Thoughts on Art-making, Fear, and Self

11 Hands — Pencil, Paper, and Digital

Whenever I’m stuck, there are 3 places I look for wisdom:

The Internet

In this most recent instance, I found myself wondering day after day, usually on the train or in the shower, how to carve out time for art-making while simultaneously working full-time, finishing a graduate program, maintaining a reasonable level of civic engagement, and going to therapy twice a week.

I went to friends first.

I asked the question to a few good friends in a few different ways and the responses I received were more vague and explanatory than concrete and actionable:

“That all comes with time.”
“Making art is hard.”
“You do what you want with the time you have.” (eerily similar to Gandalf’s wisdom, no?)

These responses simultaneously felt spot on and unhelpful. They seemed to dodge the core of the question, the feeling of being pulled like an elastic band between the expectations of those around us, the enduring narrative they build within us, and our faint internal compass.

After some circular conversations, I picked up several books: Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, and The War of Art and Do The Work by Steven Pressfield.

Of all the wisdom in Art & Fear one sentence resonated and simplified so much of my personal experience:

Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.

Bayles and Orland also succinctly capture the difficulty in discussing the process of art-making, what I found so unsatisfying in my conversations:

There is no ready vocabulary to describe the ways in which artists become artists, no recognition that artists must learn to be who they are (even as they cannot help being who they are.) We have a language that reflects how we learn to paint, but not how we learn to paint our paintings. How do you describe the [reader to place words here] that changes when craft swells to art?

Pressfield’s strategy is unique. He objectifies the problem. He calls it “Resistance.” He talks about strategies to square off with Resistance. On the final pages I felt I found some answers, but also more questions. Where does ‘Resistance’ come from? And why do we heed it’s call?

Finally, I searched online. Gregory Scheckler writes wonderfully about this subject, offering both thoughts and action steps. As does Heather Harvilesky. And Simon Reade.

In doing all this digging what I realized is this:

How fixated we become on the question “how do I make time for art?” has very little to do with how much free time is available to us. In fact, it has nothing to do with that. Beginning with this question is like building a house of cards by placing a card in the middle of the air, where it might have stood had there been a foundation. It will always fall.

We have to go back.

Before we ask how we can make more time for art, we have to ask how we arrived at a place where we need to carve out time for art. What I was really asking my friends was, “How did I arrive here? What happened? How do I get back to who I am?”

When I revisited Art & Fear, this passage made more sense:

The desire to make art begins early. Among the very young this is encouraged (or at least indulged as harmless) but the push toward a ‘serious’ education soon exacts a heavy toll on dreams and fantasies…Yet for some the desire persists, and sooner or later must be addressed. And with good reason: your desire to make art — beautiful or meaningful or emotive art — is integral to your sense of who you are. Life and Art, once entwined, can quickly become inseparable; at age ninety Frank Lloyd Wright was still designing, Imogen Cunningham still photographing, Stravinsky still composing, Picasso still painting.

What gives us the will to pursue art when there is no external validation (in fact, often in the face of many deterrents) is the strength of our belief that we need to make art, that it fuels our well-being and joy and that we are deserving of such well-being and joy.

This cannot be overstated.

Art-making has everything to do with how we experience ourselves on a daily basis; whether we find ourselves capable and worthy of meeting our own needs. This includes needs that are characterized as frivolous, unimportant, and nonessential by parents, teachers, friends, and peers.

So, ask yourself this: “What is the story playing in my head when I make time for art?” Try to pay attention to the voices that come up. Who do they belong to? Where did they originate?

This is a hard dialogue to ‘hear’ because it often comes to us in the form of fleeting feelings; a jolt under our sternum, a vague sense of frustration, a tense neck when we sit to work. But accessing it is as paramount as fingerprints are to a detective.

If you are at the very start of this long journey, you may not hear anything at all. That’s okay too. Keep the question in the back of your mind and revisit every few days. The more you listen, the quieter everyone else becomes.

I’m an artist that writes about gender, self, technology, art, and the future.

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