When Play Becomes Work

You could be forgiven for thinking that with a theme like ‘play’ this was going to be a fairly light-hearted edition of the FIX, but I have to tell you that I’m not feeling very fun right now. Life is about balance, right? Maybe my role in this issue is about balancing out the fun with a small dose of sobriety.

There is no question we all need some play in our lives—it’s healthy for our bodies and minds. Science shows that children learn the most when they are allowed unguided play time, and my experience is that as adults we are no different. When we have ‘free time’ our minds open up, and our passions facilitate the absorbing of information by our brains. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember the things you have to learn, but how easy it is to remember the things you love?

Artists too need their play time. To make good art, we need to have open minds and spirits, which allow us the ability to wander through our subconscious minds and explore the fascinating things we find there. There is work involved too (more than you’d expect) but the playful nature of artists is one of the things that make owning and making art so beneficial. Good art is dynamic; it plays with light, with materials, with subject matter. Good art helps us see the world in a new way, or from a different angle, or capture a sweet memory. Like a warm fire on a cold night, good art thaws feeling back into our screen-weary minds.

The act of making good art, however, is not always fun. I’ve been very lucky to have almost seven years of nearly uninterrupted play time at Clawhammer Press. This year was very different for me. Because of a shuffle at our downtown Fernie studio location, I found myself orchestrating a move to a new space. Moving is never something you look forward to, but when moving printing presses it’s something you avoid entirely whenever possible. Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it this time.

In the end, we decided to move the print shop to our home studio. It makes lots of sense in some ways. It’s been my painting nook for a few years. So with the print shop here, I could do all my arting in one place. The problem was that the building was in need of some significant upgrades to make way for a printing shop, and fall is always hair-straight-back-busy for me without adding a reno/moving project.

Needless to say, I didn’t get much play time. I spent October covered in drywall dust and paint, and November purging and packing, and December tearing down and organizing. All the while, I still had to drive to holiday art markets, finish commission work, and continue with basic communication. Free time to explore my craft simply fell off the back of the wagon.

So here it is mid-January, and I’m sitting in my ‘new’ studio in which I have miraculously fit the important pieces of Clawhammer Press as well as my painting studio. All the heavy lifting is done, all the type is neatly tucked away in its new home, and I’m completely exhausted.

My whole work/life world is shifting and I feel the urgency of ‘getting back at it’, but I also feel this strange weariness. The interesting thing to observe is that without the restorative process of play in my life, I have not been able to keep my mind sharp. When I sit down to paint or to print or to write, it’s an extra effort to get the ideas flowing. Frustration hovers just below the surface and I find myself abandoning ideas before they are fully formed because I simply don’t have the mental reserve energy to push them through the paces to reach their potential. I’ve been scraping back as many paintings as I finish, and I’ve had difficulty picturing and articulating new ideas for custom print projects.

The irony is that for me work and play have been synonymous. I’ve turned all my hobbies into income at some level, which means when I want some downtime I go work on a painting. This new situation has left me in a bit of a conundrum where my playtime feels like work. I’ve been having to look to other outlets to regain the energy to go ‘play.’ Long walks by the river, playing cards with my kids, and sometimes just sitting still for a while are all helping to claw me back to the place where my work is fun again.

There are still deadlines and clients and projects and ideas that are waiting to get made. For now, I’m doing my best to be still and wait for the urge to ‘play’ to return. I am trying to be gracious with myself but it’s not easy—It turns out playing can be a lot of work.