The Pressure To Perform

I have had a huge artists block that has lasted for over a year, and almost derailed my entire career. I have beat myself up horribly over this fact. The more I stressed about it, the worse it got, until one day I just said “I’m done”.

But I knew in the back of my head that was the furthest from the truth. You see, I’ve always painted or drawn. Yes, I’ve had periods of rest where I wasn’t very active, but that deep seated desire to create has always been there niggling away at me, making me feel incomplete if I wasn’t painting.

The expectations placed on artists today are unreal. There is this huge push to create daily. Daily painters, daily practice, a painting a day, daily posts on social media. The competition to get better, be the best. Look how easy it is to compare your work with the worlds artists. Imagine how much easier it would have been when artists didn’t have access to the worlds best artists instantly there to compare their own work to. How impossible is it to feel competent today?

The chatter, and resulting pressure, is TOO much! Maybe this works for some artists, but for others that kind of pressure is crippling, leaving many wondering if they’ll ever be good enough, or how to find time for all their commitments in life. Job, family, health, friends, and all the other daily, weekly, monthly things that need our time and attention.

For me, before my slump hit, I had an empty nest and a husband working long hours, living in the country in almost isolation – too far away for friends or family to just drop by. I had tons of time to myself and this made it easy to get studio time almost daily. (I took the weekends off.) Then my husband was laid off and transitioned to retirement. We got a new dog. We moved to the city close to friends and family.

Suddenly all those hours of solitude had vanished. If I was in the studio, I felt guilty I wasn’t paying attention to the new dog, the at home husband, cooking, cleaning, or out visiting friends and family. If I was doing all those other things, I was getting frustrated at not finding enough time to be in the studio. I couldn’t seem to find a happy balance.

Today, I’ve decided to give myself a break and quit stressing about it all. I do not have to produce 30 top quality paintings a month. I don’t even have to produce that many a year. I wonder what the storage rooms of some of these daily painters looks like. I know what my painting storage looks like!

Even if I could produce a painting a day, I couldn’t sell that many. What happens is that I end up contributing to the environmental mess the world is in, by landing many of those paintings in the landfill. The realization of the environmental impact of needing to produce like I was a robotic factory, has helped me get over all the anxiety I have had over the past few years.

Wouldn’t a dozen good, sellable paintings a year be better for the world? I know it is certainly more doable for what my life demands right now, and has made it easier for me to relax and enjoy my painting time guilt free.

Despite the message the only way to improve is to paint daily, I think the opposite has been true for me. A slower pace has given my brain time to catch up with all the learning I have done over the past few years. With fewer painting days, my skills have improved. I have more time to think about and plan a painting, rather than rushing in to get it done. Win, win!

We do not have to buy into this all or nothing scenario. If the message you are hearing over and over causes you anxiety, know that you do not have to adopt it. Define your own parameters for your artist’s life and create from a place of contentment.

Vision Quest Part II

My Vision Quest series had been going well until someone commented about me not being of First Nations descent. I tried to brush the comment off, but something got under my skin. Then I started hearing other negative comments. People were quietly questioning if I was guilty of cultural appropriation for painting these images, which made me question myself. A long dry spell resulted.

The last thing I wanted to do was insult the people I was trying to celebrate through my paintings. I talked and listened to some other non-native artists who were representing First Nations people in their art. They all seemed to have a relationship with a native person. Some said I needed to seek approval to do my work, so I set off to do this, not having a clue how to actually do it.

The Horse Warriors – 22×28 – Acrylic On Canvas – Sold

I spoke to one artist who said I needed to consult with an elder. So I sent emails and tried to make phone calls to find out how to get in touch with an elder. Those efforts all lead nowhere. Calls and emails went unanswered. Finally I talked to another artist who volunteers with our historic park, which hosts an annual pow wow. I figured he might know of someone I could talk with to find out how to find an elder.

The name he gave me lead to a person who worked at a local friendship centre, but she’d quit the day before I called. However I explained my situation and they gave me the number for another organization in town. Finally success. I was able to make the arrangements to meet with an elder.

I was so nervous of how my work would be received. I went in to their resource centre before meeting with the elder and was able to show my work to a small group of First Nations people and the centres employees. The work was so well received. I can’t even say what a relief it was.

The meeting with the elder went as expected. I had already known in my heart the answers that I was seeking. I have been given a gift and a voice. It is my story I am telling – my impressions and thoughts of First Nations people and their culture. They can not give me permission to do my work, because it is mine and they have no right to say if I can or can’t do it.

There are certain protocols which could raise concerns, such as if I were to call it Native Art, which I have never done; or if I were to copy existing work, or paint on sacred items such as drums or teepees, or represent myself as being of aboriginal descent.

I was told that those who question me are doing so out of their own insecurities or jealousy. I need to ignore them and not let them get into my head. And finally I was told how to honour and talk to the spirits so that my visions keep coming to me.

Since that time the images coming to me have been overwhelming. It is like the floodgates have been opened. I can’t paint quickly enough to keep up with the visions and ideas. And I am full of gratitude for both the gift  and support I have been given. The spirits have given me, and others who have a similar calling, this gift. It is not up to me to question the reasons behind it, but to follow and honour it to the best of my abilities.

Vision Quest Part 1

I have been working on my Vision Quest series of paintings for several years. I can’t say when exactly it started or exactly why, except to say that I’ve always been driven to represent First Nations people through my work. Even within my photography there are many images that have obvious, and many not so obvious, connections.

I titled my series Vision Quest because that is how many of the images come to me – through visions, dreams, or abstract thoughts. Sometimes the work will be influenced by a story or event, and I’ll try to fit the imagery to the story. Sometimes the image comes first and I try to fit the story to that.

Daylight Dance – 11×14″ – Oil on panel – Sold

Why the First Nations people? I have tried to rationalize this over the years, but the truth is I don’t really know. It’s just what I’m being guided to do. In my rationalizations I have come to the conclusion that it’s because these peoples traditional ways represent what is missing in our society today. Respect, freedom, harmony between land, nature, and spirit; honour for the past and future, a sacred knowing that goes beyond science and logic; and living an artful life.European immigrants, of which I descend, tried to strip away the spirit, stories, and traditions of the First Nations people. I don’t know what part, if any, my ancestors played in the horrible treatment they received under the wave of immigration. I hope none since my Scottish history shares some of the struggles of the First Nations people of being displaced from their land and made out to be the savage enemy. They came here in search of freedom to live peacefully as farmers. I know of no direct ancestors that were involved in the political or military shaping of this country. When I dream I see stewards of the land who have taken care of our planet for thousands of years without the damage we have caused in a fraction of that time. Ultimately it is the struggle between freedom and oppression, an uncertainty for the future, and a belief that if we listened there is a way to live in harmony with the environment and each other. It is my hopes that I can give the First Nations people back some of their spirit and help celebrate their culture for the strength, beauty and integrity it deserves.

In part two I will share the some of the negativity that has resulted from this series, and what I’ve done about that. 

You Have To Start Somewhere

About this time of year 2 years ago I was working on an exhibition submission for my paintings. It was one of my first submissions for painting. All my documents (artist’s statement, bio, and cv) were written from a strictly photographic perspective, so it was necessary for me to re-write things. When it came to my cv I realized it was time to do some reorganization. Previously I had listed all my exhibition experience together and made the solo and two person shows bold to distinguish their greater importance. It was now time to separate the exhibitions in group and solo shows.

This seemingly simple act took me back several years to when I first started to submit my photography for exhibition consideration. I had taken a professional development workshop on writing artist’s statements, resumes and bios. I remember sitting there with a blank piece of paper wondering what I could possible put down on my resume. I remember looking at the examples we’d been given thinking I’d never get there. Going from a blank paper to having pages of exhibitions, awards, and collections seemed as daunting as a kindergartener looking at the road to a law degree.

County Road 8×10 Oil

I had to really stretch to get something on paper for my earliest cv. I had things like a high school exhibition and award and an online exhibition. That’s all the photography exhibition experience I had. Luckily I did have some experience with fibre arts events, which at the time I had never considered an art form. I had participated in some juried fibre art shows through the provincial guild and had won some awards for my fibre work, so I included that. Thankfully my cv wasn’t too empty, but most of what was there was totally unrelated to what I was doing at the time. The road seemed long and steep.

Now here I was, a few years later, with a 3 page cv totally related to photography and a need to separate exhibitions like I remember seeing at the beginning of my journey. I even excluded many exhibitions, such as duplicate events or shows of less importance. I was being offered exhibitions, turning exhibitions down, and being highly selective of those I did, but I was starting out all over again in a different media. Sure I had lots of exhibition experience with photography, but I was an unknown within the world of painting.

What’s the point of all of this? I know the road looks daunting, but it is only our own fears and insecurities that stand between that blank piece of paper and the three page CV. I started out with virtually no experience. Everyone does. So if I can do it, so can you.

One thing I have done consistently is set realistic goals. Once a year I set goals for myself that I think I can achieve. I started small, and with each success I set a goal that would take me to the next step. Here’s a look at some of my past goals that show how each one was just a bit beyond the last.

  1. 2007: Have a photograph in a public exhibition.
  2. 2008: Have my work in a museum show.
  3. 2009: Have a solo show.
  4. 2010: Have work in a show outside Alberta.
  5. 2011: Have work in a major exhibition.
  6. 2012: Have work in a government sponsored exhibition.
  7. 2013: Have original art in a public exhibition.
  8. 2014: Be accepted into the Federation Of Canadian Artists.

I can’t emphasize enough how important this goal setting has been to my career. Faced with that blank page and not knowing which way to step, goals have given me something to focus on. When I get out of bed in the morning I have a purpose to work towards. Yes there is art making, but being professional means you have to do more than just create the art. You have to know what to do next, and my goals have made it clear what’s next. I’ve presented a simple list, but in reality my goals have been a bit more complex than one simple item on a list. I always have a goal for learning or skills improvement as well as career milestones. 

If you haven’t set goals for your art career, do it today. Set realistic goals – also write ideas on how you plan to achieve them. Then enjoy the ride as you watch those goals coming to fruition. And enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling you get five or ten years down the road when you can look back with pride on all you’ve achieved.

Take A Vacation

I just got back from holidays. My trip ended up not being anything like what I’d planned. I had planned for my husband and I to rent a house on the beach of a mountain lake for the week. We were just going to kick back and relax. I’d planned to do some painting and my husband planned to read and soak up the sun.

Before leaving I’d read an article about how nobody takes a true vacation anymore. Sure people go away but they bring their laptops, smart phones and/or tablets with them so they can stay connected to work, friends, and family. Many continue to be engaged in their work and don’t give their brain a rest. I considered this as I packed my paints, cleaned my camera, and gathered my work tools. The article talked about why it’s important to disengage the brain from work. (I wish I’d noted the article so I could link to it…)

Surely that’s for other people though. People who have high pressure jobs or don’t like their jobs. That’s not for us creative types that are living the dream. Right?! Wrong. 

My planned vacation came to an abrupt halt when we arrived at our cosy little beach house to discover it was anything but cosy. With mouse droppings all over the kitchen and an invasion of ants in the living room, we made an about face and left, scrambling to find other accommodations that would accept our dog. We did find other accommodations, but we weren’t on the lake, or even in the same area. The accommodations were nice, but not conducive to setting up an easel on the porch to paint. So my paints remained in the car and I took a true vacation. 

Lowbush Surprise – 8x8x1.5″ – Oil on canvas

Okay….I won’t say I didn’t think about painting, because I did. I read my Sergai Bongart book and Plein Air magazine. I brought my sketchbook everywhere I went, but I didn’t lay a mark on the pages. I also took photographs. I thought about that article and how impossible it would be to fully and truly disengage from art for a week. But my semi-abstinence had some surprising results none the less.

When I got home I found I couldn’t wait to get to the studio. I promptly started a commissioned painting that I’d been procrastinating on, and then the real surprise hit me. All kinds of inspiration for my Vision Quest series started coming to me. Visions I thought had dried up earlier in the year. 

Was it the vacation that renewed my visions or was it something else?

While on vacation we had a few bear encounters. One in particular was a special treat. We got to watch a mom and two cubs up close for an entire day – eating, resting, playing, and peering in our windows to see what we were doing. It was one of those events that won’t be forgotten. A true joy. 

I’ve noticed that I have periods of high creativity after seeing bears. Is it co-incidence or is there something there? The seeing of bears usually goes hand in hand with vacations, so it’s just as likely the vacation is responsible. I guess I’ll truly never know, but will treasure each encounter and enjoy the bursts that follow.

I’m also going to recharge my batteries occasionally and spend some time away from painting, treating it as an important part of my creative process. 

Why Do So Many People Give Up?

There are so many people in the world who want to be an artist. Evidenced by the healthy enrolment at a huge offering of art instruction across the country. Of those starting out with a dream of being an artist I’d hazard to guess more than 2/3’s will give up before they reach their goal. Why? 

For many people their enrolment and interest in art is nothing more than as a pastime or hobby, with no dreams of becoming the next Monet. I make no judgements on whether people in that group are considered artists or not. That is a completely different context from what I am referring to here. People falling into this group very well may have traits similar to the working artist, or they may not.

For others failure is often the result of a lack of commitment. Although the actual reasons can be as varied as the personalities of those trying to become an artist, commitment lies at the roots. There must be a commitment to overcome financial hurdles, commitment to finding enough time to dedicate to creating, commitment to overcome all of the roadblocks along the way (and there are many). 

Impressionist 8×10” oil on panel plein air landscape from late spring.

For the working artist, their commitment is often at a level of obsession. I know few painters who do not eat, sleep, and live painting, often at the expense of many other things in life – a clean house, a well manicured garden, elaborate meals, and even an active social life. You will likely find the friends of an artist are other artists. Few others understand how our life works and the need to give our art (and spending copious amounts of time alone) priority over being available to socialize.

Few people are willing to give up enough of their time to dedicate to art. It isn’t something one can excel in without putting in more time than the occasional free weekend every couple of months. It requires daily study and practice.

A successful artist has determination. A quality needed to overcome failed paintings, rejection notices, and the difficulties of selling art. Their desire to succeed must overcome their fear of failure. They must have the attitude that nothing will stop them from realizing their goal. There has to be a stubbornness to get over being bad at the beginning, because almost all of us are.  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, is the mantra of many.

A successful artist has a fire in their bellies that can’t be ignored. Call it passion, yearning, obsession, or whatever you want. It’s a quality that can’t be forced. Maybe we don’t all have it at the beginning, or maybe we do. I don’t know. But I do know, a  successful artist becomes addicted to creating to the point they must create just as much as they must breathe. There is no question to them not being an artist. It goes beyond an occupation to being who they are as a human being.

As a painter, my obsession is such that while driving I’m not seeing trees and valleys, I am seeing cadmium yellow light with cerulean highlights,  yellow ochre with ultramarine shadows, and cadmium red, ultramarine, titanium white, and just a hint of yellow ochre in the valley. While working in photography I saw compositions, the play of light, and visual stories waiting to be told. Perhaps a sculpture sees angles and contours. I often think it’s an addiction far worse than drugs or alcohol. No interventions required……….

The Ebb And Flow Of Learning

I seek mastery of paint and canvas, and this seeking involves a lifelong road of learning and striving to be “better”. With better being a subjective quality only applicable to me. The outside world plays no roll in my own critique of my skills and the quality of my work. The path of learning is an internal route guided strictly by my own desire and love of creating. It is a bumpy trail at times though. 

I have discovered this path is not a smooth flat trail, or even a steady climb, but one filled with valleys, plateaus, and peaks. Learning a new skill or trying to reach a higher level of achievement can seem impossible at the start. You take in what you think you need to know but it seems your skills take a nosedive. Frustration and discouragement is an easy enemy that does in many a student with dreams of an art career. It is the drive of determination, and a certain degree of detachment to results that wins in the end.

Look at learning, or skill building, as a child learning to walk. The toddler does not start off running a marathon but with baby steps and tumbles.  Giving yourself permission to fail, over and over again if necessary, will help avoid the discouragement that can lead to giving up.

The Hours Of Day Are Numbered – 8×10” – Oil on canvas panel

My own experiences have taught me when I strive to learn a new technique my paintings spend a period of time being suitable only for the fire (the valley). Thoughts like “what am I doing”, “I’m a hack”, “I should get a real job”, are easily heard. I keep a fire extinguisher nearby and tell those voices to go bother someone else and push on. Soon my work returns to where it was before, and a kind of resolve happens (the plateau). “This is my style”, “This is how I’m meant to paint”, “I’m not a master, but my work is good enough”.

It is here where I must remind myself of the path of the toddler learning to walk. While being able to walk is great, it isn’t good enough. I want to run the marathon. I want to take my painting to the level of a master. Then one day out of the blue, when I’m least expecting it, something happens on the canvas, and those skills that seemed so elusive magically appear (the peak). And the process starts all over again trying to reach the next highest peak. It is a journey with no limit….no end. 

“The more intensely we feel about an idea or a goal, the more assuredly the idea, buried deep in our subconscious, will direct us along the path to its fulfillment.” Earl Nightingale

Is It Selfishness Or Creativity?

Does saying no to requests for your time and attention make you a selfish person?

There is an excellent article written in Medium by Kevin Ashton, which talks about how creative people value their time.  Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Hungarian-American psychology professor, devoted 30 years to research on how creative people live and work. While researching for his book “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” Mihaly wrote to 275 famous creators asking them to be interviewed for the book. A telling sign in the habits of creative people was that 1/3 said no to being interviewed, and another 1/3 simply did not reply at all. 

The reasons for saying no ranged, but they all shared a central focus…….their time was too valuable to give up freely. Ashton writes: 

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations.” 

In our society No is seen as a negative word or action. We are not taught to say no, but to say yes. We are told to be helpful to each other, to be considerate, to be selfless, while No makes people think the opposite. To those that say no to helping a friend, or donating work, giving back, or sharing our time, we are labelled as selfish, egotistical, rude, unfriendly, uncaring, and more.

For the artist balancing the need for creative time with the demands from others creates a real tension. Made worse is the fact most artists are very generous and compassionate by nature. Most artists want to foster a better world, so saying no goes against the very nature of most. 

Morning Dip 8×10” Acrylic

The problem increases for artists with little to no outside help, as all tasks of managing our career fall on us and we must balance our creative time with our management time. There is a lot to do outside the studio. Submissions to make (just weeding through all the opportunities requires a good deal of time), shows to attend, bookwork, enquiries to answer, etc. 

Not so long ago I said yes to everything. In 2008 I had been heavily involved in the fibre arts for several years. I’d spent a few intense years working with a college fibre arts restructuring program. I was helping to write one of the programs levels and was volunteering my time to organize workshops for their annual festival. I was teaching. I was writing for publications. I was researching textile history. I was doing so much for everyone else with the end result of very little time left to actually create. In short I burned out.

“You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club”
– Jack London

In July 2008 I taught my last class. I hung up my fibre tools, took my camera and ran away, so to speak. Along the way I learned to say no and I learned that if I wanted a career based on my creativity I had to protect my time like it was the crown jewels. I had to learn to say no. It wasn’t an easy task.

I said yes a lot early on, especially as I transitioned my career away from the fibre arts into the visual arts. I donated work (shame on me!). I applied for every reasonable show opportunity, and then drove all around the province attending openings and events, I spent a lot of time online visiting other artists blogs and sites socializing. As my career progressed I gave interviews, I wrote, I answered questions, I tried to give back by helping others. I was starting to feel a familiar tension creeping in, as I spent my days creating and long nights trying to do everything else. No started getting easier.

Ashton writes: “No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.”

Today I say No a lot. I say no to teaching. I say no to a lot of opportunities. I say no to many interviews and publicity. I say  no to going to openings. I say no to volunteering. I gave up socializing online. Sure I feel guilty. The worst is saying No to helping kids learn. Yes I worry about being seen as a snob, or being selfish, uncaring or any of the other derogatory perceptions from saying no, but I have also realized that its not my problem if that’s how others choose to view me. I intend to continue having a successful arts career. That’s the price I have to pay for it.

Without creation and the time that requires, I have no career and I have no income. I have a lot I want to accomplish in my career. I want to learn and grow as an artist. I want my work to improve and evolve. The one thing all my goals require is time; and the clock ticks faster with every passing year so I have grown selfish of my time. 

“Sometimes you’ve got to let everything go – purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything… whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you’ll find that when you’re free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.”
– Tina Turner