Stepping Back (in)
I’ve been away from being public about my art for a little while now. I’ve only applied to a single program, I’ve written no blog posts, showed no work and even turned down a few shows. I needed a break where I could think my thoughts without offering them to the world.
Years ago I might have pushed on, and possibly had a breakdown. I’ve learned better. During the course of my recently completed MFA program six people I love died. Three of my four grandparents, one of whom was like a second mother to me. Two mentors. One friend and fellow artist to suicide.
Just on their own MFA programs are difficult, intense cauldrons of emotion and ego and challenge and intensity of ideas and beliefs. They are the crucibles that forge us… those of us who don’t crack. The ones that did crack were measured in the bulging mailboxes and empty studio spaces at the end of each year, and there were more than a few. We put ourselves on the line, our ideas, our thoughts, our work, and those of us who are willing, our loves and lives and beliefs too. Of course, the current fashion is cynicism and snarkyness (which doesn’t call on people to put themselves out so far) but for me being on the line it is what makes the art have a soul, and while Soul doesn’t matter to some, and there is some good purely intellectual/aesthetic art, it matters very much to me.
After the thesis show I had immediate offers for shows and commissions- wonderful opportunities, but not the breath of air I needed. For a full year after it I was busy, during which there was another death, the final grandparent. They all lived full lives, all died over 94, but the loss is ours and never easy. The situation of being in constant physical pain was one factor I had throughout all three years, as was being the main caretaker of my young daughter during a period where my husband was so busy he rarely even got weekends off. There were other significant pressures I won’t list. It was a hard three years. It was also intensely productive and important.
At the same time I was incredibly fortunate. I didn’t have to pull my hair out over money. I had love and good friends and whether I wanted a break or not I those commissions and shows just dropped into my lap- nearly every vacation during the MFA program as well as after it. I didn’t have to look for a single show after I graduated- I didn’t have time for any more, but when I saw the pause in the stream, I took the break instead of hunting for the next one. I shut down the blog and set out to take care of everything in my life that had been held together with sealing wax for three years. I did things for the fun of them, I saw the people I love, I experienced new things and got new ideas.
Like many artists, I have depression. I have anxiety and panic attacks. It is almost a cliche that artists are tortured souls and some of us think we can’t work without that (I disagree, but it is different). Chronic pain adds its own layer to one’s process. Most people looking at me would have no idea about the first two and many would never know about the pain either. There were many classes and critiques where I was clenching my fists not to scream from the physical pain in my back and concentrating hard on keeping a normal face. I have many strategies for dealing with it all. I kept on, put one foot in front of the other, did all the things I needed to do and held everything together and met every deadline, did my best work… and when I had an opening I did the sane thing I would not have done 10 years ago, and rested.
You see two other people died during that time, acquaintances, but each with a compelling message. One was another suicide from depression- someone who worked himself into the ground and didn’t acknowledge the care he needed to take of himself, he pushed himself too far. The other was a car crash, a terrible random thing that could take any of us at any moment. When I resurfaced those deaths reminded me again not to take a moment for granted, and not to put taking care of myself last. I even discovered something to help my back and for the first time in seven years I’m having multiple days without serious pain. I’m breathing again.
So here I am, back at work. My mind has been plotting new art, my hands have been busy, sketches and ideas form. It’s time to step back in to show my work and share my thoughts again. I leave you with this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on creative genius and depression.
***Addition: Wonderfully, when I moved on to check my email I found an invitation to include a specific piece in an exciting museum show in another country waiting in my inbox. A well-timed confirmation to stepping back in indeed.