We have all been here.
If you have put in a serious chunk of years in a creative pursuit, at some point you have experienced being stuck. Whether you are a writer, visual artist, composer, choreographer, or scientist -- whatever the field -- if it is solely up to you to identify your direction and summon the motivation to work towards it, at some point you have wallowed in the state of stuckness. And in all likelihood you've experienced it more than once.
Since struggle and confusion are often present in the creative process and nourish the evolution of the work, what is it that separates being stuck from the typical uncertainties we face? Why is it so emotionally demoralizing and physically debilitating? For me, the somewhat routine experiences of uncertainty and struggle in the studio are signs of active engagement in the process of making. However, being stuck marks a complete retreat from the process of making, a halt in engagement.
When I am in the midst of creative uncertainty, yet engaged in the process of making, my central question is this: Am I struggling because I haven't yet figured out how to manifest what I am reaching for, or is the struggle primarily because I recognize in my gut that what I'm reaching for isn't really where I want to land? When I'm stuck, I can't even engage with the questions. I can only sit with the oppressive weight of emptiness.
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My most recent sojourn in the wilderness of stuckness hit hard in October 2021 after what had been a good year. Despite the pandemic, 2021 started with a solo exhibit that ran concurrently with a group show I curated, and I also participated in a number of group exhibits. Over the summer I completed several groups of new works on paper which expanded on the direction of the work I had exhibited earlier in the year. In addition to painting, I was working steadily on a new series of drawings with energy and curiosity. All was good in the studio, until it wasn't. I started feeling listless, showing up in the studio but barely working. It took enormous effort to overcome inertia and a feeling of pointlessness whenever I attempted to paint. While I was still excited by the paintings I had done during the previous several years, I felt no urgency or curiosity about continuing on in that direction. I kept drawing, but painting became a form of agony. Was the disruption of the pandemic finally catching up with me? Was I demoralized by the ongoing political morass which made any creative pursuit feel like an indulgence? Had I become too isolated from artist friends? Yes, yes, and yes. But despite all, I assumed that this hiccup with painting would be over fairly soon.
After many, many weeks of sitting, I finally acknowledged that I was lost. Perhaps it was time to move in a new direction with painting. But I couldn't summon up the energy to start wandering, which is the only way to uncover where I wanted to go. This wasn't just a hiccup and there was no way of knowing how long it would last. And even though drawing remained a wonderfully rich experience, painting was completely out of reach. I didn't pick up a brush for the next six months.
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Stuckness is a paralysis that cuts off curiosity, it is the paralysis of fear, the paralysis that suggests that you will remain lost. In the midst of stuckness, we feel trapped, lethargic, angry, and purposeless. We may wonder why we put ourselves through this intensely personal misery -- no one asks us to do this, we are here on our own. While some may find it less debilitating than others, I can't imagine that anyone feels joy in the midst of it.
In the midst of stuckness, I might say that I've hit a wall, worked my way into a corner, or in a bout of extreme frustration and self-loathing, been banging my head against the wall. (Surely, you have been there -- making the same painting over and over again, failing miserably each time, but expecting this time, this time, please, please, please, this time I'll figure it out.)
During periods of ordinary struggle, I take in stride the missteps, detours, and simply awful paintings. They happen, I learn from them, and keep going. When I'm in the midst of stuckness, I feel as if everything misses the mark, or goes too far, or not far enough. The occasional moments when I think, 'Aha! I've found it!" are quickly followed by despair. I'm bewildered that I've arrived at this place of complete unknowing when not so long ago, time in the studio was filled with curiosity and excitement.
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Now that I am no longer stuck, and merely wandering in confusion, I can acknowledge that there was a positive outcome from the experience.
I've learned that being stuck is a sign that I am skirting the edge of disruptive change. There will be a prolonged period of being uncomfortable as I slog through unfamiliar territory. But I also know that finding my way through it will eventually be followed by periods of flow and exuberance in the studio. Being stuck has within it the seeds of new understandings, and although it is painful, it has the potential to reinvigorate the creative process. I've learned that rather than viewing it as something to fear, it is best to welcome it when it arrives (clearly easier said than done) and let it take its course.
I continue stumbling my way towards wherever it is I am heading. The disappointments still greatly outnumber the few paintings that hold tantalizing possibilities, even if many of them don't quite sing. While most of the work of the past six months has been painted over, I've held onto some of the more provocative detours because they hold clues for future wanderings. The confusion continues, but it is a beginning.
What is your story about getting unstuck?
(At the end of this post is a small selection of where I wandered over the past six months).
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What follows is a list, in no particular order, of how I found my way back to painting. I wrote it as a reminder to myself for the next time I find myself stuck.
- Let go of habitual patterns of working (use unfamiliar materials, work in a way that makes you uncomfortable).
- Notice what you are noticing.
- Don't get attached to anything you make; nothing is precious
- Don't be trapped by rules; open yourself up to what you usually avoid.
- If you make something that intrigues you, document it; be prepared to lose it, rather than tiptoeing around it
- Even if you think you've arrived, don't narrow the exploration too quickly. Stay curious.
- Work small -- it is a quicker way to experiment with less investment of time and materials
- Make time to dance with abandon, even if you don't feel like it.
- Allow yourself to luxuriate in the work of artists you admire.
- Recognize that what may feel like a landing spot might just be a detour, some part of what you are trying to understand but not necessarily the direction you are seeking.
- Allow yourself to be uncomfortable
- Put on music that will get you dancing.
- Ask questions, don't make statements.
- Be courageous; you may be here a long while.
- Dwell in the act of making, not in what you are making. Paint, but don't try to make paintings. Draw, but don't try to make drawings.
- Trust that when you are ready to understand what you've been looking for, your gut will tell you that you've arrived.
- Keep going.
- Keep dancing.
If you are still reading and curious about where things went....
What did disruptive change look like for me? The essence of this change was to bring drawing into painting. If you take a quick scroll along the sidebar of this blog, you can see that my drawings and paintings have always been on different paths. The drawings are about the energy of line and the paintings dwell on atmospheric color and light. Although some series of paintings have included geometric elements, the painted line was completely absent from my work.
A few months before stuckness fully set in, I noticed myself thinking about bringing a different kind of complexity to my paintings, possibly something about line or form, but I had no 'vision' of what that meant. Fear (and with it, paralysis) crept in because the possibilities were endless. Instead of exploring with brushes and paint, I looked for clues in my drawings, a fool's errand because I've never drawn as preparation for painting. Although created by the same hand, heart, and mind, my drawings and paintings live in separate universes.
The paralysis about painting came to an end when I fully accepted that to bring drawing into painting, I had to put drawing to the side for a while. The only way forward was to jump in, start wrestling with paint and brushes, and get dirty in the mud.
Below are examples of several stops along the way as I explored different interactions of line with the field. For the most part, my palette has now shifted into watery blues, after many years of working with warmer hues. Although the work is still unsettled, a direction is beginning to emerge.
|March 2022. Small oil on mylar,|
|March 2022. Small oil on mylar|
|July 2022. Oil on mylar, 24x19.|
|March 2022. Oil on panel, 14x11.|
|May 2022. Oil on wood panel. 36x20|
|August 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5x14|
|August 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5 x 14|
|August 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5x14|
|September 2022. Oil on wood panel. 15.5x14|