Staying Positive (As An Artist)
When I was a freshman in college, during my first semester, one of my drawing instructors pulled me aside during a review and told me, "maybe you should think about a different major." That was it. He walked on to the next student.
I didn't drop out.
Then, during my junior year, my printmaking teacher told me during a review, "we all want to believe that we have the best students" while shaking his head. It was a short review and that was the last individual help I got from him for the rest of that semester. Needless to say, I lost interest in printmaking.
I graduated with a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts as a studio major with nothing more than a naive belief in myself and a stubbornness that I hadn't fully began to understand, let alone appreciate. Frankly, I don't know what drove me to finish my degree. Was it optimism? Was I trying to prove them wrong? Was it because I didn't know how to do anything else? Or was it because I was lazy? I wasn't exactly a deep-thinker in my early twenties.
Twenty-seven years later, here I am ... And the words of those two instructors still haunt me. While I don't know for certain, I may be the only student from my graduating class who is working professionally as an artist in some capacity. That's something to be proud of, especially because this career choice has never, not for one second, been easy.
Take the business of art out of the equation. Take business tasks out of the equation. Take the challenges of marketing out of the equation. Take everything away except for raw talent ... And makers are left with questions that sometimes keep us awake at night.
Am I good enough? Is my style unique enough? Do I actually have talent? Can I really make it as an artist? Will anyone like my art? It's endless. But it doesn't have to be suffocating. Quite the opposite.
How do you press on despite the multitude of obstacles in your way? How do you not drown in self-doubt? How do you market yourself when you have no followers on social media? How do you manufacture a product idea without cash? How do you do anything if you aren't a celebrity or famous or rich? Doors don't magically open for you. Period.
The unvarnished truth is: You just do. You simply press on.
Art is both a craft and a psychoanalysts couch.
Depending on your brain's chemical make-up this can be a good thing or a very challenging thing. For me, it's a good thing, an escape. A place where I can disappear into my headspace for hours or days and not worry about anything but the image that's taking shape at the tips of my fingers—The process of art is mechanical and meditative. Art allows artists to grapple with their emotions in a way few other careers do ... And this comes with risks too.
I'm sure there are people who would argue this, but I'm a naturally optimistic person. Honestly, I can't fathom how a pessimist could survive life being self-employed, let alone carve out an existence as a self-employed artist. I could not possibly have survived as an independent creative for twenty-five years without a bottomless well of optimism and an unshakable belief that my efforts will pay off one day despite multiple failures.
That being said, I have my down moments. I go through periods of self-doubt. I spend a lot of time being hyper critical of my work and of my lack of a unique, identifiable style. But I never, ever wallow. I recognize when I'm having a moment, identify the "why", and allow myself to feel whatever it is I need to feel, but I never allow it continue indefinitely. I very literally give myself a time limit—My little voice starts the clock, "Paul, you have three hours to be down ... You have two days ... You have a week ... Then you will stop and get your ass back to work, no excuses!" Sounds silly, but it works for me.
Optimism needs a balance. Unchecked optimism is arguably just as pernicious a problem as unchecked pessimism, perhaps even more so, because it can blind you to structural changes that you need to make to grow as a business owner, an artist, and as a person.
How do you strike a balance?
I can only speak for myself. I've experienced burnout, catastrophic burnout. Not the run-of-the-mill-sissified-oh-gosh-I'm-overwhelmed "burnout" most people refer to as burnout. I'm talking about mentally and physically incapacitating burnout where you pull away from your friends and family, and almost tank your business kind of burnout. And here's what I've learned from literally losing every ounce of optimism in my body ...
I need my "thing." And there are two things that I rely on to help realign my creative mojo: Skiing and making pickles. Both of these activities are seasonal, which is perfect because they don't distract me year round. But when skiing is in season, you won't find me in my studio for three months. I still work on the road and my business hours don't begin until 6pm, but the physical and psychological benefits that hurtling down a mountain provides for my psyche are critical to my creative health.
In my opinion, the key to finding balance is to identify and make time for the things that you enjoy for yourself ... Not with your kids, not for your spouse, not with family, not even god. You. You need something for you and you alone. Something completely outside of your art, because even if you love to paint for "fun", it's still connected to your job.
I think about my art, my job, and my business twenty-five hours a day, eight days per week and the only things that can break that cycle for me are the two things I love that I save for myself ... Please understand that I prefer to ski with other people and pickle-making wouldn't be the same without my mom. However, I make time for these things for me first. I feed my soul first, which makes sharing these experiences all the more meaningful. Find your thing. Take care of you. Optimism flows from self care.
Optimism isn't a fairytale state of mind that's bestowed upon you like a genie granting you a wish. Optimism is a conscious choice and a task—You have to choose to see your own potential, then plan goals, and work to achieve them ... Every. Single. F&#*@&^. Day. Rinse and repeat.
Allow yourself the occasional rough patch, just don't forget to feed your smile.