Smelling the roses

32

Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I found at the beginning of the pandemic that I had the most productive period I have had in years. Now, nothing. I am not sure what is going on. I am eating more and moving less. I am thinking that it may be that I have not had enough to fill my well, being so isolated. Do you have any suggestions for doing that? I have watched everything possible and read books and attended online exhibitions. Even my journal writing has dried up as I have nothing to say. I am feeling isolated and empty and I would love to hear what you might suggest to get me moving again and back to the studio.”

Sea Change, 1931 Oil on canvas 20 1/8 × 28 3/8 inches by Agnes Pelton (1881-1961)

Sea Change, 1931
Oil on canvas
20 1/8 × 28 3/8 inches
by Agnes Pelton (1881-1961)

Like many artists, your personal creative cycle at first benefitted from the jolt of a sudden change of scene. In the beginning, this disruption brought with it a blank slate of time and social silence and with it, an uptick of new ideas and productivity. Like the urge to travel or a self-imposed sequestering, artists have forever developed systems for breaking routines in search of filling their cup with new ways of looking and communicating. While not purposely designed for artists, quarantine has been a terrific opportunity for us to go to our rooms.

Now, your new routine has become routine. The first thing to keep in mind is that like during all other times, you’re in the midst of a cycle. Think of yours as a metabolism — one with stages you can harness and maximize for creative benefit. When the production tide is ebbing, take time to connect and show you care, including for yourself. “Rest and digest” is the layperson’s term for our parasympathetic nervous system — the one that conserves energy without us having to think about it — when our bodies are given the chance to recuperate and replenish from stress and survival. This “rest” includes looking around and smelling the roses, and by being active, you can also bump up those feel-good brain chemicals that spur the optimism required to squeeze paint. Because online viewing rooms, while a handy cultural pivot, may not do the job of a solo afternoon cruising the galleries, you’re going to have to get this stuff somewhere new. Where is that?

Mother of Silence, 1933  Oil on canvas 30 × 25 inches by Agnes Pelton

Mother of Silence, 1933
Oil on canvas
30 × 25 inches
by Agnes Pelton

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Being creative is an everyday thing, a job with its own routines.” (Twyla Tharp)

Esoterica: Part of what you’re currently in search of is your misplaced sense of wonder — it’s the gateway to creativity. Recent reports show that animal shelters are clearing out as social distancing has isolated us from one another. While a tail-wagging studio mate may be the greatest gift you can give your legs, getting moving doesn’t actually require one. Like every other creative habit, moving your body involves making the decision to do so and then, like American dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp describes in her book, The Creative Habit, removing the decision of whether or not to do so. Instead, you just do it — as a religious component of your creative routine. “The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration (perhaps more). And it is available to everyone. If creativity is a habit, then the best creativity is the result of good work habits. They are the nuts and bolts of dreaming,” says Twyla. Around here, lockdown has deepened our appreciation for the embarrassment of riches of hiking trails, purple skies and curious wildlife that wait for our participation beyond the front door. I’ve surrendered to a circadian rhythm of early bedtimes and sunrise bighorn sheep, and allowed painting to flow casually, steadily and joyfully between looking, walking and keeping in touch. There’s even the time I didn’t used to believe I had, to make granola. “Life is about moving, it’s about change,” says Twyla. “And when things stop doing that, they’re dead.”

Agnes Pelton near her home in Cathedral City, California

Agnes Pelton near her Cathedral City, California home and studio (Palm Springs Historical Society photo)

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“When you’re in a rut, you have to question everything except your ability to get out of it.” (Twyla Tharp)


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32 Comments

  1. I should have read this before I subjected my very patient husband to listening to me describe my existential crisis! It’s one of not so much lack of inspiration but of what to do next. Though I am also feeling like I don’t have anything new to say artistically due to my overly familiar surroundings. I need to use some discipline to shake that up. I don’t have to be in a crowd to get out and see things. thank you.

  2. It is easy to buy into the helplessness, hopelessness of all the fear that going around these days. It causes a paralysis and a sort of depression that’s very dark and easy to get stuck in. My aunt who is the best relative I have told me one day that some people who commit suicide can’t see that their lives could ever be any different. Since more of us are now out in nature which is the greatest teacher, observe the birds and squirrels. They get up each morning and do what they’ve always done, they are busy and productive. They are not worried or scared or depressed about what’s going on in this human world. Abraham Lincoln said “most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be”. It’s that pulling up one’s bootstraps and moving ahead and doing what needs to be done. I think the negative self-talk in our heads is the only thing that limits us. Now, is a great time to learn new things and to build an inventory for the golden days on the horizon.

    • Sheilah Wilcynski on

      Thank you for your comment, Donna. I just copied into my journal the part about observing the birds and squirrels doing what they do. We have had so many busy squirrels in our neighborhood this Fall, so I don’t have to look far ….But now I will pay extra attention and take my observations back into my studio. I appreciate your contribution to this discussion!

    • You’ve reiterated my thoughts and sentiments perfectly. I had similar thoughts yesterday as I was out walking, which I often do before going into the studio. Nature indeed is the greatest teacher and when the student is ready she comes.

  3. Being an artist translates into naturally being hypersensitive.
    And this is good.
    We internalize the world around us and this is what gives us our strength and perhaps tips to scale a bit to our weaknesses
    It’s the most natural thing in the world to be feeling this sense of loss during the pandemic.
    The blessing we artists have is our bottomless pit of creativity.
    I found that I had to push myself into my studio and just by being there and looking at the half finished pieces or empty canvases and all the art supplies… turning on the music.. filling a few containers with water… and picking up a brush seemed to ignite a flame that was so small but now can fill the room with light!
    Your creativity is your incredibly beautiful gift.. and this is the season of giving.
    Give yourself your gift
    As The Stones said … “Shine a light”!

    • The Lack of Hugs on a More Personal Level. As artists many of us are used to being alone and may even crave it. However, I think we really much more appreciate the hugs when we get them. It’s hard to feel the hugs when staring into a computer box. More intimate hugs on a personal social level is important and not many of us are getting that right now, but it wil change. In the meantime, learn to give yourself some hugs, be kind and attentive and do some really nice things for yourself. Look into the mirror and appreciate who you are. Make yourself a very nutritious lunch and really savor it. Take a walk in nature it increases the endorphins in your brain, your feel good chemicals. Wear something special or comforting. Get more sleep and write a “what I’m thankful for list”.

  4. Hi Sara, this comment helps a lot. We have been caught up in artificial inertia, so shifting routines in a smaller “space” takes more ingenuity than usual. I’m holding on to that harsh thought about being in a rut. Many thanks.

  5. When I’m uninspired or unmotivated (either) I merely force myself to go “slop paint around”. A lot of time I get paint stopped around. But sometimes… that’s what I live for. The other times.

    If you decide to use this method, try starting the stop with cheap paints or some color that is different. Sometimes it helps.

  6. While we haven’t lost our creativity with this pandemic some of us have lost our motivation and drive. The uncertainty of our times and all the media commotion with the virus and the US election has been distracting for me and a cause for my own inertia. Nature may abhor a vacuum but creativity abhors distraction. We must move on now that a vaccine is on the horizon and a new president in the white house. Perhaps I can now at last finish the half dozen pieces awaiting me…

  7. Ha, I feel you, though my cycle of despair and ennui has gone the opposite direction. I was catatonic fir the first month but am now finding a rhythm of work and absorption. My mantra throughout the pandemic has been “the introverts win“. Pity those of us who are actually more extroverted as we will simply dangle from the traumatized thread of our own need for human beings.

    I told friends in the first month through my gritted teeth that I was going to try to remake my DNA to become an introvert. And I have to say it may be working. The enforced isolation has caused me to slowly withdraw my feelers to the outside and to go in ward. I hope I have social skills left at the end of this. I spent my 20s completely alone and on a mystics path and it took decades to come back out into the world and learn how to “party,” as they say. I don’t want to lose the wonder of human community. My latest series is about angels and deep meditation on iconic images that can lead us to transcendence. The work itself is a relationship.

  8. A few years ago, I would hit the blues around all the holiday hustle and bustle. Our daughter is married and lives in another state, so we often miss close contact. Before COVID-19, I learned how great painting is whether we are heading into all the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year craziness. So continuing to paint, to read and write poetry and playing the Native American flute has kept me sane and a walk before sunrise today in 25-degree weather (before coffee), renewed energy, hope and love for the Love of my Life, daughter, her husband and everyone out there. Breathe! And paint every day.

  9. thank you Sara, that first part was me. Oh Boy Stay Home and Paint. yah!!!!! Its been up and down full of emotions intermingled with What shall I paint now? Acceptance is a big part of it for me. Now I am having a Carpal Tunnel operation on the right painting arm. So, another change again. Cleaning with one hand? Reading my art books and letters ? Use my eyes for new things to paint? I can do a lot with one hand! Thanks, Carolyn

  10. When I lose interest and get into a rut, I stop what I’m doing and switch mediums. I spent most of this year making art journal pages and binding them into small books, but when my interest waned – as it usually does after a lengthy period on a project – I put my journals aside and picked up on my encaustic collages. I’ve found that working in different mediums improves my output, work quality, and “seeing” in all mediums. It seems to have cross-pollinating effects between mediums and and leads to good ideas for me. At least it keeps me busy and enthused.

    • I do the same thing. Changing mediums really helps me too. And subject matter as well – staying home has increased my interest in still life. I look at the spectrum of mark making – if the work has become loose, and, I’m growing tired of that, I put down the brush and pick up the pencils and draw, or the scissors and cut. All of these different approaches inform one another.

  11. Suggestion: Look through the paintings you have in your storage bin. Select a few and study them. Then rework the ones which seem to need ‘something’. Make them better.

    In the past several weeks I’ve been re-working older paintings…even ones I’ve exhibited. All of them look better and are more dynamic than they were. Great fun actually.

  12. To You All And Titt Raid:

    Took the words out of my mouth! i’ve done likewise and the exercise really helps out!

    The bottom line is keep something going or trust that your creativity will return from a
    minor lapse. The Pandemic isn’t really minor, though, is it?

  13. There are so many interesting artistic mediums glazes and dyes. When I am getting too familiar with one medium, I will rework something previously done, or restart on a different base, and modify the crop, size, proportions or palette. Also, change of process helps. (ie: If you normally paint in washes, and build color gently, switching to an impasto application with bold heavy strokes or a palette knife is a good exercise.) You can also redo a familiar color piece, but keeping the palette to grayscale only. I have tried everything, and it has helped. I also have gone back to my painted bas reliefs on wood with exotic veneers. If all else fails, I do a jigsaw puzzle of a masterpiece or study artists and art history.

  14. I’m not completely sure it’s the Covid pandemic that has thrust me into a creative procrastination period, or this is just me. I look back over the decades and see myself constantly having excuses of why I am not doing enough producing of artwork. I remember thinking when I hit that golden age when my kids are grown and on their own, my husband retired and a life schedule offering time and freedom, I’d be producing artwork to supply more than one gallery. Didn’t happen. I am an artist who has to juggle time still, or maybe that’s an artist who squeezes it still. But that’s okay, I have my health and so much to be thankful for. I can hold a brush. Looking at my personal world with my husband who struggles so badly with advancing Parkinson’s, I know what a blessing I have in being able to hold a brush. Life continually offers new perspectives on life.

  15. What a timely letter! I usually attribute slowdowns in ambition as a ‘recharging’ – and am pretty sure I read a Painters Keys letter that said that, so I can’t take credit. When I don’t seriously get into my work I start to tinker. Sometimes this helps, sometimes invent something generally useless to everyone but me. I’m going to quote (maybe misquote) a remark by Abraham Lincoln, that ‘people are about as happy as they decide to be.’ We can’t control things happening around us, but we can control our attitude. (I read that somewhere too, but don’t recall where..)

  16. Don know what the INTJ is Bandbox? But ditto on the rest of it! Sara what a wonderful letter on good work habits Thank you, very much.

    • It’s a personality type identified by the Myers-Briggs test. An INTJ is supposedly introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging. I mention it in response to Iskra’s comment on introverts and extroverts. I don’t know about the NTJ part of my personality type, but there’s no doubt that I’m an introvert. I’m happy and productive when alone and usually prefer solitude to the company of others. So I’m relatively unaffected by the Covid Pandemic’s forced isolation.

  17. I had an opposite reaction. Hard to get moving during the initial months. And then, I started to experiment with different mediums, subjects, exploring styles that felt free. I have noticed that many other artists that I know seem to be doing similar. There’s a greater freedom to explore and not worry.
    It was pointed out to me that times of great stress leads to times of invention and wonderful creation.

  18. I was in a bubble by myself. All my printmaking gear was abandoned at the studio downtown when lockdown occurred. I didn’t feel like doing anything but reading or watching old movies. But decided I should take the opportunity to get my paints out and try to see what I could do. Haven’t painted for years. Some of the tubes were dead.
    Worked on little canvasses and boards and paper. Watched art making on YouTube for inspiration.
    I was so happy when restrictions eased and I could go to a friend and mentor’s studio for some further and more intense work on painting. I discovered that although I always use a model, drawing or of some thing for my print works, my painting is freer and looser and just better when it’s totally imaginary.
    We are lucky our internal restrictions are not to bad at all in NZ. Prayers for all those still suffering.

  19. Whenever I’ve stalled out and feel the well has run dry I do crafts, mostly beading. I’m still using my color sense working with my hands, but the need for creativity isn’t nearly as dire. I let my right brain take a break while I string various colors and textures together. A jigsaw puzzle also works for this purpose. I’m alternating now during the pandemic and did the same thing when I retired four years ago. To really fill the well I like to travel, sigh.

  20. Living our lives is similar to the creative process of painting, in my opinion. Each of us goes about both in our own way, taking the opportunity to overcome challenges and focus on the process, not with standing the joy implicit in both.

    Both start out blank canvases and we may use our intuition to paint the next stroke which may or may not be where our expectations lie.

    As we hope to be authentic in our painting the same can be true of living our lives.

    Ecclesiastics remind us that ” there is a time for everything under the sun.” or something of that sort.

    We can create a painting of our lives. We can structure our lives to paint. We can understand the difference between blocks and given realities. The choice is ours.

  21. As an HSP (highly sensitive – https://hsperson.com/) introvert (INFP on the Myers-Briggs scale), I am coping reasonably well with solitude in these pandemic times. As one who has experienced the mood disorder of Major Depression, I’d like to clarify that thinking positively or walking outside in nature or not listening to depressing news, will not automatically lead to a positive attitude. Depression is a highly debilitating condition where no amount of positive thinking will change one’s viewpoint. It is not about “just think positively” or “just get over it”. Depression is a significant health issue that requires significant treatment. As one who has experienced and recovered from more than one period of Major Depression, I recognize both the feeling that “it will never be better no matter what” and “it can be better”, and know that both are true depending on the state of mental health. I am very grateful for being a creative person. Creative ability is able to respond to the most unexpected and unusual circumstances, the pandemic being a most extraordinary one. Happy creating everyone!

  22. Thank you Sara for this post and for bringing Twyla Tharp into the conversation. I’m a firm believer of: moving the body moved the mind and soul.
    Thank you for all you do!

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/peter-hobden_moment-wpcf_300x240.jpgWaiting Moment
oil on canvas
54 x 40 cm
2010

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I am a painter. I am delighted to be a painter.

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