Hedgehog in the Fog is one of the most beautiful, evocative short films ever made. The filmmaker, Yuriy Norshteyn, is admired by everyone from Nick Park to Hayao Miyazaki and has earned the nickname The Golden Snail because his animation technique is so slow and tedious. Learn more about the Russian animator and watch his 10-minute masterpiece Hedgehog in the Fog.
In 1965, when Eva Hesse found herself in a difficult creative place, artist Sol 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!” I’ve never had such overwhelming, positive responses to a post. Read the entire letter here.
In 13 years working for an artist residency program, I’ve seen it all. I understand both the psychological and practical barriers to creating your best work. Fear, doubt, financial worries, procrastination, the distraction of technology, presenting yourself online and on applications, creating an engaged community—these are just a few of the challenges you face in any creative field. The Complete Creative is an in-depth series that examines some of the topics that most concern you and your creative life. Read the series here.
Fear is normal for an artist–it’s the reason we get trapped in the cycle of self-doubt and anxiety, the reason we hesitate to declare a project “finished.” Our bodies are wired for self-protection. The moment we sense artistic risk or criticism, our “fight or flight” response kicks in. This is perfectly natural, but if we aren’t careful, we can get stuck in this place, unconsciously filling our time with research, editing, re-evaluating, re-writing, re-working (the artist’s version of “flight”). In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton writes: “There is only one real deprivation,…and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.” Read more about art, fear, and money, and explore artist Mark Wagner’s incredible currency collages here.
“It’s helpful to have money,” says acclaimed writer Grace Paley. “I don’t think writers have to suffer to starve to death. One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead…The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”
Openness is a state of mind that the nature lover and the artist share. Both offer liberation from the personal. Sometimes we get so caught up in the act of doing–in planning our careers, meeting looming deadlines, answering emails, and paying the bills–that we forget that having the time to play, think, and connect is equally important to our creative work. Art, like bird watching, is about seeing, hearing, and understanding. It requires stillness. It demands that we remain open to the unexpected.
Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life, gives some useful advice about the art of story telling. Remember the method you learned in college–opening paragraph, thesis sentence, supporting material? Glass says to throw that tired technique out the window. As for artists who are just starting out, Glass astutely observes that beginners often become frustrated because of the gap between taste and talent. Watch the interview here.
The long, remarkable career of Sonny Rollins is a good example of how life-altering it can be for an artist to have time alone to think, practice, and create. “Music isn’t about thinking,” Rollins says, “it’s meditation.”
According to Milton Glaser, the best way to achieve creative success is to become a specialist, but he points out that becoming a specialist is antithetical to artistic development (Look at Picasso). In this video Glaser also discusses the myth of creative genius and gives advice on how artists can move past the fear of failure. “Find out what you’re capable of doing or not capable of doing,” says Glaser. “Admit what is.” “Embrace the failure.”
Being an artist is hard because we’re operating in a parallel universe—one that values imagination, creativity, and ideas more than money or status. But a true creative exchange—one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism. I would go so far as to say that it’s an alternate way of being. It’s this free exchange between artist and audience that creates movement, provides pleasure, provokes change, and offers meaningful connection.