We all have moments when we lose our mojo, our sense of knowing why we do what we do, our reason for getting up and getting on with things in the morning or working towards certain goals. When we suddenly question those goals or how diligently we once threw ourselves at them, we can be left with a gaping void in our sense of purpose. However, when that void is just allowed to ‘be’ without going into meltdown, it can hold so much potential for a reset, a recalibration that is even closer to your heart’s desire than what came before; an evolutionary leap that takes you further into a whole new period of growth, something I’ve learned (the hard way) across the experience of many such periods of feeling as though I’ve completely lost my bearings. And in that way that life has of repeating similar circumstances so that you can get that little bit further forward each time, it all just happened again!
In recent weeks, I lost my art mojo more completely…I think…than ever before across all the years I’ve been painting as a ‘career’, which is perhaps testament to how far I have come in identifying with ‘what I do’, which only made the sudden loss of direction feel all the more disorienting.
Perhaps it was the sudden loss of traction in what I was doing that pushed me over the cliff-edge of knowing what I was about so completely. For four months, I’d been concentrating my efforts on getting together a collection of work to be taken to a huge London art fair in June, which I was invited to out-of-the-blue in January. All my work (size, subject, tied-together themes), so what I painted and what I held back from other exposure, became concentrated upon what was deemed most appropriate and marketable at this venue and all my summer exhibition planning reduced down to this one big event; and I don’t think I’ve ever been more disciplined or single-minded in my work practices, painting most days like this was now a ‘job’. At the eleventh hour, life threw me a curve ball when the gallery announced that, with huge disappointment, they were unable to take me after all (their application to include me with their existing quota of far-more abstract artists was turned down by the organisers because the mix was not deemed “cohesive enough”) and, suddenly, my magnificently busy June wasn’t looking quite so busy any more.
This sent me into a spiral of emotion and over-thinking; questions such as why had I allowed myself to fall back into the trap of painting for one particular audience again, and putting all my eggs in that one basket rather than painting to my own inspiration and inclination or setting up my usual local exhibitions with galleries I know and trust. I was inevitably flooded with self-doubt about my work and that old feeling that it must be lacking in some way, though I’d been assured that this sudden change of plan was nothing to do with me. I felt frustrated and, yes, angry; completely run out-of-steam, out of inspiration, or the motivation, to continue painting and this led into three of the most disillusioned weeks of my art career.
This kind of thing happens a lot in the art world, where it is notoriously hard to make “a living” as the artist part of the equation and where, to make a go of it, you are forced to rely heavily on the integrity, the vision, the organisation and networking skills of others. Short of setting up your own ‘market stall’ or gallery space, a full-time business geared at selling (which, in my experience, impinges horribly upon the creative flow as the artistic temperament wants, and needs, to focus all its attention on creative pursuits, unimpeded by worldly concerns) you have no option but to throw your trust out into the marketplace and then hope and trust that things are still progressing nicely wheresoever your instincts have led you to park that desperate need for exposure.
Somebody shouts “over here” and it all sounds good but its a commercial environment built on quicksand and out of many other people’s’ vested interests, which have nothing whatsoever to do with your need to survive or even, overtly, your need to express. I find myself envying those who have another “secure” career running alongside art that keeps them fed and motivated so they can just create to their hearts desire…no less than they envy me for being able to apply myself to my art full-time…and so nobody seems to make an ideal career choice of art these days; the commercial art world is fickle and fundamentally out of sync with the way an artist needs to be to create, which is in an idyll tucked away from all that stuff. Then, as soon as we feel that pressure to rise to the demands of the commercial marketplace, the natural creative flow that is our product inevitably becomes a stifled, compromised, boxed-in and undeniably altered version of itself; there seems no way around that truism as the need for a reliable, commercial, mass-produced product excludes what is most experimental, variable, daring and ‘out-there’ waiting to be expressed. Galleries just love to niche their artists according to subject and style which is the very nemesis of what it means to be an artist. To find out that several months of holding back, of keeping to a tight format, had been in vain…well, maybe it was just me I was feeling so angry at because, after all, it was me who decided to run with this, to pin all my hopes on it, to give myself over to what felt like the safest, most reliable option for making a living…and now it had all come to nought.
These are the kinds of thoughts that swamped me for well over two weeks and, though usually adept at pushing thoughts to one side when I want to paint, these ones demanded to be heard and left me where I couldn’t seem to lift my brush; nothing was happening anymore, it felt like the muse had left, all inspiration had dried up, I resented the parental-persistence of the inner voice that nagged me to even try. My comfortable mess of easily accessible creating tools and unlidded paint tubes got put away out of sight and I wanted nothing to do with them; couldn’t even bring myself to do the mundane tasks such as varnishing or working on my art website. I felt restless, I felt overwhelmingly tired, felt irritable (with myself, mostly); all these things, but not a single urge to paint, came up yet it felt counterintuitive to shove it all back down inside me given all it obviously wanted, so badly, was to come up and see the light of day.
So I went with it and my days became pleasant enough, even with their underlying niggle that made me feel like I was taking an extended sick-leave or letting somebody, somewhere, down. My days lost their routine (though the little voice still told me how perfect the light would have been today if only I had been prepared to get a few hours work done) and I got on with other things. There was a wastefully decadent feeling to it; May is such a prime month for painting, with superb light and few interruptions so I am normally at my busiest at this time of year yet I was letting it all slip past me in a way that felt like I was burning money or watching best wine pour down a drain. I wrote a little, though the inner voice even questioned the point of this (“where was it getting me, nobody reads this stuff…”), but I kept well away from art.
My days became less hurried, then I started to go for my walks at more variable times of day, made plans to do completely new things, or old things in a new way, arranged to meet a long-lost friend and planned trips and holidays, signed up for a dance class, went for a massage, gave clothes to charity, improved numerous processes on my computer, updated my software…but underlying it all was an unspoken yet persistent question left just hanging in the air: where do I go from here? When it came to art, I wasn’t sure when, or even if, I would feel like continuing on from where I had been; it all felt under doubt, like the stuffing had fallen out of it, like the pieces wouldn’t go back together the way they used to be.
At some point during this clear-out of my living space, I reorganised the room where I store my canvases and stretched over to pull out, and rehang, the framed vision board I created at the start of 2012, which had been knocked down from the wall months ago and then buried beneath all the clutter. The images and words on there still held so much meaning to me, none of them had stopped feeling core to my very purpose (beyond the minutiae of earning a living, trying so hard to be seen, to make a go of things, to be ‘successful’) only, tellingly, I had lost sight of them behind the disorganised mountain of art materials; I had, quite literally, lost sight of my vision behind the ever mounting production process – didn’t that say it all?
I let it all be and, following a day when my feelings about art felt more ambiguous than ever, I started to come out of it. The first sign of this was when I reached a place of deepest allowance of that ambiguity, a distinct feeling of “well lets just wait and see, lets re-find the joy, the playfulness and spontaneity in this”. My eyes caught sight of an unfinished canvas leaning against the wall and suddenly that old prickle of excitement was there, I just had to set set up my paints there and then though it was almost dinner time and the family were due home, it was a time of day when I would normally pooh-pooh even thinking about painting but I ignored the advisory and went with my whim. It was like getting back on a bicycle on the first day of spring with the sun on your back and a breeze in your hair; I freewheeled in contented creativity for four and a half hours, sipping soup from a mug for my meal and only putting my brushes away as the light finally gave in to heavy dusk at around nine thirty. By then, my old unfinished painting had evolved into something…well, new.
Old me would have declared “that’s it, I’m back in business again” and got straight back to work the next day but, when I got up, I had no idea if I wanted to paint again and, rather than force it, went for a long solitary walk in my favourite place in the prime daylight of the afternoon. That walk delivered so much new clarity to me, new over-view, new sense of my heart-priorities and where I had allowed myself to wander off track, new confidence in myself, new…well, everything. As I was walking along in the sunshine, after a prolonged period of sitting amongst buttercups listening to a skylark next to one of my favourite oak trees, my foot crunched on something hard in the grass and I stooped to pick up an orienteering compass that someone had dropped on the ground. Seems I had found my bearings again, the universe was telling me; and I slipped the weather-worn plastic dial in my pocket to remind me.
In one sense, my purpose-void is feeling less void-like, now, than it was but I’m still not rushing to fill it and am thoroughly enjoying the space. I clearly needed this time-space as a period of recalibration, a time to re-centre and rediscover the heart-motivation at the core of my being (and my art-practice), to recall the “reasons why” beyond the commercial; getting back to the instinctive aspect of it (where painting is like breathing, where I do it to “be” me and where I simply can’t not do it because its so deeply equated with who I am). It feels like I am coming out of a fog and the colours seem suddenly brighter than ever. This is where the seemingly disruptive circumstance can bear the greatest gift of all – as an opportunity to question it all, to throw it all up in the air, in order to let all the pieces come back down to land in all the most natural places. I’ve been reminded (once again) not to let all the supposed “must do”s get in the way of the when, why and how I choose express myself, and never to so freely, politely and passively hand over my art process to any outside circumstance again without checking a thorough alignment with my own deepest desires, including the requirement for some kind of commitment and business handshake; and then to always centre what I’m doing upon that deep inner pacemaker that follows the unique rhythm of my heart, never racing or forcing. I’ve been reminded of the importance of keeping variety, flux and adventure in my daily circumstances, to express all that I am in all the activities of daily life, not just in paint; to LIVE as well as ‘work’. Of keeping self-love as the pivot-point of everything I do, every decision I make, in all aspects of life. And to keep all of my options open!
Since the urge to paint slipped back in, all of those urges have happened towards the end of the day, which is a complete change to my routine (in fact, it feels like there is no routine…I only do it when I most honestly feel like it) and I’ve just finished some ‘old’ work in new ways that I’m quietly pleased with. In their wake has come a whole wave of brand new subject-ideas and, this morning, I’ve taken delivery of some stunning new colours and some considerably larger canvases than the more uniform ones I’ve been keeping to of late. Excitement is starting to rise again; this time, no timescales, no pressure, no limits, no attempt whatsoever at telepathically gauging what will appease the art marketplace; this is all for me!