Right, enough procrastinating. I’ve put off this new post for months. I often forget how much blogging helps my creative process – or helps me process my creativity! Writing, even if it is mainly to myself, makes things clearer, weeds out promising ideas from corny ones and generally eases the frustrations of making work.
It wasn’t until a friend recently recommended a book called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland that I began to look at how I work most efficiently. I haven’t been able to create anything substantial for months, and kept sublimating my ideas into procrastination tactics like hoovering, tidying files, baking or doing another batch of laundry. Admittedly, I’ve also spent a lot of time surfing the web thinking of it as “online research” but truthfully just getting mired in the bogs of relentless social media posts.
The Art & Fear book led me on to other books about how to overcome creative blocks, and while many of them tend to lean towards a jaded self-help genre, some of them have great advice to offer the struggling artist. The latest golden nugget came from a sample of the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. That really got me going. In the first part of the book, Pressfield talks about the artist’s number one enemy Resistance. How it makes you put off everything till tomorrow and fills you with doubt. The fact is that there is never a good time to sit down and do work. There’s always something else to attend to, but you just need to sit down and do it. Hence this blog post!
In Art & Fear, the authors touch upon another idea that made me sit up straight and read the chapter a second time. They hypothesise that if you suddenly feel “blocked” and unable to make work, the reason may be that you changed something fundamental about your routine. For example, if you used to draw during the day and write at night, but for some reason flipped your schedule around, this may not be conducive to your work. I heard alarm bells going off all over my head when I read that one. After leaving art school two years ago, I was good at maintaining the same working rhythm. I continued to blog, make sketch books, carry out tons of ideas, even though they didn’t all work out, and set myself deadlines by signing up for exhibitions. After the last organised exhibition, however, which coincided with some tumultuous changes in my personal life, things went awry. Moving from place to place for a few months and needing to sort out practical life obligations was the kiss of death for my artmaking routine. I stopped doing the things I used to do to keep up the momentum, and before I knew it, the inevitable happened: I stopped making work.
My many attempts to come up with ideas for new bodies of work were like trawling through the swamps of sadness in the Neverending Story. The going was thick and heavy, and I seemed to be sinking a little more with every step. I was so confused, because ideas (however unlikely and corny) used to flow from me in a steady stream; at times so prolifically I couldn’t keep up! But suddenly it was like squeezing blood from the proverbial stone. Squeeze…. nothing. I spent huge amounts of energy writing bursary, grant and residency proposals, trying to come up with ideas for work. In the end not anything I wasn’t content with per se, but I made the mistake of depending on the results to fuel my further efforts. When the applications were rejected, I felt even more hopeless. Not only could I not make work, I was struggling to come up with ideas and apparently writing bad (or at least unsuccessful) applications to boot! What was I doing wrong?
I think I’ve finally figured out part of the answer. I won’t necessarily go so far as to say that we create our own circumstances, because I don’t know if I fully believe that. Nevertheless, to me it was a sign of some sort. I was pushing in the wrong direction. My English professor once told me to never give up my day job. I wrote a lot of poetry at the time and dreamed of a life of unadulterated freedom with no obligations, in which someone would pay me to do what I loved. He adamantly disagreed. “You need to be part of the world to write good poetry”, he said. “If William Faulkner hadn’t been forced to shovel coal for a living, he would never have written As I Lay Dying. That novel was written in a completely innovative way, because he kept having to stop writing in order to stoke the boiler. Every time his writing was interrupted, he started with a new perspective. If he’d had all the time in the world, he’d have written the same old kind of novel, no matter how talented he was”. That piece of advice stuck with me (although somewhat begrudgingly) – and I do think there’s a significant element of truth to it.
I remembered my professor’s words and began to think about my artist statement and the kind of work I do. I apply “a make-do and mend approach to my work”. That’s the core of my practice. Finding things, transforming one thing into something else with the means I already have or can source cheaply. It’s sometimes an obstruction, but it is an essential one which helps the work. Whether I’m capturing something unusual with my camera phone, picking up discarded things on the street or working with material found in my own archives, it’s all about sourcing things from the everyday to look at them in a different light.
I also remember reading somewhere about how David Shrigley started out with his characteristic black-and-white drawings after graduating from art school. It may be a case of Chinese Whispers since I can’t remember the original source, but the gist of it is that he was too poor to make anything else! Black felt tip pen on white copy paper was a cheap and accessible resource that allowed itself to be reproduced via black & white photocopies just as easily and cheaply. In other words, financial restrictions necessitated creative thinking.
You need look no further than to the beautiful boro fabrics of Japan that are stitched together from bits and pieces of torn clothing both to mend tears and create layering for warmth. These exquisite composites are like patchwork quilts, each one unique.
So it’s time to get back in gear. Grants notwithstanding. Making work by thinking about work and experimenting despite obstacles and financial restrictions. Do what you can, this second, not tomorrow, not when you get unexpected money, not when a “good” idea hits you. Make, do and stop moaning.