Life-changing magic


Dear Artist,

Recently, an aspiring screenwriter friend told me she’d quit her day job. “I tried to just reduce my hours, but they kept creeping back to full time,” she said. “It was really hard to let go. I realized I was afraid of losing something I might never get back, instead of facing forward and going for what I truly wanted, which is to be a writer.” We agreed that committing ample space for a creative venture is a common barrier for would-be pros. “If I don’t go for it now, I’ll never know,” she said. We made a toast to the extravagant void in front of her.


Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
in her studio

Japanese organization guru Marie Kondo wrote a 2011 manifesto, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, where she advises clutter-bugs to only hold onto things that spark joy. By discarding everything else, she writes, our lives can become more highly realized. For artists, while our room may need tidying, it’s another “space” that can benefit from life-changing magic. “The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past,” writes Kondo. Think of this “space” as everything you want to achieve creatively and its route of becoming. Is it possible to tidy up? Here’s a method for artists:


Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
in her studio

Rule 1. Commit yourself to tidying up. Is there something in your life that’s taking up the time, space and energy you could be devoting to your creative goal?

Rule 2. Imagine your ideal lifestyle. What does a day working on art look like? Do you have a clear, functioning ecosystem that works for every stage of the creative cycle?

Rule 3. Discard something. Thank it for its service and say goodbye. In all great stories, something must die in order for something else to be born. What are you making room for?

Rule 4. Tidy by category: Time, quality of work, priorities, space, distribution, relationships.

Rule 5. Follow the right order. In Kondo’s world of decluttering and organization, she recommends tackling less emotional areas first (like clothes) and saving the tricky stuff (like sentimental items) for after we’ve honed a few purging skills. The artist’s tidying might begin with getting rid of a time vampire.

Rule 6. Does it spark joy? “You are not choosing what to discard, but what to keep,” advises Kondo. “It’s like resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward.”


Willem de Kooning (1904-1997)
in his studio, 1989



PS: “But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” (Marie Kondo, from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up)

Esoterica: We’ve all held onto something for too long, only to finally let it go and witness something come rushing in its place that is more focused, more pointed and more aligned with our dreams. Making a decision is not difficult. Understanding and implementing how to let go and why takes a concerted effort. An accomplished artist-friend recently wrote to tell me that after years of hesitation, he retired a gallery that no longer aligned with his professional goals. “It was terrifying, because what if I never got another gallery? What if I’m just lucky to be here?” Within a few weeks, a more like-minded dealer approached him for representation. “All I needed to do, all this time, was to clear space,” he sighed. Like a new course of a river, we need only give the water a place to run. Our attachments are the stimuli that shape our world. “Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” (Marie Kondo)


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” (Anaïs Nin)



  1. Higgs Merino on

    “But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are “only two”: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” . . . . Only two? . . .promoting common, compartmentalizing, lazy, binary thinking again, especially toward artists = BS.

    • I agree it can be much more complex. Also there is the very valid point that untidy people are often highly creative and successful. I know several successful artists and writers whose homes, studios and studies, desks and cars are immensely untidy but whose creativity and happiness flourishes there nevertheless – or could it be because, as they are in no way suffering from the sometimes obsessive-compulsive disorder need to be tidy, they are free to create to their hearts content? All very interesting.

    • I agree with you Higgs. I personally find the whole Kondo approach highly judgmental, overly simplistic, and frankly not useful for many artists. In particular, look at mixed media artists and fiber artists. Most mixed media artists collect a large of amount of “things” that attract them for potential use in current or future work. Perhaps one could say the they are deeming these items to bring at least momentary joy as there must be some reason why they are attractive to the artist. But clearly, storing said items for possible future use often leads to clutter. Additionally, every fiber artist I know (and I know many) works or has worked in multiple genres (surface design, quilting, weaving, embroidery, etc.. Every single one of these genres (and mediums ) requires its own materials and tools, again leading to greater complexities in both physical storage and mental distribution of time and energy. Many fiber artists have both wet and dry studio areas, and there are whole magazines dedicated to the rising interest in creating attractive (and hopefully less cluttered) working spaces. To assume that one has old baggage as evidenced by the state of his/her/their studio is both presumptuous and just plain annoying.

      I do see value in periodic assessment of physical items, commitment to a medium, artistic direction, etc. Let’s just try be less judgmental about what is underlying each individual’s decisions

      • I apologize if you misunderstood me – I was speaking tongue in cheek. The reference was to the emotional baggage and anger clearly present in such a rude and frankly, unwelcome statement. It was not in reference to an artist whose practice uses found objects for example or has a messy process. Being presumptuous about how something should not apply to another person’s life because it doesn’t apply to yours is just plain annoying. Please allow me to reword unambiguously: If the ideas presented in the newsletter don’t resonate with you, might want to just let it go and move on. You might be happier for it :) (i.e. please don’t spew vitriol – just move along)

    • Higgs Merino- Scream at the top of your lungs if you feel like it. Let that *gentle* bullshit go. What a waste. What a profound debasement of using your voice. Be nice!!! Blech. There wasn’t a single thing wrong with your pronouncement- it’s utterly factual. Binary thinking? No good artist I know lives there. Sorry Nancy Oppenheimer. Your need for gentleness leads to stifling oppression. It’s part of what’s wrong with our culture. Nobody has to play by your *gentle* rules if they don’t want to. You don’t like it? Get out of the way. Really. Your PC version of reality makes me want to puke. ART- is meant to COMFORT the disturbed and DISTURB the comfortable.

      • Yes Higgs and JBW – go ahead and have your temper tantrums – its ok – everyone will appreciate it. Let’s face it, any attention is good attention – Look at Madonna, presumably a “good artist” who knows this mantra better than anyone. Besides, who need’s civility anyways? it’s highly overrated in the current polarized political climate so we might as well let that lack of civility spill into our world too – right?

        If the alleged binary statement were prefaced with “in many instances” would that quell your indignation? I kinda figured this preface was implied when I read it. My interpretation of the stated idea is this: rethink what you are holding onto, in other words, examine your current environment and decide if it’s helping or hindering your growth potential – it may be doing neither – you may be dealing with a non-measurable measurand – it doesn’t matter – the concept is called introspection.

      • Good morning JBW – I have been thinking about your statement “ART- is meant to COMFORT the disturbed and DISTURB the comfortable” It is a wonderful pronouncement on many levels – I like it because, superficially, it is a really neat and clever play on words but, more importantly, holds some underlying truth about ART and its purpose. One of my favorite artists Norval Morrisseau used these concepts masterfully – his ideas on colour as healing, and many of his politically charged pieces have been food for thought and have changed my (and many others’) views on aboriginal issues in Canada and around the world. Higgs may have been angered by such a statement since it could have been construed “as lazy binary thinking”, because let’s face it, ART has as its purpose, many more than the 2 stated purposes. I appreciate your input and your interesting ideas, I am sure they have been useful to many, including myself.

  2. My middle-aged son is doing just that now. Father of a young family, one day he had had enough and he quit his day job saying, “I hated every minute of the five years I was with the company.” He is now pursuing his love of a career in writing (and is damned good at it!) He, too, has an extravagant void in front of him. At this moment in time, he is happy, relaxed, and has a few resources to make do. He has ‘committed ample space’ for his venture. The positive changes in him are amazing. He is truly personifying “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Thank-you for this, Sara.



    • Thank you for sharing your inspiring story for other artists to appreciate. I too have let go of a job that I hated and am now in a much better place.
      Love and peace to you and yours,

  3. Kathryn Taylor on

    Great information! Great advice! Truly. Thanks, Sara. P.S. I like the photos of the Artist’s in their studios, too.

  4. Hello Sara,

    Decluttering and letting go is a great message that I’ve had experience with. After losing track of how many times I’d moved, I chose to deal with one box a week of the accumulated clutter. The trick is to just take the first step : start. Often, I cleared three boxes at a time; 80 boxes in three months; a small truck load of odds and ends furniture.
    I’d like to add, there can also be a mental tidying up. Years ago, my brother-in-law gifted me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way. One of her suggested exercises was to write ANYTHING in a journal every day. At about two months in, an amazing space opened up in my brain. I’d literally written the junk out of my head – creative ideas came flooding in.

    Tip for those hard-to-let-go things: take a photo; it’s the memory you are holding onto.

    With warmth,


  5. The day before another birthday this month, I wrote this and thought to share it after reading the wonderful letter by Sara.

    “To create abundance I must be willing to allow a void, this void is not really empty, it is one full of expectancy. It is in releasing that which is already completely spent, and by looking directly into that seemingly empty space, that I now can fill with anticipation, intense inspiration, and a feeling of acceptance that my desire is already rushing forth. It also helps me to have a thankfulness in an unlimited supply, attached to a knowing that nothing can ever change that. The flow must go out, then the river of abundance from my own mind will allow it to fill again. Abracadabra.”

  6. Kathryn Taylor on

    Hi Sara. Do you ever think of us as your “little children”? Receiving the gifts of the Painter’s Keys from you and your father. Or is that just my writer’s imagination? Or the imagination of a woman who loves children, but never had any of her own? People have said other things can become your “children”. Like helping children in need, or others. Though sometimes children can be a pain in the “you know what”. But, Love covers all offenses. Love is understanding. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. And, Love isn’t always easy. Lol. Thank you and your father, for the gift of the Painter’s Keys!

  7. Dear Sara,
    As always, you provide food for thought; a spinning off point. You continually educate. Thanks so much for the community of beautiful people you’ve created. We’re a reflective and sensitive group.

  8. Jamuna Jacqueline snitkin on

    I am at the threshold of taking out the accumulation of stuff to make way for deeper exploration of my craft. This letter offered timely encouragement. Thank you all

  9. Heidi Berthiaume on

    Thank you for restating Kondo in a format so applicable to artists. I am doing a purge following several relocations, leaving behind a professional medical illustration career and raising 4 amazing children. I am now visualizing a solid return to art in a new direction by examining and clearing time and object clutter that impedes where I wish to be. Until this letter, I have found at times that Kondo can seem to simplify to the point of annoyance if you allow it, but more often this feeling occurs when you hit big emotional hurdles. Your phrase, “resetting your life and settling your accounts so that you can take the next step forward ”, says it all. Thanks!

  10. Wow, what strong responses! Sara, you must have hit some sore spots. I guess I’m a simple person. All of my reasons for holding on to clutter can be interpreted in one of the 2 reasons you’ve stated or a combination of the 2. Artfulness is a process with many parts. It’s better to keep active with something that entertains the muse than to limit the definition of art to what can be produced only at the easel or at the wheel. If clearing a space frees up the muse, fine. If browsing a thrift shop is decompression time that also inspires, fine. If taking the time to check in with artist friends in addition to actual production time is motivational, fine. If getting out into nature is “a breath of fresh air” in more ways than one, fine. We can’t do our best without choices that balance pressure and relief. Whatever happened to “whatever floats your boat”? Life is too short to make hard and fast rules for ourselves or others. It’s also foolish to be unwilling to consider what could be helpful, whether we accept it or let it go just as with any other possession.

  11. It is just uncanny how often the theme of these letters coincide with my current circumstances. Thursday I posted on Facebook pictures of my still cluttered studio with the caption I just tidied up.

  12. Certainly, food for thought. I enjoyed all the aforementioned comments. So many resonated with me. So thanks to everyone who responded. I have a friend who is amazing at organizing and she did help me organize my clutter in my kitchen, for which I am very grateful. When it came time to organize my creative space, I told her I would organize that myself. She did, however, give me a few tips that might be helpful for others, pending they don’t mind giving up your valuable creative time to do so. She suggested to have a list of all various creative categories and decide on a space for each. Ie. acrylics, oils, Watercolours and their brushes, Collage materials, Mixed Media, and fibre arts. Seemed like a simple plan but as I started, I realized I didn’t like the time it was taking. So, it will always be a studio in transition. I’m ok with that for now. I own my clutter and I’m happy creating. Thanks, Sara, I, too, have read Kondo’s book, but I may not have the time to implement the ideas presented. Life is too short to sweat the clutter!

  13. Monica McGregor on

    I have a ton (well, a couple hundred pounds, I’ll bet) of fabric, plus papers, dyes, thread, etc. etc. that I am loathe to “tidy up.” Although I just looked at my travel mug today and fantasized about ditching all the rest of my mugs and glasses. Think of all I could stuff in that cabinet!

  14. Gabriella Morrison on

    Clearing the decks – we all have multiple decks for the myriad activities we carry out as we live and act. The Marie Kondo stuff is too stiff and restricting. There are many reasons why we accumulate what we do, reasons why materials and items hold special resonance for our attentions. Therein lies the story of individuals and their doings and makings – things (experiences, people) flow in and out of our lives in tidal fashion. The particular art is to be aware of our own peculiar attractants and to know when the decks need periodic tidying or throwing stuff overboard. There are really no formulas for this other than knowing the self and permitting it to manifest changing needs and doings.

  15. I think inheriting our parents’ things creates one of the most difficult dilemmas. These items were important to them, many of them pieces of art from travels or their own intellectual and creative pursuits, and we must simply discard them or lug them around. It is terribly difficult. The same thing applies to things from our children. We have moved over and again and I feel like — actually we simply are dragging around all this stuff because we feel like we are betraying our parents, children or even our old selves.

    I think it’s best to do it slowly. We are gradually getting rid of things while trying not to throw away stuff we will need rebuy it. Everything that comes into the house, we now think seriously about if we really need it and will it last. Otherwise, we don’t get it. Or that’s the goal at least. We aren’t as nearly virtuous as we wish.

  16. Constant Pruning may be too strong of an admonition. Let life run rampant to see what happens. Eventually, it will be evident what needs to be trimmed. We need to keep in mind, however, that the past has a way of interfering with the present. Momentum is easy to miss.
    Trying to overcome accumulated momentum in my own life.
    Thanks for the article.

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