My Muses Aren’t Imaginary

Jeremiah Palecek
8 min readApr 1, 2021


So… Painters. We’re the worst. Really. The act itself lends itself to isolation, and the myth of someone toiling away, in a garret, alone. Our genius is supposedly unrecognized by society at large, but we don’t care. We just keep on making. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re arrogant, or egotistical. Something just drives us to keep making. We’re addicted. Seriously. Believe it or not, my friends who are painters, will actually get a bit nutty if they don’t paint for a few days. Obviously it’s a cliché, but as someone who has been painting at least every other day for decades now, painting is as much a part of my life as eating toast in the morning (I know. I gotta cut out the carbs. I just don’t care enough yet. Because there’s paintings to be made!) .

I have to paint. I couldn’t stop if I wanted. When my hand gets cramped, I switch to my other hand. When I got some pains in my thumb, I started teaching myself to write, and draw with my other hand. It was automatic. The idea of leaving painting behind is something that literally never crosses my mind.

SOLOS #2745

Ok, so you get it. I like to paint. But you probably like to do something too. Think about that thing if you need an analogy, then think about how you got good at that thing. There were people, who unbeknownst to you, were pushing you in a certain direction. Of course we like to tell ourselves, that we make decisions right? We totally blazed the trail all by ourselves didn’t we!? :/

In painting especially, there’s the concept of The Muse. Generally “She” is someone who inspires you. And the reason “She” is a “She” is because the original 9 muses were actually Greek goddesses. Tintoretto made a painting of them. Smart people have written extensively about the problematic nature of the muse, and the fact that they’re almost always women. It’s certainly not a coincidence. “She” inspires, and “He” creates. This is obviously quite silly, but it’s where we were for centuries of painting.

The Muses, Tintoretto, 1578

So, this week I had some paintings which gained a lot of traction for a variety of reasons. But I think the most important factor was that I wasn’t looking for my muse in my head, in my studio, as an imaginary figure who was going to come and show me the way. Instead, I just listened to my friends along the way. This isn’t uncommon in painting, after all, the idea of critique, and studio visits is predicated upon it. We’re supposed to be listening all the time. But it’s something that I rarely engaged in. I preferred to listen to dead painters rather than the living people speaking to me. I still can’t help but be attracted to Sam Dillemans, in the video below (unfortunately can’t find a better quality version) where he says “When I see Rembrandt, I panic, because there’s still so much work to do!” . This resonates with a lot of painters who think “I’m not good! They’re good!” . Often, we set ourselves up for a life of living up to the heroes of painting, rather than listening to those around us.

Just a few months ago, my own students, god bless them, had to work together and collaborate on making an online workshop. I remember telling them basically “Be nice to each other! Because I get it! Artists don’t like to collaborate!” and “Good luck! Try not to kill each other!” and really, that’s pretty bad advice, and not only because there’s tons of artists (eg. not painters) who collaborate all the time. While it can be difficult to be thrown into random groups in an academic setting, it also undermines the very nature of collaboration itself, and that’s the fact that it should just be something that happens naturally.

So when you see that image above that I painted. You’ll find that I didn’t paint it by chance. And it’s not even my work entirely. It’s the work of all those I’ve listened to throughout the years. The trajectory of how these paintings came into existence is actually one that involves a lot of other people. My muses. That’s what this post is all about.

One of my first memories is being under a grand piano. Atop the piano are hundreds of paintings. There was some family gathering, and chatter happening, and I was posted up under the piano. Watching. My grandmother Frantiska was a self taught painter from rural Kansas. On top of that piano were hundreds and hundreds of wooden shingles that had been sanded smooth. Probably by one of my uncles, who owned a local business buying used tractors, refurbishing them, and reselling them. The barn the shingles had come from probably needed to be torn down, or was exploded by a tornado. I’ve got no idea. But somewhere along the line, she saw those shingles, and thought “I could paint on those” and she got some family members to help collect them, and bring them to a big greasy warehouse in Kansas, and sand them all smooth so she could paint upon them. And although my time with her was limited, I never once heard anyone speaking ill of her pursuits in painting. She was respected. And this is in a small, rural community in Kansas. It wasn’t a waste of time to anyone I ever encountered. It was what she did. And they were all fine with it. Her house was absolutely jam packed full of paintings. And we’re not just talking about the small shingles, where she painted birds, but also massive sheets of masonite. One more than 12 feet long, where she would make abstract paintings based on looking at rotting wood through a microscope. This one below went above her fireplace.

Creation, Frantiska, circa 1970

During another visit I encountered my first foray into using oil paints. I was probably 8 or 9. I recall being at her long dining room table, opposite a gorgeous picture window, painting with her brushes, using her linseed oil, her rags, and her brush cleaner. I didn’t have a canvas to paint on, so she told me to go outside, and find a smooth rock to paint on. I found a large one. Dug it out and cleaned it off. And painted a dragon on it. While I was painting I remember hearing her say to my father “He’s so into his work he can’t hear a word that we’re saying. Isn’t that wonderful?” And I thought it was. And I stayed quiet.

Frantiska, Portrait of her son (My dad) , 1960s

So now we can fast forward to Susan Stephenson, at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, who took my brush in her hand and in her lovely Louisiana Accent, and in the nicest way imaginable, basically said “That’s not how you do it honey. See? You’ve got to load up the brush like this!” and she was right. I was doing it wrong. I didn’t need a muse to come flying in through the window with a lute draped across her breast, I needed Susan to tell me what I was doing was dumb. And it was.

Susan Stephenson

Skip ahead another decade, and I’m walking through a hallway at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I see my friend Mikey Yates, and ask him for some help on a project. I was planning on making a bunch of “tombstone” shaped canvases where I was going to be painting various invented gadgets. Upon telling him my plan, I saw his face scrunch up a bit. He definitely thought it was dumb. And it was. He said “Why not cut them up into a bunch of different shapes?” and he was right. He spoke about Elizabeth Murray’s sculptural paintings, and these were great. We both knew they were great, and right then and there I decided to ditch the tombstones, and embrace all sorts of organic shapes instead.

Elizabeth Murray

Now, it would be easy to go down the rabbit hole of who inspired Elizabeth Murray, and it’s widely known that it’s Cezanne. But there’s no need to go down that path, because we’d just end up at the cave paintings anyway. Needless to say, I used a laser cutter, and masonite, and started cutting up my own shapes, and making my own “cut outs’ that could be rearranged into a number of different compositions. That’s how these works were birthed.

Jeremiah Palecek, Cut up, 2020

These pieces were big, and could go around corners. They changed my approach to painting. And it was all because I decided to stop cutting out tombstone shapes, and listened to my friend.

Jeremiah Palecek, Studio, 2020

There’s no need for the lone genius working by candlelight in a dirty studio. All we have to do is listen, and be open to whatever possibilities present themselves. So, after moving back to Prague, and after being unable to leave the US for nearly 6 months due to flight restrictions. I get a message from an old friend. Dennison Bertram. We had met years ago at an open mic night (Lord knows what we were doing there….) , before I had any friends in Prague. We got to talking, and thought “Hey, this other person doesn’t suck at all. We should be friends!” and we became just that. Years later, he would write me this.

And that’s how SOLOS was birthed. It wasn’t me coming up with some brilliant idea all at once, in an “AHA!” moment. It was percolating for a long time. Waiting to surface. It was Frantiska, and Susan, and Mikey, and Elizabeth, and Dennison, and way too many other people to name. And I know I sound like I’m accepting an Oscar right now, but I think that’s how life is sometimes in creative pursuits. It really comes down to listening, filtering, and reacting. The cut up pieces that were made with a laser cutter and masonite became digital, and based on my archive of work, and the compositions followed a generative model which also removed my hand from the work. By letting chance in, and being open to collaboration, something really cool happened. I’m just not sure how to explain this to my students in the future. Perhaps I’ll just have to send them this link.

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