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Finding Emily

Beyond the doorway, brilliant colour caught my eye and I headed there like a bee to a flower. The brushstrokes, the colours, the energy drew me in. If this had been the only painting I saw at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I would have been satisfied.

I had discovered Emily Carr.

It isn’t like I didn’t know who she was and the place she holds in Canadian culture before that moment. But this? This was something different. She got “inside”.

Emily Carr, Trees in the Sky
Trees in the Sky, Emily Carr, 1939

After returning home to Nova Scotia, I kept thinking about that painting and the woman who created it but life kept me busy. Then…I became ill. (I wonder now if it wasn’t God saying, “This is important. You need to stop and look at what I’m showing you!”)

For two weeks, about all I could do was lie in bed, sleep and read so I went looking for a book about Emily Carr, only to discover she was also a gifted writer. I could get to know her through her own words. And as I read, she began to teach me.

When someone’s name becomes a household word, we often forget the struggle and work they put in before their recognition by the world. Emily didn’t attain success until she was in her late 50’s. She even gave up painting for 15 years while she earned a living. Her autobiography “Growing Pains” introduced me to the journey she took.

However, it’s in her journal, “Hundreds and Thousands” that I really got to know her. Because she never meant her journals for publication, she wrote to herself and there’s an informal honesty in the words. Reading them felt like sitting at the kitchen table, sharing a coffee with her and chatting about creativity and what it took for her to make art.

For instance, she offers this advice:

I took always in my sketch-sack a little notebook. When I had discovered my subject, I sat before it for some while before I touched a brush, feeling my way into it, asking myself these questions, What attracted you to this particular subject? Why do you want to paint it? What is its core, the thing you are trying to express?

Now I find myself writing in my own journal more, becoming mindful of the subjects I choose. I ask myself bigger questions about things that catch my eye and look beyond the surface. I’ve already come up with some answers that have surprised and delighted me.

This next quote also jumped out at me. After reading it, I closed the book to let it sink in.

Inspiration is intention obeyed.

I can’t say exactly why that quote strikes me so deeply. Perhaps it’s because moving to Nova Scotia now feels like an inspired decision but it began as an intention to live simply and creatively. I’m still peeling back the layers of those words and I suspect there will be at least one more blog post about it.

Her work inspires me but not because I want to copy her style. Rather it was her search to find her own way I connect with. I want to put more of me into my work. Emily agrees.

Another’s thoughts are not ours and to copy them gives no growth. Be careful you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you don’t know in your own soul.

Like a great teacher, her words challenge me to ask myself, “What do I need to learn here?”

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11 Inspirational Quotes for a Working Artist

Artists must express their lives

Inspiration comes and goes. Creativity is the result of practice.

Phil Cousineau

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother to just be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

William Faulkner

Have fun, even if it’s not the same kind of fun everyone else is having.

C.S. Lewis

The one thing you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.

Neil Gaiman

Recognizing power in another does not diminish your own.

Joss Whedon

It’s not just about creativity. It’s about the person you’re becoming while you’re creating.

Charlie Peacock

Stay loyal to your creativity because it’s a gift.

Pharrell

Doubt is part of the creative process.

Danielle LaPorte

If you ask me what I came to to in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.

Emile Zola

Things that excite you aren’t random. They are connected to your purpose. Follow them.

Unknown

I always get to where I am going by walking away from where I have been.

Winnie the Pooh
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My Cure for Procrastination

Art is inevitable

Stop in the middle. Never stop working at the natural barriers. The next time you start working, the barrier will be the first thing you encounter, and you won’t have the momentum to overcome it. — Ernest Hemingway

Procrastination wasn’t a word I applied to myself. My husband would second that because if something needs doing, I can’t rest until it’s done. However, I did have a hard time getting on track again once I completed a painting. It wasn’t because I was putting it off but more because I didn’t know where to start.

Back when I taught creative writing I always mentioned Hemingway’s process to my students as sound advice to help them avoid the quicksand of creative procrastination. Knowing what you want to write next keeps the ‘juice’ flowing. I just never applied it to my painting process until now. Talk about tunnel vision!

Cure Procrastination. Have lots on the go

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked on one piece at a time. I called it “focus” but now I see it created a natural barrier to the next piece. When I finished a painting, it took me a few days to find my next subject and face the blank sheet of paper. Flailing about, trying to decide on “What next?” is my version of creative procrastination. It frustrated the heck out of me.

I don’t remember exactly what inspired me to start 3-4 pieces at the same time but I will be forever grateful to the Muse for that whisper in my ear.

Since that AHA moment, I look forward to getting to my studio each day. Knowing what I’m going to work on feels liberating. Spread across the two tables where I paint are pieces in different stages so I can always find a place to start. I also keep a list of ideas and reference photos tacked up over my table. Also, working in a series helps. As I finish a piece, I choose something, start the sketch and do my colour tests.

I’ve completed a number of pieces in the last few weeks because of my “new” habit. It’s also why I haven’t posted on the blog for awhile. I’ve been too busy in the studio!

Found a fix for your procrastination habit? Please, share it in the comments and spread the word.

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Take Time To Enjoy the Gift

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work. – Emile Zola

Time away is a gift

This year, being away for a whole month was a first for both of us.

A month changes things, providing distance and perspective. It made me see I was in danger of filling my schedule with things that took me away from what I really wanted. Putting together a program to help artists find time was keeping me too busy to paint.

How’s that for irony?

So I took a deep breath, slowed down and asked,

2019 Planner“What do I really want in 2019?”

Easy. I want to prioritize my painting.

That means committing to a daily practice of drawing and painting, taking time to be a student and making my art a priority rather than an afterthought. Like practicing daily scales, I need to put in the work.

We all have our own ways of bringing our dreams to life, but what we do each day, at a ‘right here, right now’ level, will determine whether we get there.  — Tara Leaver, Artist

And, as we all know, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When I say “Yes” to something then I must say “No” to something else.

“What is necessary and what is distraction?”

When I arrived back home I began making time for my dreams by looking at the “mental clutter” I had allowed into my life. Like physical clutter, it took up space, made it hard to navigate and gathered dust.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to subscribe to things as I’m browsing because they catch my eye or I want their ‘freebie’ or there’s a program I’m interested in. That means I end up on a lot of lists if I’m not careful.

Now I looked at each and every promotion and update that came through my inbox and held it up for scrutiny.

  1. Did I even sign up for this? Even with all the anti-spam laws, I still get added to lists without my permission. Those are an easy decision. Unsubscribe.
  2. Is this information pertinent to me anymore? More often than not the answer was No because my life has changed so much. Unsubscribe.
  3. When was the last time I read the information this sender provides? If I can’t even remember – unsubscribe.

Now I’ll admit that unsubscribing sometimes felt a little like breaking up. Often they ask “Why” and it’s tempting to write “It’s not you, it’s me”. Mostly though, I skip giving a reason unless the sender is a friend in the real world.

This is an ongoing process but the difference in less than a week was phenomenal. My inbox holds only those things I deem important to me personally or to my renewed focus on the painting.

the gift of mental decluttering
And speaking of distractions…

Where do I want to invest time on social platforms? Do I have a reason for being there?

For me, it boils down to Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, which make sense to me as a visual artist. I deleted my profile on LinkedIn because I’m not in the corporate/business world any longer. The jury is still out about Twitter.

I left a number of Facebook groups because I wasn’t interacting or they belonged to a different phase of my life. My Creative Fire Café , of course, stays put. I love the community we created and what we learn from each other. The social aspect of Facebook is also a gift because it keeps me in touch with family and friends.

Gift of Changing “The way it’s always been”the gift of studio time

The “Yes” part means daily time in my studio, painting and learning. In the past, I held a belief that my creative time “had” to be in the morning. And yet, I easily slipped into an afternoon routine which feels natural.

By taking care of a few things each morning such as social media, my coaching practice and biz admin (and yes, household chores) I relax and totally focus on my art in the afternoons. Up to now, I hadn’t even recognized that feeling of “something’s not done” and the pressure it created to hurry through my painting time.

Now the parent part of my brain says “Right. Chores are done. Go play.”

I am here to do more than just complete a To Do list. Click To Tweet

The gift of self care via a dog

Gift of Self-Care

At the end of my studio time, right on the dot of 4:00, Joey the Dog comes in, sits down and stares hard at me. He’s letting me know in no uncertain terms, it’s time for his walk. It’s like having my own personal trainer.

These days I find myself taking longer walks which means more fresh air and exercise. Because my other priorities now have their place, I am free to enjoy the moment plus the exercise loosens me up after sitting for so long. When I get back to the house, my husband and I have a cup of tea and spend some quiet time together.

Without even trying, I’m practicing better self-care and enjoying quality time with the spouse, a precious gift.

The Sum of the Equation

All of these small changes add up. Fast. I see positive growth in my art which translates into feeling relaxed and happy, knowing my dreams are getting daily attention. I even sleep better. My time is being spent on priorities, not busy work.

What strategies have worked for you when it comes to finding more time to focus on your priorities?

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Don’t Compare

Don't Compare

I came across something this past week that reminded of an Aha I had while viewing the Matisse exhibit a few years back.

I can’t compare my rough drafts with someone else’s finished masterpiece.

Yet I fall victim to this all the time and people in my workshops often do the same thing. We’re too hard on ourselves. We forget we aren’t seeing the process and the experiments of the masters. We don’t ever see the bits and pieces lying in closets, sitting on a hard drive or consigned to the trash.

Our work is as unique as our signature and that comparison can be helpful. I never worry that my signature doesn’t look like someone else’s. It doesn’t even cross my mind. (Not to mention that would be illegal.)

That’s why we shouldn’t compare our efforts to the person sitting next to us in a workshop or even worse, hanging in a gallery. We are learning about tools and techniques, just like we did in school as we learned to sign our names. Be gentle with your inner artist.

There IS a lot to learn by studying the work of others who have mastered their craft. Just don’t try to BE them.

Let’s be ourselves

So next time my inner voice says “I wish I could paint like…” I’ll remind myself that it’s better if I let myself paint like me.

 

 

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Focus on what works

Focus on where you want to go, not on what you fear.  — Anon

A radical shift

In our culture, shifting the focus to look for what’s strong in our creative work can be a radical idea because we’re taught early to find what’s wrong and fix it.

A few years ago I trained in the Amherst Artist and Writers Method with Pat Schneider. Pat changed the trajectory of many lives with her writing workshops. No less than Julia Cameron calls her a ‘fuse-lighter’. Taking that training with her was a highpoint for me.

One of the very wise things (among  many) I learned from Pat was to focus on what’s strong and successful in a new piece of writing. I’ve come to realize it’s good advice for any creative endeavour in its baby stages.

After training with Pat, I went on and facilitated my own writing workshops. As my students heard from the others in the group about what they liked and what touched them, the writer naturally repeated what worked as they developed their piece. The “other stuff’ fell away.

I witnessed the power of this shift over and over as I worked with my writers.

However, there was one student who felt irritated and uncomfortable when I wouldn’t tell her what to ‘fix’ after the group gave her glowing feedback. She dismissed what she did well – which was actually quite a bit. She was convinced we weren’t telling her the truth about her work.

I get it.

The marketing industry makes a lot of money convincing me I need to be fixed. They taught me to focus on flaws and ignore the good stuff. Like my dissatisfied student, it seems too simplistic to simply build on what works. It can also feel hard to let the other stuff go. The stuff that holds me back and clutters up my creative landscape.

For a long time I bought into the idea that it’s easier to fix something rather than to build on strength. Until I witnessed the power of the building approach in those writing workshops. These days I try to remember to look for what I like and more importantly, to ask for help finding it.

Talking to another artist awhile back, she showed me a watercolour she’d done and lamented that while she loved the lower part of the painting, she’d “ruined” the top. I suggested she tear off the top and keep the good bit. (I think I actually saw the lightbulb go off.)

She ripped that painting almost in half, framed the bit she liked and sold it not long after.

Most of us are terrible at judging these things for ourselves. I know I am because I see where I fell short of the original vision I had and my Inner Critic uses that as ammunition.

I simply can’t be an objective observer. None of us can. Sometimes we need help to see clearly.

Find and ask

First, find someone who can be objective – which usually rules out family and friends.

Second, whatever you do, don’t ask for feedback or constructive criticism.  Not when you’re work is in its early stages. Most of us are trained to default to the negative so be very deliberate in how you word your request.

“What works? What speaks to you? What attracts you here? How does it make you feel?”

All good questions.  If the person I’m asking starts to go to The Dark Side, I try to redirect them with another question. Whether it’s my art or writing, I need to know when/where the piece catches their attention.

This is valuable information.

Try it yourself sometime. You will probably be surprised at what others see in your work. Things you totally overlooked or dismissed. Things you can do more of.

Keep learning

None of this means we shouldn’t take risks, learn from others and practice our craft. We need mistakes – lots of them – to grow and constructive criticism of mature work can help us improve.

We must embrace our personal sparks of brilliance and fan them into flames. Our creative work becomes mediocre and vanilla if we ignore our gifts.

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Ideas have ancestors

geneology of ideas

“Look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.” George R.R. Martin

It’s all been done before…and that’s fantastic!

Ideas are the seeds of creativity. And yet, as artists and writers we often get discouraged thinking “It’s all been done before.”

That’s the good news. No, really. It IS good news because I’m not sure anyone is wholly original. We build on each other’s ideas. That’s why I say that ‘ideas have ancestors.’ We can trace their lineage.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet (and it sounds like he got his plot elsewhere.) Along came the creators of West Side Story who basically told the same story but changed it. George R.R. Martin took a story from history, amped it up and made it his own.

You’re probably thinking “But, Aprille, what about Leonardo da Vinci?” (Insert any creative hero here.)

They got their ideas from somewhere else, often the natural world around them. They saw what everyone else saw but  through the lens of curiosity.

Make it your own

What could you create today starting with the inspiration of something else? How would you change it to make it truly your own? I’m not advocating copying. That’s just plain bad karma.  But inspiration? That’s a good thing.

Inspiration always starts somewhere. Steve Jobs got his design idea for the Ipad on a Zen retreat. The designer of Velcro was a hunter who had to pick cockle-burs off his pants and wondered how they stuck there.

The geneology of an idea

Austin Kleon, in his brilliant book “Steal Like an Artist” talks about the ‘geneology of ideas’. I love this concept. So much in fact, that I did as he advised and spent time reading about an artist I greatly admire. From there I tracked down her influencers and saw how they inspired her.

From that I got a whole slew of creative ideas, all of them uniquely mine and yet…not. I can trace their family tree.

See what I mean? It’s not about being an original. It’s about seeing things in a new way by building on our creative ‘ancestors’. I’m not sure anyone starts from nothing. Ideas have family trees.

Gives a whole new meaning to recycling, doesn’t it?

Who are your creative heroes? How have they influenced you? Share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

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The Wonder of Nova Scotia: Inspired by Place

Stuff your eyes with wonder

Stuff your eyes with wonder. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. — Ray Bradbury

Baby eyes

Babies intrigue me…and it’s not just because they are so blinkin’ cute.

I love the way they observe the world around them, soaking it all in without judgment. Their eyes are so bright and clear. I especially love how they stare back without self-consciousness. It’s their wide-open curiosity I find so appealing.

It’s no wonder kids are so creative. They haven’t built up filters and preconceived notions about how things should be. Everything is a miracle to them. They’re still asking questions.

Here in Nova Scotia I find myself having a similar experience. This new-to-me place re-awakened my curiosity and filled my creative well in a way I thought was long gone. Thank heavens I was wrong!

Curiosity and wonder hold the seeds of creativity

The Tide Pool Wonder

Being by the Bay of Fundy is key for me. Large bodies of water stoke my own sense of wonder.

Every morning I walk the dog down to the shoreline  where we wander among the rock formations and check out tide pools. Now that the warm days are here, I usually perch somewhere and spend a few quiet moments gazing over the water, listening to the waves washing in and out.

(There’s even a word for that whispery sound. Did you know that? Susurration. Isn’t that perfect?)

I love the far horizon and the smell of salt in the air. Seated there, I take deep breaths in and breathe out gratitude and feel real peace again.

waves and wonder

When I was a kid, I looked forward to summer visits with my aunt and cousins on Narragansett Bay. Those were the days before cars were air-conditioned so I would sit by the car window and try to pinpoint the first whiff of salt as we got closer.

Happiness still smells like salt air to me.

rock formations and wonder

The rocks on “my” beach are old volcanic formations, sculpted by the awesome Fundy tides and storms. They remind me of pieces of modern art. I love walking among them, making up names for some of the formations. They’re becoming familiar friends but I wonder if I’ll recognize them after next winter’s storms.

There is almost always a breeze against my skin, ruffling my hair but it’s the clarity of the air that especially delights me as an artist. I’ve had visitors comment on how different the colours are here. (And the stars!). Everything seems more vivid.

Except, of course, when the fog rolls in and sound is muted and everything takes on a dreamy quality. (Or eerie if you’re a Stephen King fan.)

All in all, it’s the perfect environment for this artist and writer. Definitely feels like home.

Definitely feeds my creative heart.

See with fresh eyes

While you may not want to move across the country to a completely new environment, you can still feed your own sense of wonder right where you are. You just need to see with fresh eyes.

Break out of familiar habits and routines. Strike out in a different direction. Choose a new route to work. Turn left instead of right. You don’t even need to leave your neighbourhood. Just getting out of the car and walking your own street lets you experience the familiar in a fresh way.

When was the last time you ‘stuffed your eyes with wonder?”

Join us in the Creative Fire Café

 

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Art at the Speed of Life

Art at the speed of life

If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, would answer you: I am here to live out loud. – Émile Zola

Last week, life demanded something new from me.

We left the house at sunrise, headed for my husband’s knee surgery. It was a day of firsts. First surgery ever for him. First time I was the one waiting. First time so far away from family support when life felt scary.

For the six months prior we kept busy, focused on finishing projects like the new BnB suite and my studio. The last 30 days were particularly intense. Toward the end of all our rushing about, we had to keep re-evaluating what we had time for and what could wait. Creative time fell off my list of priorities.

As we drove to Kentville, I took a deep breath and noticed the world around me again.

Mist in low-lying places. A pheasant pacing along the shoulder of the rural road. The silhouette of a lone hawk on the phone line, looking for her breakfast. Soft pink on the eastern horizon, gradually brightening to a sunny day. The spring green of fields and trees.

Now that the (successful) surgery is behind us, I’ve taken on the role of caretaker, which still devours a lot of hours in my day. My studio is waiting for me to return and I’m okay with that. This is what you do for someone you love.

What does this rather personal story have to do with art and creativity?

Sunrise

A lot actually.  Art should happen while we are living very real, very human lives. If we aren’t connected to the people around us, how can our art communicate anything meaningful?

I’m sure you’ve read posts, watched videos and listened to other artists who advise “Just follow your passion”. The experts (and those clever memes) tell us, “If it was really important you’d find time.” The implication seems to be creative passion must take precedent over everything else or we’re not really serious about our art.

We nod our heads because it sounds like great advice and then beat ourselves up, wondering why we can’t find the time or energy to ‘just do it.’

I know if this is true for me, it’s also true for a lot you reading this.

Finding the balance in life

The truth is, this is one more example of those social media ‘echo chambers’ people are talking about. Hearing only one side of any story distorts our perception of what it takes to lead a meaningful life. Because those of us who are artists and writers often seek out creative experts focused on their chosen topic, we can miss the counterbalance of what it means to cope with real life.

It becomes a trap of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. And if I’ve learned nothing else, life is about balance. Ever tried to stand on one foot? In order to retain your balance, your leg and ankle are making constant small adjustments. Balance means adjusting, not rigidity.

We live in a world of contrasts. If our goal is peace of mind then we must let go of the judgments. Both light and shadow are necessary. Ask any artist. Without the shadow, how do you show light?

Filling the well

Life is like a wellWe fill our creative wells by living full lives and living sometimes demands a lot of us.  When we embrace the ups and downs, we have something to say when we do get into our studios or back to our desks.

We must be about life’s business if we want our creative expression to touch other hearts. We must be real. There are times when that passion we’re following will mean taking care of personal needs or a loved one, time with a child or being an active part of our community. It all matters.

Meaningful art doesn’t happen in a bubble. And when life gets crazy busy, as mine did, we can try to fit some tiny snippets of creativity around the other priorities. They act as reminders that this too, is part of who you are.

I did a couple of small sketches and made notes in the little book I keep in my purse. I used my phone to take reference photos. I browsed Pinterest for inspiration and ideas for when my schedule has more space. I knit while I keep my husband company as he heals. I stayed connected to my Facebook group of creative folk.

Meanwhile my focus is on my husband. Underneath, the creative urge is building, like steam under pressure. When the time is right and I return to my studio, I’ll have lots to work with.