Shifting into Neutral

Artists are almost always operating under the pressure of a deadline. As a breed we are adaptable, resilient, motivated and above all creative, which means we often wear a number of hats to make ends meet. It also means we are almost always putting out fires while juggling an over-full schedule of things that need to get done. Have you ever seen a performer spinning plates at the end of long wooden sticks? An artist’s life is often like that—not by choice, mind you—we are driven by necessity of creating enough work to make a living, but there’s almost always one plate spinning dangerously slowly as we rush over to give it a spin when the crowd gasps.

I’ve often caught myself in the midst of a stress-fuelled week wondering what I would do if I just had the time. There is this idealized notion that artists with time will create meaningful work, spend afternoons painting in the sun, generate endless ideas, and compose masterworks the likes of which the world has never seen. Well, now we’ve had the time and guess what I’ve made? Almost nothing.

This trend of COVID-inspired slovenly behaviour is not just happening to me, but to many of my artist friends as well. We’ve all longed for time, but our work turns out to be a much more complicated equation than a wealth of hours stretching out before us. I’ve spent the better part of eight weeks now analysing why I’m not painting up a storm. I’ve tried guilt and grace and everything in between to kickstart the
making to no avail. Then I realized what I needed most was time, but not time to make things. I needed time to ground myself, to organize my studio, to stay up late and sleep in, to breathe. We all know intellectually it’s not healthy to push and push using deadlines as a motivator, but we all do it. With the pressures of clients and projects removed by this crazy virus, what rushed in to fill that void wasn’t more projects, but something far more important: nothing at all. Beautiful, wonderful, nothing. I cleaned my studio and waited. I organized some type drawers and waited. I set a fresh canvas on the easel and waited. After a while I realized it was the waiting I was waiting for. I didn’t need something to fill that time, I needed that time to be filled with nothing.

My projects have been goal-oriented for so long that I’ve lost track of the foundation of my creative practice. Why do I love making things? Why do I love the process of setting type or carving linoleum or setting a brush to canvas? All of these questions rattled around in my head as I puttered away at the menial tasks I’d been pushing to the bottom of the to-do list for years. After a while I subconsciously started coming up with answers: because it makes me feel whole, because it gives me a sense of my place in history, because it connects me to my community. Following hot on the heels of the answers were new projects and ideas, but not the ones I expected: I started a project to sell studies and older paintings in a way that helped others and got the canvases out of my studio. I found some old journal covers I’d printed years ago, put them together and traded them for beer. I played guitar all afternoon to learn songs for a weekly concert stream. It turns out artists need a foundation of purpose on which to build goals as much as we need the time to build them.

As we come out the other side of the lockdown the lesson I hope to pull from this time is that I can’t build a creative practice on a foundation of stress and goals and deadlines, but I can build one on nothing. I’m starting to let the projects back into my life now, and I’m trying to incorporate the time to breathe into my day so the things I create are more meaningful. In that way the down-time is also very meaningful.

‘When things get back to normal’ is a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately, and that makes me a little sad. There were hard days for sure, and there are likely some more hard days ahead for all of us, but during this time we’ve rediscovered passions for things that should be normal, but aren’t—baking sourdough, watercolours, or gardening. My hope is that instead of going back to a stress-filled ‘normal’ life, we’ll take this opportunity to refocus what it means and how to shift into a new normal for ourselves. If we can do that, then we can hope to balance the bad with some good: namely the ability to stand back and feel our world collectively taking a breath, and breathe along with it.