The Laws of Nature

Monday, May 3, 2010

Art and Fear, II

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking.

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Chapter 2, "Art and Fear," begins with an interesting quotation by Stephen DeStaebler:

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the paint of not working. I've never been a procrastinator, so this isn't my experience. I LOVE showing up to work in my studio every day. But, I think that it's true that when we face uncertainty and indecisiveness in our work we tend to engage in avoidance.

On a larger scale, Bayles and Orland remind us that throughout history, more people have quit art than continued. I guess there's no way to be certain of that statement but it's a pretty good guess. Those that stick with it have learned how not to quit. That's an essential skill!

The authors make the astute observation that while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit. What are those moments?

1) When we're convinced that our efforts will only result in failure. But, there's a difference between stopping and quitting. Quitting happens once. Art is all about starting again.

2) When we can't find where our work belongs - we see no future for it. Avoiding this fate has something to do with not letting your current goal become your only goal. Another important remedy is to associate with other artists and share your in-progress work frequently.

I'd like to discuss these two "moments" with you. The first type of moment - failure - occurs over and over again. Each time I produce a painting that just isn't "right" I wonder if I even have it in me to overcome failure. Maybe my previous successes were a fluke. Maybe, as the movie asks, this is "As Good As It Gets!" Self-doubt arrives unimpeded and is very difficult to drive away. Why is it that I'm more prone to believe something negative about myself rather than something positive? This seems to be a common trait among us, and one that is particularly destructive to artists. But, art IS all about starting again! I keep reminding myself that I'm not a "one hit wonder" and that exploration is an important part to finding myself again and again.

The second type of moment - seeing no future for our work - is also easy to succumb to as paintings pile up in the studio with no place to go. The authors' advice is terrific! There are short-term goals, but also long-term ones that always give me hope for new venues and new opportunities. A series of paintings might be stacked in the corner of my studio for a few years and then suddenly find itself in one or two solo shows. You never know! The key is to remain open to all possibilities.

I've only covered a small portion of this chapter in this particular post, but will continue tomorrow. There are so many gems that it's good to savor only a few at a time.
Before I close, I'd like to thank and acknowledge a fabulous artist named Donna Zagotta who recently featured my work on her well-written post about the creative process. You can read it by going here.

And now, what are your thoughts?


Tonya Vollertsen said...

Yep, checking out your blog is a great way to procrastinate each morning before picking up the old paint brush! LOL!

Anonymous said...

Well- this post hits home. "Art is all about starting again." Maybe we need to reframe the word "failure". Using the word "opportunity" feels way too cliche- perhaps "challenge" or "growth" or "calabuzoo"... anything but FAILURE. As I climb out of my latest descent- I thank you for being the kind of person Kathy who doesn't avoid. Donna Zagotta's blog is wonderful and her post about you is too.

Celeste Bergin said...

I have not read this book, but it is here somewhere, I am sure. I'm not feeling fearful these days..only because of volume and habit. I have tackled the whole fear issue with volume. I guess I owe a debt to the whole "painting a day" movement--because painting has become a habit to me and occassionally (because of the volume thing) I produce some good things. It is always hit and miss..and sometimes when I miss I do have those pangs of WT H?? Volume and habit are my watchwords.
LOVE the scrolling paintings at the top of your page. They are beautiful!

Dana Cooper said...

Art and Fear has been recommended by many,it is not a book I have intentionally not read so I appreciate your synopsis, Kathy. Thank you.
It may sound funny but I really have no fear about my art. I have failures to be sure, but fear of art is not a part of my mental processes...usually. My only fear was that I would introduce fear by reading it. Silly I know.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I know the place where the pain of not working exceeds the pain of working. It happens when things other than art claim my time; the need to create builds until I feel I might explode. That's when I sculpt or paint all night.

Hopefully, those pains are in the past. I never felt quitting was an option. I do take breaks.

Eva said...

Years ago I saw a movie titled "An Unmarried Woman"(1978) with Jill Clayburgh and Alan Bates. Alan portrayed an artist(they used Paul Jenkins' paintings and techniques as their prototype.)Alan said in one of the scenes about taking a vacation, "If I quit painting I'm afraid I'll never start again." At the time I didn't understand why, but now I do. Reading this book hit on the key for me;not seeing a future for my work. When I became old enough to retired from the show circuit. I looked forward to painting what and when I pleased, with no deadlines or agents to deal with. Now I know that was the driving force,energy or not, to get me in the studio on a regular basis.

Casey Klahn said...

Much truth in this post and these comments. I especially loved hearing more about your series at Donna's blog.

I did experience fear this year in my art - I'll have to think about it and see what there is to say. Right now, the groove is back, but I cannot get to the studio today. So there you go: the life of an artist.

Unknown said...

Hi Tonya - thanks for procrastinating enough to read and comment on my blog! Always good to hear from you :-)

Hi Pam - join the crowd! I think that most of us have had a roller-coaster ride in art so we can understand the highs and lows. Eventually, if we stick with it, the highs and lows flatten out somewhat. Hang in there!

Hi Celeste - good watchwords, indeed! I don't complete my paintings in a day, but I paint every day that I'm home (which is most days). It does take away the fear.

Hi Dana - I know what you mean. I've read a lot of biographies about famous artists and their struggles, and most of them encountered confidence problems at one time or another. However, that's different from fear. Perhaps fear is too strong a word. I don't know, but will keep reading this book to figure it out. Thanks for joining us!!

Hi Eva - I remember that movie!! Wow, I had to dust off the cobwebs in my brain to find it. Like you, I'm motivated by the deadlines of juried exhibitions and solo shows. It pushes/pulls me all the time. If I gave up those activities I'd be less productive and wouldn't push myself to achieve beyond what I'd already accomplished. Thanks for mentioning this.

Hi Casey - I'm glad you had the chance to read Donna's excellent blog. She has a lot to offer. And, I'd like to hear more about your experiences this year.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, Excellent post about a most excellent book! Congrats on being featured in Donna's blog. I'll have to go see!

-Don said...

I used to be one of those artists that waited until the pain of not creating became too much and I had to explode into a creative frenzy. This created some major highs and some even worse lows in my life. After one of the lowest points in my life occurred a few years ago I decided that I would not play that game anymore - it was time to poop or get off the pot, so I'm doing a lot of pooping now - on a daily basis, in fact. Staying within that metaphor, my poop doesn't seem to stink as much anymore...

I have not felt creative fear since making that decision. After much soul-searching today (after having read this post EARLY this AM) I've come to the conclusion that my only fear in art anymore is the fear of running out of time...

I like Pam's choices of words to replace failure. The chance of ending up with a "calabuzoo" created by the "challenges" we assign ourselves is where all the fun resides. As I've mentioned on many occasions, If it's easy, it's boring...

Congrats on the great mention on Donna's blog. It is definitely well-deserved.


Stan Kurth said...

I've struggled with being and not being an artist for a lot of my life. I went through a major stretch of denial, but eventually came to realize I was born for this and there is a reason and purpose for what I'm doing and where I'm going and to whom I convey messages. For I do believe it is all about conveying messages and I am indeed a messenger and the messages have a bearing on the course of human history. I think if we as artists are honest, we know this is why we do what we do. It is hard work! There are no guarantees and rejection is part of the game, but one thing is for sure: no message will be conveyed without a start.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Peggy!

Hi Don - I was reading your comment while eating breakfast and had to stop :-) Now that I'm past that part, I'll reflect on your comment about running out of time. I have the same feeling, and it motivates me to find new opportunities all the time. After all, I'm not getting younger and I've been eligible for AARP for a long time now. My mantra is "if not now, when?" There are no guarantees that tomorrow will come.

Hi Stan - I agree that our work conveys messages. After all, art reflects both the artist and the society in which she/he lives. Thank you for reminding us that "no message will be conveyed without a start."

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Fear, quitting, and procrastination -- I can definitely relate. The first issue, that of failure, is worth unpacking a bit. I get stuck in a project when:

I don't know what to do next. I'm not good at making decisions, as I can usually see pros and cons of various choices and I'm never sure which choice is really best. Decisions raise the specter of failure -- what if I make the wrong decision? So I walk away.

I'm afraid to ruin the piece. As I get further into a project and come to like it more and more, there is more risk at each step. If this next step ruins it, I will have lost all that effort and investment and I may well not be able to recreate it fully (e.g., scarce materials, etc.). This mostly comes down to a fear of making the wrong decision or of not having sufficient skill to execute the work well.

I have made a mistake or regret my choice. If I make an error in execution or have to undo something I've done, I need to walk away for a while. My level of frustration rises and I'm likely to do something destructive if I keep working. But then it's hard to get re-engaged, since the piece now represents failure and I have to take a step backward to get back to work.

I struggle with these issues constantly, and fear is one of the major barriers in my work (the other major issue is lack of time). I don't have good solutions, unfortunately, although I keep trying.

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - decisions: art is ALL about decisions. There are many solutions, and I don't pretend to know them all or even to have the expertise in psychology that you have. However, from the practical side, I overcome indecisiveness by becoming single-minded and determined. I'm very task oriented and can block out distracting thoughts. And, I'm not easily deterred. Confidence comes from experience, and experience comes from lots of trying. But, perhaps the most important thing is that I realize that no decision that I can make will be earth-shaking. It's all about perspective. From what I've seen of your work, you have every reason to feel confident!

-Don said...

Sorry my 'potty mouth' disrupted your breakfast... oopsy...