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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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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.

But we must also identify our personal sparks of brilliance so we can fan them into flames. Our creative work becomes mediocre and vanilla when we ignore our own gifts.

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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.

 

 

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Muse Flash: Simplify

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify. – Henry David Thoreau

Simplify. Sounds so easy but here I am, once again, learning the lessons of simplicity. To ask myself if I really need to do ________(fill in the blank) or is it a distraction? Does this painting need this level of detail or am I fussing too much? Do I really need to do this chore or is it busy work?

Getting too ‘fussy’ results in chases down rabbit holes and procrastination.

I have to stop myself and ask “Who made up this rule anyhow? My standard? Or someone else’s?”

A good case in point is my MuseLetter. I can get so caught up in what the ‘gurus’ say I must do that I overcomplicate things. It’s far more important to listen to what my subscribers say they what.

When I simplify, everything else flows

simplifyTime and again, people tell me they like the MuseLetter I send out because its simple and short. They can take a couple of minutes out of a busy day to be inspired.

That’s also the reason I like it. It’s simple which means it doesn’t take hours to create but it keeps me in touch. When I try to get “fancy” I end up procrastinating.

The same thing works in my paintings. When I keep composition pared down to the essentials, I feel a different energy and I find people respond to it differently.

In my art work, it’s the same question. “What does the viewer want?”

The simple answer for me is they want to share my experience. Keeping it simple feels lighter and I like the idea of inviting my viewer to be part of the creative process as their imagination fills in the details.

Embracing simplicity

So my creative mantra is “Simplify…simplify” because who doesn’t love it when life flows along easily?

What about you? What keeps you in flow?

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Muse Flash: Creative Flow

Flow — the mental state of being completely present and fully immersed in a task — is a strong contributor to creativity. When in flow, the creator and the universe become one, outside distractions recede from consciousness and one’s mind is fully open and attuned to the act of creating. — Scott Barry Kaufman, Huffington Post

I love it when I get into flow. I mentioned once that I have this inner clock that never seems to stop ticking. It can be a royal pain at times.

However the clock stands still when I enter that mental state called “flow”.

I’ve been doing some digging, hoping to understand what it takes to achieve that sense of timelessness.  I’ve discovered its like trying to fall asleep by trying to fall asleep. Doesn’t work so well.

There’s good news, however. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has studied this phenomenon extensively, this state of mind happens when we challenge ourselves by doing things that require some skill and commitment on our part.

Its about being awake to our life and paying attention, not just living on auto-pilot. (He has also written quite a few books about this subject which you can find here.)

He calls Flow the “joy of complete engagement.” Sure sounds like something I’d like more of in my creative life.

So if I’m understanding this right, it’s about paying attention and being willing to challenge myself. To get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable.

That means something different for each of us but I know what I will do to find more Flow.

How about you?

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Muse Flash: Intuition

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. — Steve Jobs

I used to read that quote and only see the part about time and not wasting it. I have an inner clock that just keeps on ticking, reminding me that time is a-wastin’.

It was only recently I really took note of that last sentence in the quote. The one about trusting my heart and intuition.

When I make art from my head it’s almost always about technique and marketability. When I trust my heart, the art speaks. Maybe not to everyone but the ones who do hear it? They’re my peeps.

Besides, even if it only ever speaks to me, that’s enough because in committing to a creative life, art starts with exploring the inner self.

This week, before you sit down to create, take a moment to get out of your head and connect to your heart.

What changes?

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The Power of Routine

Creative Routine

The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. — Twyla Tharp

Are you thinking about New Year’s Resolutions today? I usually avoid them but in 2018 there is one that makes sense to me.

Break out of the old routine

After reading Twyla Tharp’s words in The Creative Habit, I committed to regular creative dates with my Muse in 2018. I encourage you to consider it for yourself if you’re serious about living a more creative life.

Creative routine is powerful

Showing up on a regular basis in my studio sends a signal to my subconscious which is where my Muse hangs out. That message reads “This is IMPORTANT.”

Creative time is my ‘work’. Soul work, that is.

I am the first to admit not everything that comes out of my studio is gold or even fit for anyone to see but me. However, a creative routine that evolves into habit means inspiration always knows where to find me.

Make 2018 the year you stop waiting to “feel” inspired. Don’t leave something this important to the whims of a sugar high or a restless night. After all, if you had a commission or a deadline you’d show up and do the work, regardless of how you felt.

Why should your own heart and soul be any less important?

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Joy to you and me

Find your joy

Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.  Elizabeth Gilbert

In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert takes a practical common sense attitude towards living a joy-filled, creative life I can appreciate. It’s a breath of fresh air that makes creativity feel accessible to anyone and dispels the myth of the suffering artist.

The risk we take

Joy is magnetic. Use the force.Actually, when we focus more on the negatives in any area of our lives, we risk becoming boring and a repelling force. Chasing people away with our attitude runs counter to success in any endeavour, creative or otherwise.

That’s why I’m heeding Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice to focus on the joy of my creative practice.  That doesn’t mean the work isn’t difficult times and I don’t get tired. Hardly.

What is joy?

I’m not blind to the hard work (and yes, sometimes sacrifice) it takes to create from the heart. And I’m no Pollyanna. I grew up in a dysfunctional home with a mentally ill mother, so I get it. Life can be tough and painful and even frightening at times but I don’t need to drag that along behind me.

Yes, we experience joy in the bright moments but it’s also there in the shadows. A friend of mine put her busy life on hold to care for her mother in the final stages of a terminal illness. After her mother was gone, she shared withe me that their time together had joy laced liberally into the sadness.

Joy isn't about being giddy but rather feeling deeply fulfilled by an experience. Click To Tweet

Find your own joy

We’ve been well-taught to look for the negative. The marketing messages you’ve heard most of your life start with the idea you’re not good enough and need to be fixed. (We can help! Buy our product!) So shifting your perspective may take some re-training of your inner chatter.

Here are some tips that can help.

First, pay attention

That inner chatter is powerful. Train yourself to be aware of the negative words you repeat to yourself, especially about your art. Write them down, if you need to. Whenever you hear one pop up, challenge it by responding “Says who?”

Change the conversation.

Second, stop comparing yourself

The habit of comparison always gets in the way of our satisfaction and joy. If we look at the public works of a successful artist and think “I could never do that”, we overlook the ‘learning curve’ pieces, hidden away in closets or thrown in the trash.

Third, actively look for what works

Back when I facilitated creative writing workshops, I followed the AWA method. My training in the methodology emphasized providing feedback only on the strong writing.

“What works? What moves me? What emotions do I experience?”

I witnessed the magic of that again and again. The weak writing fell away simply because we humans crave the positive feedback. “You liked that? I’ll do more of it!”

Each week the writing improved. Many of my students went on to be published, so we were definitely doing something right. I only ever had one participant who constantly complained that unless I told her what was wrong, she couldn’t fix it.

Missing the point, she also missed the joy her art could have brought to herself and others.

Choose

In the end, joy is a choice. I choose joy.

Find more joy

The Creative Fire Cafe is a group of creative thinkers and do-ers who support and encourage each other. If you’d like to be part of a virtual group of positive people, join us on Facebook. Just click the link below and ask to join. We’d love to meet you there.

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Organizing the studio

organizing and sweeping

Organizing anything can be a big job but I believe an artist organizing her studio faces a special kind of distraction.

I realized this after I took on the job in my own studio and then read Marion Boddy’s Monday post on her studio blog. Seems she and I shared a similar journey. She mentioned books as her brand of distraction and I find the same thing so I’ve learned to shelve them as soon as I finish with them. An open art book is also an open invitation…

Between projects I try to keep some space ready for when inspiration strikes but it seems the Studio Law of Attraction states that all horizontal surfaces should be covered. I have no one to blame but me for cluttered counter tops because my husband learned long ago NOT to dump things there (and the dog can’t reach.)

organizing the creative spaceIt’s usually at its worst when I complete a project. Then it’s like an archaeological dig, going through layers of inspiration as I sort, toss and put away.

Too often, WIP’s (works in progress) interrupt the organizing process. I usually prop up a painting for a bit to let it ‘percolate’. To see it with new eyes, so to speak. Then it seems inspiration hits when I’m trying to straighten up my creative mess.

I’ve learned to pay attention when the muse whispers her ideas because when I don’t, she’ll go away in a sulk and refuse to repeat herself just because I have time to pay attention.

Organizing the studio just isn’t as simple as it seems but every once in awhile, everything is back where it belongs and the tabletops are clear.

I’m discovering that while I love my home to be organized and tidy, it’s a different story in the studio. That’s where I want a little creative chaos. My muse appreciates it, too.

What about you? Organized or mussy? How do you like your creative space? Share in the comments.