Recently, WBUR had a story about how events out of our control – such as the recent election – create stress and internal turmoil that can disrupt all aspects of our lives.
For artists creating (or trying to create) new work, this can mean a serious disruption of their art-making process. We asked artists, How do you approach art-making during times of emotional distress?
Jodie Mim Goodnough, multidisciplinary artist
My work for years has been about emotional distress, both mild and pathological, and the coping mechanisms we use to self-soothe, so you’d think I’d have all the tools I need. Based on the research for my recent work, what I should be doing is going for long walks in the woods and taking deep breaths of forest air. What I’m actually doing, however, is sitting on the couch reading about how much better I would feel if I went for a walk in the woods.
But if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that you can’t beat yourself up for slowing down occasionally – it only compounds the misery. When I don’t have it in me to hit the studio I do small things in the direction of productivity. I research and I plan for future projects. And I look for non-art tasks that feel productive as well, like studying Spanish. I’m currently living in Providence, which has a large Latino population. I feel like I need to find ways to better connect with people in my community right now, and learning another language, even at a basic level, will help me do that.
Jessica Reik, writer
There are always emotions. Some of them are more uncomfortable for me to be with than others. Some, like elation, feel really good but interfere with my ability to write – elation wants the external and so I’m out doing, not home writing! Fear, sadness, insecurity, they pose different challenges. Seeming bottomless (they never are), they threaten to take over the executive self and with it, all those evolved capacities of the human brain – like perspective – I rely on to write.
I like to sit with a difficult emotion and feel where it’s lodged in my body, then find out what’s underneath. Take fear (often in my lower abdomen). Fundamentally, it’s a lack of basic safety, so I look for that safety in tangible ways and identify what is trustworthy and supportive — my bones, my breath, the chair I’m sitting in. Simple stuff. I like to give structure for the emotion, a house I’ve built for it to roam around in, because the emotion itself isn’t the problem, it’s my reaction to it.
Always, in the end, I find myself in the same place at the end of this process — back to the work. My writing comes out of those very same vulnerable places where sadness takes root — where all emotions do — and yet is also one of the sources of stability that gets me through.
Michael Joseph, photographer
In times of emotional stress, not only making art, but also viewing art can provide a much-needed emotional release. Often my most productive periods are when I feel a need to disconnect with my own internal stressors and reconnect with life that is happening around me. Grabbing my camera and going for a walk breaks up a physically sedentary day but also an emotionally clouded one.
Street photography is unique in that it allows the artist to be present with the world in a way that working in a studio cannot. It shifts our role from being a participant to being an observer. Working on the street has a unique duality: the sometimes frustrating challenge of dealing with the unforeseen but also the excitement and reward of capturing the serendipitous. Events out of our control and uncertainty therefore become positives. By paying close attention to unpredictable actions and emotions of others in fluid environments, we are forced to focus less on our own internal thoughts to capture external narratives in real time.
I always saw the camera as a powerful tool of connection. Making street portraits of strangers whose personalities and places in the world are different from my own, forces me to engage with others and learn from them. It presents the challenge of making their unique, internal story come to the surface through a portrait. There is no time for subjects to look in the mirror, change clothes, fix hair or put on make-up, and I can’t ask the sun to change or the clouds to move… I am forced to make art from what is before me. And in that reality, I make my most powerful work.
Jodie Mim Goodnough is a Providence, Rhode Island-based artist whose work revolves around the use of images in psychology and psychiatry, and includes photography, sculpture, performance, video and sound. Recently, she received a 2017 Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Photography and was named a 2017 Traveling Fellow by the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. Her work will exhibit in Building a Lineage at Piano Craft Gallery in Boston, January 2017.
Michael Joseph is a street and street portrait photographer. His “Lost and Found” series, which has been featured on CNN, will be included in the December 8 slide presentation night (Dec 8, 6:30 PM) to complement IDENTITY: The List Portraits at The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Recently honored in PhotoLucida’s Critical Mass 2016 Top 50 list, he’ll have work in the accompanying exhibition (Apr 7-May 2 at the Artwork Network Gallery Space in Denver). He has an article coming out in the December issue of the Czech Republic magazine CILICHILI. Find him on Instagram and Facebook.
Writer Jessica Reik was awarded a fellowship position in Grub Street’s Memoir Incubator Program, where she worked on the memoir The Fathom-Long Body. Recently, she received a fellowship to attend a Ucross Foundation residency and was named a finalist in StoryQuarterly Non Fiction Prize. On Tuesday, January 17, 2017, at 7 PM, she’ll read her work in an event featuring MCC literary awardees.
Images: Jodie Mim Goodnough, NORTHAMPTON STATE HOSPITAL (2015) from the PROSPECT project, three Inkjet Prints on cotton lawn, 36×78 in; Michael Joseph, SOPHIE (2013), archival pigment print, 16×16 in.