Mess-makers anonymous


Dear Artist,

The well-known physicist and writer David Deutsch is also well-known for the messiness of his workplace. Once, when a TV crew came in to record an interview with him, they offered to tidy up a bit before beginning. He told them they could if they put everything back exactly the way it was. They did. Deutsch argues that his chronic messiness is part of his creativity process. Apart from admitting that “tidying up is boring,” he cites the value of cross-pollination and multi-tasking that a messy work environment gives. “The resources for all the different lines of thought are left open,” he states. Multiple projects are picked up or dropped at will and their serendipitous physical presence invites the “grab and proceed” process.

There is some evidence, however, that it’s better for most of us to be organized. Julie Morgenstern has written an excellent book for mess-makers who might wish to see the light. Organizing from the Inside Out points out flaws in our nature that keep us forever trapped in our messes. She identifies a key weakness as “the failure to systematize common decisions.” This often comes from poor or lazy habit patterns that arose in our early lives. It’s a matter of step-by-step relearning. You must “analyze, strategize and attack.” Among other tips, she effectively shows how to manage space and time. “Organized people,” she says, “will make fewer and better decisions in the long run.” According to Julie it takes more time to be disorganized than it does to be organized. Efficiency is the goal, inefficiency is the enemy. Creative people who read my letters will be familiar with my enthusiasm for efficiency.

For the record, I’ve noticed something curious in a few studios. Messy environments actually generate neat art. Organization that doesn’t go into the room goes into the art. David Deutsch mentions the joy he gets from organizing his computer files — and how neat it all is in there. Many painters talk of the idealized, dimensional world that they can temporarily live in and organize to their liking. Could it be that our art is a sanctuary?

Ataxophobia is the fear of untidiness. Apparently everybody has it to some degree. The production of art may be in part a sublimation of this fear. Perhaps guilt plays a part. Taken daily, art is the pill that makes order out of chaos.

Best regards,


PS: “I chop and change between what is called ‘work’ and what is called ‘recreation.’ There are no discontinuities in my day. I only play tennis with people I find interesting.” (David Deutsch)

Esoterica: When I was a student at Art Center in Los Angeles, I lived in a boarding house with several other students. Our landlady was a quiet woman who had moved west from Nebraska after the passing of her husband. Stella Dunlavy was a person who had firm opinions and stuck to them. While she may have taken in foreign students from time to time, I was, as far as I know, the only Canadian she had ever seen. One day, as I was coming down the stairs, I overheard her telling one of the boarders, “The Germans are warlike, the Japanese copy things, and the Canadians are a messy people.”


Messiness just on the edge of chaos
by Carmel Glover, Brisbane, Australia

Was this Julie Morgenstern ever a mess-maker herself? If not, then I think her advice is futile. “Analyze, strategize and attack” only works for people who like to analyze, strategize and attack. It’s a matter of personality, I suspect, and one cannot change one’s personality — only learn to manage it a little. Personally, whenever I’ve decided to organize my workspace, disaster has struck. The last time, a spectacular shelf collapse, scattering 5 shelves of just-organized stuff over my studio floor. I considered the gods had spoken. Messiness which just teeters on the edge of chaos, without ever actually crossing the line, is quite exciting really. Somewhere, sometime, the ‘orderly’ people (many of whom are boring as hell) decreed that messy was bad, but what would they know.


The temporal cycle of creativity
by Mary Lapos, Danville, PA, USA

The progression of time is another dimension for some of us mess makers. I find that I’m cyclical. I must have order in all other parts of my life (bills paid, house clean, laundry done, all that trivia) in order to begin or “allow” myself to go ahead and paint or write. The jumping-off spot is a sense of order and unclutteredness. But once the dye is cast, the mess-making becomes colossal and continues unabated until the cycle is completed — perhaps days, or weeks or even months, to the point where I cannot find clean underwear, bills go unpaid and the final unwind is falling into a helpless, hopeless quagmire of unbearable clutter. This is usually after the creative period has ended. And then there’s a period of unease and out-of-sortedness while the tension builds again and I find myself organizing and de-cluttering and getting back to the beginning place of order and serene emptiness while I wait for the next cycle to begin.


In the bubble
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA


“Red Light District”
original painting
by Brad Greek

I grew up in a very neat and clean environment, and that carried over into my bachelor life. It wasn’t until I got married and had children that my environment went to clutter. Now I live in organized clutter and it really isn’t my cup of tea. I hate wasting time looking for things. I use my art as a sanctuary to escape the chaos around me. To enter my own little bubble which no one else can enter. It is my one and only organized space in the world. And luckily my processor is working well to keep up with all of these thoughts that pass through it at a hundred miles a minute. Otherwise it would bust my bubble.


Cleanup paralyzes creation
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA

As a child, I remember my mother’s obsession with order, and her mystification of “bookish” relatives who lived in relaxed, disheveled environments. Mom justified their messiness as a sign of intelligence. How I strived to create clutter, hoping it would stimulate my brain power! Alas, after 50 plus years, I’ve settled on a balance, realizing it’s impossible to create and keep order at the same time. Then there are times when I can’t begin a project until I can see bare counter tops. A few weeks ago we decided to redesign a wall in one of our studios which was being used as a showroom/shop space. We wanted a work area devoted solely to creation. Now it is so tidy I’ve been paralyzed to begin!









Invisible blood
by Jo Scott-B, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Phantom Mauves”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Jo Scott-B

For years I fought my messiness. But every time I tidied and organized my studio, the environment inhibited my work and the paintings became stiff and stilted. In my initial search for the “flow connection,” I like to pour paint, mono-print the canvas, use my hands; paint ends up everywhere, including on me, the floor and table. During that phase, people are banned from my space. Firstly because those under-painted colours are wild, secondly because of the mess. When I give a demo, especially in a gallery space, I can be very clean and organized, but under those circumstances the first steps are pre-prepared in the studio. In my studio my paintings are layered, scumbled and finally only a hint of those initial wild bits remain, but for me they are the blood running through the body, giving it invisible life.


Oops, wrong stuff
by Teresa Hitch


Teresa en plein air

There is an inverse relationship between tidiness and creative productivity, at least in my life. I have to be organized to know where everything is, so my creativity has the freedom that efficiency nurtures. At the same time, the smaller one’s working space, the tidier one has to be, at least to avoid such faux pas as confusing yellow ochre (fluid acrylic) when attempting to mustard one’s veggie wieners.


Symbiotic relationship
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada


gouache painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Odette Nicholson

I make my bed in the morning and clean the studio before leaving so the next time I enter those rooms what I see first is the calm and the art. The visual impression fuels the response. But my paintings are not created tidily — the paint flows quickly with lots of water and colour mixes — I make big messes when I work. I’ve learned to work on several canvases at once to spread the intensity around. The resulting image of my paintings is always abstract, but the series work is ordered for a clean presentation.

I experience tidying and housework as a near mindless activity (chop wood carry water), but it’s that activity which helps in releasing my busy brain, allowing it to think more deeply. Making sense of things, solving problems, is directly tied to the act of placing order and finding meaning. In this way my urge for neatness and sorting through creative tangles is most definitely symbiotic.


Making sense of the unknown
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA

With all due respect to Ms. Morgenstern, I do believe she’s psychopathologizing the very childlike nature of creation, as well as sweating the small stuff. She making a career out of organizing drawers and closets, while David Deutsch is consumed with a passion for understanding the universe, and by default pulling the rest of us along with him to the core of creation. When children explore this strange new world they’ve been thrown into, they make horrible messes of everything as they create something new out of the same old stuff we grown ups have lost the ability to understand and manipulate in new ways. Cleaning and organizing and tidying up can be a nice form of meditation that rests the mind, but it hardly qualifies as analysis, strategy, and attack. I’ve seen art work created with those principles at the helm, and they are masterpieces of creating the perfect atmosphere for a nap. The current prevailing theory of the creation of the universe is the Big Bang. Oh, dear, can you imagine the mess a big bang must have created? And just take a look around at the messy variety of people created by our Higher Power — not much analysis, strategy, and attack on that one! And aren’t we glad for the messy variety we have? I sure am. Deutsch is a perfect example of the faulty strategy and attack in the creation of human life. He won’t play one of the world’s most boring and silent games with people who aren’t interesting. Isn’t that a messy paradox?

Ms. Morgenstern is correct that most of us would benefit from having more skills at being tidy and organized, but only because most of us are ordinary. Most of us are here to bear witness to the chaos of minds and sensibilities with a pattern we’re too small to see. Most of us need the security of always knowing where everything is and keeping all the knowns of the past working efficiently. It’s the best way to avoid that void where there are no rules and raw material swirls around us on an ungodly wind, and we have to find the guts to make sense out of the seemingly senseless, and beauty out of what frightens us most — the unknown.


How fast can you find it?
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“Swirls and Dots”
acrylic painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Helena Tiainen

Besides being an artist I am also a professional organizer/redecorator. I have an innate need for order and beauty. Neatness does not necessarily equal being organized. There are people who have very neat looking places but in reality there is an underlying mess. It takes them forever to find anything because there is no real order or “home” for the things they possess. The definition for being organized is how fast can you locate what you need in your environment — whether it looks neat or not. Organizing is personal and individual and there is no one formula that works for everyone. Basically you want to have what you need as close as possible to where you need it and when you need it — a good formula for anything in life. When I set up to paint I don’t want to have to run and get my paints and other supplies scattered all over the house as I need them. It works best to have everything I need right next to me. This saves time, frustration and energy. And if you suffer from lack of space have all of your supplies together on stacked drawer bins with wheels or in clearly labeled boxes that you can easily transport to your activities. Life is short and we all have things we would rather do than spend a large amount of time looking for things we cannot locate.


How does your garden grow?
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada


watercolour painting
by Marney Ward

Compulsively tidy people have messy or unclean souls and need to keep everything organized because it gives them a sense of control. There is rigidity there, an unwillingness to just let things happen, which I believe is based on fear. Like gardeners whose main goal is to keep an immaculate, weed-free garden, tidy people are often so busy fretting about the weeds they forget to smell the flowers. Artists like to just let things happen. We thrive on happy accidents and need an environment in which happy accidents and unexpected juxtapositions just happen. We are like gardeners who give each “volunteer” a chance to work before we chuck it out. Our control is with our art and is based on a relationship of give and take with nature; we make some decisions, and we see what surprises come as a result of those decisions. Artists are also fortunate in that we tend to ignore the things we don’t like and focus on the things we do. Nature is many things, but it is seldom tidy. Perhaps that is why most of us prefer the loosely controlled English garden, where man cooperates with nature, to the tightly controlled Italian one, where man tries to dominate nature with an order that is artificially contrived. The one lets us breathe and fills us with joy; the other may please the intellect, but it tends to confine the soul.


The canvas world
by Kristi Bridgeman, Victoria, BC, Canada


“mandala 8”
original painting
by Kristi Bridgeman

Creating, gardening, meditating, and I suppose stamp collecting — all are pleasant and productive ways to relax. I’m fortunate to have an ability to create my own relaxation in the world of my canvas. In the computer age and poised for war the whole world needs this… Look at the increase in fairy artwork, aromatherapy, candles and feng shui.





Separate workstations within studio
by Nancy E. Wells, Damascus, PA, USA

I’m a painter, printmaker, digital artist, sculptor and doll maker. Because I work in several different media at the same time, I set up a number of workstations in my studio. In my own way I am very organized but I need the availability of materials set up ahead of time so that I can move from one project to another without having to set up each time. How we move around in our studios is part of our individual approach to the creative process. For some artists, on the spot preparation of materials is an important passage to making art. This approach helps some artists slowly move into their work.

I often find that approach frustrating. In many cases I’m working inwardly as much when I am not physically working as I do when I am actually manipulating the materials. When I feel the urge to work or I see the solution to something, I want to go immediately to that project and work. It can actually be painful to have to prepare beforehand.


Leave some stuff behind
by Susan Easton Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA


acrylic painting by
Susan Easton Burns

I work on multiple projects simultaneously, and what I notice about my space is that there are always one or two clean surfaces before I begin the day (wall, floor, counter, table). At the end of the day, I like to see a volume of work in one of those places and then when I return the next day, I have a better direction for beginning.



Clean sweep
by Diane Carter, MI, USA

Am I tidy because I enjoy my space to be streamlined? Or is it because I live with the daily scolding voice of my grandmother? Am I living in chaos in daily resistance to my grandmother’s scolding or is this how my mind works best? A gentleman on Clean Sweep, a TV show that assists people in cleaning out cluttered spaces, asks a group of Americans to “be adults.” He feels that most of the problems of clutter come from an immature mind. I feel artists might have an edge here.





Between Spring Showers

oil painting
by Karl Dempwolf, Van Nuys, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Barbara Owen who wrote, “It was PigPen from Peanuts that said, ‘A messy desk is a sign of an organized mind.'”

And also Bev Willis, Fresno, California who wrote, “I am organized and clean outside of my working area because I’m lazy. If I let things get too disorganized and messy I would never get it cleaned up again. I have to do it as I go along — keep it cleaned up as I go.”

And also Bren Nichols, Toronto, Ontario who wrote, “I work in series — and my method of “mess control” is to give myself a break about half way through painting my series. I regroup by cleaning up, airing out and then jumping back into creating in the hope of finding the jewel within the mess.”




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