A subscriber who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “I am not always able to work. I am restless and disturbed. I am often not happy with my work. What steals my power?”
Most artists will admit that they have been on this spot. My solution is to take a look at yourself and try to separate the perceived reasons from the real reasons. I’ve found that the real reasons are often, but not always, lodged in a surprising spot: We are minding other people’s business when we should be minding our own. Some artists, even highly realized, apparently motivated and successful ones have personal misgivings and negative self-esteem — often based on envy and/or peer pressure.
Furthermore, the loss of power generally admits to some sort of fear: Fears are balloons that float up in the mind and obstruct the free flow. Creative people need to dig around in their personal list of fears. Float them out into the air — and pop them. Emerson said, “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.” The following are multiple choice. There are more. Go for it.
Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of competition. Fear of play. Fear of joy. Fear of work. Fear of plagiarism. Fear of learning something. Fear of being an imposter. Fear of not being paid. Fear of being paid. Fear of being ridiculed. Fear of being noticed. Fear of not being noticed. Fear of being copied. Fear of making a mess. Fear of being wrong. Fear of the unknown. Fear of commitment. Fear of getting excited. Fear of wasting time. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of fear itself. Pop, pop, pop.
PS: “When we are angry or depressed in our creativity, we have misplaced our power. We have allowed someone else to determine our worth, and then we are angry at being undervalued.” (Julia Cameron)
Esoterica: Having said all that, there is sometimes a small and hardly-noticeable error or problem in the work itself that stops you dead. An inconsequential glitch can make you unhappy, restless and disturbed. It’s a blight on your landscape and it can keep you inert for months. If left unchecked it might even convince you that you have a personality disorder. It must be searched for, found, and then taken out and shot.
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
Terri Steiner, Princeton, MA, USA
Funny, I’ve been awake a lot lately, and I thought that I should write in to suggest a topic for you. And then I see this letter today. “I am not always able to work. I am restless and disturbed. I am often not happy with my work. What steals my power?” You address here, all of the “usual” things regarding the above, and missed one. In a previous letter you talk about ADHD. I should have spoken up then. How many artists are bipolar? I am. I wrestle with the fact that most of my work comes out of a “functioning” manic state. In fact, if I’m on medication I find that I have no desire to paint at all, so I don’t take them. I’m currently barely functioning, and it is taking me a huge effort to write this. Could you do a topic on this? I’d like to see the responses of bipolar artists.
(RG note) For further information and a confirmation of this please scroll down to the end of this clickback to “On Artists, Depression and Creativity” by Chris Tyrell.
Painting is a refuge from fear
What timely, and good advice about fear. I find that it applies equally well to all aspects of life. When I’m afraid of something and skirting around the issue, I often run to painting to get my mind away from that thing until later, when things will come clear. Often my painting is not a cause of fear, but a refuge from it.
Life’s an attitude
Bobbie Kilpatrick, Texas, USA
To the “restless and disturbed subscriber,” Give Yourself A Break! “Our power” to work is granted to us because of our aptitude to follow the artistic trail. I say aptitude instead of talent because talent sometimes is perceived to be a gift we don’t have to work at to perfect. We are unique individuals and our aptitude can be in music, engineering, architecture, business, people, etc. Creativity is in us all and is fulfilled through our work and life. As we work, our skills improve so we are able to present what we have to say in the most effective way. Usually the “power is stolen” by “who” instead of “what” and that who could be anyone in our life or even us. We may think that this trail is not worthy and we should get a real job. If money is the issue, we do have to live. Hungry, homeless artists do not think about their art. If we cannot yet make a living with the art we have to have some other means until that happens. The fear to measure up is groundless if we express our true artistic spirit. True creativity is never wrong and really cannot be judged one against another. Only reality and the medium have rules. When it’s personal expression of reality, then the rules do not apply. We are free to paint purple oranges, pink cows, or any abstracted thoughts we have. I believe art is the perception of universal order expressed through mind and body to raise the spirits of humanity. Life’s an attitude! Art is an expression of life. Ideally, art as well as life should be the highest expression possible from us as an individual.
Take time out for reflection
Cassandra James, Texas, USA
I think there’s more at work regarding “artist’s block” than fear. There is a naturally occurring pattern of ebb and flow in our work that we often fail to respect. It’s just as important to suck the dry times of their wealth, as the productive times. They’re just as rich. The ebb after a major show, for example, is a time to learn from the body of work installed in a new light, catch up on reading, see some films, travel and reflect on direction and goals. If you plow ahead mindlessly, the work becomes formulaic. Better to fill your life with stimuli, art-related or not and return to the studio with something genuine to say.
Yes, yes, yes! Fears of all sizes and colors get in the way of our producing our best authentic work. Here’s one: Fear of not having enough acceptable work ready in time for a show, enough work that will be consistent, and fear of looking like a fraud when it’s all hanging on the gallery walls. Three days ago I realized that I had lost my grasp on why I would even want to paint in the first place. I decided — to hell with the show. I am going to declare “time off” from the (perceived) pressure, and paint at least one painting, just for the fun of it. I did have fun and the painting turned out not half bad. I of course made up my mind, following this enjoyable and “successful” experience, to keep painting from that place, to keep that same energy going no matter what. Not so easy! Energy shifts, the mind chatters, but I shall persevere in keeping that internal critic from raining on my parade.
A way to keep going
Bev Willis, Fresno, CA, USA
There have been times in my life when there have been troubles in our family, and I have wished to just stay in bed, pull the covers over my head and not do anything but feel bad. I have found if I start something and just keep plodding along, after awhile I find I get interested in it and things seem to come into being. Little by little I learn how to do what I am trying to do. Once started I don’t feel any worse and I begin to forget my problems. I am able to keep going.
Fear of missing out
Here’s my personal problem as I see it: I want to try everything that comes along. I want to paint, and collage, and sew, and do encaustic, and make jewelry. It’s all good. It’s all fun. But I have the sense that if I don’t settle down with something, that I’ll never be any good at any of it. Is that fear of commitment? Or am I fearful of missing out on something if I don’t try it? How does one find contentment with one medium?
(RG note) Our universe is brimming with variety. To not explore as much as possible is to deny life. Proficiency is another matter. Proficiency, if it is important to one, requires a degree of focus and diligence. Mastering one or a few of the arts is also one of the truly great highs. It’s a matter of priorities. Priorities change.
“The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)
The following are a few more of the 200 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced two weeks ago. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest.
This home-built easel is designed to take 11 x 14’s which fit into slots in the lid. The box can be custom made for any favorite small size and while somewhat limited it’s a nice change in or out of the studio. The other limitation happened while snowboarding.
On Artists, Depression and Creativity
Chris Tyrell from www.opusframing.com
I believe I can remember the onset of my midlife crisis. It seemed to me as though I had reached a point in my life when my subconscious decided to reveal forgotten or repressed memories of growing up. I remembered the confluence of events: my mother moved out of our home permanently and into the hospital, I was adrift in a sea of strangers at a new school, and puberty was kicking in. I started getting violent migraine headaches every weekend, developed a titanic sleep disorder and thought I was going crazy.
When I mentioned anything about these recollected memories, friends would suggest I seek some counseling and so I did. I saw a few different practitioners, trying to find the right one. When a couple of them suggested taking pills on the short-term, I started reading about anti-depressants. Not seeing anything to alarm me, and since it was for the short-term, for a six month period I took one of the drugs in the Prozac family. I took the pills but felt absolutely no effect during that time. It wasn’t until I stopped taking the drug that I felt something.
When I was finished with the antidepressant medication, I started writing thousands of words and making art like there was no tomorrow-especially collages, which I hadn’t done since high school. That burst of creativity made me think.
I started reading about mood-altering drugs and the creative personality. While there were a lot of articles about antidepressants in the media, it took some searching to find articles which mirrored my experience-where the author or study subjects reported decreased creative expression while medicated with antidepressants.
I recently ran into two colleagues from my past work in the visual arts. Each of them had, since our work together, become a therapist. I jumped at the chance to discuss the thesis emerging from my reading.
The Ph.D. thesis of Geraldine Brooks is “Creative Labours: The Lives and Careers of Women Artists.” She is a Registered Psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, Canada. Linda Findlay is also a private practitioner, and she is a practicing visual artist with a strong exhibition history.
As therapists, and particularly as therapists specializing in the treatment of creative people, these two women were predisposed to my thesis that therapy is better than drugs for creative people, so I talked to them about themes in their practice with artists.
Ms. Findlay identifies “blocks” as her primary therapeutic concern. “Creative blocks can lead to depression and low self-esteem, and that can perpetuate or extend the creative block.”
Dr. Brooks referred to themes of “being an outsider” (feeling alien, lonely, or misunderstood, outside of the “norm”), of “validation from external recognition,” and of “obstruction” (sexism, self-doubt). She also mentioned the value of therapeutic drugs on occasion and when appropriate for some individuals seeking better mental health.
Several other themes were mentioned: The conflict between the needs of the artist versus the needs of others, and the sense of “fighting” or a “struggle to assume the identity of an artist.” And there is the issue of “sensitivity.”
“Many creative people have heightened sensitivity to the world around them,” says Ms. Findlay. “This heightened awareness results in artists seeing many things in their families and the world around them that others do not see or do not want to admit to seeing.” We often carry the burden of others.
Dr. Brooks on the issue of sensitivity: “So often the unique way creative people look at the world is pathologized — that is, their peers or family see sensitivity as a problem that needs to be fixed.”
Dr. Brooks also points our that there are also positive themes such as the sense of independence and freedom that comes with the creative lifestyle, and “the sense of connection and belonging through art.” Who of us doesn’t feel that?
And when creative people suffer, some of us, sometimes, can channel our pain in positive ways, using our pain as inspiration. (Remember Bob Geldof and the first rock concert benefiting famine relief in Ethiopia?) Other creative people may work out their feelings through their art. Some succumb to their depressions, and when this happens, counseling can be valuable.
My reading has convinced me that artists should consider the role creativity plays in their life before taking antidepressants. The drugs may decrease your creative motivation and, with decreased motivation, you might cut yourself off from the creative expression with which you are used to processing your emotions. I decided artists should opt for counseling, and if counseling is sought, what better counselor could there be for a visual artist than a counselor with a visual arts background?
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 97 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002. That includes Susan Taylor who wrote, “I have a huge fear of light on lilies!” And Kim Hanewich who says, “Painting is not a cause of fear, but a refuge from it.” And Sib Sener of Turkey, who writes, “I am in fear of my exhibition which comes in the first week of April.” And Garth Ng who says, “My greatest fear is losing my house.”