Make Your Art No Matter What
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Make Your Art No Matter What

Moving Beyond Creative Hurdles

Beth Pickens

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eBook - ePub

Make Your Art No Matter What

Moving Beyond Creative Hurdles

Beth Pickens

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The Artist's Way for the 21st century—from esteemed creative counselor Beth Pickens. If you are an artist, you need to make your art. That's not an overstatement—it's a fact; if you stop doing your creative work, your quality of life is diminished. But what do you do when life gets in the way? In this down-to-earth handbook, experienced artist coach Beth Pickens offers practical advice for developing a lasting and meaningful artistic practice in the face of life's inevitable obstacles and distractions. This thoughtful volume suggests creative ways to address the challenges all artists must overcome—from making decisions about time, money, and education, to grappling with isolation, fear, and anxiety. No matter where you are in your art-making journey, this book will motivate and inspire you. Because not only do you need your art—the world needs it, too.‱ EXPERT ADVICE: Beth Pickens is an experienced and passionate arts advocate with extensive insight into working through creative obstacles. She has spent the last decade advising artists on everything from financial strategy to coping with grief.
‱ PRACTICAL AND POSITIVE: This book is both a love letter to art and artists and a hands-on guide to approaching the thorniest problems those artists might face. Pickens offers a warm reminder that you are not alone, that what you do matters, and that someone out there wants you to succeed.
‱ TIMELESS TOPIC: Like a trusted advisor, this book is an invaluable resource jam-packed with strategies for building a successful creative practice. From mixing business and friendship to marketing yourself on social media, this book can help. And it will—again and again.Perfect for: ‱ Visual artists and makers
‱ Writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other creatives
‱ Art and design school graduates and grad-gift givers

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Time is a hostage to the powers of perception.
I visited the Samuel Oschin Planetarium at Los Angeles’s Griffith Park Observatory with my wife, who is a writer and painter. We settled into the cooled, round room to watch Centered in the Universe, a digitally animated, live-narration show about our place in time and in the universe, which, we were informed by the narrator as he darkened the lights, is an estimated 13.8 billion years old. Our human lives, we were reminded, are minute fractions of specks in an incomprehensible time line.
Laughing out loud, I slunk down into my cozy seat, feeling ease and relief at the news that I am only a speck in time, when I heard my wife heave a guttural, existential sigh as she rubbeded her hands up and down her face. It was the involuntary expression of what I call “Speck Syndrome,” the primal reaction one has when they are reminded that their human life is an infinitesimal moment in time. My wife often suffers from Speck Syndrome. I hear similar existential sighs in my office daily. How can an artist possibly tend to everything they want in one brief lifetime? How can they make all the art they need to make?
I don’t suffer from Speck Syndrome; I enjoy it. I find comfort and perspective in thinking about death every day as part of my spiritual interior. Death acceptance as an ongoing practice helps me grapple with time in both conceptual and literal ways; I find myself more willing and able to prioritize how I spend my life and with whom. Death acceptance inspires me to reflect on who I want to be and how I want to feel. Remembering my mortality gives me the needed motivation to make change, hold everything more lightly, and have compassion for myself and other people. I am less confounded by and anxious about time on the days that I consciously remember that I will die one day. Here is my thesis, and it will not be the last time that I tell you this: You are going to die. I will, too. We have to make choices about time because we have the finite gift of one existence. You should make your art.
None of us knows the span of life we’ll have; we have to consider our days, one at a time, while continually moving toward a life we want for ourselves. Everyone feels the constraints of time, fears and dreads its passage, and grapples with a changing relationship to it as we grow older. Our lifetimes are specks in the universe, but they are the longest and only spans of time we will ever know. Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” When I am troubled by her notion, I remember two propositions: I can change my attitude about how I spend my days, and I can change the content of my days. Pick one or both.
Artists have specific trials with time, which I will unpack. Some are from external forces, but many are internal, self-created. But, artist or not, most of us struggle with time. We believe we don’t have enough time for what we want and need to do. Our time seems to be taken up with obligations and work, which may feel pointless. Time feels wasted. Time seems to elude us as we get absorbed in tasks or disappear into escapism. Research supports the cognitive impression that time speeds up as one ages; our later decades whizz by while childhood and teenage years slog on endlessly. (I grew up before the internet; maybe childhood feels speedier now.)
We feel busy. Our economic climate trains us to believe that time is valuable, but just financially so. Our waking hours are supposed to be productive, and productivity should be monetized. Friends and clients tell me they feel like they should be doing something, all the time. Freelance and self-employed people, which artists frequently are, struggle with the nagging thought, “I should be working.” Unplanned downtime becomes a stressor. Then there is the unprecedented volume of content in front of us, always. Digital communication, the feeling of ubiquitous availability through text, email and social media, and screens at every turn inviting us to engage or consume—we feel so busy.


The most frequent issue with time for artists is the belief they don’t have enough time for their art practice or as much time as they would like to devote to it. Artists with wildly differing obligations, family expectations, energy levels, scheduling habits, and work lives report this to me. That is how I know this specific time issue isn’t correlated solely to reality; it’s also linked to perception. Some artists are juggling childcare and full-time jobs and must carve out and protect hours each week for their practice. Others have more open schedules, but anxiety and fear lead them to fill up their time with other tasks, away from their art. In those cases, we have to build a schedule and a habit of maintaining weekly practice hours. Neither example is good or bad; external circumstances and internal wiring influence each artist’s relationship to time. My priority is to get to the bottom of it with each of them and help them prioritize their art a little more. What we feed with our time and focus will grow.


Do you know how you spend a typical week? Early on with a new client, I ask them to talk me through an average week, and most artists can’t do it. I can’t either, truthfully. I have to look at my online calendar to know what I was doing only yesterday. Though I know they might not be able to tell me, I ask the question anyway, because I want to talk about consciously making decisions about time. And before we can make deliberate choices, we need to know what’s already happening.
You may be able to identify big chunks of time spent at jobs, running errands, commuting, or minding children. Depending on the model, your phone may even tell you how much time you’ve spent on it each week and precisely what you were doing. Terrifying! You are probably aware of which TV shows you’ve binged and how much time you do or don’t spend cooking. But there are many unaccounted for hours and these hours are valuable for artists. Those chunks of time you don’t recall? Those can be reclaimed for your art.
Artists have to fiercely guard time, both from the outside world and from your individualized distractions, in order to create your work. Only you can hold your art practice as sacred. Unless they’ve hired you to do so, no one is going to ask you to make your art. In fact, the world will only try to pull you away from your creative practice. Earn more money, wash the dishes, volunteer at the kid’s school, send thank you cards, take care of your body, do better social media, help in your community, and jeez, shouldn’t you learn to grow food before the apocalypse?
Prioritizing your time begins with you, so it is something over which you have immediate power. You can make changes in how you spend time this week, experimenting with different configurations to determine what helps you guard time for your practice and its needs. Keeping a time diary or using any time tracking tool is useful for people who have no idea where their time is going or who believe that there is zero time that can be made available for their art.
Carry a small notebook for seven days in which you record how you spend time, down to the fifteen-minute increment, starting with what time you woke up, what time you left your bed, and ending with what time you got into bed, and what time you think you fell asleep. It will be difficult to remember to do this for the first couple of days. Setting a timer for every fifteen minutes can help you get started. For large swaths of time—eight hours of sleeping, an hour driving to and from work, eight hours at your paid day job—you can record as portions. It’s the in-between that is interesting for this exercise: what happens during that hourlong subway commute, the five hours between arriving at home from work and going to bed, the Sunday afternoon you don’t recall.
Rather than overprogramming your life down to the minute, I want this exercise to open some time back up for you. By showing you the reality of how you spend a week, you may find opportunities for change. You can identify time that you want to redirect or see patterns that need to be broken, moments when you need some help in order to reclaim time.


I Need Six Months Off

Artists wish for an expanse of time—a week, a month, a year—during which they could just focus on their art practice. No jobs, no kids, no pets, no cooking, or cleaning, or shopping. Someone to drop meals off at their door. Long days and nights in which their sole focus is their creative interior and making that manifest. This scenario sums up most artist retreats. The artist has a living and workspace. A chef’s team is feeding the artist, even dropping the food at their door if the artist prefers solitude. Alone with their work, the artist’s only purpose is to use their waking hours in service of their art.
The truth? Expanses of unstructured time are the enemy of most artists. When my clients arrive at their residencies, particularly those a month or longer, they often schedule an urgent consultation session. Unstructured time creates the conditions to feel anxiety, fear, and grief that remain contained, managed, or stuffed down while a person lives their busy life in a familiar routine. Having eliminated that routine, they now feel a pressure to enjoy, be productive, or otherwise “make the most of” the opportunity. Suddenly, they believe this will be the last time they ever have such a gift of time, so they’d better not squander it. They tell me that the residency feels over before they even arrive! When the artist feels upset and anxious, guilt creeps in with the thought that this opportunity was wasted on them. “Why can’t I enjoy good things?” their brain demands. This is why “relaxing” vacations can be difficult for people.
How do we transition from hyper-structure to structureless-ness? It’s not as simple as it seems. Working in Los Angeles, I have many clients who are employed by the entertainment industry in a number of ways—producers, writers, prop masters, food stylists, caterers, art directors, wardrobe supervisors, and more. Artists can find lucrative—though exhausting—work in the industry, which allows them to be employed for part of the year, or in short, intensive bursts. Then, they can carve out weeks or months during which they are devoted to their practice. It sounds dreamy to people who don’t have such work lives. Yet these artists struggle intensely with their time off.
It’s unrealistic to expect that a span of open time will be the panacea to one’s issues with time. It is a shock to your system to go from sixty-hour work weeks to open days, unfurling before you. Most people benefit from structure, a shape to their weeks, especially when the days are open and flexible. Some artists create structure for themselves quite easily while others need help and outside accountability. To help my clients prepare for lengthy residencies or self- created time off from employment to focus on their art, we examine their relationship to time management, self-directed time, creating structures, and how they transition between employment and open time. What is it like for you to create your own structure? How do you interact with unstructured time?

I Can Do Everything

Full disclosure, this is the myth about time that haunts me most. I want thirty hours in my day, nine days in a week, and an extra month each year. I don’t want more time just for work, though I do love to work. I want time for more of everything: sleep, reading, learning, swimming, cooking, friends, traveling, art events, volunteering, earning more degrees, meditating, talking in my pets’ voices with my wife. I want to do far more in a day than is humanly possible. I think it’s my Gemini rising.
Years back, when my wife turned forty, I took her to visit Paris for the first time. We were both fairly broke then, so I really hustled to make this trip happen. I took extra work and saved. I found a Parisian friend-of-a-friend who would swap her 20th-Arrondissement apartment for our San Francisco Mission District one-bedroom. I organized a birthday party at home before we left, asking friends to give her cash in lieu of gifts. I baked a dozen pies, yes twelve, and invited over everyone who loves my wife. We have generous friends and that birthday pie party generated enough money to buy our flights. My suitcase was stuffed with seven guidebooks from the library; I left five others at home. I made multiple itineraries so we would have choices each day.
About four days into our trip, I found myself tearfully coaxing my wife out of the apartment. It was already noon and I needed to get going. We had multiple itineraries! My wife gently explained that vacation to her meant lazing in bed reading, smoking cigarettes and drinking tiny espressos at a Parisian cafĂ©, and slowly deciding what art she felt like seeing that day. She was overwhelmed and exhausted by my itineraries, which—to this day—she describes as a “museum death march.” It was the first time I understood that I am a person who tries to cram too much into a day. I truly had had no idea before this moment! I didn’t feel busier than other people. I didn’t perceive myself as having more interests, energy, or desires. I just knew that my biggest fear about death is that I won’t have time to read every book before I die.
My brain tells me that I can and should do everything in a day that is on my to-do list, which, as you might imagine, is quite long and varied. I try, with every passing year, to un-busy my life because a week becomes unmanageable if I am left to my own devices. I am programmed to create stress by overcommitting and overscheduling.
I will always design a museum death march, beat a vacation into misery by packing too much in. I want and have a full life but must temper my inclination to overstuff my schedule, thereby rendering life unenjoyable and slightly tyrannical.
I have to prioritize. I cannot have everything I want in my life at the same time. It all cannot be crammed into the present; some things have to be put on the back burner or even sacrificed for other things. We have to make choices about what we want now and in the near future; what we feed is what will grow. That means we have to be willing to temporarily set aside some things, say no sometimes, and be realistic about how much time can be directed to different parts of our lives. I had to, for example, let go of some things I really value in order to write this book. I didn’t attend a couple of Jewish retreats that are important to me. I turned down many social events and art outings. I ...

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