An Artist’s Inspiration: Roots and geography

I learned about roots in an intercultural communications class during college. Roots are where we come from, the culture and society we knew during our formative years. We may change over time, as we age, marry and move around, but our roots remain planted in our youth. You can’t get rid of them, even if you don’t like them.

I grew up in Western Nebraska, on the edge of the Sand Hills. Most people I knew as a kid couldn’t wait to get away from the small town (24,000 people) we lived in. The preferred dream destination was Denver, about five hours west of our community.


The Sand Hills from space, courtesy of NASA

While I didn’t possess an avid aversion to the Sand Hills like many of my peers, I don’t really want to return to the fairly desolate region. I’ve come to appreciate the somewhat more urban residences of the last 15 years of my life. However, my formative years on the prairie left an undeniable impression on me. My present work is overtly influenced by the geography of my childhood.

For the most part, art depicting or obviously influenced by the prairie is usually looked down on in fine art circles. Even I turn up my nose at most cowboy paintings and Native American bronzes. Cityscapes or mountains are much more popular recognizable subjects in our culture. But things change. For instance, mountains used to be something people feared. A painting of the Rockies in the 1800s would probably not be what a person chose to hang over their sofa, if I recall correctly the reading I did on the sublime a couple years ago. Artists aren’t usually ones to pursue popularity anyway. The prairie and its thunderstorms will probably be a theme in my sculpture throughout my life, whether I’m living on the plains or not.

It’s not unusual for artists to draw inspiration from their natural surroundings. I noticed as a student that the printmaking crowd in particular seemed to draw heavily from their geographical surroundings, more so than students concentrating in other media. But every stripe of artist draws in some form or fashion, covert or overt, from the natural world around them.

Roots are more than geography though. They are family culture, religious background, peer influence etc. Artists who try and completely ignore their roots concern me. First off, it’s impossible to actually pull off. Secondly — and this will probably sound very post-modern to certain readers — everyone’s personal experiences are valuable. They are not the end all, they are not necessarily Truth or goodness or evil, but they are valuable. God gives each individual a different lens to look through, and that perspective will be useful in some form or fashion in another person’s life. Part of my beef with Thomas Kinkade as an artist, as I’ve said before, is that he seems to be covering up some of his experiences with his sugary subject matter, instead of using canvases as a vehicle to convey those experiences. Of course, his sour college art classes still inform his work as he aims for Eden on Earth with little scenes. What I can’t understand is why he tries so hard, at least judging by the interviews I’ve read, to suppress his university days instead of putting them to use.

Artists have a unique opportunity to communicate some of their own personal experiences to a broad number of people. Remember the Japser Johns’ quote from couple weeks ago, “The aim of an artist as a creative individual is to do ‘something a little more worthwhile than oneself . . . To be worth more, you would need to change in a fundamental way — change your life — or, at the least, experience change and become a channel for its communication.” Tap into your roots and influence culture for the good.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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