Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, The Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2012

Inspiration is a fragile thing — an infant's frank gaze, a thought-provoking conversation, the last book you read.

We spoke to three women in the world of fine arts about what moves them to create.

Claire Sherman: It's all in the experiment

During a road trip with her husband through the Southwest, Claire Sherman pointed a camera out her car window and took a blurry image of the bleached landscape whizzing past, the kind of impromptu picture that also captures a highway sign and a bit of the dashboard.

Sherman, a landscape painter, dismissed it at the time; it was one of dozens of photos she'd taken on the trip in search of subject matter for future work, and not a very good one. Upon returning to her New York studio, she focused on creating drawings from the more calculated shots — but found they were too iconic, too recognizable as how the Southwest should look, and nothing seemed to work.

It wasn't until she sketched from the blurry photo that an abstract mound of pale brush strokes started to come together, eventually becoming a 6-by-7-foot oil painting she called ‘‘Butte."

"I wanted to go after something more strange," Sherman said. "I found it in the image that was taken by chance."

For Sherman, 30, who is represented by the Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, inspiration does not come as an "aha" moment, but evolves, through trial and error, over time.

"I can't just look at something and know that it will make an interesting painting," said Sherman, an Oberlin, Ohio, native and graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's the experiment that helps me come up with a new idea."

Sherman's work, large-scale canvases of boulders or caves or snowy trees, explores contemporary notions of landscapes, noting the failures of their heroic past.

Traveling to find images to work from, Sherman finds that usually the unanticipated shots are the most interesting — a strange pit, say, or the cracks and fissures in Yellowstone's acidic ground — and often it's not until she's home flipping through the pictures that she realizes their potential. It's important in her work that the viewer not be able to trace the image to a particular place.

Books also feed Sherman's perspective. She reads about explorers and early naturalists like John Muir and Isabella Bird to understand the context of her own exploration. She reads William Faulkner and David Foster Wallace, and finds their influence seeping into her art.

With Faulkner, for example, she sees a parallel between his construction and destruction of language and the way in which paint can destroy and disrupt an image. The imagery and chaos of language in Faulkner's stories "The Wild Palms" and "Old Man" influenced how she put together her "Palms Wild" exhibit at Kavi Gupta last year — not directly, but quietly, maybe subconsciously, because the stories were on her mind.

"It's not about trying to force a connection — it's more that the two were happening at the same time," Sherman said.

By pursuing new experiences, Sherman said, be it through travel or reading, you are able to wrench yourself from habit, step back and change your perception of the familiar.

"To have something else that feeds your experience is important," she said. "You may be looking at the same thing, but you've opened up a new possibility in relation to it."

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