Inspiring Thoughts

In the NEA’s Public Affairs office, we are privileged to routinely interview artists who inspire us. As part of this process, we are granted access to question what, in turn, inspires them. Below is a series of quotes from recent NEA blog posts, podcasts, and magazine articles that showcase artists’ musings on inspiration.

Jorge Colombo, visual artist:

“Inspiration for me comes from books, more than museums or galleries, and sites, yes, although I still haven't found a decent way to manage thousands of bookmarks. It's a plague: at least with a bookshelf you can look at the spines.”

Samantha Crain, songwriter and musician:

“I know there are people in the music community that work really hard and try to create or present constantly, but I think there are more people in the same community that use their label as a ‘musician’ or ‘artist’ to become lazy and wait for inspiration. I know I struggle with this too—not on purpose—but it's hard sometimes to be responsible for your own productivity. I just think it's important that artists and musicians work even between the creative spurts, that they try to force inspiration even if they think nothing good will come of it. It's good to keep the mind and imagination active and ready to receive.”

Fred Dust, designer:

“[W]hen I was an artist I often got most of my inspiration from design. And now that I'm a designer I get most of my inspiration from art.”

Benny Golson, saxophonist, arranger, and composer:

“[P]eople say, ‘What's your inspiration?’ Many things. Children at play. Something in nature. And a lot of it, my wife, Bobbi Golson. A lot of it's her.”

Gary Jackson, poet:

“Inspiration comes to me from anywhere; the trouble is finding a thread that holds my attention for longer than a single poem. For that reason, I prefer to develop obsessions rather than look for inspirations.”

Rickey Laurentiis, poet:

“Inspiration, if we take it etymologically, is something that breathes into you, so one can’t be sure where it will come from or exactly when. I don’t resist it when it happens, or I try not to, but I prefer most often to think in terms of obsessions. What obsesses me, what am I constantly wondering about, what image or images dominate my thinking—this is what I most often put pressure on when attempting to write new material.”

J. Patrick Lewis, children’s poet:

“People say, ‘What inspires you?’ I have to say, I think inspiration is overplayed. To me, it's just dedicated hard work. I'm always looking for new subjects. Once I finish a manuscript, I think, ‘Oh boy, the well's run dry.’ But usually two weeks later, I've discovered something else and I'm off and running again.”

Meredith Monk, performance artist:

“[W]ith my kind of work, in a way you're trying to follow a path and try to hear what that path is asking from you and it hasn't been charted before. So in between inspirations, it gets to be a little lonely and maybe sometimes a little scary.”

Helen Sung, jazz pianist:

“[M]usic can lift one above difficult circumstances to offer a moment of peace, rest, and maybe even the inspiration to continue on.”

Julie Taymor, theater director:

“Other people's cultures inspire me tremendously. Being open to what I see and hear and smell and eat, and keeping my senses wide open to all different forms—it's how I am inspired.”

Kota Yamazaki, choreographer:

“An artist must be very active, but society should be flexible enough to be inspired by the art. They need to have enough courage to change things. If the artist is trying to change perspective or an established value, society needs to be responsive and receptive. It’s really hard to create change without this, even if the artist keeps trying to inspire change.”