Oh, hello. You must have been lured in by my kicky title because you, like I, enjoy fun. That, or perhaps you have experienced - or are currently experiencing - creative existential crisis and this piqued your interest because of that. In either event, Welcome! Come sit next to me and let’s talk about fear of failure and all manner of scary shit!
It’s fun! (It’s not fun).
Around eighteen months ago I was standing at my drawing table, clutching a mechanical pencil, staring down at a drawing that I had started ages ago - back when I was too busy and stressed out to even think about drawing - and I was unable to move my pencil across the paper. This drawing featured two floating heads - each was the head of a woman, one woman had a snake coming out of her mouth and that same snake was coiling it’s body around the neck of the other woman. I could visualize this drawing perfectly in my mind’s eye and was so excited to finally have the freedom to return to this piece - but being able to see it completely finished in my head had rendered me totally unable to work on it. It wasn’t unusual for me to put things down and return to them at a later date - back when I was making art regularly I would have three or four different pieces going all at once. I would work on something, get bored or distracted and turn my focus to another project, and then return to the thing I had left when I felt refreshed by my distance from it. This was not the case in this instance. I could easily put this drawing down, after all I had done so for at least two, maybe even three years…it would have been alright to leave it completely. The thing that stood out to me about this time, was that I didn’t want to draw or paint ANYTHING.
A little background may be helpful. I’ve been making art since I was a small child, but I only really started seriously studying it when I was a junior in college. I graduated with a BA in Art and Art History and spent 5 years out of university working a myriad of service industry and retail jobs to maintain the art studio I was renting, before finally getting accepted into an MFA program in painting and drawing. By 2003 I had earned my Masters degree, but I lacked the artistic excellence, ambition (and willingness to relocate) to obtain the highly coveted and poorly paying part-time and adjunct teaching positions offered at that time, so moved my art studio at home and resumed my old standbys of retail and service industry employment.
I attempted to fit in or at least find a place with ‘The Art World’. For roughly 20 years I have consistently showed my work in solo and group exhibitions, I’ve attended one artist residency, been included in one museum collection, and have had my work published in print. I’ve been lucky enough at ‘art’ by the traditional standards by which success is measured - except financially, of course - but only just enough to keep me from giving up entirely, which I have been tempted to do many times over.
Motherhood and owning a small business gave me plenty of excuses to stop making art (or at least to make it only very sporadically), and it was in 2017 after selling my business and freeing myself to fully pursue making art that I was fully hit with what can only be called a Big, Honking, Motherfucker of A Creative Existential Crisis. For a start, I felt repulsed by the traditional, external processes by which art is made, exhibited and sold - and apparently me and my art were equally unappealing to these aspects of the art world. While that reality and change of heart was sinking in, the real shit show was brewing for me internally. It was when I returned to my abandoned drawing that I was initially so excited to bring to life - the women with the snake - that I realized I was experiencing something bigger than just ‘artist’s block’. I had started drawing the individual scales on the snake and this act of perfectly rendering a thing in pencil on paper shifted from being a skill that I enjoyed having access to, into something stifling and perfunctory. This thing which was so magical and alive in my imagination had transmogrified into a task of joyless tedium - just like folding sweaters or scooping ice cream or serving a tray of beers to a table of frat boys - and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I thought maybe it was the medium that I was sick of, or maybe it was the pressure I put on myself to render things realistically? My biggest fear was that I was just a dull person with no imagination or creativity, that I didn’t have any ideas that were unique or interesting enough to deserve being made manifest in art form.
I had invested so much of my personal identity in this label of ARTIST and I was really, really fucking scared to look at myself in an honest way and accept that I just wasn’t all that great at it. I would torture myself by thinking of my investment into this identity of ARTIST - the years spent honing my craft, the money spent on materials and education, and the cumulative fucks I had given to what my peers in art would think of me.
My first order of business was to stop investing in any notion of ‘my identity’ at all. Labels are extremely helpful when you need a shorthand way to describe something or someone, but it’s my personal experience-fed belief that they do more harm than good if you buy into them. My second task, which paired so nicely with the first, was to stop caring what other people thought about me. Easier said that done, of course, and it has taken years - but I am almost 100% embarrassment-proof now which (for anyone who knows me) an extremely high mark. A third thing I had to do, was release any expectation of obtaining money as an end result of my art making. This doesn’t mean that money isn’t welcome here, (not at all - money is welcome here!) but rather that my motivation for making art could not be about money.
Removing those blocks were crucial for me to get out of my own way and navigate through my creative K-Hole, which I am elated to disclose that I have done. I wish I had an easy-to-follow set of instructions to reveal about getting out of it, but It was a messy, intuitive, non-linear, and clownass kind of process - I couldn’t describe it even if you paid me - but I can share one thing that helped me get started. I had to make things that were just for me - not to be shared on social media for external validation, not to be shown to my peers or trusted loved ones. I had to make awful, ugly, embarrassing failures for myself, for the joy of making them and let any expectation of a positive outcome go. This was an incredibly freeing aspect of my process, and one which lead me to question my relationship to ART and everything about The Art World that had flummoxed and frustrated me for years (which is in itself a whole other topic of discussion, hooo boy).
While I chose to eliminate many of my outside, visual influences and distractions (Instagram), I did find that listening to podcasts about the creative process - and reading about it as well - was enormously helpful in breaking me out of my patterns and comfort zones. Much of my artistic paralysis was rooted in deeply ingrained habits which had become giant blindspots and technical crutches that hindered my imagination and creativity. I needed help to gain a clear perspective on my bullshit, to better see where I was coasting in complacency. Eventually my art work began to mirror my personal shadow work - I was channeling images from the Ether and Void, painting fairies and mermaids - things that would have gotten me laughed right the fuck out of grad school/residency programs/galleries - and this delighted me.
I don’t know what I’m doing with this work and I am 100% okay with that because I am creating from a place of authenticity and integrity. There is no redemptive finish to this post or even a victory lap, other than that I am writing it from a place of genuine acceptance and one which feels good in my bones, so there is that.
My seven year old self would be so psyched.
Recommended listening and reading for clawing your way out of the depths of existential despair:
~ The Starling Creative podcast ~ by creative hydra, artistic powerhouse and multidimensional wizard, Amy Markham - who is not only my dear friend, but also one of my greatest teachers.
~ “Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life” ~ by Anne Lamott
~ “The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life” ~ by Jessa Crispin