Yesterday, Janice Robinson-Delaney of Ellenwood, GA, asked, “Have you ever experienced what Picasso called ‘sterility’? If so, where does it come from and how do you prevent it?”
Thanks, Janice. On the surface, it might seem that Picasso would be the last to worry about this particular problem — he of many periods, prodigious output and overlapping media. Fact is, he was the poster boy of fertility.
Sterility is where you find yourself running on empty. It’s not to be confused with “artistic senility” — another condition where the brain, often in old age, begins to run on memory rather than experiencing each work as a new event. We actually learn sterility during our teen years, as societal demands and peer pressure begin to stifle the audacity of the natural child. The sterile adult has feelings of barrenness and loss that can bring on a state of panic.
Fertility, the opposite of sterility, is learned. Curiosity and experimentation are adopted attitudes, and while they fluctuate and at times appear loony, they’re largely voluntary.
Picasso was one who understood the private search for “new” because he felt the weight of the public “old.” This view may not sit well with artists who honour traditions and time-worn subjects, but even in those there is room for new excitements and subtle evolutions. While we may recognize that a quick antidote is not always going to work, there are ploys that, taken individually or in combination, can do the job. Here are seven:
Change your media.
Mix your media.
Change your working environment.
Change your tools.
Exercise your body.
Study your favourite artists.
Jump around a lot.
If you are a slow worker, speed up. If you are a speedy one, slow down. Above all, grab something and get started. The learned ability of renewal is as necessary to the creative mind as holding a brush. And as brushes are often replaced, there can always be another love.
PS: “Love what you do. Believe in your instincts. And you’d better be able to pick yourself up and brush yourself off every day. While life is not always fair, it is manageable. It’s a matter of attitude and confidence.” (Mario Andretti)
Esoterica: You might also try a nightly affirmation such as “Just for tomorrow I will hone in on what I really want to do.” Repeat ten times and run backwards around a moonlit tree at midnight — anything that shakes you up and shines lunar light on your true passions. “People are not lazy,” says motivational guru Anthony Robbins. “They simply have impotent goals — that is, goals that do not inspire them.”
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Sterility is caused by fear. Artists can be paralyzed by fear of rejection. This fear can cause them to operate in a “safe mode’ like computers do. Better to do exactly what has worked in the past. It’s human nature to seek comfort in times of stress and most artists are under stress. It is more difficult to innovate when you are under the gun but you must venture forth in order to grow. Recently I was a guest at a Bill Hosner workshop held in my town. I got to sit in on a critique at the end of the workshop and better yet had the opportunity to talk to Bill. He works very differently than I do and had some different strategies and ideas. I am anxious to try out some of these ideas. New ideas are the seeds that can sprout to new directions for a painter. You won’t have a worry with sterility if you are looking at paintings, reading about painting, thinking about painting and talking about painting!
Maintaining inspirational friendships
by Cindy Kovack, Phoenix, AZ, USA
I’ve always defeated artistic sterility by maintaining friends who are positive, creative and productive. Going to art museums on a regular basis, Art First Friday’s, taking classes to further my artistic ability, watching bio’s of artists, going to arts and crafts shows, seeking out supplies at garage sales, thrift stores or hardware stores for my work, touring artist’s galleries and belonging to a productive, like-minded art group have all worked for me over the years. I believe creativity breeds creativity. Be with those people who inspire you, enlighten you and nourish your soul.
Abstracted out of the rut
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina
After 10 years of painting realistic still life and the odd nude and landscape, I switched to abstraction to free myself from the model and I must say I enjoy every second of it. Financially it has been an even greater success than the realistic period and the acceptance in galleries and competitions was great, which translated in good sales and many awards. As for me, I felt I was in a rut and now I feel free to really express myself. I could go on and on but I will only add for your many readers: Do not be afraid of change and experiment, if it does not work you can always go back to the style you are familiar with, but if it does work the rewards are awesome.
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Giving birth to something new
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
It is a choice to let images come from within and to not repeat the same tired subjects. That is a big reason that I began doing more abstract work a few years ago. I have fun with the creation and fun with naming them. Sometimes I have a subject in mind when I start, but often I just put down shapes and colors and let them tell me who they are. The point is that when I was doing more realistic subjects, I did have the feeling of sterility, and now as I play with design and color I feel that I am birthing something new that is all my own.
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Using up canvases fast
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
After throwing out several canvases and floundering under several more, I really think I do need to do a moon dance. I think I may just use my fingers for a while, and progress to credit cards, which I can’t use anymore anyway. A grater may provide some texture, while a whisk may whip up some new colors. I am experimenting with glazing. Just layering transparent colors is pretty cool. And lumpy gessoed surfaces are also interesting – you can find all sorts of things hiding in the hills and valleys. Regardless, I hope this phase disappears soon, as my supply of canvas dwindles!
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Changing your environment
by Lanie Frick, Licking MO, USA
The business of changing your working environment works for me. I recently made a change in my studio by swapping out a small couch for a round table with chairs. It was a decided functional change on my part but the stimulating effect was a welcome surprise. My studio went from “isn’t this a nice place to paint” to “this is a happening place where creativity flows.” I get an instant charge from the new atmosphere every time I go in my studio. Another way I’ve been able to keep sterility away is get outside and be with nature. I go out and ride my horse as much as possible. It has always inspired my creativity.
Get into the ‘now’
by Lynne Schlumpf, Chugiak, AK, USA
To defeat sterility, I remember what Eckhart Tolle says in his book The Power of Now. To forget the past, forget the future and just listen to the sounds around me and observe. It is in the past and the future that we replay past failures and worry about future failures. Observe the way the walls look or observe how the sounds of cars come out of silence and go back into silence or whatever sounds are around you. To be ultra sensitive and just keep pulling myself back into the now — which is the only thing I really can create inside of anyway. And that exercise thing really works, too. I go to the local middle school and walk around the track exactly 8 times (2 miles) without listening to music. Just listening to the birds and the wind and just relaxing my mind. Lots of ideas come out of that.
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Workshops for relief
by Annie Cicale, Fairview, NC, USA
This may seem self-serving, but taking classes is the best way for many folks to jump-start their impotence. I am a teacher, natch, so I would say these things. But I take workshops whenever I can, with people whose work I love and whose ideas I respect. It does two things: reconfirms what I already know to give me a nod of OK to keep going, and gives me concrete things to try next, many of which are on your list. Teachers can:
Show you new tricks with your old media.
Show you new toys on the market that you haven’t figured out yet.
Force you to work in a new place (workshops are often in beautiful places).
Exercise your body by making you schlepp all your stuff to the workshop site, and by making you want to take that walk on the beach or in the woods.
Inspire you since they are probably in that group of your favourite artists, but also by giving you insights into others.
Force you to try ideas you’ve never considered.
Most importantly, workshops and classes develop community, and we all thrive when we spend time with like-minded souls who love what we do. Students share among themselves, and sometimes that’s even better than what the teacher has to offer.
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Lifting a black curtain
by Jeanne Gillis, Lethbridge, AB, Canada
Your letter made it so clear, the feelings that I have been experiencing these last few months. I shared studio space with three other younger artists and when they moved to another space these feelings started slowly at first then became overwhelming. It was like a black curtain enveloped over my eyes. Very sad. Although other artists took their spaces, the feelings were still there. I felt so isolated.
It really came to a head after 4 years of hard work to get ready for a solo exhibit last November. After the opening, the feelings started. I have spoken with other artists and some have experienced similar thoughts.
Enough is enough and I decided to move to another space with other artists. I move in on June 1 and am looking forward to the renewal and re-awakening. I have also started another type of subject matter and different media and started teaching classes one night a week. The class is wonderful. It is so inspiring to see new students have that “Aha” moment!
by Virginia M. O’Connor, Anza, CA, USA
How do you deal with sterility that becomes depression? Sometimes it seems everything is going so wrong there’s no end in sight. It’s hard to create when you just want to lie down and die because nothing is working.
(RG note) Thanks, Virginia. These days a lot of folks say they are “depressed” when they are sad, frustrated or just having a bad hair day. This state of mind is a lot different from clinical depression. The latter can be chronic and debilitating, requiring the understanding intervention of a certified healthcare professional. The simplistic remedies offered by myself and others may not apply to these situations. Counseling or medication, or both, may be in order.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Karen Cohen who wrote, “Sterility afflicts those who won’t take risks. Art, like Science or Technology makes no progress unless the artist acts on the question, “What if…?” When an artist ceases trying to find better ways to express his/her thoughts and feelings, sterility has already set in.”
And also Sonja Taber who wrote, “You have no idea how much I enjoy your Twice-Weekly letter. Your letters give me a great lift. You always strike a chord in me. I so look forward to the next one.”
And also Allan P Welscher who wrote, “Fertility is knowing there are still lots of things left to invent.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Sterility…