Aging comes with a few characteristic abilities, many of which seem to be complaining—about the weather, what hurts on your body, these kids today (DISCLAIMER: I’m firmly in the the-kids-are-alright camp and expect to continue to remain).
And the cost isn’t cheap. Bodies break down and get slower. It’s nothing unusual, it happens to everyone who keeps living. It’s ordinary stuff.
But there are definite benefits to getting older, and the biggest one is simple, accumulated experience. True, wisdom isn’t inevitable, but it’s a lot easier to harness. Appreciation for beauty and recognition of darkness is easier, too. There’s a wealth of years that lets us understand the world better and how it all fits together.
If you’re an artist getting older, this is your advantage. “Write what you know” becomes a massive toolbox, which for a young person would tend to be a small, spare tray. You can use this in your work: put everything you are into it, because the ocean of accumulated life inside you is very big, indeed.
This one, which is going to feature the work of newly-graduated MFA students, is something I’d like to see. But then, in the details, are things like the prestige of venue, and the million dollar cost.
I’m not sure it’s the direction I want to see. The art world is already so focused on sales, and this is more of the same system that pushes artists to structure work to market preferences.
I get the opportunity to the students, and congratulations to them for getting in on this. But I’d like to see a bigger push to strive for meaning and broad openness in both art and its exhibitions.
It’s a bit like the zen koan “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” You need your influences, your artist heroes, and you stand taller on their shoulders. But you can’t focus on them too much or your own style won’t progress. Or, at least, progress will be slower. And life, as a wise philosopher once said, “moves pretty fast.”
Counterintuitively, the more you love your favorite artists, the more you have to dismiss them when you work. Steal liberally, but broadly, and the mix will become your own.
There’s a tendency for the organized—even slightly organized—to spend lots of time designing the plan for a project or schedule. It can be really satisfying to see a detailed layout of your time, and how it’s supposed to get used.
But life is tricksy, and tends to defy our expectations and demands. The detailed scheme is like an oil painting you spent weeks on, perfecting the details and carefully mixing colors and layering. It’s sometimes fulfilling and valuable to make something with the full force of your skill and intention. But the plan isn’t that time.
The plan benefits from a little flexibility, like a charcoal sketch you can erase and blend as you go. Unless you’ve got a trust fund and a studio and all the time in the world to yourself, life inevitably throws curve balls and monkey wrenches into the works with regularity.
Adaptability and an openness to small changes in the plan means you can keep the main effort for your work, and your time spent where it’ll be most satisfying.
The first thing you are asked to do in any drawing class for homework is to start a sketchbook. Sometimes there are specific things you’re asked to draw, but often the bulk of the pages are up to you as to what you fill them with.
Most working artists keep a sketchbook, too. It’s a repository for thoughts, lists, and…throwaway scraps of imagination and observation: ephemera. And they usually stay that way. The stuff we put in the sketchbook is just practice and things that occur to us in the moment, visually.
But having captured those fleeting shreds, every so often we’ll find a gem of an idea that’s actually a vein of possibility we can mine and turn into something big and meaningful. Keep an eye out, you never know where the scraps will reveal themselves to be more.
There are mostly disadvantages to getting ill. If you’re feeling particularly bad, there are scary (scarily expensive) doctor or hospital visits. But usually, it’s just a drawn out discomfort that leaves you disoriented and dazed.
There’s an advantage for artists: it can help you see in new ways and think new thoughts. They may not be coherent thoughts, but any chance to break out of patterns and routines of thinking is good. Try to write things down or sketch ideas. Usually, you’re too weak or uncoordinated to do real work, but getting the gist on paper (digital paper, too) can help you see different ways to make things when you feel better.
Rather, I got busy, with a changing schedule that finally caught up with me post-holidays. So I missed a daily post yesterday after a rare night shift. But that’s as may be. Life isn’t a factory where you set up processes and systems and they run on a timetable. Bits of it, maybe, but not everything.
Your art is the same. You’ve got goals, ideals, and maybe you’ve made resolutions to create more stuff in the new year. And—maybe—you’ve stumbled or missed. It’s okay. This is a year to be kinder to yourself about your work.
One of my goals in 2019 is to gently encourage, rather than berate, myself about mistakes and dropping various balls. Positive reinforcement is a hedge against so much toxicity and anger out there beyond your skin. C’mon. It’s time to be your own kindest critic, at least for a while.
I feel as if I’ve said this before. Which is a strange thing for me to mention, because I know I’ve repeated things a few times on the blog, but it’s really a foundational idea about artists: the way you work is meaningful, and it’s worth thinking about. You want to craft and build in a way that supports the finished work, because in grand zen tradition, the journey is the reward, and the teacher, not to mention the greater part of your time.
And time is the most important thing you own. It’s going to be spent. Make sure you spend it in ways that support you and your work. If it doesn’t, time to change something.
I’m at my brother’s house for Christmas. It’s great to be with family again, we missed it last year. Getting back together with your friends and/or family is one of the touted treasures of the season. But sometimes overlooked is the coexistence of winter holidays with the solstice, when the darkest days—of the northern hemisphere—turn back toward the light.
I’m never against a little darkness in the world. All those Darth Vader t-shirts and stormtrooper backpacks show that we kinda like it. We carry it within us and we use it to entertain ourselves and to teach good ways of being to others. But we don’t do well giving in to dark impulses or even weather all the time.
The light comes again, we experience renewal as winter fades and spring promises growth all around us. It just means more when we understand the cold and dark things and don’t shy away from exploring them and understanding them.
We like to think of our progress as a diagonal line moving ever upward. But that not how we experience change and growth. There are plenty of moments we regress, stumble, forget, and falter. Looking back over a long series of projects or experiences, we can see we’ve come a long way from where we started. But if you get into the details of the actual days—even weeks or months!—there are some plateaus, sometimes backslides, and occasionally valleys.
Those times, we feel like our work is stagnating or moving in the wrong direction. The insight or breakthrough happened and then, for a while, it’s like we got worse again. This is normal.
Try not to sweat it. The important thing is to keep going. You can only really see the massive improvements you’ve made when you look back at a big section of what you’ve done and where you’ve gone.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.