By Melissa Whitaker

Under the Influence

Last week’s post I wrote about inspiration and where it comes from. This week is all about influence.

The words inspire and influence are often thought to be interchangeable, but they are really 2 different things.

Inspiration is something that creates an emotional response and often sparks a self-confidence that we can do what we set out to do. It does not have intent, it just is. Inspiration makes the brain start thinking creatively.

Influence affects change. It can change behavior and opinions in others. It can be a person, the weather, an event, or a culture that produces a change in a person. People often ask, “Who inspires you?” Perhaps what they should be asking is, “What are your influences?”

Inspiration is great, it’s what keeps the soul alive, but it’s the influences that encourage action to be taken. For me, it has been the influences that have had the biggest impact on my work and it has usually been events and not people who effect a change. 

I majored in Art and Psychology in college in the hopes of becoming an art therapist, but life had another plan for me. People and events came into my life that I let lead me away from my artistic endeavors. I emphasize let because when I look back on it, it was a choice that I made based on the influences that were occurring at the time. I dedicated my love and time to my family and did a few creative things, but I did not indulge in creating ART for a long time. It took 17 years and several encounters with people and events for me to find my way back. As the years went by several artists were introduced into my life and with each encounter, I felt a persistent urge in my subconscious saying, “Remember me? I’m still here.” Then the strongest influences happened.

My mother-in-law was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor that was terminal, then 3 months later my husband had a tragic accident that would cause him chronic pain for the rest of his life. 6 weeks later his mother passed away from the brain tumor. One month after that, my father was in an accident and broke his back and passed away 2 weeks later. All of this caused me to re-examine my life and search for who I was; because I didn’t know anymore. I went to the store and bought a canvas, brushes and acrylic paint. I was terrified of that white canvas and I held my breath and put a slash of red through the middle of it. That slash opened up a part of me that had been buried for 17 years. The painting wasn’t very good, but it felt WONDERFUL and I had found myself.

I started painting my emotions and experiences and I was drawing from the influences in my life and putting it all on canvas. The next several years became an emotional roller coaster and painting let me express what I could not express in words but needed to put somewhere.

The events of that time were influenced by people and events from the past. A roller coaster ride that continued in what seemed like a never-ending circle and it all came crashing down in 2012 like a psychological nightmare. I lost hope and started questioning everything that was going on around me. It was putting a puzzle together with way too many missing pieces. These events eventually led me to be on the governing board of the regional counseling center, where I now give art lessons to people who are trying to find out who they are and where they want to go. It has become one of the most inspirational positions in my life and it came from a horrible influence.

After feeling like everything was lost, the pieces started falling back together again in the spring of 2013. Influence appeared and it moved me away from the easel and back to an earlier love of ink. This time hope started showing up in my work and people began to notice. They started asking what or who was inspiring me. It wasn’t an inspiration. It was an influence and a journey back to my roots. Back to my love of India ink and fashion illustration to a place where I felt safe.

I stayed with the ink for a few years until the next big influencer showed up in 2016. Politics. Not just the Presidential election of 2016 but politics in general. According to the Oxford dictionary definition;

Politics:  1. the activities involved in getting and using power in public life, and being able to influence decisions that affect a country or a society   2. matters concerned with getting or using power within a particular group or organization

I had entered the life of the Board of Directors for two non-profits. Everywhere I turned politics were influencing my life and I needed to find a balance. To take control of the anxiety and chaos. I pulled out the canvas again and began expressing politics in abstract form.

  • Multi-colored abstract painting of colors swirled together .
  • Multi-colored abstract painting of colors swirled together .
  • Brightly colored swirled abstract with red, oranges, yellows and blues and a figure that resembles a man being washed down a drain.
  • Multi-colored abstract painting of colors swirled together on a horizontal field of white.

The experience of applying and manipulating the paint had a calming, therapeutic aspect to it. The thought, preparation, and application was my attempt at controlling chaos. You can’t fully control chaos, but you can work on it not controlling you.

Inspiration and influence will come from many places. Some good and some not so good. It’s what you do with it that makes the difference. If you let the influences break you or stop you from doing what you love then you risk losing a bit of yourself.

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