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We Are Not a Muse: Ceramicist Cynthia Hipkiss found inspiration in her mother's discouragement.

Divine Inspiration

Rhythm and prose in 'The Lives of the [local] Muses'

By Gretchen Giles

In the introduction to her crisp, punctilious, and sometimes laughably wrong-headed book of essays, The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired (HarperCollins; $29.95), writer Francine Prose muses herself about the incarnation of muses.

"One difference between magic and art is that magic can be explained," she writes. "Were he willing, Houdini could have told his fans how he escaped from the chains and straitjacket, suspended under water. But the artist can never fully account for the alchemical process that turns anatomical knowledge and fresco technique into the Sistine Chapel. To create anything is to undergo the humbling and strange experience--like a mystical visitation or spirit obsession--of making something and not knowing where it comes from. . . . But we find that hard to accept, so we look around for some myth to help explain, or at least surround, the genesis of art."

The Greeks, of course, attributed the artistic impulse to the Muses, those nine sisters of comedy, tragedy, lyric poetry, love poetry, epic poetry, sacred poetry, dance, astronomy, and history who intermittently appear to the anguished soul yearning to express, and lead him or her (mostly him) through the thickets of frustration into a dappled Elysian meadow of artistic fruition.

Prose turns her eye to nine real women, from Dr. Johnson's Hester Thrale to Charles Dodgson's Alice Liddell to John Lennon's Yoko Ono, and examines the way in which these ordinary humans aided their adorers--as musedom less involves carnality than adoration--in creating art.

Reading The Lives of the Muses is like being trapped in a room with a friend's feverishly overeducated mother. Prose is someone you want to act respectfully toward but whose articulate blather smacks too well of the privilege of an educated woman of a certain age whose frequent trips to Italy make scholarly American texts so darned difficult. And still, shifting on uncomfortable shoes in this cocktail party of the mind, you find yourself leaning in, drawn to whatever sometimes brilliant, sometimes outrageous thing she might next say.

Yoko Ono? An overrated, screeching media whore who ruined what was left of John Lennon's talent. Not content to be an art wife, she tried to make him into one. Alice Liddell? "Dined out" on Lewis Carroll's work until well into her 80s.

Gala Dali? "No one liked Gala," Prose writes briskly. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's muse, Lizzie Siddal? A drug addict, she sniffs. The painter Lee Miller? Puhleeze, she seems to hiss--a drunk! And so on, replete with vicious discussions of the bizarre (to Prose) eating habits of each artist. Groats and macrobiotic regimens and salads, oh my.

So why did Prose even write the book, and why do we read it? Perhaps because of the difference between magic and art. Sleight of hand and sleight of head are two entirely different prestidigitations, and the spark generated when each of her profiled artists united with his muse flares brilliantly in the enduring work of each collaboration even today.

But one needn't be a Ballantine or a Lennon to have a muse. In considering what prompts creativity, we asked a few local artists what constitutes a muse for them.

Sebastopol painter Mylette Welch had the good fortune to have a great and enduring love inform her work--her "big, yellow guy," Gus. "A houndy Labrador," Gus had just died of cancer weeks before Welsh was contacted for this story, and Welch's grief is still fresh.

"He was my studio dog," she says sadly of her companion of 12 years. "He'd come here and sit while I painted. He considered it his job. He was my muse; he was the reason that I started painting dogs. I was working a day job and trying to paint at night, when everyone was asleep. I was doing [pictures of] empty rooms and one night I put him into a painting, and that grew into what I've been doing for the past six years."

In fact, Welch credits Gus with her transformation from scrambling artist to working artist. "Because I started painting Gus," she explains, "I was able to not do any other jobs. I had been working in galleries, selling work. I was able to only be a studio painter."

Accustomed to being commissioned to paint posthumous works of other people's departed dogs, Welch has recently completed a tribute to her muse. And she's somewhat heartened by the fact that portraits of Gus have sold so well. "He's in a lot of people's living rooms," she says with a hint of brightness.

Welch has another dog, Calvin. "He's been coming in the studio, which he never did before. He's used to Gus begging for him or scratching to come in. He's really trying to take over, but those," she says wistfully, "are big paws to fill."

Sonoma ceramicist Cynthia Hipkiss, whose happy, large figurines of overweight ladies invariably balancing hats made of fruit while wearing big lipsticky smiles, has a decidedly different muse. "I didn't get along well with my mother when I was a girl, and she hated my artwork," Hipkiss says brightly. "The more that I did what she didn't like, the more I did it."

Hipkiss, who started her career as a painter, began with cheerfully savage portraits of her mother's bridge club before discovering the palpable pleasures of clay. While attending art classes at Sonoma State University, she covered her oversized female forms with crocheted gowns that her instructor assured her "showed all the wrong things."

While Hipkiss is best known for her sweetly obese women, she'll happily create from wordplay and jokes as they strike her. "People phone me to sell me vacuums and I'll make them out of clay instead." The fantastical tabloids Weekly World News and the Sun are constant sources, inspiring Hipkiss to create such tributes to "news" as her ceramic version of Woman Gives Birth to 8-and-a-Half Pound Eyeball, which sold to a Santa Rosa doctor. "My daughter hates it," she reports gleefully.

The artist is currently working fervently on a nationwide salute to the Miss America pageant, creating a blissfully big contestant from each of the 50 states. "I was raised to be very conscious of fat," she says. "You know, 'You have fat legs.' You had to be tan, you had to be slim--it was that whole thing that was so sad. My skin is still really white, I still have fat legs, and I don't give a shit."

Though Hipkiss, who is quite slim, avers that most large women adore her work, she has had one or two take offense. She shrugs, "I have four kids, so it seems like I was a big woman for a long time."

Painter Alice Thibeau didn't even know that she was supposed to have a muse. "If I'd had one, I'd have done better," she says, pausing. "Of course, it's a mentor I could use."

Thibeau, who attended Smith College in the '50s, had poet Sylvia Plath as an instructor. "Certainly, she didn't give me any help. She was a terrible snob. And of course, I just lusted after her." Thibeau took painting classes at Smith, but had the usual young person's grasp of the world. "I already knew everything, and all I had to do was to prove it," she says with a twinkle. "Of course, I couldn't--so I had lots of babies instead."

Four daughters later, she enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, where, she gaily reports, all the male students "just painted their penises." She longed to copy and draw from the masters but was afraid to do so in that climate. Later attending school in France, she says "the first thing they had us do was to copy."

Today, Thibeau uses Édouard Manet--and the character Marcella from the Raggedy Anne books--as her muse. "I was under the impression that the impressionists didn't use the color black, and for years I was afraid to use Manet. But once I did, I felt so free," she says. A tall panel with the ghostly outline of a dancing woman, painted upon a scroll of antique wallpaper, stands in her studio.

"I have to be careful to make new rules that I don't have to keep," she says. "That way, I can keep making them up and breaking them."

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From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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