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Influence Versus Imitation
By: Jill Jones

Little did I know that plodding through the mall, searching for after-Christmas bargains, would provide such valuable think time. While reaching for hand-blown ornaments in Cost Plus, the thoughts struck me like a whack upside the head. Art encourages us to seek our unique voice of expression. It aims to find new ideas, or rearrange common elements in ways not done before. So why is the artwork in magazines starting to blend together and look alike?

With renewed emphasis placed on personal creativity, the assumption would be that products could become wildly diverse, unique, and original. Instead, the trend of striving for 'the look du jour' has resulted in an uneasy sameness and conformity. The lines are blurring regarding the distinction between what is inspiration versus what is copying, especially as more people publish, exhibit and sell their work. Most artists at some point are influenced by other artists and by a variety of external sources including popular culture. It is understandable and acceptable, but there is a big difference between being influenced versus imitating and copying other artists (or even more flagrant copyright infringement).

Some have attributed the occurrences of similarity to synchronicity; things appearing simultaneously, in a similar vein, without a direct connection. Many examples that might at first review be labeled as synchronicity, are easily explained. Often, without realizing it, we are influenced at the same time by the same sources. We feed on the same magazines, movies, and Internet sites. As our world becomes larger and goes global, it becomes more similar and connected.

Currently many of us participate in art exchanges or read magazines and 'zines that feature the 'look du jour.' There is nothing wrong with imitating those styles for our own personal use, or as the basic premise for an exchange project. However, it becomes troubling when so many are imitating the work of others, even in the things they publish, exhibit or sell.

I suppose we can argue that there is nothing new under the sun--it's all been done before, but I don't think that happens to be the case. Creativity is a totally abundant world. Two thousand people can produce two thousand different expressions even when asked to interpret the same theme. Newness in itself isn't the goal. The point is to have fresh eyes to see things in new ways. The adventure is exploring similar terrain on a unique path found only by each individual.

We have to be reasonable. Just because two people make beaded house designs, draw striped legs and long necks on a figure, or use the same symbols in their works, doesn't mean they are imitating or copying. Basic ideas and themes can be shared, but it is always possible to come up with a unique expression. Duplicate the processes, imitate the energy and spirit, learn from others' experiments with materials, but then dig deep into the place reserved for personal expression.

An interesting discussion appeared recently on an artist e-mail thread, after one of the artists uploaded a photo of her work, a Voodoo Birdhouse. Some of the participants wanted to make one. A thousand of us could make a voodoo birdhouse and each could be wonderfully, marvelously original and different. Just because someone has made an object called a Voodoo Birdhouse doesn't mean everyone else is prohibited from making another one. However, there is something less than original and creative if we all look at a photo of this particular birdhouse and start making something that resembles it. Why not be inspired by the idea, or the sound of the title, and let it jump start our brains to enter uncharted water instead of trying to make one that looks similar?

Art as inspiration is a form of brainstorming, a way to get our own creative process moving forward. If it's working right, the work produced by the inspiration doesn't even resemble the original piece. For example, seeing the Voodoo Birdhouse might inspire an artist to paint differently, or make a mixed media piece influenced by the idea.

A more obvious example of this concept is the way African art influenced Picasso. His paintings don't look like African art, but he allowed himself to explore his response, his feelings, his reactions to the rhythms and patterns of African art and it changed the way he painted. His creative manipulation transformed the influence. It gave his work a different look through his own interpretation.

It's great to share techniques and even the basic idea and inspiration, but the creative part is figuring out our own expression. It doesn't mean that we have to invent totally new ways of using techniques, but it is important for us to strive for something that is different about our expression. I'm not talking about the slight variances that occur because no two people are exactly alike. I'm talking about meaningful, significant, intentional differences.

I catch myself and others coming too close to that line between influence and imitation. I have to remind myself how important it is to go the extra step to become more adept with expressing unique visions. As I flip through Rubberstampmadness, Somerset Studio, and Inspirations it's the few odd, quirky, unique items that catch my eye and make my art heart sing. Inevitably the tide rolls back out into the vast ocean of creativity to give birth to more originality. Maybe it's time to imitate less, invite experimentation often, and sing for more.