I have an aunt and uncle who are professional artists.
I have vivid memories of being a little kid and having sleepovers at their house. Almost all of those sleepovers included a trip downstairs out of their living space and into the studios they owned in the same building. Walking through those two adjacent rooms, seemingly filled to the brim with potential and possibility, I can still feel the part of my younger self that looked around in amazement and thought: “Woah. This is what ART with a capital A looks like.”
In this room we created beautiful things that I was genuinely proud of. Miniature paper dolls of myself and my sister that we dressed in wild and colorful handmade clothing. Bottles covered in extra bits of mosaic tiles that we designed, glued and grouted ourselves. Bas-relief clay carvings that we snuck our initials into that went into a real life public sculpture park on Chicago’s Navy Pier.
Surrounded by the incredible sculptures of my uncle’s nestled on every flat cabinet top or file drawer I developed a sense of how artists lived. Amidst the wall-sized design plans for my aunt’s next mural, I found myself thinking, “This is the kind of life I want to lead someday.” Art was never a distant concept to me, it was something that one moved through and existed within. It was a place one created for themselves. I sensed that there would be a time when I too had a room full of potential-ness that I would go to every day and create new and exciting things.
This was my idea of how art worked: You were inspired and you spent time playing and laughing and creating something would cherish for years to come.
My aunt, I now see as an adult, is also a serious academic and a leader in the national discourse on art education. My uncle not “just” a creator but the executive director at a leading public art non-profit. They are both deep thinkers about the way that art works integrate with the community they exist within. They are leaders in their fields. In so many ways I see them as I see many of the people in my own artistic niche that are a generation ahead of me: They are the people who have made the communities that I (and those like me) became part of. I thank them for it. I appreciate their immense efforts.
But…You knew (you had to know) a “but” was coming.
The thing is, when I was a little kid and I talked to my aunt and uncle about making art, all we talked about were colors and shapes and beauty and feelings and making. When I started seriously making work as a teenager and early adult we talked about ideas and influences and impulses. Now as a “career” artist roughly a decade into my work, almost all we ever talk about is professional development and money.
I wonder in retrospect what those two rooms was like when I wasn’t there. I wonder how often the spirit of freedom and play that I felt so strongly was still present when I wasn’t around.
Let me back up for a second.
I know this isn’t news to anyone. I know that it isn’t even a new topic to this particular blog forum. But it’s still the thing that continues to confuse and bewilder me.
How the hell do I keep the art in my artistic career?
I remember a few years ago this guy from NYFA, a nationally recognized fiscal sponsor organization, came to Philly and offered free one on one coaching sessions. I signed up and was encouraged to bring in questions that I wanted professional advice on. I think that what I was supposed to ask where things about taxes and health insurance. I think that’s what this guy was prepared to help with.
But I know that I can look up more info on that kind of stuff. By that point, I felt confident that if a business type problem arose I was capable of solving it. Not that it’s always easy, but at least it’s usually pretty concrete. There’s information listed on the internet about these things. Effort-full, yes, but in someways blessedly defined. And the truth was, I already had no shortage of the “business” side of stuff to do.
What I really needed guidance on what the panicky feeling that I got when I looked at the amount of time I spent actually making the work. Especially compared to the amount of time I was spending doing all the other stuff it seemed the work required. It was to the point where there were days that I sort of wondered if I even knew what making the work was any more.
What I asked this guy was, “How do I stop my administrator brain from ruining everything? How do I keep enough hours of artistry in my theatrical business?”
He looked at me quizzically and said, “You mean, how do you make sure you have time for your studio work? Uh… I mean… Just do it. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not understanding what you need help with. Scheduling? You could set up a calendar…”
The total unhelpfulness of his answer blew me back a little bit. I wanted to yell at him and say, “Really, buddy?! You have no idea what it feels like to have the business side of art start to eat up everything that you used to devote to creating? You’re telling me that it’s just as easy to find the energy to make stuff as you used to? The answer to how do I keep motivated is ‘Just do it.’ If so, I guess I’m just crazy then.”
Apparently, this guy had a similar experience with a whole bunch of Philly artists that day.
And then a really really tense info session following that.
It’s about as close as I’ve seen collected Philadelphia creators come close to a mob riot.
This past weekend during a round of auditions for The Tempest, even under the stress of time, I was struck with the sensation of how much fun it was to spend time with these actors and these scenes. When I made myself relax a little and stop worrying about auditioning “right” and really just have fun looking at possibility, I started to see how the play could become so many interesting variations on itself. I started to love the different versions of the characters people created and started to note all the little additions and interpretations they brought. I wrote down dozens of ideas that struck me or lines that could potentially open up in new ways I hadn’t imagined.
At one point it struck me that I was actually thinking artistically. It struck me how much I was enjoying myself and how long it had been since I felt that.
And then I went home and wrote a bunch of emails following up on 1099 tax forms, looked at the grant plan I created last week, thought about how behind I am on sending info about another set of auditions coming up, about prepping for 3 separate presenter meetings, the new class I need to promote so I have a teaching gig next term, the grading I need to do for the class I’m teaching now…
The list goes on.
With it out in front of me, I see that all the things on my “artistic” to do list are not art. Following up on funding, seeking new sources of income, thinking about how to use a new intern effectively, laying out budgets and schedules, even when I have figured out how to pay myself for the admin time, even when I’m diligent about not letting these thoughts infect the rehearsal room when I finally get there, I still find myself overwhelmed by a lack of time I have for the work itself.
We artists are constantly bombarded with “career” advice about updating websites, polishing work samples, cleaning up mission statements and promoting ourselves in the various medias social. There are so many lists I’ve made of people I ought to invite and promoste my work to. I think we all get a lot of professional development advice. And the people who tell us to do all these things aren’t wrong. These things are important.
But we need to remember that they are not the work. They are tools, useful ones, but they cannot be the focus. They are not the work. They are work. But they aren’t the work. They are effortful and time consuming and attention demanding. But they will only matter if you remember that your work is thing that creates the need for them and that they are extra and will be only useful if they support of that central core goal of art making.
It’s got to be a daily mantra. You have to keep reminding yourself. Your work is the work. And if the other stuff takes a few years more to get in gear because the work is still the work, well, maybe that’s fine. The other stuff will get there. There’s always time for that. The thing we most cannot afford is to lose touch with the thing that drives all the other things.
We have to make time for it.
The funny thing is that now, as an adult, I have a room in my house like the one I always imagined. I wake up many days with an open calendar and room to laugh and create and grow as I always imagined I would.
But I often don’t. Sometimes, I feel like I have forgotten what the room is for.
And when I think back to that guy from NYFA, misguided as he might have been, I think there was a weird kind of truth to his “calendar” statement. In fact, I’ve been thinking lately about how transformative it was for me to know that I had to commit the 60 to 90 (120, 180) minutes a day towards writing in this space. Now that I am not officially “required” to write something it is a choice each day whether to write anything. And I wonder if it isn’t time to actually require creativity every single day.
I wonder if it’s time to force myself to make a commitment to even just an hour every single day of some creative effort – researching, writing, sketching, conversing, whatever – that moves my theater work forward in the same systematic and “professional” way that the money and administration seems to require.
Maybe it is time to set up such a calendar.
So I think I’m starting with 7 hours. An hour a day. 7 hours every week that go into written form on my schedule in the same way meetings with producers and grant deadlines do. Because if it isn’t as solid as that meeting, how can it stand up?