I was watching the season finale of The Handmaids Tale, and I noticed how often the character speaking pauses and says nothing. Nothing, just full-on face acting. Those pauses weren’t empty; they were jammed with emotion and power. They made me listen more intently to what the actor said next.
I have always resisted the pause, especially in my art practice. The time between creative bursts can feel like a letdown, and I negatively interpreted that and ignored the need to rest. I realize that for me, this is probably a mistake. The time in between is an opportunity, and seeing how impactful the quiet moments were in the dialogue between actors drove home the unique power of pausing. Like simplified areas and white space in a painting or silence in a piece of music, the quiet passages make the piece work. They give it interest and contrast. The poetry in a piece of art is in what you choose to leave out.
Summer seems like the perfect time to embrace the pause and stop the rush to fill up all the spaces. Or maybe I could try face acting. 😉
It was quite a time. Our lives getting smaller and more concentrated. The daily fear of illness and death. The terrible uncertainty and isolation. The inability to visualize the future.
Life, completely out of focus.
So now, here we are. Many of us are vaccinated and the terrible cloud of Covid is slowly receding. Infections have gone down, as have deaths. There are many reasons to be optimistic and excited. But, while it’s been scary, terrible, upsetting and sad. It’s also been quite immersive and clarifying. And as someone whose work changed during lockdown; I am wondering what’s next.
What will I keep from the pandemic year and what will I discard?
Right now, I don’t know exactly. Lockdown happened with a flip of a switch, but getting back to “normal” won’t be as swift. I’m not in a rush. I want to consider my options and be clear about my intentions. So far, I have decided, that I want to keep Zoom and the connections I have made with other artists all over the world. I am also prepared to say no to plans to protect my time. I have sworn off meandering trips to the art store or Target. For me these trips are procrastination disguised as “inspiration”. I would like to waste less time but also have more time to think. I am going to keep what brings me joy or helps me focus, which is pretty much Marie Kondo-ing my art practice. I'm keeping the good stuff and tossing the clutter.
What kinds of things will you keep or discard?
I spent most of last week taking pictures of completed paintings and now I know for sure that photography is my nemesis and I have the bruises to prove it.
Generally speaking, I enjoy everything about art. Except photography. I do not like photography. I dread photographing my artwork. It is a significant mental block. My mind goes blank whenever the word aperture is mentioned. So many settings. The lighting. The tripods. The big umbrellas. Should I use white ones or black ones, round or box shaped? IDK. The minefield of tripods and cords to trip over crammed into my basement studio. That little shutter thing that I forget to turn off and then I have to hunt for one of those flat round batteries to fix it. There is white balance, f stops, And the editing. Photoshop? Snapseed? Camera distortion? Brightness? Its confusing.
When I just can't face the lighting set up, I take the painting outside and photograph it on my driveway. I have to crouch down to get the shot before the wind (there is always WIND) blows it face down. I’m sure this is entertaining for the neighbors. Its not only hilarious, it is also dangerous (for me it seems). I got hit on the head with a big metal level this week, it fell off the top of the painting as I was trying to straighten it for the shot.
I don't know why I have difficulty with photography. It seems to go all the way back to school. I know for sure that it’s not the camera. I have tried them all. It’s me. I keep telling myself that I will conquer this nemesis and learn how to take excellent photos. And today, as I cleaned paint off the cords for the light stands (I really don't know how that happened) and put away the tripod, I remembered to turn that shutter thing off! And that is progress!
Last month, over a 3-day weekend, my husband and I decided to try a DIY At Home Creative Retreat, giving ourselves permission to ignore chores and Netflix to focus on our projects. We decided that we would have a one-and-a-half-day retreat beginning on Saturday morning and ending Sunday afternoon. The day before the retreat we made a schedule and came up with some ground rules. These were simple and included a degree of unplugging, meditation and a daily walk. We each chose a focus and the next morning we got to work. The time went by fast and we ended the day with an Artsy film from 1991.
So how did it go? Overall, we both thought it was a very useful experience. We have been mostly home for a year but much of that time gets sucked up by house projects and organizing chores. Dedicating the time and giving ourselves permission to focus on a creativity was key. Stocking the kitchen and planning meals as well as agreeing on the structure kept us from wasting time deciding what to do next. Having a schedule kept interruptions to a minimum and allowed us to select tasks to fit the time.
February has been cold and snowy so far. I have been shoveling, working in the studio, reading about abstract painters and researching how artists come up with titles and hashtags. I started thinking that for a profession centered on creating art, I spend a lot of my time with words. When you get into the business of being an artist you quickly realize that it requires you to get comfortable with writing.
There is also a lot of MATH, but that is for another post.
There are all kinds of words. There is the title of the work, a written statement describing the work, captions, descriptions, hashtags, key words, posts, texts. tweets and SEO words. There are inspirational words in the form of quotes. Words chosen for motivation like a word of the year. There are plans to write, lists to make and journals to fill. In using all these words, I make mistakes. Lots of them. Spelling mistakes and grammar mistakes mostly. This used to really freak me out. But its ok. Mistakes can be fixed. I also struggle to figure out what to say and how to say it. Thinking who cares what I have to say?
It’s easy to get embarrassed, self-conscious, tired, overwhelmed and quiet. When that happens, it is hard and awkward to start engaging again. But talking and writing about your work is important. In today’s world where self-representation is the norm, writing about your work is really not optional. It helps people get to know you and understand your point of view.
As an artist I use many tools. There are the obvious ones like paint, brushes and canvas to the less known ones like an expired credit card, a heat gun and the occasional condiment bottle. Learning how to use a tool takes practice. When I get stuck, I think of writing as just another tool and think of all the tools I have already learned to use.
If you are thinking of adding more writing to your art practice, start small perhaps by adding a bit more to a post. Take baby steps. It gets easier and It doesn’t have to perfect. Case in point - you are reading this and I am sure it isn’t close to perfect.
I generally prefer audio books as a background in my studio. I have listened to hundreds of art histories, biographies, mysteries and true crime stories, plowing through series after series. I have always needed a bit of escapism to occupy my inner critic as I work, but lately I prefer silence.
At the beginning of quarantine when life became strange and frightening, I turned once again to meditation (and Ben & Jerry). I had exactly zero success with meditation up to this point, but during the repetitive circumstances of lockdown, I began a modest practice that began to help with my anxiety and focus.
A funny thing has happened after months of meditation. It has crept into my studio! When I am working, I often prefer silence. I am happily conscious of being in the moment and I don’t need to drown out that voice, in fact, I think I may have made friends with my inner critic. Well, more like a friendly acquaintance I chat with, and sometimes tell very nicely to shut up.
Meditation is a process that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But you could try switching up your painting soundtrack or turning it off all together. Maybe In the quiet you can have a nice polite chat with your inner critic too.
January in the studio can be slow. Some artists begin each year by clearing the decks, cleaning and organizing their workspaces. Others are brimming with many new ideas and excited to get back to work after a holiday break but are not sure where to start. When I want to refocus my art practice anytime of the year and I like to create or join an online challenge. This gives me accountability, structure and permission to play. To create an online challenge you only need social media, an idea and a hashtag such as #30in30 or #my2021art. Challenges can be any length 21, 30, 100 or even 365. You could even do it daily for years.
Whatever you choose, keep it simple and don't worry if you miss a day, just keep going and see what happens.
Over the years I have collected many art practice tips. When I feel tight and off track I use this list to loosen up my painting.
Sometimes you come across a quote that just stops you. Really, you stop and read it over a few times. Maybe you write it down in the margin of your calendar or copy and paste it into the notes section of your phone. Maybe you print it out and tack it to the cork board in your studio. You might even get those words tattooed onto your arm. Because, well, you don’t want to forget them. But you do. Sometimes those forgotten words keep following you, popping up again and again. This quote from John Cage is one of those for me.
I love this quote!! I find it comforting and inspiring, like a push. He vividly lists the sources of the
baggage that we bring to creating. I can see all of the people around my easel between me and the canvas. Then he reminds me how to get past it, telling me to keep painting and get out of the way and sometimes I listen.