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.