Category: Reading Nook

Art Is a Journey without End

Many years ago, I worked as a computerized notetaker for deaf and hard of hearing students in colleges across the city. It was like doing live captioning in classes on everything from graphic design to financial management to culinary techniques. It was a brilliant job for a learner like me!

One semester I was supporting a student who was studying to be a dental hygienist. I vividly remember the introduction to one of her classes. The instructor shared that she had studied orofacial anatomy because there was a finite amount to learn. She loved that this made mastery possible.

This is entirely different in art.

Whatever your creative medium, there are skills you learn and then hone. With every piece or project you create, you develop and deepen your expertise. And there will always be more to learn. Always.

I share this not to be discouraging but as an invitation to embrace the mystery, to choose the path of artistic adventure, to get comfortable with being a perpetual beginner. I share this to combat the inner critic that says, “You should have this mastered by now.”

Art will never be mastered.

And that’s a beautiful and essential truth, a truth to make peace with and then to befriend.

The creative force that dwells in our art has a life all its own. It is not meant to be bent to our will. It is meant to relate to us in a sacred dance of wonder, a dance that unfurls our wings every step of the way, a dance that brings both it and us to life.

Art is a never-ending journey and, as such, it gives us ongoing challenges and infinite blessings. This makes it a pursuit worthy of a lifetime.

Three Ways to Know Your Creative Project Is Finished

I’ve been working on a series of collage animals and one of the longest stages of development is when I’m deciding whether a piece is done. The bull you see above has been hanging out with me for months now and even he is getting impatient. My sense is that he’s almost there but there are still a few things I want to resolve. As I try to draw this piece to a close, I’ve been thinking about the question:

When is a creative project done?

In some ways the answer is never.

There may always be things we would tweak, shift or improve, especially as time moves on, our outlook changes and our skills develop. But instead of getting stuck in that perfectionist muck, it serves us well to find our way to completion. Instead of damming up our energy, finishing frees our creativity to keep flowing and growing. Creating a body of work will take a lifetime but each individual project must, at some point, come to a close. This allows us to continue on our creative journey and also gives each piece the chance to live and breathe on its own instead of withering under the endless scrutiny of “How could you be better?”

One: Declare it Done

Another way to recognize a creative project’s completion is to work to deadline. Many artforms, particularly the performing arts, have this baked in. The play, the dance, the event will be deemed ready on opening night and will be complete upon closing. These deadlines can be stress-inducing but that’s, in part, an indication of their power. Deadlines create time containers for our artistic energy, making it even more potent. In the Devotion program, for example, we have a showcase at the end of the season. Each artist shares the work she’s created during our time together and what it has meant to her. This end point provides a kind of creative alchemy, applying just enough pressure to coalesce the work, the wisdom, the growth and the confidence into something truly magical.

Two: Work to Deadline

And lastly, we know our work is done when we have the ineffable feeling that there is nothing left for us to do. In that moment, the work clearly stands on its own and reflects back to us, “I am myself now. I am complete.” Developing this creative discernment is a valuable artistic skill. It helps us avoid overworking a project or abandoning it too soon. This discernment comes with practice, patience and sensitivity. Give yourself the grace of time and distance as you sense the end drawing near. Leave the project for a while. Come back as a viewer, a reader, a listener, an audience member. Let the piece speak too. It has a say in the matter. Give yourself time to discover whether this artwork is complete.

Three: Develop Discernment

As creatives we have an an energy source that is infinite and renewable. One lesson available to us is how to make the most of that tremendous gift. An essential part of that is knowing when to complete a project so that the energy can move on to the next wonderful work that is waiting to come through.

I hope these three strategies of declaring, deadlines and discernment become powerful tools in your creative toolkit. May they help you realize the unique body of work that can only come to life through you.

The Fall Reset: Check Your Inner Compass

Every equinox and solstice provides an opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to tune in and reset. With fall arriving, now is a great time to check your inner compass, to remember who you are and to move forward with clarity and creativity.

The Fall Equinox
Ways to Make the Most of this Magical Transitional Time

Reflect: Before moving into fall, take stock of what this summer has meant to you. What have you experienced? What have you learned and accomplished? What do you want to remember? What is there to celebrate? Who have you become? Try summing up your summer by completing this sentence, “The summer of 2021 was the summer of _______.”

Clear: Prepare the way for fall with some inner and outer clearing. Practice free-writing and let all the excess on your mind and in your heart pour onto the page. What is it time to leave behind? What is it time to make room for? Choose a spot in your home that relates to your priorities for next season and declutter and clean. Finish off by adding a spritz of beauty.

Ground: It continues to be a heck of a time in the world and many of us are feeling frazzled and uncentred. What would help you feel grounded, vital and strong as you move into the new season? Maybe it’s time to get some extra sleep, to do some dancing or to complete that lingering to-do (you know the one). Now is also a great time to choose a nourishing practice to establish in the season ahead.

Imagine: Imagine your way into an autumn that feels good and right for you. Let go of ‘the way it is’ and instead imagine a fall of your own design. Where does your inner compass lead? What matters to you now? What parts of your self are aching to take the stage? At the end of autumn, where would you like to be?

Claim: Looking at what you’ve imagined, what will you claim for yourself this season? What will you name as your priority? What will you place at the centre of your life?

Plan: Take a breath. This is the alchemical part. What steps would bring your life into alignment with these new priorities, with your imagined fall? There’s no need to plot out every detail. This isn’t about having creative control. It’s about using our creative agency to build what we imagine as best we can. What aligned choices and plans can you make for the season ahead? (By the way, at this stage, you may find yourself doing more clearing – from your calendar and from your life.)

Act: Magic takes hold through action. Don’t get hung up on choosing the perfect move. You’ve imagined your season and set your priorities. You’ve made some plans. Take what feels like the next right step. Notice what happens. Even if it was hard or the feedback was, well, let’s say ‘mixed’, do you feel like you’re on path? Does something need to be adjusted or refined? Do that and then take what feels like the next right step. Once again, pay attention to what happens. Adjust. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Learn: Every step of the way, gather your insight. Journal it out. Chat with a friend. Talk with a coach. Process through art-making. Share what you’ve learned. Turn your lived experience into earned wisdom.

Do it all again next season!

I hope these steps help you create magic during this seasonal transition and beyond. May this fall be rich with blessings for you. May you discover that your creative magic is more potent than you dared to dream.

What if you started dreaming again?

There are so many reasons we stop dreaming.

Here are just a few…

Our dreams seem impossible and thinking about them is painful. Even if they are possible, the price of pursuit feels too high. We’re afraid of what we might lose. We’re afraid of what might change. We’re afraid of failing. We’re afraid of succeeding. We have legit limitations and obstacles. We don’t know what we want. We’re too busy to even think about what we want. We are grateful for what we have and feel guilty about wanting anything different or more.

All things considered it seems perfectly reasonable to stick with the practical and ditch this whole dreaming thing altogether.

But what happens when you do?

Take it to your journal: What’s the impact of not dreaming? (The benefits? The costs?)

Recently a colleague asked about my dreams and when I shared them, my words felt like the empty husks of something that had died or left long ago. I was shocked. When I asked myself whether I still wanted those dreams, I honestly couldn’t find an answer. So I did a heart check and came to some realizations.

  1. I’ve held these dreams for so long that they have started to feel more like farfetched fantasy than aspirational possibility.
  2. I’ve been worried my dream would cost me every drop of energy and every hour of my life.
  3. I am so deeply appreciative of everything I have, it feels ungrateful to keep dreaming.

For all these reasons, I had subconsciously been divesting from my dreams for years. I had withdrawn completely and left them like old castles sitting empty in a far-off land and I still didn’t know if they were calling me home. To find my answer, I had to clear the way. I started by looking at whether any these dream-dampening beliefs had any validity.

  1. Yes, I’ve had these dreams a long time. In fact, they have guided me well. I may not have realized them fully but every step in their direction has given me rich and valuable experiences as well as deepening fulfillment, wisdom and strength.
  2. Exhaustion and depletion don’t have to be the cost. There are other ways; I just have to learn them.
  3. I can love and appreciate everything I have and also aspire to new goodness without guilt or shame. I can do this in a way that honours my values and respects others and the world.

Once I worked through these beliefs, something subtle and magical happened. I didn’t have an immediate answer about my dreams but as Justin and I made dinner that night, I found myself laughing, dancing and feeling lighter. I knew that uplifting energy was a result of my dreams. They had been buried under the weight of those limiting beliefs. With some clearing, they were coming back to life and so was I.

The world rarely provides predictable outcomes and life is full of challenges, hardship and limitations. It’s not easy to be a dreamer in the midst of it all. No doubt there will be times when letting go of a particular dream will be painful but necessary. After mourning, we may be surprised to find how liberated we feel. But letting go of a particular dream is not the same as letting go of dreaming.

There is something essential in this creative act, in imagining our way into a future that calls to our hearts. This isn’t about being the masterful architects of our lives, fulfilling exacting plans to a mathematical degree. Dreaming is about discovering and strengthening our capacity to create and influence change, to have an impact and to bring possibilities to life for ourselves and for one another. That’s what we creatives are here to do.

Take it to Your Journal: What if you started dreaming again?

I have a funny feeling, there would be magic.

How to Remember Your Life is Precious

Recently my sister Shannon and I visited my dad for the first time since COVID. In addition to hours spent at the dining room table eating and chatting (mostly amicably) about everything from politics to art to books to the Blue Jays, we had a beautiful opportunity to go through photos together. Dad has recently finished an impressive written tribute to his great Aunt Annie, a decorated and respected military nurse and now, with the encouragement of his children, he is working on his own story. One of his early steps has been gathering a collection of photos that follow the narrative of his life.

One by one, he pulled out these photographs, sharing them in chronological order and telling us the relevance of each. We heard tales of his lifelong love of swimming and fishing. We saw his familiar old friends as young men going to school, enjoying parties and pursuing careers. We witnessed our Mom’s arrival on the scene and then mine and then each one of our siblings in turn. I took in every detail of Dad’s life and also found myself looking for clues about my own.

What was I like as a little girl? What did I love? Were there clues about the path I would follow, the woman I would become?

We long for our stories.

For years in Journal Club and now in the Studio Yearbook, I encourage people to document their days. We so often underestimate the preciousness of our everyday life. Yet when the years go by or life changes by choice or by crisis, we realize the gift of everyday things: the way you ate a basket of peaches that summer day, the time your cat licked the icing off a birthday cake, the song you listened to on repeat, how you planted tulips for the first time and they bloomed. It is amazing to hear my great-great-aunt’s stories of the battle of Gallipoli but my heart was nourished by the simple stories of my dad and the house he grew up in. We laughed together as he told us about the time a robin, defending its nest, attacked him in the backyard.

Gather your days.
Gather them in drawings, photos and words.
Gather your stories and tell them, especially to yourself.

Last weekend I learned a lot about my dad and his life. I left inspired to gather my own stories, to honour and remember my own life so that in the years to come, I can look back and say, this is what I loved, this is who I was, these are the adventures I went on.

I hope you’ll do the same.

Take It to Your Journal: Draw the Homes of Your Past

While going back over his life, one of the activities my dad found helpful was drawing the layout of the homes he has lived in. Each time it evoked memories that had been hidden below the surface. After the drawings, he turned to writing, going through each room and making note of any associated memories, whether about the room itself or what happened within it.

An example from my life: Our dining room in Roxboro had a glittering chandelier and red velvet wallpaper on an accent wall. I thought it was the height of elegance. My parents were members of a gourmet club and when it was their turn to host, people would arrive with magnificent appetizers and desserts . As hostess, Mom would make the main course. This was my introduction to béarnaise sauce, which I didn’t like at all! The dining room was also where I did my homework. Throughout my life, the dining room table has remained one of my favourite places to host, to hang out and to work.

Being an Odd Bird aka Choosing a Creative Life

Once a dear friend asked me, “Jamie, how do you deal with being weird?”

“I’m weird?”

I had no idea – but as creatives, we tend to be a little different than your average bear.

We’re the ones unloading 3 books, 4 journals, a sketchbook and an overflowing pencil case onto the table at the coffee shop. We’re the ones with paint under our fingernails and ink on our nose. We’re constantly making things our own, whether that’s our home, our meals, our methods or our style. We have irrepressible passions – for flowers or flamenco, for poetry or pottery, for books and lists and jazz and well, you name it – and we give our passions our all. Others may think we have a “nice hobby” but we know it is something more.

And sometimes we discover that our beloved artistic nature creates a sense of dissonance, a bit of friction with the world. Maybe the people in our lives don’t ‘get it.’ We’re careful in our conversations not to mention things like journaling, magic, dreamboards, life drawing, photography, fairy gardens, our love of colour, our desire to dance and to attend art retreats, our dreams of being published, etc. Though we are sensitive to the reactions and expectations of others, we find it hard to slip into ‘the way it is’ and painful to conform. We long for something off the beaten path, something every bit as real but not nearly as common.

We long for a creative life.

And a creative life looks different for each of us. It might mean working a comfortable job and investing your earnings in art classes and writing retreats. It might mean getting up early to write poetry by candlelight. It might mean becoming a part of an improv troupe or learning how to temper chocolate or knitting blankets for preemies. It might mean working as a temp between acting gigs, fundraising for your documentary or starting your own business.

What your creative life looks like is up to you.

No one else. You.

That’s not to say that everyone won’t have an opinion. Everyone will. Everyone.

Some people just won’t get it. They’ll think you’re a bit of an odd duck. Others will think you are special and rare. Still others will think, “Oh, it’s lovely that you have a hobby, dear.” And many (many) will warn you against trying to make it more than that. Some will assess your “talent” and the viability of this path for you. Some will think it’s worthwhile only if it makes money: “If you can make a living, pursue it; otherwise, let it go, sweetheart.”

Don’t listen to any of them.

Not a one.

Follow the creative path because it’s who you are.

You’ve always known it. Even when you weren’t expressing it, when it was locked down deep inside, you’ve always known you had a creative heart.

You don’t have to make money for it to be worthwhile.

You don’t have to be deemed ‘talented’ in order to be worthy.

You don’t have to prove, justify, explain or defend.

You just have to do it.

I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m saying it will be worth it.

I’m saying it’s your birthright. I’m saying it’s for you.

Be yourself. Love your life. Create your art.

I, for one, believe in you.

Creatively Stuck? Here are 7 Ways to Get Ideas Going and Energy Flowing

Last week, I shared some thoughts on what to do when you have too many ideas. I thought it only fair to also share what happens when the ideas won’t come at all. This is for the moments when you sit down to write and find yourself staring at the blank screen or page. This is for when you’re creating on a deadline and nothing is coming or when you’ve finally made time for art-making and you don’t have a clue what to do. Any time the ideas just won’t come, you can turn to these creative strategies.

The First Thing You Need to Do: Check In

Is your well empty? Often we hit this wall when we’re trying to dive in too quickly after doing something else that has used up all of our resources. Did you just finish a major project? Has life been taxing? We’ve been through a demanding 18-month period. Are you exhausted?

Sometimes it is not the time for generation; it’s time for restoration.

We creatives tend to resist this because we want so badly to be in the doing, in the making, in the joy of creating. Learning to love the fallow times will enhance your life, your work and your energy. Catch your breath. Watch a movie. Listen to music. Get outside. Read a book. Let your creative well fill up again.

What if you have a deadline? This is a good time to draw on your body of work and see how what you have already created can support you. Have you done some sketches that you could develop further? Have you written a piece that might work? Can you address the basic demands of the project and simply get it done? Do what you need to do to get to the other side and then find somewhere to post in big bold letters this reminder to yourself, Book downtime after every project!!” If you are in this creative game for the long haul (and I hope you are), learning to work in a healthy creative rhythm will make all the difference.

Now, assuming you are rested and ready, how do you get unstuck and get going?

7 Ways to Get Ideas Going and Creative Energy Flowing

1. Flush Your System

For 10-15 minutes write, paint, draw, dance, sing, sew. Just go. Let it be utter crap. Just get yourself moving. Pour out all the mess from your mind. Fling out all the stagnant energy. Expend all that overcharged electricity. Just move that stuff and get it gone. You’ll be opening space for something new and wonderful to emerge.

2. Pick a Thread and Follow It

Don’t look for the whole piece. Just look for a place to begin. When you look at your paints, what colour catches your eye? Start with that. Are you curious about a particular character? Follow where they lead. What are you experiencing in this moment? Start with that. Is your inner critic screaming? Use that. Every road takes you somewhere. Once you get started, your creative instincts will choose a direction.

3. Release the Pressure

I learned this when I was the movement director for a theatre production. One night at rehearsal the director unexpectedly called on me for some choreography.

“Jamie, why don’t you go ahead and work with the soldiers choreography now?”

“Uh… sure…”

I looked up at the three actors on stage, each looking at me with open, expectant faces.

I had a moment of panic. I had nothing for them. Nothing at all. I searched my mind, my heart, my body for something. Anything! I didn’t want to let everyone down and I certainly didn’t want to look like I couldn’t do the job but I had nothing.

I turned to the director and said, “Sorry, Jess, I’ve got nothing right now.”

“Okay, no problem.”

I turned around to go back to my seat and….

“Wait. I’ve got it.”

As soon as I braved taking the pressure off, the ideas came. Ideas just don’t seem to love being forced to do anything but give them a moment and they like to dance.

4. Try a Different Medium

At a loss for what to do in your art journal? Choose fabrics for a quilt. No ideas for your poetry? Sing. Not sure how to end your play? Make a collage. Can’t come up with a theme for your event? Take your camera on an outing. Creative mojo is cross-disciplinary. Before you know it, the ideas that showed up in one medium will inspire some fresh thoughts in the other.

5. Have a Creative Chat

For some of us, extroverts particularly, having a creative chat with a friend or colleague can make all the difference. If you’ve been spending far too much time sitting alone and generating nothing, call a friend and ask them if you can share some thoughts. You may just find the ideas tumbling out as you speak. There’s magic in articulation. Ideas come into focus as you let them be heard. So many of my best ideas have found their way into the world this way, including Devotion. The seeds of that ‘artist-in-residence’ program were planted as I shared some thoughts in this Behind the Scenes video.

6. Be Still

Sometimes the conversation we need to have is with ourselves. We need to get quiet enough to hear our own creative intuition. Give yourself 10 minutes to chair and stare. Don’t try to come up with ideas or move the project forward. Look out your window. Listen to the sounds around you. Breathe. Let your body and your mind relax. Then just listen. No pressure. No demands. Just listen. Promise yourself that you will explore at least one of the ideas that crosses your mind during this time.

7. Have a Shower.

It’s not an accident that so many people talk about having their best ideas in the shower. It may be the quiet. It may be the privacy. What I think is, well, it’s kind of woo. I believe that the water pouring over us washes away all that excess energy and worry, all the remains of the day, leaving us fresh and open and ready to receive the ideas and inspirations that are meant for us. Yes, I am saying that taking a shower is a magical creative practice.

When these moments of frustrating blankness show up in your creative life, first ask yourself: is it time to keep working or to take a rest and fill my well? When it is time to work, practice these block-obliterating, idea-releasing strategies and discover which ones serve you best. Develop these skills so that your ideas can flow easily and often into your body of work.

The world needs your gifts.

BONUS TIP: Sometimes the problem is that you actually have too many. They are just crammed in so tightly that you can’t discern one from the other or get them out. This happens to me all the time. When I get stuck writing a blog post or this newsletter, more often than not, I’m struggling because there are actually several pieces trying to come out at once. This Gordian creative knot happens especially when it’s been a long time since we’ve given ourselves creative time. Developing a regular creative practice is one of the ways you can guard against this particular form of stuck.