Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives.
This month, we asked, How do you deal with stress and burn-out, as an artist?
Kavita Pillay, filmmaker
If being stressed out earned awards, I’d have a shelf lined with trophies. And for those of us who excel at stress, what a time to be alive!
Last summer, after too many late nights spent scrolling through news feeds, I realized I needed something in my days beyond endless to-do lists and Twitter induced terror. Something creative and fulfilling and yet completely unrelated to the ups and many downs of making a documentary film. Something that existed long before any of us, and that will be here long after you and I are gone from this earth. Which I’m fairly certain will be any day now, because I’ve spent too much time on Twitter.
With that, I bought a piano.
Between work and life, I’m lucky to find ten minutes a day to practice, and when I do, I plod along, tres lentement, making mistake after mistake. The results are irrelevant, it’s the act itself that’s important. I’ll never be an award winning pianist, but ten minutes at a time, it’s making me less of an award-winning stress case.
Alexis Ivy, poet and homeless services worker
Working in homeless services as a street outreach advocate is demanding on my soul. I work through my trauma on the job by freewriting – pour my emotions and experience onto the page. This process lets me unwind and breathe. It is so easy to take work home with me but once I write down the beautiful and ugly things that happen I have a sense of relief. I am then able to make art of it. I now own the experience which allows me to overcome it. I have known the therapeutic value of writing – I take my energy and transform it into art. This is my response. This is how I am revived.
Paul Chojnowski, visual artist
For over twenty years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis I lived a middle class bohemian life exclusively from the sale of my work through commercial galleries in a handful of North American cities – the Nocturne Series of cityscapes were my mainstay. The Great Recession followed, discretionary spending ceased, and sales of my work plummeted. By 2011, I had taken my first day job (which is now part time); this year, sales of my work are slowly increasing and along with occasional adult education teaching opportunities, my financial circumstances are improving. The Mass Cultural Council Fellowship has had a profound impact on that shift resulting in more time in my studio.
Now in my early 60’s with a 30 year career of exhibitions and sales, I look ahead with great optimism to a couple more decades of making my work; so the notion of burn-out is a foreign concept to me. Stress on the other hand in the form of financial uncertainty has been a challenge for me as it is for many artists. I believe it is the trade-off for a life spent pursuing one’s work.
Nona Hershey, visual artist
I mostly think with my hands, so having work to react to is important. Burn-out happens when I have exhausted an idea and am searching for a new one. To get through, I make anything: collages of old work, random color studies, even doodling. Once I am in that blessed quiet place of concentrating by making something with my hands, I incidentally create something to react to and usually, that will take me to a new idea. How long that takes is where there is room for stress to take over.
I think that my weakest work was made while I was out of the room (stressed) and my best work is made when I am focused enough to listen to what a piece I am working on tells me what it wants to be.
I have two quotes on my studio wall:
Charlie Chaplin: “Art is the concealment of efforts.”
Elizabeth Bishop on what makes a good poem: “accuracy, spontaneity, mystery.”
And a drawing a student of mine made which he didn’t like – he called it “too intentful.” I started to say that’s not a word, and then I realized it was a perfect word. He gave me the drawing.
Paul Chojnowski is a visual artist who uses a propane torch to create drawings on paper and wood.
Nona Hershey has a solo exhibition of work in watercolor, graphite powder and gouache on paper at Soprafina Gallery in Boston (thru 5/27).
Alexis Ivy is the author of the poetry collection Romance with Small-time Crooks, and her work has been featured in Mass Poetry’s Poetry on the T.
Kavita Pillay is a filmmaker and media producer. She is currently at-work on the documentary film Stalin, Lenin, and Other Tales from South India, which recently received a LEF Foundation Moving Image Fund Grant for Post-Production, and a BBC radio documentary about Finland.
Images: still image from STALIN, LENIN, AND OTHER TALES FROM SOUTH INDIA, a film-in-progress by Kavita Pillay; Paul Chojnowski, GOTHAM FILM STILL (2014), burned and scorched Baltic birch plywood, 60x40x2 in; Nona Hershey, SENSORS 2 (2018), watercolor, graphite powder, gouache, 40×40 in.
June August says
Congratulations to Nona Hershey on her outstanding exhibition currently at Soprafina Gallery in Boston!!
Sarah Leon says
When I am blocked I clean. I don’t like it but it helps. I put away the traces of old projects and organize unfinished ideas. If a clean studio doesn’t help, I like to spend time looking at what other artists are doing. There are so many talented people and it’s inspiring to see that they’ve made. If that doesn’t help, I go for a long walks and think.
When I’m stressed. I spend time looking at beautiful things. That state of fascination which comes from observing skill is calming. It can be anything, images, objects, music, clothing, or even something athletic. Observing and appreciating requires a slower sense of time and that tricks me out of twitchy anxiety and makes me feel hopeful that everything will come together.