Hollywood films often depict artists as misunderstood creative spirits, waiting to be “inspired” by a muse who brings ideas from magical places. In these periodic mysterious moments—flashes of glowing genius—that our artist comes alive and depicts these visions.
If only it were that simple. The quote above from Chuck Close comes up frequently around artists, and in art schools. It might feel like a soft admonition to those creative people who find themselves stuck because “nothing’s happening” these days, or for the last month, or the last decade. While it is unclear if they’ve been waiting to be inspired or are just working through depression, when I talk with them, and dig deep enough, I often find artists obliquely pondering what most professionals feel when they find themselves at the verge of burnout:
I'm lost, and running on fumes. Where do I go from here, and how?
Here’s the thing about the serious creative people, the ones who make things at a good pace and at solid volume: they don’t expect any kind of vision to show up at their doorstep. In fact, they don’t even expect to go to a vision.
THEY PREPARE TO HUNT.
The out-of-touch will start to ask themselves where they should hunt, and for what they would hunt, when will they know to stop hunting. And what exactly do I mean by “hunt”?
Well, as with all good hunters, I do it systematically, and rely as much on habits as I do instinct. And I hunt precisely for what I will eat.
My own creative process—“hunting”—involves two intertwined phases (Making and Taking) and I’ve found it important to listen carefully to myself as I weave in and out of different processes, not let my own over-confidence (or conversely the feeling that I am a total hack) get in the way. I have to be clear so as to not betray my intuition, to do exactly what is optimal for my mind and body.
A SEASON FOR MAKING is one phase, and in it there are ripe ideas dormant in my unconscious (or subconscious). Invisible to my conscious mind, I can sense they are ready to get out of my head and be made real. Behind the intuition is a sense of urgency, a “spiritual pregnancy” to bring them into the world.
When this phase begins, I will notice myself getting into the familiar pattern of removing old clutter from the studio, tidying things up, making the necessary calls to let people know I’m going underwater for a bit, and stocking up on food and art supplies. I never quite start consciously, I usually discover that I've already started doing it, without planning, as if led by some invisible priming force. Privately I might refer to this as a ‘preparing for the flood’ stage. Usually, immediately after comes a short period of silence that lasts anywhere between a 23-minute nap to up to a few days. Then I start working.
By this point I have gradually signaled to the outside world that I need to work, and effectively cut myself off from all communications devices and friends. I will have divorced myself from any outside schedule, often working until my eyes, hands and/or legs are tired (I work standing up), then showering, sleeping and waking up to pick up where I left off. I serve the work. This process will continue for several calendar days that all feel like one continuous band of time. There are very rare cases when I have an outside commitment that is unavoidable—it would have to involve a sacrament, an embassy appointment, or a medical emergency that may result in death without my intervention. Otherwise, I will stop when the work is complete.
A SEASON FOR TAKING, the other phase, begins when when I start to get the nagging feeling that I need new material to digest. Maybe I have discovered things in my last batch of work that need more clarity, or found new reading material about a particular genre of work I want to explore. Sometimes the feeling comes as feeling left behind in the world. Much of the time I am not exactly sure what I need and it’s important to not let this ambiguity get in the way of the hunt, because eventually the right target will show up. I may start to notice a growing frequency of visits to museums and galleries, or that I showing up at the bookshops more often these days, or pulling out books from my own library that I had not looked at since I first bought them a couple of years ago. I pay attention to these fluctuations in routine.
The important thing however is how these processes feed into each other. In a Takingphase my brain feels like a sponge, absorbing everything. Inevitably, I’ll make sketches and notes of the things I come across when I am poring over all of the interesting material in the bookshops, videos, concerts, art exhibitions or walks around the city. The notes I collect are always very pleasurable to make, but mysterious in significance—I would not be able tell you what they will amount to, or when. They are not specific ideas for paintings or music, but they are fragments or feelings or phrases that will eventually somehow feed into what happens when I am making something in the other phase. That is where things fall into place, eventually.
Every Making phase is therapeutic. Hours are spent in silence, making the work. A deeply meditative state where primed ideas from the unconscious become confident enough to bubble up to the surface. Much like when we find ourselves doodling, as I am physically involved in bringing the work into the world. My hands are used, personal ideas and opinions become observable, tangible so that I can work through them. I’m simultaneously referring to notes, pieces of ideas and motifs that I have picked up through all of my rigorous research and moments of idle collecting. Now I’m making sense of it, decoding and re-coding it. I'm no longer imagining connections, I'm making connections.
The quality of the the things I make are entirely dependent on the richness of my research, and eventually vice versa. This is why it’s important to make sure I bring my best effort to both phases, and continue to do this on a continuous basis.
Noticing the pattern is always done in retrospect almost as if I were sleepwalking, on the outside looking in. But it would not be natural to compel myself to do any of these things on a schedule or through some external cue, they have to happen on their own and then I notice them as a cluster of behaviors that let me know that I have entered a Taking season. And this requires trust and care.
Variations of this seem to be standard procedure for a number of productive artist and musician friends. Our lives are built for—and around—this kind of operation.
Here’s the rest of that Chuck Close quote:
Creative work is heavy lifting, and much of that lift is intangible. It may not be visible to a modern world that requires proof that “work” is being done, that “results” are forthcoming. In contrast to convention, much of the skill of the creative process involves developing an instinct for complete surrender to the process.
When an artist starts new work, they’re often not sure they have enough to say, followed by the feeling that there’s no point in going down the road. Doubt is inevitable, if not common. But a little further downrange there comes the possibility of a glimmer of hope; a “maybe” is better than the “nothing” we had yesterday. Further along an artist who perseveres will often have pushed past, and into a zone of making something they can finish and present with confidence.
It is an incredible act of faith and courage to see the possibility of something meaningful in what seems like a vacuum in the beginning. The trick is to get past that barren land to the point to green terrain that holds worthy game, where there may be something worth chasing after. That’s hunting.
PHOTO: Parade Armor from Milan, ca 1575. Arms and Armor Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.