but with more direction. After all of this preparation comes the moment when I feel ready to commit to producing something tangible. Then, once I am feeling confident about being able to successfully complete the current work, my mind once again returns to a state of generating new ideas. The cycle will repeat many times during the course of long-term projects, but I always hope to find myself with something new at the end of each cycle.

At the April meeting of a writer’s group that recently formed in Florence, we discussed our sources of inspiration. I find it’s something that usually begins inside me—a thought, a memory, an experience—which means I don’t suffer from the proverbial ‘writer’s block’. (It’s more a case of having more ideas and possibilities than I can find time to execute; having a variety of simultaneous projects seems to keep the creative energy flowing.) Inspiration often comes to me in the form of ‘possibility’—a train of thought that begins with the title of a book, the curve of a line drawn in ink, a color I notice. Even though it might not have anything to do with the original, the interpretation of the thoughts and feelings that are provoked provides an never-ending supply of inspiration.

There’s no doubt that living in a place that is filled with so much beauty also inspires me; I feel as if a basic, integral need has been met, which in turn frees me to be more creative. Instead of being distracted by the depressing sight of ill-proportioned and bizarrely-scaled strip malls and a plethora of pre-fab chain stores, fast food joints, Neo-this and Neo-that, architectural styles cobbled together with no regard for context—and other built forms that offend my architectural sensibilities—my surroundings give me a sense of contentment that I am grateful for literally every day.

Another source of inspiration is my daughter. At the writer’s meeting I used the example of how, if she wants to draw a horse, she simply sits down and starts doing it—whereas the thought of drawing such a complex creature with which I have little familiarity intimidates me no end. I admire her ability to express herself without inhibition and judgement, to not over-think things, and to trust her instincts. She is also great company; I love to look across the long studio table and see her working on her own creative projects as I work on mine. Like me, she has managed to grow up without knowing the concept of ‘bored’.

I am also lucky that my daughter is so supportive of the intense periods I spend working toward deadlines. She cheerfully puts up with having the floors and other surfaces strewn with piles of books and large sheets of art paper, as well as things like the dwindling stacks of clean clothes and clean plates (what habits she is learning!)—not to mention an utterly absorbed and rather exhausted mother. While she is a child who generally appreciates order, she seems to recognize the benefits of having what is essentially an in-house art store, and I think she quite enjoys the spontaneity that characterizes these periods.

With la festa della mamma (Mother’s Day) just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to acknowledge my mother as a creative inspiration. I grew up thinking she could make anything, and I continue to be in awe of all that has come from her two hands: porcelain dolls, Washi paper angels, oil and watercolor paintings, necklaces made from beads collected on her wide travels—and countless other creations. When we lived in Brazil she cultivated a passion for dollhouses. Teaching herself to upholster, sculpt and carve in miniature, she crafted much of the furniture herself. Her masterpiece was a fireplace that she carved from soapstone and faced with individually-made miniature bricks, then finished off with a carved wooden mantle and hinging doors for tiny cupboards. If I’m ever struggling with a project, I remember the realm of possibility represented by this fireplace, and the ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ attitude that my mother lives by...


With the renewed light of this season, I have become more aware of the return of the shade and shadow that the grayness of winter tends to suppress. Through notes and photos, I have been recording shadows I observe from my window. I think the beauty of a shadow lies in its deliberateness; while the form of the object itself may sometimes be hard to read, on a sun-filled day the shadow is always certain, direct and clear. What a contrast is created, for example, by the shadow of one of those small brackets that holds an open shutter in place—by the strength of its line against the warmth of the yellow plaster. Compared to the compactness of the bracket, it’s surprising how far the shadow’s length stretches.

One recent morning, an elderly man pausing to read his newspaper in a patch of sunlight drew my attention when I looked down onto the sdrucciolo (the narrow street below the studio window). As I thought about how glorious it feels to be able to stand in the warmth of the spring sun, I noticed more of these little ‘rooms’ (or pockets) of light all along the edge of the sdrucciolo; the profile of the roof outlines had projected a pattern of tooth-like shadows that created several sunny spots.

To these and other shadows I owe the title of this Arzigogolare entry, ‘The beauty of a shadow’. The image at the top of the page derives from a photo I digitally altered to emphasize the distinct swathes of shade, shadow and light that I observed on the plaster wall of the palazzo across from me. The top third indicates the shade that results from the building’s roof overhang, while the lower section comes from the shadow cast by the roof of the building our apartment is in (with the serrated pattern mimicking the roof tiles); the space in between portrays the sliver of sunlight that falls between the shade and shadow. After my experiments with the photo, I was especially interested to see what happened within the area representing the sunlight; it ended up being bounded by a distinct, dark line along the top, and fuzzy white & pink undulating lines below.

In summing up this rather organic exploration of inspiration and creativity, I can only conclude that you never know where these complementary concepts may find their origins—anywhere and everywhere, it seems.
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