The Birth and Detachment of Works of Art

I noticed a phenomenon occurring when I completed a work of art. In the midst of the piece I would feel excited and connected; the work was alive and I was part of that life. The moment I would complete it, it felt like something detached, and when I looked at the work, it seemed disappointing to me. Where was that excitement about what I was creating a moment ago? Why did the disappointment coincide with witnessing it finished, and not before or after? I noticed this was a bit universal and not unique to me, and I wanted to discover why this might be happening. I developed theories over the years..

For one, I thought that maybe every brushstroke, every decided upon action distilled the infinite number of potentialities into only one reality. Every act of creation was simultaneously infinite acts of destruction. The work, as it came into existence, was a definite thing, and no longer the perfect, platonic ideal that exists in my head, where it could be as perfect as I could imagine it without focusing on the details that must come along with physical existence. I think part of that disappointment is the disparity between the perfect version that exists in the mind and the actual version that is shaped by our abilities and limitations therein. It was the start of a theory that held me over for years, but eventually I realized it was incomplete.

I’ve begun to realize more about what is happening: the moment the proverbial umbilical cord is cut – the moment a work stops depending on me in order to come into existence – it becomes something on its own, separate from me. There is a delicate moment of detachment, barely noticeable except in the subtle pain of experiencing (what I thought was disappointment but is actually) the end of a birthing process, and a death in its own right.

Like my previous theory, this relates to the overall end of potential of a piece that is the simultaneous birth of the definite. But the other part of the theory is about what happens next: that after I created a work and put it out into the world (it was all grown up and moving out now), I stopped focusing on my relationship to the work and instead on the relationship to others and the work; like a child that wanders into the world and develops relationships of its own. I put a lot of stock in how others reacted and what they said about it. It had much more influence on me than I wanted it to, and I felt that I had failed somehow. I had failed to convey all the depth that occurred for me while creating the piece whenever it didn’t resonate in the same way with someone else.

Where does all that meaning go if no one but I am aware of it?

The beautiful tragedy of any work of art is this: the process is imbued within but not an overt part of the final product and the consequence is that the rest of the world sees only the iceberg tip of any given piece. The only person who will even approach knowing the piece completely is the artist herself, and even she won’t really understand everything, at least not at first.

But what about that postpartum depression that can feel so much like disappointment? Is it inevitable? Is it necessary? I decided to try an experiment, and I found there was so much more to the process than I originally thought was there: I decided to try to stay connected to my work after I “finished” it. What if the act of creating a work didn’t end after the physical piece was done and never touched again?

Art is a self-reflective process. Creating, and witnessing your own work is like holding up a mirror that shows you truths about yourself and the world you’re in that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. This is because art is so intuitive, and therefore is tapping into the subconscious. That subconscious is a well of wisdom – connecting to greater wholes and uniting the self – of which the conscious is barely aware. Creation brings the unconscious wisdom to the conscious realm, but only if your conscious self is: willing, listening to, and ready for whatever is surfacing. Therefore, our art is our subconscious speaking to us.

However, the talking doesn’t end when the active creation ends. In fact, sometimes it’s just barely gotten started. Within any piece of art there is space to recreate even after the physical work is done. The recreating and retouching is not done to the work, but to the relationship between the artist and the work, and also the work and the rest of the world. Without necessarily knowing the whole truth to a piece, the viewer is given space to write their own story to it; to realize how they resonate with it, and for the artist to further develop theirs.

So this is what it looked like for me to cultivate that relationship, rather than to end it: I created a ritual where I sat with a piece (looked at a painting, watched a dance video again and again, etc) and wrote down any thoughts that came to me. I tried to notice details I hadn’t really seen before, and surprisingly, there were so many there. Though I was awake for all parts of the creative process, I still noticed things after the fact that I hadn’t before. I actually sat there and let my work speak back to me. I opened the gateway and I NEVER closed it. This meant that even years later, I was still realizing things about myself because of that first piece with which I ran this experiment. (This is because I can now put it in the context of hindsight and all that followed after. This tells me more than I could have known in the moment, when I don’t see the future I’m paving by creating a given work.)

Then, when I brought my pieces out in the world for others to witness, I paid attention to every feeling that came up for me, especially in reaction to others’ reactions. I remembered one key thing:

The way others react to my work says so much more about them than it does about me. I can only try to bring honesty, intuitiveness and authenticity to my work, and what happens after that is out of my control. In seemingly a paradox, holding on to my relationship to a work allows me to experience a letting go that is complete. Yes, the efficacy of a work can be judged by how it reaches people and if it stirs something within them. But whether or not they are ready to hear whatever the work is saying is about where they’re standing in life and whether they are: willing, listening to, and ready for the message contained within a work. It’s about meeting halfway with the viewers. You have to give them something to stir them, but they have to connect to it personally for it to have intensity and power for them. And even then – regardless of the reactions of outsiders – my work and I still have a relationship that is alive and meaningful to me.

Interestingly, I no longer feel a differing level of investment in a work after it’s completed. The relationship changes, but it does not end. On the contrary, when I allow it to go out in the world and live a life of its own, it brings even more back to me because we are still connected by the original truths I poured into it, and more truths that have been created since.

In a way all of my works blend into one giant work, the underpinning of which is my life that I create and shape as a work of art in and of itself. And it in turn shapes me as well. My death will merely be the cinching that ends further potential, but what I’ve created will hopefully continue its own life beyond me, to be recreated in the minds of others.

The Starving Artist is a Myth: on Survival and What Comes After

The archetype of the 'starving artist' must die. It's a myth; and while myths can be true, their power comes from our belief in them. So, I'm not saying there aren't and won't be plenty of starving artists for a while to come, but the idea that an artist must suffer for their art is complete fallacy and should not be propagated anymore, especially by the artists themselves.

Artists are vessels for the experiences they encounter. They filter these and transmute them into their art. Of course suffering goes into the art. But it need not be created for the sake of it. If anything, it's potentially inauthentic and definitely unnecessary. We all suffer anyway, but art need not be borne out of only suffering for it to be real and true. It just needs to be the artist's honesty, and nothing more.

Many artists I've spoken to have told me that they create best when they are in a stable, comfortable environment with some semblance of a routine. I was relieved when I heard this, because I have this habit of forcing myself to be extremely adaptable to a fault. I put myself in experiences just to see if I can survive it and make it work. But usually what I sacrifice is my productivity.

Right now, I'm seeking a place to live. I'd been homeless since April. For the last 6 months I wasn't on the street by any means. I did sleep in my car a few times. I mainly couch-surfed and house-sat for friends and rented a studio so I'd have a steady place to work, if not a steady place to sleep. I knew my priorities and I knew my limits, even if I was pushing them. Now, when I tell people my budget for a room, they balk and inform me how incredibly low it is. It's not that they're wrong, it's just that I don't need to hear it over and over again. I know how difficult my path is without being reminded and discouraged from it.

So, I'm going to share an extremely personal experience here because it's essential to my story of being a full-time artist and holding on to the belief that I should be able to thrive doing my art full-time without having to sacrifice even half my time to the tedium of a day-job that does not align with my priorities.

Three years ago - almost exactly - I hit bottom. I was working the last full-time day-job I've ever worked. It was an 'artistic' job in that I was doing sign-making, though it had begun to degenerate into being given a lot of work that wasn't artistic at all. Outwardly, it wasn't a desperate situation. But what was going on in my mind was.

Rewind a little bit more.. I didn't talk about it a lot, but I was incredibly unhappy in college with my life's path. I was doing a thing I liked, but I wasn't doing what I loved and I wasn't sure what that would even look like if I were. In 2006, when I stepped off my path and spontaneously moved to the bay area, I opened up my life in a big way. In retrospect, it's inevitable that I pretty quickly slid into creating art. It's what was meant to happen (in the existentialist sense of creating your own meaning). Since then, creating art became like breathing. Not only does it feel good to do, but if I stop doing it, I die. I didn't really know that was true until that time three years ago. My bandwidth for allowing a day-job to suck the life out of me shrank down to zero. I'd been squeezing art into the corners of my life for so long I'd begun to lose the energy for it, and stopped making art of my own almost completely. I started crying spontaneously at work. I cried the moment I got home until I fell asleep, only to drag myself out of bed the next day, numb, and ride my bike to work, praying I'd get hit by a car so I didn't have to make it into work that day. This went on for months, and slowly I formulated in my mind that if art = life and I couldn't do art, then life had no meaning. I felt trapped in my situation, in a society that didn't encourage my requirements for existence. I figured there was no way out, and I couldn't do the thing that gave my life meaning, so perhaps life wasn't worth living.

The moment I considered not existing anymore, something in my brain clicked. Whether it was the survival-focused reptilian brain, or perhaps something older and wiser, it dragged me up out of the house and forced me to go get help. But the thing that really shifted in me was the realization that if I had nothing to lose - if the decision was truly one between life as an artist or death - then there was nothing to fear anymore. I could stop letting the fear of how I would survive as an artist hold me back, because I could make anything work as long as I was still alive. The alternative had much fewer options.

Without fear, without anything to lose, I began my life as a full-time artist. I knew there had to be a way - something that involved talent, a lot of hard work and determination, and a whole lot of networking - and I would find it. Slowly, I am beginning to take a foothold in the life I've been dreaming of this whole time. I still take small day jobs here and there but I'm careful not to give too much of my time to the meaningless loop.

By the meaningless loop, I refer to the loop in which you work a job you don't care about (or even hate) to make money. This money buys you food and shelter which allows you to survive. But that time surviving is mostly spend at the job, creating a life structure that has no outward meaning or connection. Take note: no one's life is meaningless, even if this is the form it takes. The loop itself is meaningless, the life is never meaningless. But the life can be wasted on the loop.

So now, I find myself looking to survive without creating a meaningless loop, and it's difficult. I'm told it's near impossible to find a place that cheap. But I know it is possible, so I go forward anyway, just like I didn't let myself be discouraged by those that told me (usually in indirect ways, though pretty clearly nonetheless) that life as an artist precludes being financially comfortable. As I grow my business, I find I can afford more than I expect. It's still not easy, but I'm doing better now than I dreamed of when I first started, which means in a short while I could be doing better than I can even dream of now.

I create art because I need to, and as long as I can continue to create art, then my picture of success is fulfilled. But this picture can also include abundance and a comfortable place to live. The dream of being an artist with a comfortable income, wonderful opportunities, and not only eking out an existence is not an unrealistic one for those with the dedication and passion to see it through. So let's stop sabotaging it with this unrealistic romanticization that an artist must starve and suffer for their work. And stop telling me I cannot afford this life as a full-time artist; because I can.