Intentional Ignorance: how the artist preserves her studio time

We’re way too busy! Who ever said that technology would make our lives simpler and allow us more leisure time was seriously wrong. Past the laundry machines and the dishwasher, it’s only made our lives more frantic and at this point we’re all racing along at an inhuman pace. But, in the midst of all this madness, the artist is expected to protect her creative time. Yes, it’s true that all our new technology and communication tools have made us only a click away from information and anyone who might need us, and it also means we’re expected to do everything by ourselves and to do it fast. But if I cater to the pressure to do more, how can I keep my energy focused on what matters the most to me – creating artwork?

The orange cat, acrylic, 40″ x 40″

Of course the younger generation has discovered a pretty effective strategy for dealing with the information onslaught. I call it ‘intentional ignorance’. They only reply to texts and emails when and if they feel like it. It’s irritating to the older generation, but I see their point. It’s too much. Too many emails, too many social media posts, too many texts. There’s only so much anyone can do in a day and each of us has to select what deserves our attention. For me, it’s creating my artwork. Everything else, (except for walking my dog, of course), can wait.

Jess and Blair, who run Blogging 4 keeps; an interesting site dedicated to helping would-be-bloggers figure out how to be good bloggers, recently sent a newsletter titled Be More Ignorant Please.   They write about the overwhelming amount of ‘important things’ that we must deal with to be present on the web so we can promote our business. (And yes, it’s subject that concerns artists as much as any other business person.) They say “… allow yourself to be intentionally ignorant on certain things, even if people are telling you that it’s important to be an expert. Pinterest is important. Instagram is important. Email is important. Photography is important. Networking is important. But you can’t do it all, and if you do, you’ll be overwhelmed.”

Last week, a friend of mine generously volunteered to organise the details of an artistic group event. Others in the group had unintentionally neglected that project, perhaps, simply because they put their own priorities ahead of it. This meant that my friend was spending the best and most productive hours of a few days on this project – which also meant she wasn’t in her studio working on her art.

As we talked I realized once again that, for me, my job is to be in my studio creating. Yes, promoting my art on the web is important, yes being available to help organise artistic events is important, yes seeing my friends is important, but none of it is as important as the time I reserve to be in my studio. And I need that time every day for a number of hours.

Cisco on our morning walk in the forest

Some artists give themselves a rigid schedule to make sure this happens. I have a friend who’s in her studio by 8:00 am and doesn’t leave until noon. No matter what. Me, I try to be aware of how much I can stand of each distracting chore. Mornings are best for me, so I get up early. I dedicate the first hour and a half to writing, researching and thinking things through for my various art projects and marketing my work. Then Cisco and I go for our walk where the forest re-centers me and puts me in the right mood for my creative work. By the time we get back, Cisco’s ready for his nap under my work table, and I’m energized and alert, ready to be creative until it’s time to teach my after-school painting classes. Of course some projects will inevitably compromise that schedule, but I’m pretty conscientious about sticking to it.

Art Work Archive recently posted a blog titled How to create more time for your art: a worksheet where they share a handy printable “little exercise in self-reflection that can help you figure out how to gain more time back for your art.” Through a short series of pertinent questions, they encourage us to look at where we spend our time and to question if it is where we really want to spend it.

Our crazy world is frenetic! More than ever we need to discipline ourselves into choosing where we want our focus to be. I want to concentrate on creating inspired works of art. As to the rest? I try to cram what I can into the not-so-productive hours of the day. That often means I don’t get it all done, but I’ve made my peace with that. The funny thing is, though, nobody seems to notice what I don’t get done – or care, for that matter.


Making Art: an antidote for today’s anxiety epidemic

Everybody’s talking about it these days. It seems that everyone I know feels anxious or is living with someone who struggles with anxiety.

My zen cell phone cover

In the blog The Anxiety Epidemic, they report that the American National Institute of Mental Health says “… 38 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder.” And they go on to explain that “… this is partly due to incessant smartphone use in general and more specifically, their use for communication purposes.” And I’m now convinced that many grown-ups, like me for example, are equally susceptible to this electronic epidemic because just yesterday my dog, Cisco, made that abundantly obvious.

Cisco keeps me company in my studio every day. He sleeps under foot where I’m working and early yesterday morning I was interrupted by several text messages.   Each time my phone made a text sound, Cisco jumped up from his nap and rushed toward me as if saying “Hey! Grab your phone – it’s calling you!” After about the third text, I realized that Cisco and I both have been trained too well. Pavlov, I’m sure, would be delighted. I can imagine him bragging, “See! She’s almost as well conditioned as her dog!” 

Cisco dozing off under my studio table

Yes, I know, I know. Smartphones are here to stay. They’re practical little tools that make life a lot easier. But, as the blog goes on to say, “… they are having a deleterious effect on our mental and emotional functioning. People who use them a lot (and that is most of us) cannot seem to stay away from them and the research is pretty clear that one major cause is anxiety… we know that some form of anxiety is driving us to check in constantly with our technology.”

But what Cisco taught me yesterday was that we both need a break. He needs his nap at least as much as I need my art. That’s when I can be totally immersed for hours at a time, and emerge completely invigorated by the creative process. I finally realized that when I’m interrupted by my phone, my anxiety kicks in, so that when I try to get back to work it takes a while for the creative process to re-engage. Obviously, I need to turn the phone off when I’m working.

The blog Stress-related Hormone Cortisol Lowers Significantly After Just 45 Minutes of Art Creation offers a solution: Make art, it will lower the level of stress hormones in your body. It shares the results of a new Drexel University study, and quotes Girija Kaimal, EdD who is an Assistant Professor of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. She says that the study results where not,“…surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.”

I feel that every day I work. It’s incredibly calming to put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or hands in modelling clay. I can also see it in my students. Adults, teenagers and kids alike show up at my studio, many of them wound up tight from whatever is going on in their lives. And then, within 20 minutes of shifting their focus to making art, their demeanour changes. They relax their shoulders, they breathe more slowly, and they look and feel better. They’ve given themselves an antidote to anxiety.

Try it! Turn off your phone. Pick up a pencil or a paint brush or a lump of clay and go for it. I promise you’ll be doing yourself a favour.


How do you know when a painting is finished?

My students see the evolution of my work. I’m a slow painter and paintings hang on my studio walls for weeks, so my students see the work from the original charcoal drawing to the final brush stoke. Some of them notice the process; others don’t. Some ask questions and all of them seem interested in my answers. But the other day one of the boys asked, “So? How do you know when it’s done?”

I love their questions. They force me to be more reflective about my own paintings, so I can be more intentional about transferring my own learning to their projects. When this delightful young man asked how I would know when my painting was done, I said, “When none of the colours jump out at me; when the colours are in equal balance. But I know for a fact that my rules of colour are different from other artists and from people who look at my work.”

“You see, my dad was seriously colour-blind. One day, he went shopping for a new car and came home bragging about the new station wagon he’d just bought. We were all pretty excited of course – at least until we had a look at it. It was bright neon orange! “I got a great deal on it,” he said proudly.” None of us had the heart to tell him why that salesman was undoubtedly bragging to his family that he’d finally unloaded that awful orange wagon. But, needless to say, we all came to love it despite its colour and, whenever we’re together, my sister and two brothers still tell stories about that ugly orange wagon dragging all 6 of us to the cabin every weekend.

Detail of The orange cat

Two of my three sons have inherited my dad’s colour-blindness so, to me, colour is an objective thing and colour balance can only be discerned by the viewer. In fact, the use of colour is what makes the ‘voice’ of each visual artist unique. And I think I’m a slow painter because that pace allows me to disappear into the process, to engage in a real dialogue with the colours. In a world where the private gallery system wants us to pop paintings out at an alarming rate, I go against the current and paint slowly. Not because I can’t paint fast, but because I’ve created a process for myself that allows me to spend the time to really see the colours live beside one another as the canvas fills. During that time I can observe the evolution of their relationships, and I can feel the tensions and releases between them. Being involved with a work of art for many hours makes me feel as though the whole world is contained in that one canvas. It’s a simpler version of the world, where everything exists in a state of respect for what surrounds it, and where I can exist as part of the process.

Detail of The orange cat

I have no idea how other people see it. But, to be honest, that’s not relevant. The only way for an artist to get to where she is going is to follow the path that her work is tracing for her, and to make abstraction of the outside world when it comes to painting decisions. One painting at a time is how an artist moves forward, each piece paving the way for the next work.

But, strangely, as soon as the painting is finished it doesn’t belong to me anymore. As much as I live in them while I’m painting, once done, my mind has moved on to the next project and the art has become part of a larger world that is out of my control. As Katie Ohe once told me, “All an artist can do is believe in what he does.”

My painting is finished when it feels right to me.


In the Moon Again: the power of daydreaming

As my young students were finishing their art lesson last Wednesday, one of the moms arrived at my studio to pick up her daughter. We chatted as the kids collected their belongings and trickled out the door but, as her daughter stayed focused on her artwork, I could hear the impatience in her voice when she said “Can you please pick up the pace a bit?” She laughingly explained, “No matter what the occasion, my daughter is always the last one ready to leave.”

Photo credit Jean Wallace

Yes, I thought, this kid really does live in her head and she’s perfectly happy there. But she’s also one of my most focused and clear minded students when it comes to painting with intention and finishing her artwork. Watching her at that moment, however, reminded me of my own childhood, and I could hear my mom saying “t’es encore dans la lune”!  You’re in the moon again – a poetic French expression perfectly describing that peaceful daydreaming state of mind. I must confess I was very good at it.

 

But then, of course, I grew up. I learned to ‘make the most of my waking hours’, and put my brain to ‘useful tasks’. Now though, I wonder. Am I really doing myself a favour? What if daydreaming offers powers of its own? Shouldn’t I tap into that?

Business Insider, in their blog called Here’s How To Daydream Your Way To Success, say that “History is full of high-achieving daydreamers: Einstein, Newton, and the Bronte sisters all lived much of their lives in their imaginations.” But there are right and wrong ways to daydream. They go on to explain the different styles of daydreaming as defined by Scott Barry Kaufman in “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined” at Psychology Today:

First style: “Poor attention control daydreaming. It’s characterized by easy distractibility and difficulty concentrating on either the external environment or an ongoing train of thought,”

Second style: “Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming. It features unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, guilt, fear of failure, and obsessive, hostile, and aggressive fantasies about others.”

Neither of those styles is constructive, and both can have serious negative impacts in most aspects of one’s life.

Third style: “The best kind of daydreaming is Positive-constructive daydreaming. It’s associated with openness to experience and reflects a drive to explore ideas, imagination, feelings, and sensations. Good daydreaming is linked to happiness, success and creativity.”

Daydreaming, as long as it’s done right, is a place where we can rehearse scenarios about our lives without any real consequences. But one must have a clear goal in mind, make sure to focus on positive thoughts, and brush away the obsessive and negative thoughts.”

Details from Longing for lazy days. Acrylic painting

As an artist, I believe that daydreaming is an important part of the process. It’s a place where I can plan a work of art without wasting materials. I can imagine new ideas. I can move subjects around in my mind. I can effortlessly visualize colours and movements. I can make changes without spending a dime.   And best of all, I have access to this tool anywhere and almost any time. I can daydream as I walk my dog, or when I’m in a boring meeting, or loading the dishwasher, or shovelling the walkway. It is my most powerful, portable and accessible creative tool and I use it as much as possible.

Detail from recently finished work

The subconscious mind is willing to go where our controlled thinking refuses to. While daydreaming, I can turn my project over to my subconscious brain and let it do its creative work. When I relinquish control and let my mind wander, suddenly the answer to whatever was blocking the process just shows up and all that’s left to do is to run with it.

This is what Brain Pickings, in their blog called A 5 Step Technique for Producing Ideas, call the “seemingly serendipitous A-ha! Moment. Out of nowhere the idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night. But for this moment to occur, the stage has to have been set up during daydreaming.”

“T’es encore dans la lune?” Good for you!


The Power to Connect: why an artist should get out of his studio and work with others

In May of 2016 I met with my francophone artist friends at the annual event organized by RAFA (Regroupement Artistique Francophone de l’Alberta). Le Forum du RAFA is a two-day event that has consistently been one of the most inspiring of the year for us. With nourishing discussion panels and activities gathering some of the best artistic minds of Alberta – who also speak French! I look forward to it every year.

It was at this forum that some of us agreed it’s important to stay connected throughout the year to share insights and trade ideas and resources. Five of us, Karen Blanchet , Sabine Lecorre-Morre , Doris Charest,  Daniele Petit, and myself, are self-employed, and managing our careers is no small task. It dawned on us that sharing our tools of the trade and some of the work could fun and beneficial for all of us.

We created an Artist Collective we named DEVENIR. It means ‘to become’ – a name inspired by a poem written by Michel Pleau , a Canadian poet. According to Wikipedia, an artist collective is “an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together, usually under their own management, towards shared aims. The aims of an artist collective can include almost anything that is relevant to the needs of the artist…” 

For more than a year and a half, the five of us have been meeting on skype once a week at 6:45 in the morning. Why so early? Because it’s the only time that’s almost guaranteed to be open for all of us. Our meetings are organized, with a set structure that includes a template based on Mastermind, a concept developed in 1925 by Napoleon Hill in his book The Law of Success . We each contribute our ideas and concerns and discuss them together at every meeting, an exercise that takes less than an hour.

The most important part of the process is the continuity offered by meeting regularly. It allows us to get to know one another’s art practices, personal habits and aspirations. It means that each of us can receive constructive criticism and encouragement from the other members of the group. Few people are able to clearly identify their own good or bad habits, where they might need a little encouragement and how to realize their limits in terms of overcoming obstacles and finding their own the solutions. Meeting regularly gives all of us a chance to be observed and receive support. So during our meetings, we use a series of affirmations that remind us of the power of the group and of the humble, respectful and trusting attitude we all need to embrace toward one another. We get to understand one another’s goals, it reminds us what we’re trying to achieve and brings us back on track when we stray. Best of all, we’re also there to celebrate our successes.

The quarterly physical meetings are more substantial. That’s when we spend a full day together and dig deeper into subjects that deserve our attention. It’s where we set the plans for collective artwork and exhibition projects. We discuss projects, ideas, share tools and discoveries. We also look at opportunities both for each individual and for the group, and we share the workload related to that. Five people applying to galleries have a compounding effect on our access to professional exposure.

Another important aspect of this process is the accountability factor. Once you have told the group you want to achieve something, it’s a powerful motivator. I don’t know about other people, but for me, my pride kicks in and I have to accomplish whatever I said I would do.

Putting our minds together saves time. Each of us has discovered useful tools, sourced a list of suppliers, assembled a list of galleries, and created our own systems. I use to spend two to four hours before each show building up my list of works and preparing tags. Now, though, I use Karen’s recommendation and it has saved me hours of work. She suggested I try a web tool called Artwork Archive that painlessly manages inventory. Thanks to Karen, I discovered that once I spent the initial setup time entering all my work into their system, (a task that can easily be delegated to a 16-year-old at $12/hour), then I could prepare a show catalogue and the tags to go with it in a matter of minutes.

This short, early morning skype meeting each week has done more for our respective careers than most other endeavours we’ve tried. And, as a bonus, we have a solid group of friends with similar goals and interests. As my mom would say, “They are people who are constant witnesses of your life and can vouch for you. And you can do the same for them.” DEVENIR has helped make life manageable. It multiplies opportunities and renews our focus, dedication and power to dream big.

Merci DEVENIR!

 


Fancy Art People, Fancy Talk

How do you reconcile your need to push the reflection onto the artwork with the need to stay connected to your society?

Rêves d’été/Summer dream, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Last night I had a strange dream. I was at a fancy art dinner, filled with fancy people wearing fancy cloths and talking fancy talk that made no sense. My sister was there with me and she was just as lost. “What is this dinner all about anyway?” she asked. The other people gathered around her and whispered nonsense answers about what they though we were all doing there. But once again, it made no sense to me and the whispering thing was just so weird.

I woke up with a smile, thinking that was a strange dream! But I know very well that dreams come from our subconscious brains trying to make sense of the things that are troubling us, the things we experience during our waking hours.

A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Your Sleeping Genius by Dr Gale Delanay. She explains, “Many dreams come in the form of sophisticated metaphorical thinking and problem solving. The dreamer wakes to remember powerful stories filled with symbols that seem to make little sense to the conscious mind and are often soon forgotten… but you can learn how to make good use of what your dreaming brain is trying to tell you.” At the time, I had followed her dream interpretation technique for a few months and it had been a very enlightening experience. It helped me to identify things that scared me and to recognize my own metaphors, most of them fished out of childhood experiences. In light of last night’s dream, though, I think I need to read that book again!

But let’s attempt to make sense of this: the fancy art people with the fancy nonsense talk. In real life, my experience of art people is not that at all. Okay, maybe there are a few snobs here and there, but for the most part art people are wonderful. They’re generous, welcoming, interesting and humble, so it seems like the dream wasn’t so much about the people. Maybe the dream is more about me. I might be worrying about getting lost as I try to explain the work I do. And maybe it’s also about my strong desire to stay connected to people.

$450.00

Repos/The rest, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Let’s start with ‘explaining what I do’. Today, artists have to write about their work in depth, and preparing an artist statement requires deep reflection on ‘why I do the work I do’. This has never been a problem for me. In fact I quite enjoy the process when I think and write about the meaning of my work. But I often wonder how far I want to push this reflection. Too often that process becomes so abstract that it only makes sense to the artist who writes it. When does it become ‘art speak’

In the blog called What The ??? is Art Speak?, there is mention of an essay titled “International Art English” by David Levine and Alix Rule where they attempt to scientifically prove that the internationalized art world relies on a unique language which “…has everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English.” One of their conclusions is that International Art English, (which is what they call art speak), is used by proponents to both identify each other and signal their insider status in the rarefied world of the elite.”

I know I really don’t want to be a part of that rarefied art world. I’m more than happy to push the reflection on my art; I know I need it for my own professional development. But I really just want to create art and be in the moment when I do it.

Chasseur de rêve/Dream Chasser, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

And ‘my desire to stay connected to people’? Although I enjoy being alone most of the time, those who know me well realize that I’m a people person. Not in the sense that I need people around me a lot, but in the sense that I love interacting with them and that I do appreciate and respect who they are. One of my mentors, Serge Murphy, once told me that as an artist evolves in his practice he becomes more and more isolated, simply because pushing the reflection on his own work creates a greater and greater gap between what he does and what people instinctively understand about art. I don’t really know how to reconcile those two motivations. I only know that, as an artist, I need to keep reflecting on my work. But I also know that I have no desire to feel separated from the society I live in, regardless of whether people understand what I do.

I’m afraid that dream did nothing to provide me with answers. I still have to learn to reconcile those two needs. But maybe that dream was just the beginning of my subconscious reflection. I can hardly wait for my sleeping brain to figure it out!


Public Art, Not Private Art: leave it to the pros

Sean Chu, one of our Calgary City Councillors, recently claimed to reporters that, “The private sector can do everything cheaper and better,” and wondered aloud why the public sector does public art so badly. He also mused, “The public sector has this view that art should be outside the box. What we should be doing is looking at acceptable public art across the board.”

YIKES! That statement scares me a lot. What is acceptable? Is it a pretty mural of lemons in bowls? Perhaps colts gambolling in a meadow? Art assists in social evolution. It bears witness of a time in history and helps moves humanity forward. It speaks of ideas that define us as a society. It makes us think. Beauty can be an integral part of this definition, but great art is much more than that.

I’m afraid that getting global buy in is an impossible task. But we, the artists and the Calgary Public Art Program, have – and will continue – to engage the community so concerns and ideas can be voiced. In fact, the Calgary Public Art Program has put a lot of dedicated effort into hosting community engagement opportunities for each new artwork. But sadly, very few people show up. Is it poor advertisement of those opportunities or lack of interest from the public? Probably both.

The news coverage of Mr. Chu’s opinion of public art went on to provide an example of a recent successful privately- funded public art work west of Calgary created by Alberta artist Vania Burton who lives near the community of Harmony in Rocky View County. The piece she created seams universally loved by the residents.

The Orchard, a community project in support of the KO Arts Center

A few years ago, I too worked with the developers Harmony Rocky View to create a community art project when they helped to fund an outreach program for the KO Arts Center in Springbank. I feel that this private corporation has an exceptional awareness of the role they can play in society and the importance of art. They consider contributing toward providing artistic expressions to be a primary corporate responsibility.

Sadly though, this is not common in the business sector. It’s been my experience that most business owners are not particularly concerned with their roles in the community, and are largely unaware of the place art occupies in their society. Perhaps they don’t know enough about it, can’t afford the time or resources to be concerned, or maybe it’s because money in their own pockets feels better than money invested in the community. So I’m afraid I have to disagree with Councillor Chu. When it comes to public art, the private sector will most likely “just not do it”, so forget about “doing it better”.

Last week, I was delighted to attend a facilitated conversation with the City’s stakeholder engagement team to provide input on the current Public Art process. Fifty professional artists who worked with the City on Public Art projects over the years gathered to discuss their experiences, and our conversation was passionate and animated. I was among artists who really care about doing a good job, artists who engage and actively listen to the members of the community, who do their best to represent the community’s values in the projects they create. It was an enormously positive experience, and even though we shared our frustrations with the City’s approach to certain aspects of the program, we agreed that there are some very competent city employees in the Public Art Program who seem to be handcuffed by the bureaucracy and by politicians.

I left that meeting even more certain that politicians and reporters should back off. It’s clear to me that the Public Art Program has been high jacked by some of the City Councillors who use it to leverage their own political ambitions. And of course, the news media feeds off that controversy. Back off! Let the professionals to do their job. Leave it to the pros: the City employees in the Public Art Program and the professional artists they work with, artists who are carefully selected and who are accountable.

Creating art for the public is an organic process that needs room to explore possibilities in order for each project to be collaboratively successful. There is not only one way to do this; a narrow path system with rigid boundaries can us of the wonderful and unexpected ways artists can answer challenges. To be honest, although I love the involvement of the community in every Public Art project, it can bog down the process when the moment comes for the artist to take their ideas and put them to work. Once the spirit of the work has the community’s buy in, it’s not necessary to discuss the tools of the artist’s trade. At that point, leave the work of creation to the professional.

Finally, what endears Public Art to people is the way it grows on them. They learn to love it as they see new meanings each time they pass by. My artist friend Sabine Lecorre-Moore says, “Art on the side of a highway just doesn’t work. It needs to be in a place where people can touch it, take a selfie with it, where they can have an experience with the art.” You put a big piece of art on the side of a highway where people can’t connect with the work, you risk missing out on that sense of appropriation. The reality is that people love Public Art and, although most are not aware of the many forms it can take, they cherish the experiences when they are in contact with it.”

The Public Art Program will never be perfect. And that’s as it should be. Public Art will never get “across the board buy in”. Pubic art work is meant to provide people with an experience, to inspire, to astonish, and yes, sometimes it’s meant to provoke us to think. And that’s the beauty of it. But we can all do a better job with the conversation between the artists, the city and our fellow citizens of this wonderful community. Removing political interference would be a great place to start; then we can begin to talk about art and society intelligently.


The Big De-clutter: What do artists do with their unsold paintings?

I spent a few hours this fall helping friends empty their house, and that was totally traumatized!

It was an immense task, and I was forced to admit that emptying a big house of its unnecessary possessions has been waiting for me in my own home for longer than I care to admit. All of a sudden, the weight of my stuff became unbearable. So, rather than getting ahead in my marketing and painting work over the Christmas break as I had intended, I embarked on a massive and obsessive de-cluttering.

I went through every room, every drawer, and every closet and either gave or chucked away everything that we no longer used or that no longer make me happy. This, naturally, was pretty stressful for my husband and my sons. (I think my husband wondered if he was in line for the dumpster!) But soon, we all got into the process and everyone offered some of their personal possessions to dispose of. It was a gruelling process that took a lot of hours, and every new drawer I tackled made me want to take a break. But I pushed through and am glad I did.

Today I feel lighter and more optimistic. Our home feels under control and somehow, so does my state of mind. As Bustle says in his blog, 6 Benefits of De-cluttering Your Life, According To Science, “It’s good to know there is a connection between junk and other problems. We can all feel it when our desks are messy, or our kitchens out of sorts. It’s unsettling, and can hold you back from getting stuff done in life.”

Although I already feel the benefits of our de-cluttering, I still want to get rid of more things. Is this a symptom of my mind needing even more space and freedom? It could very well be. What is stopping me then, other than the fact that I have to get some work done now? I’m wondering that myself. I can certainly get rid of a lot more in my closet, but what about my studio and my sculpture shop? That is a lot more challenging.

Supply shelves in my studio

All of us who are artsy and handy know the joy of having exactly what you need close at hand when you are working on a project. Unless an artist works strictly on his computer, he needs plenty of studio materials. Having a stock of various supplies available in-house saves a lot of time and allows for the creative process to flow without interruptions. So as a visual artist, there will always be a limit to how much I can de-clutter those spaces if I want to keep productive.

However, when it comes to finished work, unsold stock is a much more difficult issue. Even the most popular artists accumulate impressive amounts of unsold work; it’s an unavoidable issue. I have an artist friend who started working on paper rather than canvass because she couldn’t stand the accumulated stock of unsold paintings. She turned to paper because it takes a lot less space.

My stock of unsold paintings, for now!

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who, at the time, was working for Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Part of his responsibility involved visiting aging artists’ studios to look through their inventories. The older an artist is, the more stock he has, and my friend told me that in some cases, there were many rooms stockpiled with paintings, despite the fact they reported that they had resorted to burning much of it. At first, I was shocked. It seemed like an extreme measure but, upon reflection, I realized it makes a lot of sense. Out of respect for the collectors who own some of their work, it may be a good idea to make sure that the market isn’t flooded with work at the time of the artist’s death. And, out of self-respect, it’s probably a good idea to destroy work that no longer makes you feel proud.

In light of this, I added a new rule to my professional practice. Every two years or so, I shred or burn any unsold work that I am not really proud of. (And no, you can’t have it for free!) The whole point is to make sure that whatever I leave behind after I die is a legacy that I’m entirely proud of, even if it’s only for my children to cherish. I want the work that remains in the world after my passing to represent what I was trying to create in the best light. My hope is that I will leave beauty behind, confident that through the years it will never be considered clutter by whomever owns it.

Artists out there, what do you do with your unsold paintings?


Forest Bathing, Shinrin-yoku

I was busy this morning, totally engrossed in a project that needed my undivided attention. But Cisco begged to object.

At first, it was just a gentle reminder: eyebrow raised, gentle nudging with his nozzle, easy to ignore. “Not now, Cisco. Later.” He drooped to the floor with a barely audible sigh, but there was no ignoring his disapproval, and within a few minutes he is bringing me for my boots and snow pants. Like it or not, Cisco knew it was time to take me for a walk in the forest.

 

 

And just as I did yesterday, and have done most days for the past 18 years with the different dogs that have passed through my life, I’ll do it again tomorrow because it’s a new experience every time.

Today, light dry snow gently settled over everything, including the smallest strand of wild grass. With no wind to disturb it, the forest felt still, quiet and protected. The sky was saturated with an endless cloud that hid the sun, and slowly released its flakes. Only the soft glow piercing the haze reassured me that the sun will one day return.

The forest finds a way to offer a brand-new spectacle every day. But there are days I remember more than others, days where I have seen my forest in a way that I know I will never see it again. Like that April-full day, years ago, where it had snowed heavily the night before and the thick white blanket was glistening in a glorious spring sun, melting at such a rate that I wondered if my dog and I might get stranded on a temporary island. The tree branches, heavy with thick wet snow, where bending across the path. My dog was covered in snowballs that stuck to his fur and slowed him down. I’ll never forget that day.

I was reminded of that day a few weeks ago, when I was listening to a podcast called Revisionist History  The speaker said that for a memory to incrust itself in your mind, there must be a strong emotional experience associated with it, and it struck me than that most of my vivid and longest lasting memories are linked to nature. (Sorry boys, it’s not always about you!) In fact my first memory is of a rock cliff that stood at the end of our backyard in Arvida, Quebec when I was a toddler.

The Japanese have a name for that experience . Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing. And, since the 1980s, forest bathing has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest:

  • Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even for children with ADHD
  • Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep

Just as impressive are the results that we are experiencing as we make this part of our regular practice:

  • Deeper and clearer intuition
  • Increased flow of energy
  • Increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species
  • Increased flow of eros/life force
  • Deepening of friendships
  • Overall increase in a sense of happiness.

For me, all those benefits happen without my noticing. What I do pay attention to, however, is the impact on my creative and visual world. My work has always taken its source in nature, first literally, when I painted landscapes, and then abstractly as I became more interested in expressing the emotional relationship we have with nature. I suspect my forest will keep nourishing my artistic endeavours for years to come. If not this forest, then another one; either way, I will try my best to keep it close to me because I need it, and because Cisco loves it.


“Did you sell a lot?” The most boring question you can ask an artist

I have been a full-time artist for over 20 years. I’ve had periods in my career where I easily sold many, and I’ve had periods when sales were slow. And yes, like everyone else, I love getting well paid for what I do. But that’s never the reason I create my work. However, inevitably, after a show is over, I’m asked, “Did you sell a lot?” And no matter what the sales might have been, that question always makes me cringe because the answer never comes close to enlightening anyone about anything.

L’Éveil, acrylic on canvas

Katie Ohe, a very successful artist with a very long career, once wisely told me that “what defines an artist is the need to be an artist”. You become an artist because you need to create all the time. Because anything else you try to do feels insignificant and empty. Because not a day goes by where you don’t actively crave time to use your tools to add something new to the world – whether it’s by pencil, paper, paints, clay, computer, or power tools.”

Artists live in a world of creation and what interests us is what we can create next using the experiences we’ve accumulated through all we have created before. Most of us fantasize about hiding in our studios and having the luxury of selling our art only to support the creation of new artwork. Selling is never the ultimate goal; it’s a means to create more.

So, if someone asks me about a show or about my career, I’m always puzzled by “Did you sell a lot?” Did I sell a lot? Is that really what you’re interested in knowing? I realize that people wish me success and that, some times, that is where that questions is coming from. But my honest answer is that the question has no relevance. And the answer has nothing to do with me, or the world, and proves nothing about the quality of the work. It also closes the conversation. It tells me that you have no interest in the quality of the work itself. Your only interest is in its marketability. It ignores all the thoughtful considerations that went into creating it.

If the artist says, “Yes, I sell tonnes,” what does that mean? Does it mean she spent a lifetime getting her work out there and that it’s finally collectable? Does it mean it matches the colours that are trendy in this particular home-decorating era? Or maybe it means the subject is neutral enough that people feel comfortable hanging it in their homes.   If the artist says, “No, I didn’t sell much” what does that mean? Does it mean the work is no good? Does it mean the artist is poor at marketing? Does it mean his work is not yet understood or recognized? And frankly who gives a damn?

Selling a lot may only be a sign that the work somehow fits into the most common taste denominator where the artist is exhibiting. It may say that the economy is in good shape since artists, like cleaning ladies, are among the first to suffer when the economy tanks and the last to recover when the market improves. But one thing is for sure: sales don’t have anything to do with the quality of the work.

Rêves de jours paresseux, show at the CAVA gallery, photo creditJanet Sacille

When you look at the work, ask yourself the some questions. Is the work technically well executed? Is what the artist presenting profound? Does it move you emotionally? Has it enlightened you, excited you, encouraged you to wonder? Do you see that the collection is thoughtfully working toward a theme?

 

In a society that over values money, it’s easy to confuse selling with quality. I see a lot of poorly executed shallow artwork that sells, and a lot of magnificent inspired work that doesn’t sell. Personally, I prefer to create the latter and hope that people recognize its worth.

As Gail Gregg says in her blog, How to talk to an artist ,” if you are a person who appreciates art but doesn’t know much about what it means to create it, the first thing to do when you attend a show should be to stand quietly in front of a work, look carefully, and think about what you’re seeing. When you consider that it can take weeks, months—even years—to make an art object, looking hard is the respectful thing to do.” Once you have actually taken the time to look and feel the work, interesting questions will naturally come to you. You might ask:

  • What were you most excited about in this new series of work?
  • Did you have a clear intention when you started this series?
  • In what ways do you feel this work has progressed in comparison to the last series?
  • What are you trying to share with us?
  • Is there an artwork here you are most proud of? Why do you feel that way about this one?
  • How do you know when the work is finished?
  • What has inspired the work I see here?
  • Do you know where you might go from here in your next series?

 

Some of those questions I borrowed from “Asking artists questions” by Carrie Brummer, but I think Gaill Greeg put it best. “The best question would be one that helps me think more deeply about my work and makes me see connections I hadn’t, or puts it into a broader context.” Personally, I just wish to have a meaningful conversation about art and life. And, art being full of depth and meaning; it should not be too hard.

We all ask the wrong questions sometimes and we all forgive each other for that. If you have asked me about my sales in the past, don’t worry. I’ve heard it so many times I honestly won’t remember it was you asking. So come to my next show! Don’t feel embarrassed. Let me tell you more about the creative process, the thinking behind the work, and together I’m sure we’ll discover aspects of my work that neither of us at first imagined.