Told time and time again, as if the frequency would further its potency, we are told these are unprecedented circumstances. But for artists, being holed up in our homes trying to sometimes force the world into comprehensible concepts, into a perspective for ourselves and through our work in which the world can feel right-side-up, isn’t necessarily new. It’s only now that so many people are joining us in such mental confinement when we are tasked with making sense of incomprehensible conditions. I would bet that if you struggle with mental health conditions, you understand this sentiment completely.
While the looming date of freedom when our economy and mobility are restored seems reassuring, for artists it can put the unnecessary pressure to be productive, even prolific, during this time. As an artist, I find such pressure more of a hindrance than a hallmark to look forward to. The expectation to be productive in any artistic endeavor, be in a specific project or simply the commitment to better one’s mental health over a prolonged period of time, sets arbitrary boundaries and expectations that make the act of being creative too rigid, too specified, too formulaic.
So during this time, while artists struggling to balance mental health continue to do so now with the camaraderie of the masses, it’s important to reframe the idea of ‘productivity’ as only a quantifier taken in hindsight, at least for now, so as to allow space for mental clarity, playfulness, and to ease the burden of such trying times. It’s important still to set goals, and to be held accountable to our work both mentally and physically. As an artist and writer, I use the following tactics to strike a balance of accomplishment without undue pressure, and plan to take these tactics through the LikeMind program and its accountability markers:
Remember the joy of creating
Once one embraces the title of ‘artist’ or even admits the desire to express through art (even as a hobby), the responsibility to actually create sets in. I have, too many times over, fallen and crumbled under the pressure to create art (in my case, articles) that appeased as many of the masses as possible. Be it a blog post, an instagram poem, or a longform essay; what was once an altruistic and intriguing idea morphs into verbiage that is popular, clickable, and re-postable on Instagram. It’s not to discredit the idea of making art that speaks to many minds, but that shouldn’t diminish the commitment to enjoy the act.
As art is an act of translation (that of the intangible and inexplicable into something concrete and deeply understood) I would hope that good artistic work would reach into hearts and minds without having that explicit intent. And yes, there are ample hours in the day currently to spend scrolling blogs and tumblrs and Instagram accounts, and doing so may very well inspire us artists to be productive and make something that goes mainstream. But to protect our integrity as beings and artists, recentering our efforts on the enjoyment of creating should surpass. Especially now, in an uncertain world, we are in a perfect time to simply create for the joy of doing so, as the world pauses to rest and restore. We, as artists, can do the same, and create in any medium simply for the joy it provides.
Play in the negative space
I have long lived by an imaginary mental space in which I start every article: I call this place in my mind ‘creative negative space’. It’s a space where, once I have been jolted by an idea or concept or thought I want to build around, I am able to simply and with abandon and curiosity, explore the fundamentals of the concept. How does it feel? What does it want to say, beyond what I hope for it? What haven’t I noticed hidden in its folds? Here in this space of nothingness, I don’t have to plan out what I hope the project will do or say. I am free, unbound, and so is the work I do with the concept itself.
Starting from this place takes the pressure off the finished project, and puts the fun back into the experimentation of ideas. In doing so, I also strengthen and maintain my mental balance of living through ideas rather than for them. There is little sacrifice and strain here; there is simply collaboration with the idea rather than the feeling of forcing, beating down, and often destroying an idea that was once beautiful in its own right. I’m working with, rather than against, the current of my head. I find that doing so keeps anxiety at bay as well and expectations out of the way. Of course mental health is much more important than productivity no matter what your profession. Creative negative space offers the chance for a fun and cathartic release into the work, making the aim to express and release more than to polish and perfect.
Let the idea express itself
Though I’m a writer and the written word is my medium of choice (and forte), there are concepts that even I can’t pinpoint into the right wording. In a recent project in collaboration with an LA based non-profit, I was tasked with describing and documenting what it was like to be an artist who struggles with mental health. Immediately, I felt my own words falling flat, and so started to document via video what it felt like to be an artist with depression. In doing so I had hoped that I’d get a better idea of my own conditions (depression and PTSD), and so be able to identify specific parts of my mental health I needed help improving.
Doing so took on a life of its own; the videos revealed a woman struggling to maintain mental health in an otherwise totally normal lifestyle. Such deeply personal moments caught on camera gave me a much better idea of my mental state, what works — and doesn’t work — in terms of my own treatment and stabilization. It became its very own project. Eventually I turned these videos into an expose series that has not only made quarantine more fun, but taught via trial-and-error an entirely new medium: videography. The videos are now being posted on my own website as well as Youtube in hopes of helping people better understand what depression looks and feels like.
The same tactic might be taken in your own life, in this open space with which to be inquisitive. Are new emotions and ideas coming up for you because of the times we are in? How might those ideas long to express themselves, if not in your usual medium? Now is a beautiful time to start teaching yourself a new form of expression; may the painter try his hand at poetry, and the dancer work her magic through charcoal. Once you have forgone the pressure of being ‘good’ at something and simply become a student again, you will reveal to yourself skills you never knew you had that have nothing to do with the medium itself. It doesn’t matter if, as a sculpture, you are terrible at writing. What matters is that you dive in and try, and be open to discovering traits you never knew you had: possibly that you are actually incredibly quick in thought, and that the words (even if nonsensical) flow rapidly and fervently. Such is the nature of your creativity, and should be celebrated. And might never have happened had you been too prescriptive in how you had intended to express an idea.
Being productive is a beautiful thing, but should never be forced especially if doing so sacrifices integrity. It’s ok to slow down, take time to enjoy the process, be exploratory and curious, and become a novice in the art of living once again.
As I prepare to go deeper into my newfound projects and my work in this organization and others, I find these lessons invaluable, and the thrill of a new way of being and creating so incredible. I wish nothing but the same for you, in whatever it is you plan to do with your time in isolation. May the joy of art, be it your own creation or that of others, bring you solitude.