Inspiration: Swimming with Snakes!

Collectors and critics often wonder where we artists find our inspiration.

Swimming with Snakes
Swimming With Snakes by Stephen Hall, acrylic on Arches paper

“What inspires you,” is a question asked in every interview. I think it’s a legitimate question, but a difficult one to answer. For me, one body of work may be inspired by my Muse, the Sonoran Desert. Or, another collection might be inspired by a reaction to life experiences such as the accompanying picture, Swimming With Snakes.

One of the songwriters I frequently listen to when painting penned these lyrics:

“We are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well, so silent and peaceful in the darkness where we fell.

But we are not snakes and what’s more we never will be, and if we stay swimming here forever we will never be free.”

—Patty Griffin, excerpt from Forgiveness, on the album Living With Ghosts

Sketch for Swimming With Snakes, by Stephen Hall

Was my painting inspired by this song? I believe it was the catalyst for it. Growing up in Kentucky, I heard stories of young boys unknowingly jumping into an underwater nest of cottonmouth snakes (water moccasins) in a lake or river. If you were snakebite by dozens of cottonmouths, it meant a painful death by toxic venom. To come upon a cottonmouth is a frightening, unforgettable experience. Facing down a coiled, thick, black body nearly six feet long with a gaping, fanged, cotton-white mouth is the stuff of nightmares.

The idea for this painting came to me while I was doing a series of sumi ink drawings as the song, Forgiveness, played in the background. Coincidentally, the night before I had watched Mud, a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, on Netflix. In the movie, a young boy falls into the waters of a slough sheltering a nest of cottonmouths, and is bitten. Matthew jumps in and rescues the boy, knowing that if he himself is bitten, he will die.

“When I heard the opening lines of the song, my childhood experiences with snakes, the movie and the song converged to inspire this painting.”

I immediately stopped and took a moment to sketch the idea (above). Six months passed, however, before I was ready to paint it. I knew the painting wouldn’t be about snakes, but something deeper and universal—forgiveness as the song is titled, but, also, about salvation.

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