"In making my work, I make what comforts me, and what is home for me."
Are you comforted by making your work?
[I notice this question might be for the creatives reading, but consider that if you are reading here, my guess is that you are a creative whether you like it, know it, or not! In other words, this applies to anyone reading. So...]
Are you comforted by making your work?
I don't think comfort is a motivating factor in art-making for me. Perhaps the whole process of showing up to make, the routine of it, is a comfort, but the work is brightening and enlivening to me, sometimes disturbing to me, so I wouldn't say comforting. I don't make what comforts me, do I?
Sometimes making certain marks on certain surfaces, and finding the composition that is a YES to me, feels like putting things in order, or like straightening up the world. Putting it right. Perhaps that is a comfort to me.
There is also a discovery process, where for a long time there can be the same pile of materials, or the same kind of shape or process, and suddenly, by mistake or a loosening of something, or just paying closer attention to it and engaging it, the same 'stuff', in some new way or combination, has a new kind of pop or magic to it. That discovery is delightful to me. And then watching what happens to this discovery, or a new process, if it is sustained, or if it sort of fizzles out quickly. Exploring the questions of what sustains it, is in itself, quite motivating and engaging.
It's always felt really clear to me when something I make in the studio is valuable, though not always right away. Sometimes however, doubt gets ahold, some cloudy afternoon when it's cold, and the whole project seems lifeless or a complete lark with no value at all. I have also dreamed of some gorgeous things, while sleeping, and woken up besotted with interest, but not actually brought these things forward. Those are great dreams. Was I supposed to make that stuff? I don't know. Can you relate to this?
There was a period too where some of the marks that really satisfied me, didn't seem to hold up to scrutiny and I couldn't figure out what was going on. I think the intimate scale of making wasn't holding up to the more distant act of viewing a work from further away. In other words, my lines were falling apart from a distance, and I wasn't in enough conversation with others to realize it. This is where relationship, scrutiny, conversation, is so useful.
There are people like Henry Darger who hole up and just do their thing, and later someone realizes it was brilliant, in his own little world, so complete and unapologetic. And I think in a way, that innocence is the thing of letting your inner kid have free reign and knowing that this is where the brilliance is. But there's also the reality that for every discovered Henry Darger there's a rotting pile of papers on a landfill of someone else's world. And it will likely be mine!
There's a freedom in seeing how none of this ultimately matters. Even when a small mark or line also counts. That's a fine line I seem to walk, where there's a need for freedom to break a rule I had laid down, or to make a mess of something, and then there's the self curation, the conversation, the response of others, the asking of questions, and then choosing again. Nothing matters and everything counts.
In the end, it sometimes just comes down to color therapy. When I am surrounded by the colors, as well as the relationships of texture and forms, I feel fulfilled. Happy. Pleased in the most basic sense.
The rest of the art process: the part about jockeying for notice and applying and all of that makes me feel tired before I even begin. And so, I tend to not do that, and pursue other avenues. In part, this is because, when I do have a "show" where I put on a blouse and some boots and eat some sweaty cheese with friends, it often doesn't hold much magic afterall. It is however, truly a delight to meet people through the sharing of the work. To feel like my spirit and someone else's spirit meet through the resonance with my work, or their work, or the conversation that artwork ultimately can be is quite a thing. That is deeply valuable to me, and motivates me to write, to put things in print, to find other avenues to sharing that don't involve as much of a dog & pony show. Life is too short to be a pony or a dog.
Is what you make a comfort for you? I guess in some ways, it turns out to be for me.
In the theme of messes, I introduce the topic of the insurmountable problem.
An insurmountable problem is one for which there is no present solution, no clear way around, and nothing to do about nothing. Something that is insurmountable is something 'incapable of being overcome'.
I would call an insurmountable problem a mess, in that it is something that grinds to a halt, like, for example, a movie theatre during covid. It's a mess because one is powerless to change that fact.
A smaller example has come up for me in the past several weeks that to me has felt big. Yes it is a complete luxury problem, and still, it's in my face and has been blocking my work. I have a new wood stove in my art studio. It was going gangbusters, and then suddenly, two months in, began filling the room with smoke whenever I opened the door. And I mean even when I was lighting the fire.
I cleaned the baffle, the lower chimney pipe, I called the manufacturer, I consulted friends about the wood quality, I lit smokeless fires with no paper. I cleaned the ash pan and the firebox out completely, and even the stove glass window. Still, smoke pours into the room.
So this, right now, seems like an insurmountable problem to me, a mess!
For about five days, I avoided the studio. It had soot dust floating hither and thither, and it was cold, and it reminded me of my insurmountable problem.
When I was imagining the studio finished, when it was just a rough shell, I knew that this amazing new space would be incredible, but eventually, in the manner of Pavlov's Dog, would become either ordinary or overlooked, or worse, the source of a problem or headache, or lots.
This is how it goes. A boon is often accompanied by stress from new responsibilities and new things to attend to. And this studio was a major boon for me. So, the insurmountable problem in my tiny world is the stove.
For an insurmountable problem, my only answer, and my very very best move, is prayer.
What prayer does, is it allows me to put the insurmountable concern down. To stop the obsessive anxious brain spin. To not worry this like a bone, lose sleep, catastrophize, try and force solutions, freak out, break something while exhausted and forcing things, avoid showing up, and lose all perspective. When I surrender it, I actually can stop thinking about it and focus on other things. And I have found when I do so, things shift without my trying to shift them.
I wrote or said a prayer something like this:
[ ], I place this wood stove situation completely in your care. I hand it over, I surrender it completely to you. Thank you for taking care of it, and thank you for inspiring me and directing me toward any small action to assist you in so doing. I am deeply grateful that you are taking care of this and I thank you for this beautiful stove and studio.
Instead of avoiding the place, which was feeling like a set jaw, or like a stubborn latch I didn't want to open, I prayed or in other words, set an intention to find myself in there again, enjoying and appreciating the space, thriving creatively, engaged and happy, this week.
As prayer, this intention looks something like this:
[ ], I would love the inspiration, willingness and motivation to be in the studio again, happily at work, engaged and filled with gratitude for what a lovely space it is. Help me to be warm and at peace with things just as they are and, oh yeah, again, that stove? I leave it entirely with you.
So today is Monday, and after avoiding the studio all weekend and praying when it started to roost in my thinking, I felt inspired to step in there with my tea and journal this morning, put a blanket down on a seat so my butt wouldn't get cold, and blasted the milk house heater at my feet. There I did some writing.
The other form of prayer that I engaged in this morning was a form of gratitude, to 'want what I have' rather than only see things as a SNAFU (which stands for Situation all fucked up in case you didn't know).
I wrote a list of everything that I love about the studio:
It's location, the light, the views out the windows, the white walls, the closet, the table space, the organization, the wifi...
and everything that I've done in there since I moved back in
Inventorying, completing lots of work, starting a new series, photographing and filming, completing the space, writing a lot, having an occasional covid-safe studio visit...
Both of which helped me see things in a new light, and give me a feeling of inspiration and accomplishment and gratitude.
To be clear, this is now an automatic process, that began in times when I was super stuck for a long time, and it is a process that I use not to be 'good' or saccharin, but because it literally blasts out the shitty cobwebs that yield more shitty cobwebs when allowed to hang around for long.
When the list was done, I found myself trying one more fire - NOPE! no change, just a smokey, shitty mess. I then found myself sweeping, dusting, organizing, rearranging, making a list of what I'm doing with what project, and then came three actions, a minor plan of sorts, for further troubleshooting the stove. By showing some love to the space, I also got out the soot and cobwebs, and cleaned up the flow and possibility in there as well.
As I write this, I've asked for help, spoken with my husband's friend Lenny, troubleshooted with him, and asked our good friend Al to borrow his chimney cleaning brush.
The next step is a little unclear, but I am likely to be shown what it is when it's time. The goal is to inspect the upper section of the chimney as creosote has likely blocked the opening as I've only gotten to the lower half.
So the tools at work here for insurmountable problem situations are - (not necessarily in any order, or looking or feeling good in the process)
I heat my studio by wood stove, and it's wonderful. It has taken a long time to figure out how to get the space up to temperature when it's only 10 degrees outside, but I have started to get the knack. This makes me very happy because it makes me very warm.
I have a bellows, which is like a handheld pair of lungs, so that I can breath more oxygen onto a fire and get the flames up and the whole thing ablaze better. When I use it however, I find that some ash and soot billows out of the stove, and these tiny, nearly weightless bits of soot float up and all about, and then can end up coming to rest on the surface of one of my works of art.
his is not so cool. It's one thing to have a mess on the floor. It's another to have it floating weightlessly in the air, more like an invisible enemy, like the fog monster in the TV series LOST.
So I share this minor mess with you. It's minor because if I blow on a surface, it removes the soot, and nothing has been permanently marred to date. But, it is a mess for sure, and one that I will develop workarounds for. Likely, from my days on A Street in downtown Boston during the giant dust cloud of the Big Dig in the late 90s, I will cover things with plastic sheeting and all will be well.
On an upnote, I have in recent years made ash based paint, from the ash created while burning about twenty of my old journals. From this I have made some experimental ash paintings like the one below. This might be an avenue I can explore further. For now, it's just soot floating in the air. And this is just how it is sometimes.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.