Just You and the Muse: The Artist Date—Making Time for Inspiration

Selections from the Mucha exhibit at the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids

Remember last January when I told you all to get off the couch and go explore some of Iowa’s wintertime offerings? Hilarious! The article I should have written was “What To Do When the Blizzards Hit & You Can’t Make It Down Your Own Damn Driveway.”

God willing, by the time you read this, the only ice you see will be in your drink, and the warming breezes and greening gardens will be ushering in fresh energy. As the natural world bursts with the bold expressions of its own ingenuity, it seems only fitting we should follow along.

If you consider yourself to be a creative person, chances are you’ve at least heard of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a treasure of a book offering up tidbits of wisdom and practices designed to declutter the channels of inspiration and unfetter the flow of your creative gifts as they make their way into manifest form.

One tenent of The Artist’s Way is the daily practice of stream-of-consciousness journaling. These “morning pages” are intended as an unedited dump of thoughts, feelings, gobbledegook, and miscellaneous bullsh*t that might be jamming up the works or wanting to be witnessed. Useful for anyone, not just writers, the practice serves as a sweeping out of cobwebs to make room for the new.

Another recommendation for those exploring The Artist’s Way (in which the term “artist” really does include everyone) is to make room, on a regular basis, for a solo-style “artist date,” i.e., time set aside for a simple activity spent in the space of inspiration. An artist date, for some, might look like a blissful browse through a local bookstore. For others, maybe it’s a wildflower forage, a night at the theater, or a picnic, with poetry, in the park. During my Chicago years, my favorite excursion involved an olive-garnished cocktail in the Palmer House Hilton Hotel lobby downtown, where I’d spend an hour people-watching, journaling if I felt like it, and gazing through martini-colored glasses at the ecstatic, muraled Art Deco ceiling.

What would an artist date look like for you?

Might I be afforded the opportunity to make up for my foot-in-mouth “January Jaunts” article—filled with suggestions soon made absurd by the fact that you were all busy jump-starting your cars? Allow me now to propose a few May ideas for jump-starting your creativity.

Never Too Much Mucha

The Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids opens a mucha-anticipated (I had to!!) exhibit in their Petrik Gallery on May 4: Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau. Czech painter and illustrator Alfonse Mucha rose to fame in 1895 with his poster of French actress Sarah Bernhardt, titled Gismonda—an illustrated advertisement that spawned his signature style, still emulated across the world. Iconic haloed figures dripping with fabric and flowers adorn a stunning collection of 75 rare, original Mucha lithographs and proofs, paintings, drawings, posters, books, and portfolios on loan from the Dhawan Collection, one of the finest of its kind.

Nothing says “May” like Mucha. I can’t wait to lay eyes on this show, which runs through September 1.

Blind Contour Breakfast

Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to be brilliant. It’s much more fun to be brilliant by accident. This is why I love “blind contour” line drawings so stinkin’ much.

A blind contour is a continuous-line drawing that essentially attempts to capture the outside edges of an object or person being observed—but unlike other contour drawings, it’s done with the doodler’s unwavering attention on the subject, not on the page. In other words, no peeking!

Blind contour drawing by Meredith Siemsen

It’s a liberating experiment because you’re relieved from the tendency to stop, judge, and fix. All there is to do is observe, trust, and move forward. And the results? Always expressive. Often hilarious. And, having been set free from the usual scrutiny of the way things are “supposed” to look, they take on a delightfully distorted flavor of their own.

Bring a sketchbook or scrap paper next time you go to a coffee shop or donut shop, or take yourself to breakfast. Because strangers just love being stared at. Or just draw your eggs Benedict.

That said, if you’re not dining alone this week, the blind contour makes a fun brunch game. Pull out a pad, pass it around the table, and take turns posing, then penciling, as you wait for your pancakes to arrive. Laughs guaranteed.

Or try it at home: draw your hand over toast and jam. Having an artist date does not technically require that you get out of your pajamas.

And to reiterate, an artist date also does not require you to be an artist. Seeing new things, or seeing things anew, is a boon for any brain.

Rejuvenate, Japanese Garden-Style

Thanks to dedicated rehabilitation efforts over the past four years, the Japanese Garden at the Muscatine Art Center again has the look and feel of the charmingly sophisticated garden established there almost a century ago. Visitors will enjoy new stone paths and rockwork, ADA-accessible pathways, and the additions of new plants, like sumac trees and flowering groundcovers. Repaired water features have also breathed life back into the landscape, the sights and sounds of moving water being an essential element of the Japanese garden—a style that lends itself to rejuvenation and contemplation.

In 1930, when Laura Musser McColm had the original garden installed at her home on Mulberry Avenue, it soon became a gathering spot for her private clubs. Ninety-four years later, this now-public garden is fast evolving as a placemaking feature of the town and an inviting spot for both quietude and community.

Make a date to walk the garden, explore the new plantings and paths, and pop indoors to view the current show, Animals in Art. Before you head home, swing by the National Pearl Button Museum to learn about the Mississippi mussels that once put Muscatine on the map!

One of the newly restored water features in the Japanese Garden at Muscatine Art Center

Go Skunkin’

When my mother and her brother Sam were very young, it was a treat to see their Grandpa Wormley, in his tan sedan, come crawling down the gravel road from his Newton, Iowa, farmhouse. Looking up from a fresh batch of baby chicks—or, if Sam had his way, an enthusiastic reenactment of Captain Video and His Video Rangers—the shiny-eyed siblings would greet their grandfather as he rose from the driver’s seat. With a silhouette that eclipsed the lazy Sunday afternoon sun, he posed his mysterious invitation: “Wanna go skunkin’?”

Though Grandpa Wormley would lay it on thick that they just might catch sight of the fragrant mammals who “battled” each other defending opposing territories on the North Skunk and South Skunk Rivers, the kids eventually caught on: there were no skunks at war on the riverbanks. “Goin’ skunkin’” was code for taking a Sunday drive. The invitation was exciting all the same—especially when farm and landscape features in the area were purported, by Grandpa, to be “the biggest barn!” or “the tallest hill in the world!!”

Pleasure cruises, I imagine, were way cooler in the 1950s, that golden era for automobiles when “fins were in.” But even now, for a lot of folks, taking a Sunday drive scratches an important itch. From drivers of souped-up utility golf carts—the latest trend in farm toys—to the proud owners of vintage cruisers and modern convertibles, Iowans have decided that goin’ skunkin’ is definitely still a thing.

Scenic Van Buren County (photo by Everett Bartels)

Take a scenic drive north into the rolling hills of the Driftless Area, where you’ll barely recognize your own state. Or cruise on Scenic Byway J40 through beautiful Van Buren County. Stretch your legs in Keosauqua as you nurse a black raspberry soft-serve shake from Misty’s: a cold, sweet slurp, with a river view. Just you.


We could all use an afternoon—or an hour—away from business as usual. Design some moments this month made for deep breaths and dilly-dallying. Use the muse as your guide. And may inspiration have its way with you.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!