A Year In My Studio
After spending twelve months working daily in my studio, I decided to write about my experience. On January 1, 2016, I started a 365-day art challenge, which ended on December 31.
My proposed art adventure was to produce a creative postcard-size, piece of art everyday, while I studied and researched the lives of seven female artists: Artemisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Beatrix Potter, Frida Kahlo, Grandma Moses and Georgia O’Keeffe. In addition, I decided to refresh my knowledge of art history by reading and writing about the great masters of each era.
What made me choose to challenge myself to be in my studio everyday was the fact that I wanted to feel what it was like to think and breath art every single day of the year. As an artist making my own hours, I wanted to experience what it felt like to have a real deadline, to finish something in one day, and feel like I was completely absorbed in the world of creativity.
I started working on this project three months before I launched my website on January 1, 2016. I built a website, so that I could blog and show my work everyday. I organized my future reference library and got enough supplies to last for one year. I made my studio comfortable and efficient, as I was taking my time deciding what kind of format and mediums I would use through the year.
As I was cleaning up my studio for this new project, I came across a hand written piece of paper. It was my son’s handwriting and I remembered putting it away years back because I loved what it said: “There is a disconnect between what one wills and what actually happens. Tomorrows blur with yesterdays, in the sleeplike regularity of routine to such an extent that one’s goals cannot be achieved unless one takes steps to achieve them nearly everyday.”
I sat on my chair and reread it thinking that his contemplation was perfect for my daily mantra and meditation. I was going to hold that paragraph in my heart. My teenage son had already discovered what most adults struggle to accomplish. We dream to achieve our goals and forget that, to make them come true, we need to work a little everyday. A lot of us give up when confronted with the work, or all the obstacles that one may face trying to get there. I realized I wanted to feel in complete control of my time. I was going to start and finish my project with a structured daily routine. My simple desire was not to be interrupted by family activities and all other distractions of life, as I would be trying to accomplish work from beginning to end. I wanted to hold time in my own hands.
I’m glad to say that after eight months of work and research I have learned a lot about discipline. I am also humbled by the lives of the great masters and the women painters who inspired me.
This challenge made me think about what I have in common, as an artist, with all the great masters and the seven female painters I chose to investigate. While studying art history and the lives of these famous painters, I was curious if they had similar questions and challenges that we all face today as artists. What were they trying to accomplish? Were they passionate about their careers like we are now?
In my research of the women painters, I was not interested in finding out about their domestic bliss. Rather, I was curious about how they managed issues such as balancing their family and home with their careers? Did they have it all? Did they have to choose work over relationships or kids? What about money? Were they able to take care of themselves with their work?
Looking at the lives of Leonardo Da Vince, Michelangelo or Raphael, as just a few examples, made me realize that they were aware and reminded of their mortality constantly. They knew they had only about twenty good years of work because most people died before they reached fifty. They tried to be as efficient as possible.
As a middle-aged woman, I know there was a long process that brought me here. What I would like to do now is ponder how I will continue my work in the next twenty years. Yes, I hope I will be as blessed with time as Grandma Moses who started painting at age 78, or Mary Pendarves Delany, who started doing flower collages at age 72.
I hope 2017 will take me to a new journey where I will find out what I have in common with Artemisia Gentileschi’s powerful strength or Frida Kahlo’s charisma? Will I ever reach a place of technique, such as the amazing Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt? And what about the diligence and passion of Beatrix Potter? I hope to be able to answer these questions for all artists who, like me, would rather be in their studios than anywhere else.
All Humans are Creative
I was taken aback, studying art history, when I came across a National Geographic article about ancient art from approximately 39,000 years ago. A long time ago, humans were not just hunting and gathering. They were already expressing themselves, their love, their fears and their spirituality, as they painted in caves. In his book, La Prehistoire du Cinema, filmmaker and archeologist Marc Azéma argues that these ancient artists were interposing images in cave walls, so that with the flickering of the fire, images would look as if they were animated.
For all documented history of civilization, art has played its part as being merely decoration, then information and later just joy and entertainment. Our civilization is now based on a culture that consumes and obsesses over what is new and entertaining. We are curious about things that make our lives better, and we also seek the adventure of finding what makes our hearts lighter and keep our minds in a permanent state of wonder.
Today we see so many people searching for that creative outlet. At any given age, you might find people attempting to paint, quilt, dance or sculpt, even when time is limited. Creativity comes in endless forms and can become life’s calling or an activity for coping with life’s challenges.
Grandma Moses took up painting because her eyes gave out, and she could no longer sew and embroider. She decided that she was either going to start raising chickens or she was going to start painting. Grandma Moses is just a great example that so-called genius is not necessarily of the utmost importance when someone just wants to be creative.
Today, we are surrounded by art from the past, images of every single creative possibility and the sense that there is no more room for anything else to be created. We all feel numbed by the constant bombardment of images in social media and the media in general. But we continue to create and enjoy creating.
The pure act of creation is really something worth discussing, and many books do.
Most recently, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, covers the act of finding your ideas and how as humans we are vessels for this divine sacred privilege of being creative.
Creativity is what separates us from just being survivors on Earth. It lets us enjoy walking through this life, solving problems and making this planet better for others and us.
Being at my own studio made me realize my own limitations and expectations about creativity. In my research about famous female painters I was not surprised to find they all had similar obstacles like we do today. Although art historians do not focus on domestic affairs and raising children or building gardens, most of these artists faced challenges they wrote or shared with family and friends through letters or journals.
Artemisia Gentileschi was a painter in the early 17th century, when women did not participate in men’s society. She managed to make a living and raise three children. Berthe Morisot lived at a time when women could never go anywhere without an escort or even enter a café without having their reputation endangered. Nonetheless, she succeeded at being the only women in the founders, group of The Impressionistic movement.
Mary Cassat is another example of overcoming the great influence and pressure of family. She continued to find ways to work after her wealthy father discontinued providing financial support, because he did not want his daughter to be a painter.
Just like today, all of them were confronted with practical problems such as time, family, money and sanity. These are all obstacles, which unless solved, can hurt or divert us away from our creative path.
I experienced all of these obstacles in just nine months.
What is Creativity?
Unlike the myth about being some art genius with talent and artistic skill, the act of creating art is mainly possible because of the history of our brains.
Our brains are naturally built to solve problems. Evolution of countless generations leading to human kind has trained our brains to survive danger and become familiar at addressing life’s difficulties.
Now our human brain has become even more complex and further able to solve extraordinary problems. It can be innovative or original whenever it is required.
We call that being artistic or creative. We perform art to perpetuate the state of wonder our brain naturally seeks and delights in. We write poems and music. We scribble and paint. We do this all so that our brain can express that individual curiosity. When we extract that new idea and give it a new form, we are sharing our precise state of creativity with others.
Why do we do it? Why do we feel like we have to always be innovators? We do it because we are saying, “Here I am, or I can make this better!”
We do it because we are free to find purpose and meaning in our lives and prolong that state of wonder that our brain keeps seeking.
Beatrix Potter wrote the series of Peter Rabbit books. They are all based on the pets she had in her bedroom from a very young age. She held onto that state of joy and wonder as she created the picture books much later in life. She wanted to share that feeling of childhood joy with children who, like her, enjoyed creating their own imaginative world.
What is Art?
As I started my 365 day art challenge, I realized I wanted to review what art meant to me, as someone more mature, as an artist and teacher. What was my own process to reach the inner source of my own creativity?
Many agree that one definition for art is not entirely true or complete for all trying their hand at creativity. We tend to disagree on the issue of a definition in and of itself. Nevertheless, the current definition of art by Merriam-Webster is: “Art is the expression of human imagination, through creativity applied in visual forms, such as painting or sculpture or all other forms of expression as music, theater, cinema, dance etc.”
Curators, art critics, writers and artists seem to agree that contemporary art is an appropriation of all past movements in art history. Artists create over what has already been done as they twist and bend all the rules of creation. The word is “everything is allowed.”
Seven Days in The Art World, a book by Sarah Thornton, 2008 a New York Times bestseller shows us different points of view in recent art history. Life narratives are set in New York, Basel, Los Angeles, Venice, Tokyo and London. I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to have a glimpse of the world of curators and wealthy buyers.
What I found most interesting in this book was an MFA class taught in Los Angeles (Cal Art). Students focused on the process of concept exclusively.
I found it to be interesting and refreshing because as an amateur artist I tend to focus on the technique and aesthetics of art as a viewer.
All the great masters focused on bringing some new element to what already was found. Da Vince explored dozens of techniques and materials as he painted. Michelangelo had to come up with creative ways of depicting the human body so that he could paint faster and provide the best angles to the viewers thirty feet below at the Sistine Chapel.
In creating art the artist is seeking to bring originality and inventiveness to the viewer.
All seven of the women painters I researched used their creativity to bring a new art form into the world.
Being a rare female painter in the trade, Artemisia brought the element of a feminine viewpoint to her work. Frida Kahlo used her own painful experience to express the subject of suffering, and Georgia O’Keeffe broke from realism into abstract expression, pioneering the American Modern art movement.
For us viewers of art today, contemporary art can be challenging to understand or to like. Many people complain that the lack of realism or beauty bothers them as they visit an exhibit. But we will discuss that later in a future chapter. For now let’s just trust what Picasso said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense."
There is a history of artists who were considered geniuses but were also passionate and unstable. Some great masters fought addiction, mental and physical illness and alienation. Despite different states of mind, artists through history painted no matter what.
Caravaggio is a good example. The painter, who created“chiaroscuro”, was ill tempered, violent, and always-in-trouble with the law. He was put in prison for several acts of violence and later was stabbed to death at the young age of 38. Despite his apparent mental illness, he painted for a living, and his genius is still exhibited in museums all over the world.
Some of us suffer from mental or physical problems, including simply lacking self-esteem or being physically challenged. I have a close friend who used to be a nurse. Because of a car accident that broke her spine, she endures chronic pain and has to take heavy drugs that impair her senses. Despite being paralyzed from the waist down, and suffering constant pain, she found that art soothes and comforts her. Painting became her way of life.
As I started my project, I was excited that I was challenging myself to something I was passionate about. For the first couple of months, my mind was preoccupied with getting things done. As I discovered that I was capable of reading, writing and producing something new every day, my mind relaxed. When a few months went by, I felt less excited about the work. It became an everyday job, and my mind started to drift a little. It sought to reward itself with longer breaks and less work.
I thought this was natural, and I started challenging myself by attempting forms of art I had never tried, such as block printing and painting on an I Pad. I looked at the work of many contemporary painters and tried to experiment with concepts more than technique. I rediscovered that writing a journal about what I think I am doing is helpful to my creative process. It guides me towards a ‘goal’ and eliminates all the questions I did not think about. Writing about my process and my life puts me in an ideal state of mind to feel creative.
In general, one does not need some sort of perfect state of mind to create. One should just take advantage of the moment when the mind demands the pure will to create.
Most artists I know complain about two things: the lack of enough space to spread their art materials and the problematic issue of managing time. Time and space are all tied to other factors too. One might live in a very small space or be constantly surrounded by family members or roommates. Affordability of space and freeing up hours to work are issues that are obstacles. I will come back to these topics in a later chapter.
Going back to being in the right state of mind, the object of looking at this is that all of us have daily responsibilities and sometimes not the optimum peace of mind required to stop and be creative. Having a studio and time will not produce paintings. I have a very close friend who had a studio available but complained she had no time. She told me once that the most important thing to her was to have time to think. I actually laughed at her because I did not think she was serious. I just could not believe she was not giving herself that simple thing.
This seems to happen a lot in our society, where we are just bouncing from one thing to another without giving ourselves a break.
Time is precious because it forces oneself to be in touch with what needs and thoughts are important. Thinking is a process. One cannot conclude anything jumping from one activity to another under pressure of time.
Listening to my friend made me realize that she did not have time to even know what she needed. She explained she had no time to decide what she wanted to do in her studio, so she was going to just take classes and read.
That is a great example of having the perfect space but not a mental place to be creative. My friend could not imagine entering her studio without knowing beforehand what kind of project she would be working on.
I think we all go through phases like that. We feel we are not inspired or not in the mood to create, and consequently we do not show up to work.
My experience this year was different because I forced myself to show up to work every day.
Nevertheless, it is a valid feeling to be unsure what to create. Sometimes just sitting at your private space and thinking quietly, will allow you to evaluate your needs. When I did not feel inspired I sat at my chair and took a few breaths. I told myself I was a capable artist and I enjoyed my time alone. I would read and organize my art supplies. Eventually, the dedicated quiet time in my studio guided me to my next inspiration and creative process.
I also recommend Julia Cameron’s book, “ The Artist’s Way”. This best-seller book has been on the market since 1992 and has been used by artists who think they are stuck by creative block.
In 2008, I did the twelve-week program recommended in the book. This year I read it again to remind myself of all the wonderful progress I achieved. I have kept many habits from the time I decided I was going to make my mind work better, in order to be creative. Not everyone needs a twelve-week program. As my friend says, “one needs time to think”, so that one’s mind can wonder.
Come As You Are
The things I agonize over today are completely different from each past decade of my life. We all go through more or less of the same changing phases in life.
The things I dreamed about in my twenties are so completely different from now that I can hardly recognize that “me”.
Understanding your needs now and forgetting about everything else that did not work or changed is a way to start fresh. The mind needs space with clear instructions, such as deciding about projects and the time one can dedicate to them.
My close friend is a great painter and writer but feels that most of her time is still being dedicated to her family and business. She manages to go to her studio when time allows. My own daughter, who is a talented musician, decided not to pursue music as her major in college but dedicates several hours a week writing and playing music.
Those are all perfect solutions for all busy lives.
If you have only a few minutes a day, then maybe you could sketch on your commute on the bus or train. Maybe you have an evening a week when you can find a painting class to attend, or paint in your own studio. We all have to find solutions to make time in our lives.
When I was raising my children, I was able to attend classes. Now when I look back, I am very grateful I managed to put that time aside for myself. I cannot imagine those 10 years without all the classes I did in oil painting.
No matter what stage of creativity you are in your life, or what kind of time you can dedicate to it, it is important to do it in a regular basis. Do not forget that even five minutes a day turns into 30 hours in one year. That is the equivalent of one accomplished painting.
Towards the end of her life, Frida Kahlo could hardly move because of chronic pain that she suffered after a horrible accident that shattered her body. She had to lie down most of the time. Some days, she only managed to get dressed with help. But from her bed, she managed to paint on a daily basis and take her mind away from her suffering.
So come as you are to the place you feel most comfortable. That can be a small place in a corner of a room in your home or a workshop you found in your neighborhood. Think about all the time that gets wasted doing things that do not matter much in our lives, such as watching TV shows, or dallying with social media. I realized that kind of time was never going to come back to me. I started counting how many hours a week I wasted. Let’s just say you only have one hour a day that you watch a show or a movie. Maybe shift it to the weekends and go to a class in the evening or paint at home instead of parking in front of the screen. That is five hours a week, twenty hours per month, and 240 hours per year. And lets say it takes you 24 hours to complete a painting. That is more or less 10 pieces of art in one year, which would be considered an amazing beginning. Do not waste another minute! Make some time!
Life is impermanent and can involve unpleasant changes, disasters and obligations.
I am not suggesting that as you are going through any major crises in your life you should still be able to make room for creativity.
There is a list of extraordinary obstacles that could happen in one’s life. Death, serious illness and divorce rank up there with “I do not give a fuck about art until I feel OK again.” Absolutely!!! And again everyone is different.
As I embarked on my 365-day challenge, my old college friend embarked on a cancer treatment process that included two surgeries and 18 weeks of chemotherapy across one year. She has always been a super active person and an accomplished artist.
She decided that the best treatment in her case was to have two exhibits and an open house at her studio while dealing with her illness.
Everyone reacts differently to his or her obstacles.
I am truly blessed that nothing disastrous happened through all the stages of my being involved with art or my year of commitment. We all deal on a regular basis with the small stuff, such as moving, or a car accident or an emergency, that takes all our savings. Changing jobs, or a kid that needs new braces and expensive music lessons, can be challenging to cope with and irritating at times.
My husband announced to me that he was changing law firms as I embarked on my challenge. We both had to tighten our belts for a year, and I had to refrain from going crazy at the art supply store.
So, although this was not life changing or threatening, it made me take a good look at what I consider an obstacle between me and creating art as a twenty four-seven job. At this time of my life, my biggest obstacle is myself, especially the moments I do not feel inspired or I think I am not good enough. Also, days when I am a little bit distracted by small stuff or I do not feel like working because I just felt plain lazy.
But in the past, my list of obstacles was much different. It was mostly my family obligations and the lack of time.
Nevertheless, everyone should write down what are the things you think that come between you and your artwork on a regular basis.
Your list can be with small items or big items, such as my cat jumps on my table and knocks my paint making a big mess. Or I have back problems that do not allow me to work for long.
Your list could be something like this:
I do not have time because I have to work 10 hours a day
Or, My kids are an obstacle or
My spouse thinks my art will never accomplish anything or
I like to spend all my free time watching TV shows or
I am in a toxic relationship that keeps blocking my creative juices or
I am tired all the time because of late nights drinking wine or recreational drug use.
Whatever you think is between you and the time and space to be creative make sure you write it down in your journal.
The best solution to all of the above is to really work on a focused solution. If you have a drug problem or you are in an abusive relationship, please look for real help. Art will not fix that. You must take the first steps to cure bigger things in your life so that you can turn around and take up art feeling strong.
Georgia O’Keefe took many years to realize that she was in a toxic relationship. It was not abusive but it was destructive to her emotions. She gradually start taking more and more time away from Alfred Stieglitz, as he had many lovers and a whole life apart from her. She realized she would not be able to create if she did not protect herself and her space.
Now, most people do not have the means to just disappear and go. And that is not what she did. As she felt overwhelmed by him, but had no money to run, she found a garden shack on their property and locked herself in there as much as she could. Gradually, she took small trips and went away to paint. Her small weekends turned into summer trips. Later, she was able to buy her own house and move across the country where she made a life for herself.
If you have people in your way as an obstacle, occupying your time or your emotional space, try to work somewhere away. A class or the space in someone else’s home is ideal. Sometimes what we lack is not the time and space. We lack the courage to establish real boundaries between what is ideal for us and the people around us. But with time as you find out for yourself what are your basic needs to work; you will be more assertive and direct about it as it must be done if you want to achieve your goal.
As Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare.”