Because I’m surrounded by artists in both my professional and personal life, people often ask me what insights I’ve gained into the creative process.
The unromantic truth is that being an artist in any field is hard work. Because artists need a lot of time alone in order to create, they wrestle with loneliness and insecurity. They face continual self-doubt, as well as the criticism of others. Many artists work with no financial safety net or healthcare. Those who do have some financial stability often work day jobs that drain precious time and energy from their creative work.
Even for artists who make a living from their art, there is the constant tug-of-war between the need to make new work, which requires quiet and solitude, and the need to promote, sell, and manage the business side of being an artist. And all of this must be done while paying the bills, nurturing friendships, family, and relationships, doing the chores, and getting the kids to school on time.
The challenges vary, but all working artists, regardless of their struggles and their financial or critical success, share one thing in common. They make art. They sit at their desks and write. They draw. They paint. They compose music. They shoot images. They perform. They create.
This is the single most important piece of advice I could give a young artist or anyone who is trying to realize a creative project. Do. Play. Explore. For a short time every day, forget about the chores, your personal goals, your email, your upcoming travel plans, and your career trajectory. Forget about what is appropriate or fashionable–about what your mother, friends, or the public will think of your work.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, painter Chuck Close describes how “everything comes out of the work itself—every idea comes out of something you’re already doing.” Doing is a key word here. The act of creating, of showing up at the desk or in the studio each day is critical.
Making space and time to create without interruption is difficult but essential. Our competitive culture rarely rewards stillness and imagination. From childhood, we are programmed to stop day dreaming and told to be constructive and busy instead.
But great art can come only from deep, focused attention–attention combined with the discipline of doing. In order to make our best work, “doing” must take place in a favorable environment–one that allows us to block extraneous interruptions and calm our own mental chatter.
Doing is particularly hard for artists who are in the beginning stages of their creative field. As Ira Glass has explained, there is often a gap between taste and skill when starting out. We aspire to become artists because we love great music, paintings, or books. But there is often a gulf between our aspirations and our skills. Overcome by self-doubt and indecision, many beginners quit at this stage. But artists who have the nerve to push through this awkward, uncomfortable phase evolve and eventually improve. Over time, they find their own unique style, the right medium, and a routine that makes original art possible.
Artist Sol LeWitt understood fear and the importance of doing better than anyone.
In 1960 he met Eva Hesse, and the two artists formed a decade-long friendship. As Stephanie Buhmann details, “despite superficial disparities (LeWitt’s oeuvre is usually thought of as idea-driven while Hesse’s works reflect the opposite: intimacy, personal gesture, and physical sensuality),” the two artists shared a lot in common. “While Hesse drew inspiration from Minimalist aesthetics and the conceptual clarity that characterized LeWitt’s work, LeWitt respected Hesse’s devotion to the trace of the human hand in art.”The wonderful letters, photographs, and postcards in the Hesse archive demonstrate the depth of the friendship between Hesse and LeWitt. Many of their artworks were dedicated to each other and bear the poignant inscriptions “for Eva,” “for Sol.”
Earlier this year, Veronica Roberts curated an excellent exhibition titled Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt at the Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York. The show investigated the creative dialogue and camaraderie between these two talented individuals.
As Roberts showed, art was the centerpiece in both of their lives, but for Hesse, self-doubt was a persistent challenge. In 1965, when Hesse found herself in a difficult creative place after a year in Germany, LeWitt wrote his friend a long letter of encouragement:
Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!…
Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety…
You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!…
Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be…
I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty you [sic] mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work – not even to yourself.
This is some of the best advice about overcoming a creative block that I’ve ever encountered.
The close friendship between Hesse and LeWitt suggests another essential ingredient for a healthy creative life. For an artist, quality community can be just as important as quality solitude. Being a writer, painter, performer, composer, filmmaker, etc. is hard enough without the burden of isolation.
We need like-minded people around us who understand who we are and what we value. We need honest, but understanding critics; we need friends who will push us, engage with us, challenge our ideas, and support us when things become difficult. We also need to know that we’re not alone in these struggles.
This kind of community comes in many forms–through graduate school, artist residencies, writing groups, workshops, conferences, mentorships, and personal friendships. Community also develops when we actively participate. I’m a big believer in showing up and supporting the work of other artists. While I enjoy the solitary experience of reading and listening to music, there is no substitute for the expansive, communal act of going to readings, performances, film festivals, and galleries. Supporting other artists through Kickstarter and other fundraising platforms is another way of participating and offering valuable encouragment to our peers.
In 1969 Eva Hesse was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her death in 1970 at age 34 ended a brief career that lasted only ten years. Just two days after Hesse’s death, Sol LeWitt created a new work, Wall Drawing 46, and dedicated it to his friend. It was the first time in LeWitt’s entire career that he made this type of mark. Everything before 1970—his cubes, block sculptures, and wall drawings–were all composed of neat, orderly lines. As the Mass MoCA site explains, “subsequent drawings saw the use of not straight lines in four colors and in various combinations with straight lines, broken lines and arcs.”
Sol LeWitt’s letter to Eva Hesse is so rewarding and compelling that I’ve included the entire text here in two formats. (Please note that I have altered the expletives so that this article doesn’t get caught in spam filters.)
(Note: The images of this letter are courtesy Veronica Roberts, Amy Whitaker, and the Art21 Blog. The original letter is from The LeWitt Collection).
It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “F*** You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO!
From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and you [sic] ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing-clean-clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful – real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cu***, whatever – make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!
I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working – then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to DO!
It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible = and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that sh** I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty you [sic] mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that.
You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work – not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones and I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can – shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.
I would like to see your work and will have to be content to wait until Aug or Sept. I have seen photos of some of Tom’s new things at Lucy’s. They are impressive – especially the ones with the more rigorous form: the simpler ones. I guess he’ll send some more later on. Let me know how the shows are going and that kind of stuff.
My work had changed since you left and it is much better. I will be having a show May 4 -9 at the Daniels Gallery 17 E 64th St (where Emmerich was), I wish you could be there.
Much love to you both.
Advice for Artists
What advice has helped you most as an artist? How do you find the space and time you need to create? Is there a specific community experience that stands out in your artistic development? I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions below.
Looking for more helpful advice about the creative process? Check out Gwarlingo’s popular Complete Creative series.
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