What I’ve Learned, On Living As An Artist

December 27, 2014 § 5 Comments

I’ve never written a how-to post before – my main mode is usually to bring you philosophies, ideas, and experiences of art, religion, and books. But coming up to the New Year, I’m thinking a lot about how I live my life, and how everyday I strive to achieve my utmost in creative output – whether through gathering information, writing, or making art. Maybe some of what I’ve learned along the way can help you achieve your goals as well – either as a reminder, or a guide. However, everyone is different, and the following is only what I’ve found works for me.

We live in reality – a place where bills need to be paid. The key is to find a job where you’re partially in control of scheduling, with a boss who understands and appreciates what you do. Or better yet, work freelance where you’re generally your own boss. I used to think that working nights would be best for me – but in truth I just slept most of the day and stayed out too late. The problem with working as a server is that you spend the night serving people who are out having fun, so you think you deserve some fun for yourself after. It also takes a few hours post-shift for that amped up energy to fade out.

Something that took me many years to learn – your only addiction should be the act of creating. An addiction to a substance is mind numbing – keeping you from accessing your full potential for awakeness and progress. An addiction to socializing can be useful for getting your work out there, but generally it stems from a need to feel loved, and this can get in the way of productivity. My priorities are family, work, and then friends. It’s not easy to make that call on friends. I allot myself the time to see people outside of work up to three times a week (rather than the every-night-escapades I had in my twenties).

The key to being productive is to establish a routine. In a perfect day, I wake up, and make the same breakfast that I make everyday of the week (this eliminates extra decision-making, and keeps space open for more important issues). I make my French Press coffee, peel a Clementine, dole out vitamins, fry an egg with a sprinkling of garlic powder, butter some toast, and pour a cup of orange juice. Then I sit down to eat, and read something informative – either magazine articles, or art books. I check email, and then write a chapter – either for my book on religion, or for a novel based on Bohemian Paris in the 1920’s. When my energy flags, it’s time to go to the gym. This gets the blood flowing again, and keeps my body functioning properly. Afterwards, I come home, shower, and make one of two lunches – either lentil soup or garlic naan with avocado or hummus. Then I watch 45 minutes of trash television to give my brain a rest. After this, I make a strong cup of coffee with my Italian percolator, and disappear into my studio where I play Joni Mitchell or Jazz. I spend the rest of the afternoon and evening building canvases, prepping them, painting, sculpting, planning, researching artworks. By 7pm, I’m exhausted. But it’s time to make dinner. I cook a delectable portion of protein, with a tasty salad sprinkled with olive oil and vinegar, afterwards, some chocolate for dessert, and then a movie or a documentary with my husband. This is a perfect day.

Unfortunately, when I stick to this schedule, I never get out of my cave except for that brief time at the gym, which is right across the street. Once there, small talk questions feel strange because I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. There’s only enough room in my head for books, ideas, and projects – so my short-term memory is terrible.

Also, in reality, this schedule gets thrown off constantly by art modeling. With all the rushing around, it takes me two days to clear my mind and be productive again. I store a lot of pain from the poses, and that too takes recovery time. So I’ve decided that for the New Year, I’m going to mark in pencil the days that I am available to model, and the days that are for my own work (to avoid over-booking or erratic schedules). Hopefully, this way I’ll be less apt to get into the stressed out, anxiety place. The work you do in your own time matters and needs to be prioritized. This has recently paid off with the sale of my largest painting – allowing me to work as a writer and artist full time for at least the next five months. A much needed change of events after developing a bad case of Sciatica from a difficult pose, which cost me the ability to walk for two days. This too, was a reminder to work harder as an artist, rather than for pocket change as a model. I want to give my utmost, and the utmost I can give is in art and writing.

An important aspect of living creatively is to keep your mind open. Explore not just styles and forms that you like, but also the things that you don’t understand. There is something to learn everywhere, in all facets. If you stay holed up for too long, you lose viable chances for synchronicity (or connections) that produce more ideas for great art. In my downtime, I visit galleries, museums, go to plays, restaurants, and explore antique shops and boutiques. Sometimes I’ll run into an art friend and learn something new as we talk. Sometimes I’ll see artwork by people that I know, which makes me feel happy for them, while also inspiring me to work harder.

In the realm of success, there will always be someone who is doing better than you are. It’s hard not to feel envious – but that envy is an important force that can motivate you to go beyond your own perceived limits. I often read a magazine that highlights the “It People” of the Seattle arts scene. Some of them are talented. Many of them are just popular and great at promoting themselves and their ideas. I can’t help think that they will probably be here today, but gone tomorrow. I can never understand why certain people win the awards, while the other more talented people don’t. It makes no sense. Art is subjective. So I say to myself – would I rather be the boy band that gains tremendous popularity and then burns out fast from over-saturation? Or would I like to be the person who continuously works hard to create great work with a long career – like Leonard Cohen for example. The answer is obvious.

Often, when I’m not in my studio, I think that art is crazy. I wonder why I do it, and why I feel the need to do it. Yet while working, I am completely absorbed in a meditation, and unaware of anything else. Nothing outside of it can touch me. Maybe that is the answer. Or it’s the constant surprise of images and shapes that blossom in front of me. It seems like magic.

I don’t have the same questions about writing. Writing is how I process and grow – it’s second nature to me now. My problem with it is, that not nearly as many people read my writing, as I would like. Words also create barriers between people, and often my words inspire people to attack me and hurl hateful comments in my path. For some reason, they think this is appropriate when they haven’t even met me. Similarly, I often assume that they are angry psychopaths who spend all their time in dark basements.

One major thing that I have learned from the experience of having my writing out there is that once the writing is released, it’s no longer mine. On one hand, the writing might have been true of me when I wrote the piece, but as time passes, it no longer is. It only exists now for the reader, and their experience of the piece is separate from myself. Whether they affirm the piece, or hate it – it’s no matter. What happens out there isn’t really important, and you can’t take it personally. It’s good to avoid all reviews and comments as much as possible. While on this blog, however, I enjoy the dialogue that a post can inspire.

Getting lost in the meditation of writing or painting, undergoing writer therapy, having epiphanies, solving problems – as they say, the joy is in the journey. There is no joy after the fact. I do it for the process. Once it’s done, I’m done with it too. We rarely know the extent of the effect that our work has on other people, and once the work is out there, it’s no longer yours. It’s for everyone else and how they interpret it.

In all honesty, I wish that the only people experiencing my work were people I’ve never met before and never will meet. It would be easier that way. People have certain perceptions of me, so if they read my memoir, for example, they’ll suddenly find out that I lived this whole other life that they might find distasteful, strange, or odd. They come to know things I don’t even tell my closest friends. For this reason, even though I’ve written a second memoir, I might not publish it. We’ll see. I’m choosing to be less personal now, which is something that happens with age.

More and more, I find, that people outside of my art subculture have a hard time understanding me. I too, have a hard time understanding them. It’s always been the case, but it seems to be getting more extreme as time passes. Maybe it’s because, again, I’m getting older. The bank teller assumes I work a corporate job, and wonders why I’m out of work so early. No one outside of an art studio gets what I do for a living, and they automatically think perverse thoughts about what it means to be a living nude.

This is another core of being a creative person. Groups are dangerous places where progressive thinking is stunted by peer pressure. In education, you might end up with hundreds of students who all are ingrained to think the same way, draw the same way, with little that is unique or groundbreaking about what they are doing. In religions, progress has been stunted for thousands of years by the commitment to never question faith or explore anything outside of it. In politics, fascism has ruled in the same way. Corporate culture, again, plays on delicate balances of rules and standards.

I am nearing the end of my 35th year, and I’ve been watching creative people fall off the map in order to make ends meet. It happens for several reasons. Number one is that they have kids. People often go to extremes as young parents. They can get insanely religious, or obsessed with being healthy, or driven to make as much money as possible. Number two, the older you get, the more that fears of financial insecurities can loom. We start thinking about health concerns, how quickly time passes, and age.

Even though I only make enough money to get by, there are still things that can be done to lessen my financial worries. I just started an IRA retirement fund, for example. I’m hoping to invest 15 – 20% of my income. I also do my best to live simply. I wear variations on the same theme every single day – black leggings and a shift dress (again, less decision-making). I’ve learned to cut my own hair if I have to. In my single days, I never had a car or a TV – I could still do without both if it came to it. The thing is, I’m happier living this way than I ever was as a kid who had every material possession I wanted. Doing what you love is the most important thing in life. Sacrifices feel like nothing in the face of losing that. People come and go, but your passion stays with you and keeps giving back. In fact, it’s the passion that has always drawn people to me in the first place and vice versa.

The last, most important thing to remember is that being an artist is not a selfish act. I get sick of hearing that to be an artist you have to be a narcissist – said in the most spiteful way. To explore one’s own psyche and reveal it to the world is a courageous activity. What other psyche do we have? The only one we can see into most fully is our own. And in that lies the stories that connect us together and unify our total human experience. The artist makes the viewer or the reader or the listener feel less alone. The artist tells us, you’re not the only one who’s had crazy experiences that are hard to understand. Life is hard, but we have beauty to make sense of it. It’s this creativity that keeps us sane. It keeps us asking questions, and builds our civilization into something better than it was before. The artist is a giver – maybe not of their time (which is so limited in the face of creation), but of their ideas, perceptions, and philosophy. Art is how we grow.

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§ 5 Responses to What I’ve Learned, On Living As An Artist

  • Beautifully written post!

  • Franz E. says:

    creativity needs a lot of work

  • Jen says:

    Amen, Lauren. And I love your “perfect day” and relate to it being sometimes isolating, but so worth it.

  • rod says:

    You write well. One thing I can’t but wonder. Can a person make it in two arts at once? Might it not be better to concentrate on one? I have no idea of the answer to this, but we all have only so much time and energy. As for envy, I never feel this but have some reluctance to say why.

  • rod – Two arts at once has always been my conundrum. Though the philosopher Bertrand Russell said that it’s the key to happiness. If things are going bad in one form of art, then you always have the other to keep you in balance. As much I’ve tried to fight it, I’m beginning to accept that it works for me.

    I feel the most envy in times of slow-going, whereas in productive times I feel no envy at all. The people that are able to inspire those feelings are the ones that have taught me the most – not only from their success, but from their mistakes as well.

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