I’ve always been curious about the creative process and what inspires it – that’s one of the reasons I write The Vision Thing. So I thought I’d ask some of my artist friends about their take on inspiration, art and creativity.

Janis Goodman head shot

photo of Janis Goodman provided by artist

This will be the first of several posts, starting with artist and educator Janis Goodman. Janis is Professor of Fine Arts at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, DC. She’s a working artist and often experiments with new approaches to her art. Over the years I’ve seen her canvases change quite a bit. Janis also appears regularly on PBS affiliate WETA-TV to review arts and culture in the Washington, DC area.

She spends summers in Maine to hike, kayak and paint. She told me she finds lots to inspire her in that rural setting. As she meanders along the rocky coves near her cabin, her eye is often attracted to the ever-changing patterns in nature – and especially water.



Rather than record her encounters with nature in a realistic way, she tries to find the essence of those experiences and re-image them in her art. So the swirls and eddies on the water’s surface that she observes from her kayak become abstracted as lines, shapes and color in her paintings.

Janis explains:

I was working with paintings of water – the tides and currents – how they ripple and move, and are constantly changing. I’m trying to capture the instability of everything and the way we perceive and observe the world.

"Summer Landscape"

“Summer Landscape”



There’s a strong feeling of movement in her paintings and it’s that constant change – those moments of flux and uncertainty – that she’s trying to capture. Her work is unpredictable that way. If you spend time reflecting on one of her abstractions, inevitably something new is revealed or begins to take shape in a different way.

Painting represents change over time – that’s what’s exciting. It’s continually changing and you hope it adds up to something cohesive.


photos of Janis in her studio by Dan Bailes

I asked Janis what she saw as the core of her creativity.

I’m always questioning: why is something like this instead of like that? I think it starts with curiosity, then feeling a sense of permission to go forward, to reach out and embrace the motivation to do the work.

"Movement and Migration"

“Movement and Migration”

Her paintings evolve as she works on them, she starts with one idea and that leads to another and another.

You jump into the abyss and hope the painting will tell you where to go. I’m usually up in the air and never know where I’m going to land. It’s scary.

Curiosity is the catalyst that launches her creative process, combined with a keen sense of observation. As she spends time on the water or takes a walk through the woods, she becomes more open and connected to the natural world. It’s that quality of mindfulness, and her interpretation of what she experiences, that she tries to capture with her brush.


Janis has a remarkable sense of composition. While everything seems out of balance, somehow it works. I asked her why.

Composition is a lot about intuition. My work is always asymmetrical and I really like unequal balance. I’m conscious of the energy force (created by that unequal balance), or what adding something does to the energy force.



It’s like the energy around magnetic fields – you want all of the elements in a conversation. Balance helps your eye take everything in, but not necessarily in one go. As you spend a little time with the work, balance allows you to digest the whole picture.

What does the creative process mean for Janis? Is she driven by passion, a need to communicate something, ego or what? I wondered how she would respond.


This is not about enjoyment. This is hard work. It’s not easy to do – it’s problem solving – to me that’s really interesting. I love doing it, I couldn’t see doing anything else. Still, I’m very stoic about it – when I’m finished and looking at one of my pieces I might say to myself, “Yeah that came together” or “Where did that come from?”


Most of my artist friends would say it’s work – it’s problem solving. Painting is: you create the problem; you solve the problem. It consumes you – you go into unchartered waters in your head.

"Bee Hive"

“Bee Hive”

You keep digging, like you’re going to get to some truth – of course you never get there – but it’s like one of these days you will and it’s going to knock you on your ass.

"Dream of Odysseus"

“Dream of Odysseus”

Maybe it all just comes down to being curious, mindful and in sync with yourself.

I know if I haven’t been in my studio in a few days I go crazy. You spend so much time with yourself you need an honest dialog with your work – if the work isn’t talking back to you, you shouldn’t do it.


Janis begins with a blank canvas, something at once terrifying and exhilarating. Powered by curiosity and a confidence born from experience, she’s able to pick up a brush and begin. I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.