6 Insights into Falling Back in love with your work, creative practice and life.
Every so often, I hear from an artist friend or in the pages of my studio journal, a sense that our work as artists is boring or repetitive, or not all that interesting. I’ve heard this from artists whose work delights and inspires me and many others. I’ve also seen and felt how these thoughts can feel paralyzing.
We may look at one body of work and think: I love this, but it was too easy to make, too much fun, too simple, doesn’t have consequence, doesn’t address an injustice, isn’t clever….
or similar stories.
It’s a little like how you might feel about your hair: It’s frizzy. It’s flat and lifeless! It’s oily as soon as I wash it! I don’t have any! It’s heavy, thick and weird! It’s graying, it’s thinning, it’s such a blah color.
Whatever you do with it, your hair is your hair. Even if you’re bald, it is what it is. It’s what you have. Art and Hair: not always in our control.
When a friend of mine expressed her relief at finally deciding to let her hair be: go grey, look like it does, it was uplifting and liberating to me too.
As for art: the fact is, I can’t make someone else’s work, and if I try, it’s not going to go well. I can learn from them, try out a technique, but if I’m being honest in the work, genuine and deeply engaging the work, it’s going to be singular. And what it is, is independent of me and whatever I think about it.
From this meandering thought trail, I pull a few insights:
1) I am not my artwork. I am not what people think of my work. I am powerless to change or even truly know what others think of it. Some people will like it, some people won’t, it is what it is, on any level of notoriety or obscurity.
2) I am the steward of my work, it’s foster parent say, and it’s my job to honor, to care for it, and to see it. To be curious about it and learn from it, to show up for it as best I can, which’ll be human, imperfect and OK.
3) Genuineness and your relationship to work comes through, so explore, discover, and pay attention to what you enjoy doing, what you love to do. It is also sometimes the case that you may simply need to see something through, or to break through to something else.
4) It’s not always fun or pleasant, nor does the work always come together - but the messes themselves have great things to reveal.
5) Want what you have. Practice this as a discipline to enjoy your life, work and creative practice more. Wanting what you have is a discipline that helps you feel lighter, clearer and more in love with what’s actually here in your life. Do this by becoming curious and playing with this line of inquiry. Ask yourself:
What’s happening here?
I wonder where this’ll go...
Hmmm. Now this is happening!
What do I appreciate and enjoy in my life?
(Nothing is the answer that will make you feel the worst so dig a little deeper and come up with something)
6) When you see something amazing in another's artwork, life or career, see it as something your heart is waking up to in your own life, something being remembered about who you are and your inherent worth and abundance, and say YES, THAT. That’s amazing. I choose THAT! from the catalogue of life experience. I am open to experiencing that in my own life.
Prior to this practice, it might feel somewhat like an impoverished, smouldering jealousy, comparison or rejection of that other. For an easier experience, see it as a mirror. This plane we live on is dynamic and collaborative. Your part is to know what sparks joy in your life, art and in others.
And further, even if it’s scary, practice the expression of appreciation and gratitude to others. You may find as you do your heart expanding, relating, connecting and serving, instead of - as was my case for much of my twenties, contracting, retreating, judging, comparing, hiding and becoming brittle in the comfort of familiar and inaccurate stories.
When you see something amazing in another's artwork, life or career, see it as something your heart is waking up to in your own life, something being remembered about who you are and your inherent worth and abundance, and say YES, THAT. That’s amazing. I choose THAT! from the catalogue of life experience. I am open to experiencing that in my own life.
With the normalized practice of awareness - not the zen-stylized kind with rice paper and bells, but simply: Oh, here I am seeing something. Here’s driving. Here’s noticing. Here’s irritation. Here’s tiredness. or, What do the hands feel like right now? or noticing, warm water, clinking dishes, bubbles.
The more that : awareness - becomes normal in my world and life, something entertaining starts to take place.
When say, at a family holiday gathering someone does or says some outrageous but predictable thing, flossing with a plucked hair or trying earnestly to set you up with your second cousin, or something less interesting like a stony silence from your child when you thought all was well…
When this type of ‘thing’ happens, for some reason the phrase that springs to mind recently is: And now This is happening!
This phrase has a surprisingly humorous and helpful effect: It has within it a sense of engagement, interest and also a kind of acceptance built into it.
Try it right now: And now This is happening!
Look around and see what ‘this’ is.
An empty room with a reasonably quiet refrigerator running within earshot.
And now This is happening.
The urge to pee or an ache somewhere.
This occasionally thought phrase is so easy, and it’d be easy to read about and consider but not try. Try it! Try it for 5 minutes and see if your life doesn’t take on even a quality of simple interest, dare I suggest even a playful, creative engagement.
It's also fun to do while working on a creative project: the paint spilled or the colors ran into each other. It dried funny, or something went not according to plan... And now This is happening...
Last night, I hauled and dragged a christmas tree four blocks to my house. When I got there, I kicked the halloween pumpkin, which had been disemboweled by a single-minded, grapefruit-shaped squirrel, off the stoop into a bush. Time for new seasonal holiday flora.
The tree is now up, wrapped in lights and covered in the sparkly sentiment of ornaments. I keep looking at it surprised, like: How did that get there, all decorated? I do remember one-pointedly deciding to go for it, get a tree and decorate it last night, and being in motion for a couple of hours, but somehow it still surprises me that at some times, a thing is not there, then it is. And even more surprising, I’m the one that brought it there and set it up.
Everything is kind of like this: a fluid action of things arising and passing away. Last summer, after leaving the 2017 tree to dry out back, I limbed and fast-burned its crackly remains in our fire pit. Now its ash beneath ash 10 inches or so down, currently being covered with snow - freed gases long gone. All the summer fires: where are they now? .....
The way things change form, burning in fire, dissolving in water, being eaten, decomposing, ending, beginning, growing is relentless and unstoppable. The way we charge about on energetic days, doing things, moving ourselves and our stuff, preparing and presenting, exploring and changing, all of this - where *is* it? Perhaps it’s in our records: memories, photographs, websites, objects, other people’s memories. Is that the semi-satisfying gesture of social media, sharing and looking, witnessing this relentless stream of event, view, moment? On this particularly quiet snowy day, I just feel like asking.
In your life, what’s now here that a day or so was not? Make a list. I’ll do it too.
the food in our fridge
the tree, decorated!
an interesting email from a local artist I hadn’t heard about til today
the sounds coming from the other room
the particular arrangement of objects on my couch
a current list of things to do
memories of the weekend
What’s gone that was here a week ago?
a mostly in-tact pumpkin
a mild fall climate
herbs in the garden
all the food we’ve eaten
everything that has gone down a drain
concern over last week’s upcoming events
anticipation and preparation for thanksgiving
an open space in the livingroom where the tree now is
After making these lists, what do you notice?
1. My third book about the Elements of the Periodic Table, similarly explores the constant in and out flow of states and forms. Check it out here. and Purchase the book here.
2. A related art project is called You Are Legend, and you can see it here.
The other day Guy brought home water balloons. He sometimes does this: gets something plasticky and colorful at the dollar store that brings him an inordinate amount of delight. He wanted to play catch with them after filling them up with hose water, as one does.
As we stood there, barefoot on the lawn, I had a visceral memory of being 8 or 7 or 10 with my cousins up in Maine, standing around absorbed in a mission, out in the grass and heat.
I had had a crappy day working on some new business strategies and feeling a little bit like a fish out of water. What I excel at is coloring, drawing, zoning out and looking out at the leaves fluttering in a tree; less so the roll-up-your-sleeves and get-in-there and fall-down-and-get-up-again attitude of much of the business world. And yet I am a business owner, and lately have taken seriously the notion that it’s up to me to care for and run the business as professionally as I can.
The game was to toss the water balloon back and forth, and to take a step away from each other with each turn, like a colorful and wet version of Russian Roulette. At first I noticed that my teeth clenched every time I went to catch the balloon, as if in anticipation of something bad. Not only does that make my neck veins pop out and my face look like a scary, cornered, feral animal, the clenching is unpleasant and a waste of valuable life energy. The body automatically reacted this way, but it's the mind's faulty logic that imagines this kind of contraction to be in any way helpful. It's saying to the body: Brace yourself, this could be bad...
So I began to play around with consciously doing something else with this face and body of mine. With the full threat of balloon breakage upon me, and the body on edge, I tried bouncing a little side to side, lowering the shoulders and softening the face a little bit, and even putting a something between a smile and a slack jaw expression on my face instead to see how that felt.
As a kid I was always the sensitive one: running away and crying, easily hurt, even though I was pretty tom boyish. Of my cousins I was probably the least rugged, as well as the youngest. I found myself often sniffling in a corner, feeling lonely, after an outburst.
Consciously softening and lightening my face muscles while reaching up to receive this water balloon that might instantly explode was a great metaphor for how to ‘be’ with all these scary new things I’m trying professionally.
I’m not sure if it’s true but right now I seem to be getting the message that I need to move out of my comfort zone if I want things to change. That includes the real possibility of visibly falling on my face, skinning knees, bee stings, and having the next water balloon explode all over me. And even the possibility of having bystanders point and laugh.
Giggles, camaraderie, and expanded sense of possibility may accompany that next bursting balloon.
Today I found something unexpected while I was gardening. While flailing a hand scythe into clumps of grass and clearing out dead leaves in a neglected box garden, I discovered a baby bunny the size of an avocado sheltering under a head of lettuce. He was very still. His eyes were open. He did not move and didn’t appear to tremble. I was moved with cuteness and excitement. I went inside and got my husband; together, we quietly observed him, made supressed squealy noises, then went about our business doing other things. I moved to clear out the other side of the garden box, and there I found this bunny’s baby brother, even smaller (the size of an apple) nestled with his nose in the chives. As I stood there, I recognized a few feet away, a little warren that had been crafted with care out of our thyme bush: a circular tunnel, dusted on the edges with soft bunny fur. Just like that we had a nursery in the middle of our front yard. The whole experience lent a tenderness and a kind of sacredness to what would have otherwise been a glorious afternoon in the sun. It turned into summer just about three days ago.
Later this evening I went out to an art opening with my friend Kirsten. When she picked me up, I ceremoniously shared with her the bunny situation. When she got a peak at them, she also got verklempt with delight and excitement and tenderness. We were very careful not to remove a large dry leaf that I had placed over the first one for shade. There was a hole in the leaf through which we could see the bunny’s eye, still unmoving but very much alive. I went to the art opening and enjoyed it. I spent some time catching up with Kirsten, looking at the art, supporting our friend who had work in the show. It turned into a very social evening. I met a several really nice people. She dropped me off at home at about 8:45 pm, it was still light out here in Michigan. I checked on the bunnies, amazingly they were still right where we left them.
That these little bunnies had not moved in the time where I was networking, looking at art, handing out business cards, trading thoughts and ideas with Kirsten - in all of this human doing, that creature stayed still. I imagine in the bunny world, the mom must have said You stay, you stay right put, don’t make a sound, don’t make a rustle. And I’ll come feed you tonight after dark. It looked almost as if the bunnies were hibernating or in stand-by mode. Their eyes were open, there was an alertness, but there was no trembling, and no darting about going on.
When I came home, there they were. Presence itself. Just there. Like the face or the form of eternity in which all comings and goings are held. All over this neighborhood and town, bunnies are nestled, still, hidden - animals alert and unmoving, a wider presence than the mind can hold.
I’ve been in a temporary home for about a month here in Michigan. It’s a good serviceable place: it’s quiet and has a workspace for me and a nice kitchen. I’ve found that without a working art studio, which is waiting to be unpacked in a more permanent spot later in the fall, I’m not able to fuss about or work much with my hands, and I have meanwhile been working on two laptop-based, excel-based projects. The laptop screen is also where I see my Boston people during video conference visits, do my research, and connect with other virtual communities.
In my ‘productivity’ I have inadvertently taken myself out of active circulation. At the end of the last couple of days I’ve felt gross and stuck, my leg pinned underneath my body in a way that’s downright painful when I unfold it. It’s like I’m a little coagulating mass beginning to damn up an artery.
We all know that circulation is beneficial to the well being and health of any kind of system: a room, a body, a city. When I get fooled into the idea that my worth and value is in doing, and that the doing is somehow involved in being locked in a gaze with the glowing square orb of a computer or smartphone screen for more than half of my time, I am at that time starting to sink in the mire of stagnation. Stagance or stuckness happens in a variety of dimensions at the same time, and shows up in air flow, blood flow, traffic patterns, water flow, body movement, mental loops. When I'm stuck on the laptop, the legs tucked cozily under me may be getting insufficient blood flow, my breathing dulls, and the muscles in my back get weird and stiff. The space also gets a mucky vibe- it begins to get stuffy, cluttered and dead feeling.
Stangance can appear as clutter or sediment building in the eddy of a stream, carbon monoxide rising from miles of breezeless traffic, constipation, isolation, boredom, or repeating one path to and from the fridge, or fingernail to mouth, over and over again. Stagnance starts out sometimes as a needed break, and becomes the trance of one TV show after another, or one more excel spreadsheet to finalize.
My commitment to you, as a part of the larger earth body that we belong to, is to put myself back into circulation: walks, even in circles round the same four blocks, will be one way I circulate. Drives, turning down unfamiliar roads, biking around, bringing my lunch to a park bench, and getting up from this machine hourly, for a break for the eyes, the hands, wrists and body. Also I can circulate by stopping and looking out the window, checking in with eyes closed to sound, smell, taste, touch, and breath. Getting up to pick up some socks, tidying the eddies of objects that accumulate on surfaces, jumping into water, a lake, the tub, a shower. Wiping down the counters - picking something up, and placing it intentionally down somewhere else. All of these brief engagements arrive with a basic energy and aliveness.They remind me that this is what I actually am: basic energy and aliveness. The rest is just gathering on my surfaces.
Walking also leads to connections and discoveries. On my day 1 of circulation, I ran into a woman on the street I’d been playing phone tag with, and lo I had my calendar and we finally made a tea date. All because I set foot outside.
To circulate is to light up the thru ways of the brain, to clear them out and to trust and value yourself as an essential part of the wider world, this alive whole, without fanfare or specialness to gum up the gears.
The more you circulate and welcome circulation, the more the whole parade can simply flow.
Stagnation in the world:
unreturned library books, unpaid bills, piles of clothing or dishes, papers, mail, trash, appliances that don’t get used taking up counter space, unreturned phone calls and emails, the couch nest or the bed nest, sheets that need washing, a body or hair that’s past being clean. Eating the same foods over and over, sitting in one place, always spending time with one or two people, or alone.
Circulation in the world:
Standing up. Stretching, raising the gaze, moving the muscles of the face, shakin’ that behind, music, sound, walking, swinging the arms, slowly drinking a glass of water, taking a ride, walk or drive, showing up for someone else, attending something public, making something for no reason, getting out of bed, pulling up the shade, opening the windows and door.
In a museum, everyone loves the white, spareness and purity. Perfect angles, controlled temperatures. A frame is like a small travelling museum - a tiny, somewhat controlled environment for the preservation and display of a work of art. The idea of something 'lasting forever' or accruing value is all quite silly when you consider the decay happening in and on every surface on the planet - the constant swappage of molecules.
I do however, appreciate the great preoccupation with perfection, presentation and essentially control.
Many years ago, I saw how art does this for us. I went to see a Ballanchine Ballet called Jewels, during a painful and disorienting break up of a relationship and a home.
Every act of the ballet was in reverance to the emerald, the ruby, the sapphire and the diamond. Every high pointed toe, kick and arc of a hand was absolute precision. The backdrop was a solid, shimmering, gorgeous color, reflected in the costumes, the sparkle, and the choreography, one gem/color for each act.
There we were within a dissolving partnership, looking up at the stage. I was sitting next to my roommate, love and friend, and the sad, tired mess of our valiant attempts to do better, talk it through, and make it work. Crying silently, mucus running out of my nose and a hand damp from wiping away this issuance. Up on stage was an impossible perfection, a million miles from where I sat, incomprehensible, orchestrated, perfect. It was heaven. I was earth. A primoridal ooze.
Sometimes, this is what art is for.
A few weeks ago I was driving home at night through Brookline. In one of the town's many rotaries was a simple mound with tons of daffodils. I think it was raining and I noticed them on my left.
I'll cut right to it: those flowers are one brain: one consciousness in full force - complete. For some reason I saw it this was for the first time. Not a 'look at those pretty daffodils! Spring is...' kind of thought. It was something revealed.
Our lives are lived at times with the leaden feeling of no-one-gives-a-shit/sees me/understands. As a woman living alone turning 40 in a few months, the daffodil revelation is important. The cars circling the rotary, people on a train platform, a group of people listening to a story or a concert, is the same. We get so caught in the mire of being individuals. The tangle of speculation, obligation, association, doubt and doom - Doing and aiming for a high perch on the hill, fearing mediocrity or failure.
When I can feel the ground underneath. the weather as it mixes with the tiny hairs on my arm, sounds and the situation I find myself in at any given moment, just as it is and just as I am, I begin to remember my home is just about noticing and presence.
Those flowers don't have long. They get a few weeks if they're lucky to kappow in yellow. The green shoots, threading roots filtering the dirt, meet as a single mind under there. That depth and connection is also available to me and you, as is the profound beauty of our vulnerability and delicate bloom.
And a few more things about Daffodils.
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get pissed on, others blown off their stems and trampled, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - the dark eye of a crow or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grass, stands of trees, coils of thornvine and little trees in home depot parking lots, they all too share a brain I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like leaving myself or another who is not at their best I too tap into that collective system.
This is what Thai Forest monks meditate on at some point, in part. How gross hair skin and nails are: always growing, always getting funky, needing care.
Today, having cared for my niece and nephew overnight, I was particularly aware of the hag-like aspect of myself, dry skin, nails needing cleaning, cutting, dry scalp and unruly hair, haglike, as I said.
Funny too, how much fuss is made about them all, red nails, long and sexy, clacking at a grocery store cash register, incongruously, hair straightened, dyed, layered, razor-cut, and a million insane, crazy ways to remove it, to walk around pretending we're not daily mowing ourselves, like suburban lawns, in fear of neighborly disdain or being unattractive.
I think they nailed it, those monks, by focusing on that fertile topic for reflection on how we really aren't in charge here, stuff on our own selves just keeps growing and getting weird by it's very nature, regardless of our wishes. Smelling, needing care, however many specialists you have on the job or advanced degrees or grooming tools and apparati.
The point of such a practice, as I understand it, isn't to just gross one out, but to wake up from the spell of being enamoured with our physical forms, but seeing their contstant change, as nature playing itself out right here, not an inch from your face but on your face, your face!
A few more things about Daffodils.
[this post is second installment of the post One Brain]
They won't all bloom at once, and not to the same extent. Some get trampled, others blown off their stems, and others never quite bloom at all. They all get papery as they die, spring passes. One or two, to a given eye - a crow's or mine glancing from a car, catch an incredible moment of light and are seen. Some are cut and put in a vase. Is this better? It's not really up to the flower and it's incidental in the short scheme of things.
Grasses, manicured hedges, coils of thornvine and those spindly trees in big box store parking lots, they all too share a brain, I believe. When I send love to my friend across the world or stick around when I feel like running away from myself or another who is not at their best I'm tapping in then too. We are living out essentially one life in billions of minds refracted in infinite variation. You and I are just two of these, gathered up in recognition when I see myself in you and you see yourself in me.
The following is a practice for when you are feeling like a lonely satellite:
Sit quietly. Breathe. After a little while, bring in the image of someone that you care for (not the guy who isn't calling you back but an old friend say, or a favorite aunt). Imagine them having one of those moments of peaceful connection, the ones that just come upon one on the sly. Imagine them smiling and at ease. Even if they just had an unsuccessful brain surgery, imagine them floating on water, giggling, accepting, joyful. Then bring another person to mind in the same way. Keep going. Try some people you feel neutral toward, someone you can't deal with at all. See what shifts within you.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.