Friday, August 8, 2014

The Birth and Detachment of Works of Art

I noticed a phenomenon occurring when I completed a work of art. In the midst of the piece I would feel excited and connected; the work was alive and I was part of that life. The moment I would complete it, it felt like something detached, and when I looked at the work, it seemed disappointing to me. Where was that excitement about what I was creating a moment ago? Why did the disappointment coincide with witnessing it finished, and not before or after? I noticed this was a bit universal and not unique to me, and I wanted to discover why this might be happening. I developed theories over the years..

For one, I thought that maybe every brushstroke, every decided upon action distilled the infinite number of potentialities into only one reality. Every act of creation was simultaneously infinite acts of destruction. The work, as it came into existence, was a definite thing, and no longer the perfect, platonic ideal that exists in my head, where it could be as perfect as I could imagine it without focusing on the details that must come along with physical existence. I think part of that disappointment is the disparity between the perfect version that exists in the mind and the actual version that is shaped by our abilities and limitations therein. It was the start of a theory that held me over for years, but eventually I realized it was incomplete.

I’ve begun to realize more about what is happening: the moment the proverbial umbilical cord is cut – the moment a work stops depending on me in order to come into existence – it becomes something on its own, separate from me. There is a delicate moment of detachment, barely noticeable except in the subtle pain of experiencing (what I thought was disappointment but is actually) the end of a birthing process, and a death in its own right.

Like my previous theory, this relates to the overall end of potential of a piece that is the simultaneous birth of the definite. But the other part of the theory is about what happens next: that after I created a work and put it out into the world (it was all grown up and moving out now), I stopped focusing on my relationship to the work and instead on the relationship to others and the work; like a child that wanders into the world and develops relationships of its own. I put a lot of stock in how others reacted and what they said about it. It had much more influence on me than I wanted it to, and I felt that I had failed somehow. I had failed to convey all the depth that occurred for me while creating the piece whenever it didn’t resonate in the same way with someone else.

Where does all that meaning go if no one but I am aware of it?

The beautiful tragedy of any work of art is this: the process is imbued within but not an overt part of the final product and the consequence is that the rest of the world sees only the iceberg tip of any given piece. The only person who will even approach knowing the piece completely is the artist herself, and even she won’t really understand everything, at least not at first.

But what about that postpartum depression that can feel so much like disappointment? Is it inevitable? Is it necessary? I decided to try an experiment, and I found there was so much more to the process than I originally thought was there: I decided to try to stay connected to my work after I “finished” it. What if the act of creating a work didn’t end after the physical piece was done and never touched again?

Art is a self-reflective process. Creating, and witnessing your own work is like holding up a mirror that shows you truths about yourself and the world you’re in that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. This is because art is so intuitive, and therefore is tapping into the subconscious. That subconscious is a well of wisdom – connecting to greater wholes and uniting the self – of which the conscious is barely aware. Creation brings the unconscious wisdom to the conscious realm, but only if your conscious self is: willing, listening to, and ready for whatever is surfacing. Therefore, our art is our subconscious speaking to us.

However, the talking doesn’t end when the active creation ends. In fact, sometimes it’s just barely gotten started. Within any piece of art there is space to recreate even after the physical work is done. The recreating and retouching is not done to the work, but to the relationship between the artist and the work, and also the work and the rest of the world. Without necessarily knowing the whole truth to a piece, the viewer is given space to write their own story to it; to realize how they resonate with it, and for the artist to further develop theirs.

So this is what it looked like for me to cultivate that relationship, rather than to end it: I created a ritual where I sat with a piece (looked at a painting, watched a dance video again and again, etc) and wrote down any thoughts that came to me. I tried to notice details I hadn’t really seen before, and surprisingly, there were so many there. Though I was awake for all parts of the creative process, I still noticed things after the fact that I hadn’t before. I actually sat there and let my work speak back to me. I opened the gateway and I NEVER closed it. This meant that even years later, I was still realizing things about myself because of that first piece with which I ran this experiment. (This is because I can now put it in the context of hindsight and all that followed after. This tells me more than I could have known in the moment, when I don’t see the future I’m paving by creating a given work.)

Then, when I brought my pieces out in the world for others to witness, I paid attention to every feeling that came up for me, especially in reaction to others’ reactions. I remembered one key thing:

The way others react to my work says so much more about them than it does about me. I can only try to bring honesty, intuitiveness and authenticity to my work, and what happens after that is out of my control. In seemingly a paradox, holding on to my relationship to a work allows me to experience a letting go that is complete. Yes, the efficacy of a work can be judged by how it reaches people and if it stirs something within them. But whether or not they are ready to hear whatever the work is saying is about where they’re standing in life and whether they are: willing, listening to, and ready for the message contained within a work. It’s about meeting halfway with the viewers. You have to give them something to stir them, but they have to connect to it personally for it to have intensity and power for them. And even then – regardless of the reactions of outsiders – my work and I still have a relationship that is alive and meaningful to me.

Interestingly, I no longer feel a differing level of investment in a work after it’s completed. The relationship changes, but it does not end. On the contrary, when I allow it to go out in the world and live a life of its own, it brings even more back to me because we are still connected by the original truths I poured into it, and more truths that have been created since.

In a way all of my works blend into one giant work, the underpinning of which is my life that I create and shape as a work of art in and of itself. And it in turn shapes me as well. My death will merely be the cinching that ends further potential, but what I’ve created will hopefully continue its own life beyond me, to be recreated in the minds of others.

***I'd like to credit my amazing friend - Jessica Way - with helping me to develop my recent iterations of this theory. We've had many inspiring conversations and she brought original ideas to the table that aided my theory greatly, as well as allowing me to talk out my ideas to refine them further. Jessica is an incredible musician and a great mind: check out some of her many bands/projects: Worm Ouroboros and Barren Harvest

Friday, June 6, 2014

I'm Not Just Resting, I'm Preparing: the cycle of productivity

The cycle of hibernation and productivity is a helpful thing, yet most of us try to suppress it. We try to always be busy to be productive. I know this all too well, and in exploring my own cycle, I’ve discovered a few things..

The cycle happens, whether I liked it or not. The ups and downs exist, and I was never able to cut one of them out. The sooner I accepted this, the sooner I was able to start making it a conscious cycle that I not only had a say in, but was also able to enjoy.

First step was the realization that  being busy is not the same as being productive I'm not the first one to this idea by far. Our contemporary culture reveres being busy. Just search “busy is not productive” and you’ll find tons of information on that disparity. I have an incredible network of artist friends. They’re always doing amazing things, and I see this daily through social media. Of course, we don’t post about the days we can’t get out of bed (mostly). So of course, I imagine my friends all running around all day being super productive. And I bet they imagine me doing the same thing. Being reminded that that's the reality for no one is kind of comforting.

In fact, writing this post is nearly the only productive thing I got done today. That, and laundry..  which barely counts. BUT.. I’ve been bad about adding to my journal in a timely, consistent manner. I get really locked up about writing in it because there’s so much I want to say that the content bottlenecks, and it’s a big deal for me even to post something. So one hour spent working today = a major step in my goal accomplished. I actually started this journal after over a year of just talking about starting it because I injured my foot so badly I could barely walk (and therefore could get almost nothing else done). Sometimes what looks like a vacuum of activity is exactly the right conditions to do something amazing.

Accepting that we follow natural cycles of productivity is also not an excuse to procrastinate. If you’re making excuses about why you don’t need to get anything done, then you’re probably not in the right mindset to read this post. This is more geared toward those who beat themselves up every time they lack the motivation to get as much done in a day as they had planned.

The wonderful thing is you don’t have to be busy all the time to be super productive. If people can look at everything I created and just assume I’m working 20 hours a day, then I’m living proof, because I don’t. I’ve had 20 hour days. I once worked for 52 hours straight on a project. (I don’t recommend it). I’ve also gone more than 52 hours straight without getting a single thing done. After many different variations of scheduling, I’ve realized that my most productive times happen when I’ve also taken the time to rest, and they’re actually not when I seemed the busiest, either. Case in point...

My busiest time in life was from about the 5th grade until I graduated college. I was a middle-schooler who did hours and hours of homework every night (because I felt had to go above and beyond on every assignment) and I was a high-schooler that had 12-16 hour days with school and extra-curricular activities. In college, it was worse. And that entire time, while I was building something, I was doing very little that was directly meaningful to me. It was mostly resumé-building things, and in hindsight, it was all for a resumé I wouldn’t even end up using. I don’t regret any of it, because it did help me become the person I am today. But if I do regret anything about it, it’s the unhealthy conception of productivity that it drilled into my head that I’m now having to work so hard to reprogram. Now, I have more leisure time (in the long run) trying to make it as an independent artist – doing only what I love for work – than I ever had before. It’s not because my life is easy or that I don’t have to work hard to make ends meet. It’s just that I’ve cut out all the things that don’t really matter to me in favor of those that do. I’m not trying to impress anyone with how busy I can be, I’m just trying to devote as much time as possible to creation. I also got way smarter about how I use my time.

Being an artist is HARD work.  I’m not even just talking about making it as an artist. Creative work itself takes a lot of energy. I’ve worked an office job. I had to think critically, but in a way that was sustainable over 8 hours (as boring as it still was). The type of thinking I do when creating a piece is not sustainable at the same level for that long. So think about the type of work you're doing, and the realistic expectation of how long you can sustain it. The harder the work, the more fluctuations in time spent on it. You'll have to take breaks, or take turns between the high-energy thinking phases and the more tedious work but low-brain-activity phases (when I'm worn out, I work on something like inking over my pencil lines, or cutting fabric after creating the pattern). But what we think of as a work day in our culture (8 hours, minimum, for 5 days a week, almost all weeks of the year) is fine if the work is not done with our brains running at maximum capacity. Most creative work is done at that higher level, and is not sustainable for that period of time. If you look at the workdays of creative geniuses throughout history – many of them did their central creative work for much less than 8 hours a day. Sure, some of them had to hustle to make ends meet in addition to this, but there was certainly leisure time programmed in there as well. Some of them would look downright lazy by today’s standards. (For some, keeping a day job is a form of rest from the creativity and having to hustle to make ends meet. That’s really a personal choice, in the end.)

So, what actually happens to me (and maybe some of you) is that my down times last a while, and what happens is they build up a pressure of guilt. When the guilt and disgust get really strong, it impels me toward action. Then I’m so busy and productive for such a long time that I burn out, and then the unmotivated, rest period happens TO me, usually because I get sick; either physically or mentally. However, that is a self-abusive cycle, and it’s not restful or rejuvenating. Instead, an acceptance of the torpor (hibernation) that must necessarily come about between flurries of activity allows us to get the most out of this rest. The guilt is completely unnecessary and counterproductive.

It’s really difficult to switch off programming that we probably spent a life putting into place, so there are some strategies that have helped me to mitigate that guilt and move toward a more positive reprogramming. 

1. First is the basic realization that rest is necessary, and there’s no way that’s going to change. When I have trouble thinking of those rest periods as beneficial in their own right, I think of them as precursors to the next amazing productive time period I will have.  I am not just resting: I am preparing.

2.  If you can’t stand to rest completely, give yourself an itinerary, but make it small.  Get ONE productive thing done that day. Schedule in an hour of the work you want to be doing. Then you have 23 other hours that are spent resting in some way. You’ve still accomplished something. Anyway, giant goals are usually broken down into small bite-sized pieces that take very little time. You’re still one step closer.

3. Schedule in the rest time. Plan it before it happens TO you.  I like to schedule it right after a giant workload, as well as small amounts along the way. If I immediately try to move onto the next thing after reaching a giant goal, I will burn out. If I schedule in a break after I’ve reached a major goal, then no matter what my brain tries to tell me, I know somewhere in there that I really did earn that rest. Make the rest period proportionate to the goal (worked seven months for this? Take more than one day off). And keep in mind you might not even feel like resting (post-performance high makes me want to get right back to work), but that you should rest anyway, because adrenaline runs out faster than regular energy. Sometimes you don’t have an opportunity for rest right away, but just know that you’re going to have to take it sometime soon. Otherwise your body will force you to take it when you haven’t planned for it (ever gotten sick right when you really couldn’t afford to? Yeah, me too).

4. Now that you're planning your rest periods, make it actively healthy rest. What would actually be the best for you? Maybe it's still being creative in a more mellow, lower-pressure kind of way. Maybe it's making more time to exercise, or spend time with friends. Maybe it is spending the whole day in bed - but this probably isn't always true. Make sure you're doing something that feeds you while allowing the recharging to occur.

5. Sometimes those unexpected rest days come up. You meant to get so much done, but it just didn’t happen. Don't freak out. Make the most of it.  Panicking about it means you’re not getting anything done AND you’re not resting. Take the cue instead and let yourself rest. Remind yourself: you’re not just resting, you’re preparing.

P.S. I do want to say that there is nothing wrong with being busy, and often times that is what productivity can look like. Here I’m looking in the direction of all my friends who are in school, working full-time to make ends meet, and are also artists (usually of multiple disciplines). The way this might apply to you is – rather than appeal to not be so busy, because you may not be able to control that at the moment – that you just have to be even more mindful about finding those rest periods amidst the craziness. Sometimes that means saying no to that third project that came your way, or spending a night in rather than yet another out because of networking and building a presence. Or perhaps you do need to examine your schedule and see if you really aren't more busy than you need to be. Keep in mind that this level you're sustaining will not - and should not - last forever. Instead, it can be a slightly longer-term part of the cycle.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Threshold WIP (work in progress)

I have been unconsciously trying to keep this journal 'meta' and only speak in general terms, rather than simply share my own process. But actually the latter is the main reason I started this. So I'm going to include cataloging my own process and works in progress, which leads me to..

'Threshold' underpainting
initial sketch
...this underpainting. I started this a little over a year ago, and I am finally getting to work on it again after a year. It is number 2 in a developing triptych that has lived in my head for at least a few years now. To get it out into the world finally is such a catharsis.

The current name for the entire triptych is "Contemplations on the Void (in three arbitrary frames)." I'm thinking of making that the 'academic' title, and the title that addresses the more personal meaning of this would be "Salvation" or something similar.

Here is the progress so far.. day two of the 'final' layer of oils, though there are still many adjustments I need to make. The dilineation between the final layer and the underpainting is fairly obvious at a little above the halfway mark.

This piece of the triptych is called "Threshold." A living thing, humanized and dehumanized, sits at the edge of the void. It is where the contemplation occurs.


This first piece (which is completed) is "Release." It is the vision of what I believe that moment of dissolution into nothingness feels like: and it is blissful. This moment comes not at the point of death of the body, but rather at the moment of realization that there is no boundary between us and the 'other', or nothingness. I paint it as one who has merely glimpsed this feeling, and who desires to attain it again.

Another possible title would be "Enlightenment," but that feels too damn pretentious. "Salvation" feels as though it is more personal, like a prayer or entreaty. But basically, it's about enlightenment and what that looks like to the one reaching for it.

I was told by someone who saw 'Threshold' that it looks as though I pour my demons into my painting. It was so interesting to hear that because - while I do pour all of my self, demons included, into my paintings - in this case it's actually my vision of enlightenment, or bliss, or heaven. I see life in death, and it is all the more present and beautiful because of the contrast and the illusion of absence. This fact informs all of my art, and these latest pieces most of all.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Starving Artist is a Myth: on Survival and What Comes After

The archetype of the 'starving artist' must die. It's a myth; and while myths can be true, their power comes from our belief in them. So, I'm not saying there aren't and won't be plenty of starving artists for a while to come, but the idea that an artist must suffer for their art is complete fallacy and should not be propagated anymore, especially by the artists themselves.

Artists are vessels for the experiences they encounter. They filter these and transmute them into their art. Of course suffering goes into the art. But it need not be created for the sake of it. If anything, it's potentially inauthentic and definitely unnecessary. We all suffer anyway, but art need not be borne out of only suffering for it to be real and true. It just needs to be the artist's honesty, and nothing more.

Many artists I've spoken to have told me that they create best when they are in a stable, comfortable environment with some semblance of a routine. I was relieved when I heard this, because I have this habit of forcing myself to be extremely adaptable to a fault. I put myself in experiences just to see if I can survive it and make it work. But usually what I sacrifice is my productivity.

Right now, I'm seeking a place to live. I'd been homeless since April. For the last 6 months I wasn't on the street by any means. I did sleep in my car a few times. I mainly couch-surfed and house-sat for friends and rented a studio so I'd have a steady place to work, if not a steady place to sleep. I knew my priorities and I knew my limits, even if I was pushing them. Now, when I tell people my budget for a room, they balk and inform me how incredibly low it is. It's not that they're wrong, it's just that I don't need to hear it over and over again. I know how difficult my path is without being reminded and discouraged from it.

So, I'm going to share an extremely personal experience here because it's essential to my story of being a full-time artist and holding on to the belief that I should be able to thrive doing my art full-time without having to sacrifice even half my time to the tedium of a day-job that does not align with my priorities.

Three years ago - almost exactly - I hit bottom. I was working the last full-time day-job I've ever worked. It was an 'artistic' job in that I was doing sign-making, though it had begun to degenerate into being given a lot of work that wasn't artistic at all. Outwardly, it wasn't a desperate situation. But what was going on in my mind was.

Rewind a little bit more.. I didn't talk about it a lot, but I was incredibly unhappy in college with my life's path. I was doing a thing I liked, but I wasn't doing what I loved and I wasn't sure what that would even look like if I were. In 2006, when I stepped off my path and spontaneously moved to the bay area, I opened up my life in a big way. In retrospect, it's inevitable that I pretty quickly slid into creating art. It's what was meant to happen (in the existentialist sense of creating your own meaning). Since then, creating art became like breathing. Not only does it feel good to do, but if I stop doing it, I die. I didn't really know that was true until that time three years ago. My bandwidth for allowing a day-job to suck the life out of me shrank down to zero. I'd been squeezing art into the corners of my life for so long I'd begun to lose the energy for it, and stopped making art of my own almost completely. I started crying spontaneously at work. I cried the moment I got home until I fell asleep, only to drag myself out of bed the next day, numb, and ride my bike to work, praying I'd get hit by a car so I didn't have to make it into work that day. This went on for months, and slowly I formulated in my mind that if art = life and I couldn't do art, then life had no meaning. I felt trapped in my situation, in a society that didn't encourage my requirements for existence. I figured there was no way out, and I couldn't do the thing that gave my life meaning, so perhaps life wasn't worth living.

The moment I considered not existing anymore, something in my brain clicked. Whether it was the survival-focused reptilian brain, or perhaps something older and wiser, it dragged me up out of the house and forced me to go get help. But the thing that really shifted in me was the realization that if I had nothing to lose - if the decision was truly one between life as an artist or death - then there was nothing to fear anymore. I could stop letting the fear of how I would survive as an artist hold me back, because I could make anything work as long as I was still alive. The alternative had much fewer options.

Without fear, without anything to lose, I began my life as a full-time artist. I knew there had to be a way - something that involved talent, a lot of hard work and determination, and a whole lot of networking - and I would find it. Slowly, I am beginning to take a foothold in the life I've been dreaming of this whole time. I still take small day jobs here and there but I'm careful not to give too much of my time to the meaningless loop.

By the meaningless loop, I refer to the loop in which you work a job you don't care about (or even hate) to make money. This money buys you food and shelter which allows you to survive. But that time surviving is mostly spend at the job, creating a life structure that has no outward meaning or connection. Take note: no one's life is meaningless, even if this is the form it takes. The loop itself is meaningless, the life is never meaningless. But the life can be wasted on the loop.

So now, I find myself looking to survive without creating a meaningless loop, and it's difficult. I'm told it's near impossible to find a place that cheap. But I know it is possible, so I go forward anyway, just like I didn't let myself be discouraged by those that told me (usually in indirect ways, though pretty clearly nonetheless) that life as an artist precludes being financially comfortable. As I grow my business, I find I can afford more than I expect. It's still not easy, but I'm doing better now than I dreamed of when I first started, which means in a short while I could be doing better than I can even dream of now.

I create art because I need to, and as long as I can continue to create art, then my picture of success is fulfilled. But this picture can also include abundance and a comfortable place to live. The dream of being an artist with a comfortable income, wonderful opportunities, and not only eking out an existence is not an unrealistic one for those with the dedication and passion to see it through. So let's stop sabotaging it with this unrealistic romanticization that an artist must starve and suffer for their work. And stop telling me I cannot afford this life as a full-time artist; because I can.

(Sigil I-IV: this is the work I began the moment I quit my day job. It represents - both literally and metaphorically - choosing life over death. And in a sense, choosing a death and a rebirth. I love paradoxes like that.)

Sunday, August 25, 2013


This entry is about beginnings, and it is a beginning in itself. I put off writing this first entry for years, and as a result the journal I wanted to start about my process in art was never born. Until now.

The beginning of something is just a part of that thing, and yet it seems like it is so much bigger, heavier and daunting than all the rest. It’s what I like to call ‘artistic inertia’ and I believe it is a universal phenomenon. It is so simple of a problem; you simply lack momentum when beginning a project. You are staring at a foreshortened version of the entire thing where you believe you have to engage it all at once. Once into the midst of an endeavor it becomes so much easier to just focus on the present task, though consistent gentle reminders not to become daunted by what you have ahead of you are often necessary.

The problem is so simple, as is the solution. Notice I said simple, not easy. To begin something, it requires a leap of faith. That leap between the stillness of where you are at and the momentum of creating is so small as to be imperceptible, but the mind makes it into a giant thing. It is part of the process, not only to make that leap, but to know your own process enough to have faith that if you just start with that first brushstroke, that first word, or that first dance movement, the rest will begin to flow.

This is my story every single time, and I have come to know my process well. I’m not immune to procrastination, it’s just that I know better now. I know my process, and I know the distance of that leap of faith so very well. It’s like that jarring realization of stepping off that last stair and then you realize there was no last stair, you were already there. I sometimes have to trick myself, to make bargains: “Ok, self, you just have to sit and paint for TWENTY MINUTES and then see how you feel about it.” I know that at the end of those twenty minutes I will feel differently. It might be a huge difference, where I feel that bliss of being truly immersed in the process and I won’t want to stop. But it might not be. It might be the smallest change, where at the end of that time I don’t really feel like painting still, but I feel just determined enough to keep going and trust that at some point, the real shift will happen. And that’s where I spend much of my time. Those creative highs can’t be all the time, but once you feel it you understand why hours and hours of work and practice in the moments where you don’t feel like it are absolutely, invariably worth it.

And sometimes, it’s as surprising as putting off a huge project like starting a series of writings about one’s own creative process – having so much to write that you fear the content will bottleneck itself in your confusion about where to even begin – and realizing that all I had to do was start at the beginning, and it would take less than twenty minutes. I was surprised by that lack of a last stair yet again. And this is it, largely unedited, possibly incomplete, definitely imperfect... just a beginning.