We, the digital set, the technorati, the first world era, are castigated for looking down at our phones constantly.
But there’s a world to notice down there. On the ground, the street, the road. It’s all strange and overlooked colors, bits of stone, stains, scraps, fluff, fragments, trash, cracks, critters, patterns, paint, plants, paper, pools, plastics.
If your habit is to look down at your feet as you walk, spend some time looking up. But if you’ve been on your phone or staring straight ahead on your commutes, check out the view below.
One of the benefits of art school is your fellow students. They can easily become your peer group, or better yet, your collective. There’s a moment of opportunity when you meet a few other creators who have a connected aesthetic. If you’re lucky, you can parlay that into a shared movement. It’s a chance to get attention for what you do, based on a packageable meme of some kind. It’s the equivalent of a “school,” i.e., the Bauhaus or—if you’re feeling really generous—the Impressionists.
But even if you’re not trying to form a movement or project what you do as something important, it’s good to have a lot of eyes on your work at any given time. Your fellow artists and your friends are cheerleaders and supporters as well as critics and sounding boards. You’ll have a better idea of what connect with other people the more you share your work. And connection is what you’re after. Making work for yourself alone is fine, but resonance with others is what makes art deeply important for us all.
What do we do with all these things we’re noticing? If we start paying attention to both sides of things, we’re seeing details we overlook. We’re noticing how they fit into a larger context: the big picture. What’s after getting these new thoughts and images?
The things we take for granted, things we think are routine and familiar are full of life and fractalised components of being. But you don’t have to consciously apply the stuff you perceive to any creative thing you’re working on.
This act of trying to see deeply applies itself.
I would argue—and I do argue—that there’s a magic connection to your work, if you’re doing both things together. “Magic” not in a mystical sense, but in an ineffable I-don’t-know-how-this-works-but-it-happens sense. Making and creating is enhanced and enriched by your changing the way you move through familiar environments. And the fact that you’re working on art of some kind enlivens your mundane perceptions.
You don’t have to try. We can overthink the work very easily. I think a better way to improve and hone the thing you do is to carry the feelings and careful way of seeing (or listening) outside the place you make that thing.
Consider not boxing in your work. See if you can open the sense of flow throughout the rest of your day.
It’s a simple equation, but not necessarily an easy one. You do your best work in any given situation—except when you exceed your expectations, or utterly fail to meet them.
What matters is that you dig dee enough to lose yourself in the creating. Flow will take care of both uncertainty and evaluating the past work. If you try to make something “great,” or similar superlatives, it’s a distraction. What you’re aiming for is to melt away judgment and doubt. That happens when you have a habit of falling into a piece and finding its soul, for lack of a more real term.
This takes time and practice. But it’s a common and easily understood phenomenon for creators of all types. You know when you’ve reached the point when you’re on the other side of it.
Assumptions about what I like can quickly become dogma, and it’s especially strong where music is concerned. Like any other preference in art, it’s good to push against your biases and preconceptions, even when you’re the one who made them.
Parquet Courts is a recent example. I like them, but wasn’t as blown away by their last album as a lot of people in my musical sphere of influence. And yet, somehow, this one song played while I was out today, and I didn’t remember they’d done it. It was terrific, different than most of the other songs, and made me want to listen more closely to the whole album.
There. Opinion diverted, openness to explore renewed. I hope I can keep that mindset going in the future.
The wit and wisdom of Ferris Buehler? Probably could have been a bestseller if they’d had the stones to publish it during the 80s when Ferris was hot. But still. It is true, I believe, that you need to keep looking around you at your world and your life. It does move pretty fast. We can easily get caught in our routines and drudges and overlook the weird, the exciting, the beautiful things that just seem to appear right next to us.
I put up a photo on Instagram a few days ago, showing a gorgeous yellow field of ginkgo leaves next to the freeway near my apartment. Now, just days later, it’s not so amazing—just another patch of bare dirt and some piles and patches. Keep watch: beautiful and strange stuff just shows up, briefly, and you need to be ready for it.
There are a number of people I know of—and friends I know—who are either decoupling from the endless social media feeds completely, experimenting with vacations away from them, or moderating down their use and intake of the same. It’s probably healthy to do one of those things if you find you’re not doing the things you think you want to, or feeling gross after scrolling feeds. John Green, no less, is taking a year off social media completely:
He takes time to point out the good things about social media, too, but overall, wants to spend some time being better at the things he wants and needs to do.
Similarly, Wheezy Waiter (Craig Benzine) and his wife, Chyna Pate, quit the internet entirely for a month and vlogged the results:
I think even if we don’t go the radical route, there’s a lot of food for thought in these vids, and tangible utility in understanding the brain hacks of social media and how we might benefit from circumventing them.
Just a reminder here—because most of us need reminding, now and again—to keep looking at everything around you. Noticing things others don’t notice is part of being an artist. You have to be able to convey a vision to the world, either an internal or a translated external one (come to think of it, inner visions have to be translated themselves).
In order to fully convey your vision to us, you need to have seen and absorbed what you’re putting down for others. You can’t do that unless you’re really good at seeing stuff.
It’ll seem too simple at first. Then, as you keep noticing and looking deeper and longer, you start to see that it’s almost infinitely complex, and you could get lost in the most mundane slice of your day. But don’t stop. The idea for your next thing comes from what you see and how much and how far you see into it.
Here in the U.S., we’ve been entertaining ourselves by letting lots of outrages from factions we oppose stand in for our various personal grudges and grievances. I would like to say I’m hopeful we can find common ground somewhere, but I’m not sure that will happen soon.
I have my own personal beliefs and desires for helping the greatest number of people the most, but some of my beliefs are concerned with ways to live and those aren’t always objective, superior ways. We need some compromising largesse toward each other.
But we can keep sending more art into the world. More expression, more passion, more remixing and recombining old ideas into new ones. When times are troubled, creative work can act as both refuge and inspiration. It’s the place to channel your energy and focus after they’ve been hijacked by TV ads and yelling heads.
The difference is stark. You matter, and so does your voice. I’m struck by a line from Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder:
The world needs your novel!
And, for sure, there’s plenty to unpack surrounding the word, “needs,” because in a strictly survivalist sense, the word doesn’t.
But that statement is a passionate entreaty to start creating. It says your views and thoughts and your own passions matter, and they have something to contribute to humanity at large.
Until and unless you have followers and fans of your work, it’s going to seem a bit lonely, like your voice is mighty small in a very dark and enormous void. You aren’t useless, you’re working, making, creating. You do matter. You’re ineffectual, as far as the outside world is concerned. But that isn’t the important thing. What’s important is that you press on, say what you must say, and give that work to the world.
Because we need it, and we cannot know what effect it will have before it’s out there.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.