Better Than Metaphor: Find Your Motifs!

Posted by @ 1:00 pm on November 6th, 2009

ear art1A few months back, I talked to a painter and animator friend about craft, technique, and composition, with an ear toward what we could learn from each other’s genre. She had recently made a list of all the physical motifs that appear in her work, or in some cases her head and her life, and she read it to me. A motif, as I understand it, is different than a symbol, a metaphor, or a theme in that it simply refers to anything that recurs in a work. It doesn’t have to stand in for something else. It simply gains power and resonance through repetition, brings different parts of a composition into conversation, or provides a kind of unity to the whole.

Motifs can be physical or abstract, but I’m most interest in the tangible and sensory one–objects, landmarks, colors, sounds, and body parts. A writer or visual artist may or may not be conscious of and/or intentional in their use of motif. But my friend’s exercise, making a list of her own motifs, seems particularly exciting to me, in a way that making a list of one’s own metaphors or themes is decidedly not.

So I’ve been working on a kind of running list. Taking note of which objects I’m drawn to has in some cases led to deeper thought about those objects, which has led to something on the page. Here are some excerpts from my list:

hair / California / meat / ears / towers / horses / Yoko Ono / throat

Make your own list, as a fun Thanksgiving craft! Or not. Or tell me what you think about motif, as a writer or as a reader. Are there any motifs that you resist (I resist eyes; they seem too easy–but I love them!)? If anyone knows of some interesting critical work on motif, tell it to me.