What is The Work?

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I sometimes send my advising group a letter that speaks to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]

24 August 2020

I’m preparing for a gallery installation of new work that opens on 3 September. I’ve been in the studio most of the past two weeks, and frankly the first ten days were rough. This is unusual for me. I can generally get to work quickly, but this summer it’s been unusually hard for me to find my flow state. I suspect it has something to do with the precariousness of things. But I’m equally sure it’s due to being overcommitted and being responsible to too many projects and people. And it may be due to the lack of feedback I’m getting due to slow traffic in the gallery. Fortunately, the last four days have been productive and, while I don’t yet have a show, I’m on my way.

Regardless of the source of my creative ennui, it reminds me of the virtue of showing up and putting in the labor. For me, this is an element of practice – being present to the possibility of the work, even when ‘possibility’ is giving me the cold shoulder. It’s hard to show up when there aren’t obvious rewards – either in the satisfaction of yeoman’s work or in the thrill of discovery. But showing up is part of developing a discipline of mind (at least for me), which has generally paid off in the long run.

I also know that there’s another factor slowing my creative work. I developed plantar fasciitis about nine weeks ago, which has made walking painful and slow. Walking is an essential element of my creative work. It immerses me in the landscape, which is the root source of my work. I also know, in both painting and writing, that walking allows me to experience a fuller sense of embodiment – allowing ideas and images to percolate through me. It doesn’t surprise me that as my foot has started to heal, and I’m taking baby-sized walks again, that the work is again starting to make sense. 

Our program references ‘practice’ a great deal but, like much of what we reference, we leave the details ambiguous (in order to avoid doctrine). I’m writing about my practice not to prescribe what might be true for you, but to invite you to start making an inventory of the elements that enable you to do your best work. At its core, practice isn’t the habits we cultivate, but rather is the what emerges from routine actions we take in service to our aspirations (how habits transform us). Understanding what serves your aspirations is key. Walking is critical to me. Listening might be critical to you. Making pictures is critical to me. Writing quatrains might be critical to you. Journaling is critical to me. Talking might be critical to you. 

What’s your inventory? 

I’m also sharing my experience to acknowledge that these days are disorienting, and to propose that the strategies that served us in the past may not be serving us now. There’s an old saying, if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. Busyness has been my operating principle, the way I shape and organize my time toward productivity. The disorientation of the pandemic may be one thing too many, though. And its uncertainty may require me to consider other possibilities. My preoccupation with the unknown may have coopted my imaginative space. I need that space back if I want to discover something new. And for that space to emerge, I need to be less busy.

Of course, crisis also spurs retrospection. My concern for discovery may be preempting my deeper need for reflection and the reconsideration of what I’ve done before. That I’m making paintings that feel familiar may not be a bad thing – especially if they’re in service to making sense of the past, of seeing again that thing that previously mattered. And those things that may matter again. 

All of this is to say that my assumptions about ‘work’ are being brought into question. What I value as productivity (the outcomes of practice) may have to be set aside. I may have to look deeper and consider that the ‘new’ work is to be found in my process of looking squarely at our changing world. And my changing self.

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