I love this essay by painter Agnes Martin, and I love a particular passage in it for artists:
“You must especially know the response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you do not discover your response to your own work, you miss the reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you feel.”
from Beauty is the Mystery of Life, an essay by Agnes Martin.
Being in the studio alone can have many flavors to it. One can be relief, another freedom and delight, another is pressure to use this space your paying for, or have claimed, to do something “important” and unique and great and special. And, upon not feeling like that’s happening, there can be a feeling of existential dread. Do you know whereof I speak?
I investigated this feeling the other day. Meaning that I started with a funny twinge of discomfort, kind of like when you see a little sprout of a weed in the garden, and pull at it, and then discover this runner root zigzagging and netting all over the place, under and around all of the healthy plants. So, the little innocent weed was like a twinge. As I looked it took on more shape. It became stories like “I thought it was something and it’s nothing” underneath that was “I thought I was something and it turns out I’m nothing” or “I thought I was an artist but it turns out I’m a fraud” is another version people get. Underneath that was like a lizard brain ancestral kind of “Game Over” feeling, like the feeling you might have when lost in a desert, having run out of water, having been optimistic until this momentary shift to - Game Over - I thought I might just make it but it turns out I’m toast.
That’s what I mean about existential dread. Art making is so intimate, so ethereal, and so marginal in my culture - it’s not considered essential in the economy or the running of a civic society - and so it can be very intense sometimes, if you have planted a flag or hope to, to come up against generations, policies, and personal stories of - this and you, are a joke.
So, back to this lovely quote by Agnes Martin. In a way, what I think she’s saying here is: No one’s going to care if you don’t. This is an inside job. Strengthen your muscle of commitment to looking, responding, staying open, letting it not always work out, and be honest with what brightens and inspires and interests or even disturbs you, versus what you think others will think, or what will pass or look good, but has no juice for you.
I’m not Agnes Martin and I don’t know what she means, but I do get from this essay that you have to practice putting your own response first, because everything else is just smoke and mirrors. And in a way, you are just smoke and mirrors too, which can be terrifying to realize, but also liberating to discover that truly, none of this matters at all, but somehow too, all of it counts. How well you attend to yourself, or show up for these sprouts of fear that turn out to have a big old root system going back generations and years, is the special sauce of creative practice. It’s essentially like being on retreat with all of your demons, and all of your angels, and keeping steady, sometimes, in the midst of it all.
I marvel that in my 20s, I stumbled into an amazing situation: a great economy, an amazing loft space with artsists in downtown Boston, a good job, and time and interest to just make and make and make art, that people bought. I do also remember how acrid some of my time in the studio was, when the praise and the boons and the sales wasn’t enough. I hated myself underneath, mostly because I didn’t know myself, and I was hanging on to the idea that if you liked me, I’d be ok. But that’s a losing proposition, because everyone on this planet, as my friend Bryan likes to say, is third graders, that’s as skillful and mature as we humans get. So putting my self worth in the hands of you all on the playground is not so smart of a plan.
So eventually, as the cracks started showing: overdoing alcohol and boys and anxiety mounting, some of the root system began to get undug. Until the whole garden was just dirt and I was exhausted and apparently had lost everything. But the ground for things to grow, I realized, was purer and clearer and freer than it had been. So now a whole lifetime later, it’s a flourishing garden with other root systems needing balancing - and those little seedlings of “I’m toast” asking for my attention, which equals my love.
In the end, yes, I am toast. Inconsequential and nothing. Forgotten, maybe 50 years or sooner after I’m dead by anyone that knew me. Turned into something else by anyone who may have known of me. Nothing! Light as a feather. Lighter. Freer. Terrifying!!
Can you relate to the studio demons? Or are they keeping you from the very prospect of a studio in the first place? How do you ground and respond to yourself, your creative work, and your twinges of terror? What are you attending to? What’s growing in your garden plot? What would you like to grow there?
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.