You can have anything, but not everything, or so some say., For me this is surely a theme I have encountered, both in my quest for success across a wide variety of creative mediums, and also in reference to the time-money-value triangle; the idea that for an end product to have value, you need to invest money and/or time, and that if you're short on either one of these components you must invest more of the other in order for your product to have value.
I have learnt this lesson many times, as someone who has made a living from creating, at times with much money and not a lot of time, and at others, with a lot of time and very little money.
I emerged from one of the most prestigious art schools in New Zealand during a time when the government were making major funding cuts to funding for the arts, not to mention the weekly tours of our studio spaces we'd be privy to from faculty members trying to scavenge space for other departments while I was actually there. Sometimes it felt like there was a ticking time-bomb over my friends and I; A sense of urgency that pushed all of us to make as much work as possible in fear our circumstances change and throw us into some new uncharted territory. We were always getting pressure to stay in late and occupy the space, and by the time I left an 80 hour week was a pass when it came to my expectations around how much I put in in order to achieve my benchmark as an emerging artist.
There were successes I should point out. It wasn't all doom and gloom and late nights and parking fines (however there were a fair few of those I might add) but it was also a time of stretching, pushing, innovating, pioneering new territory. In my second year of study I found myself in developing a medium that was new to me at the time - paper cut miniature dioramas I later found out were also referred to as tunnel books. My work was selected for a national ad campaign the year I graduated, and then the same year I was asked to work on a two-page spread for an established Australian musician, to be published in The Great Australian Songbook. But amidst all this I was still spinning various metaphorical plates, working multiple jobs seven days a week, fighting to keep myself afloat and struggling with doubts about my creativity on one hand, while also feeling like earning a regular income doing anything other than art was somehow betraying the creative vision I'd fought so hard for.
In short my focus was split multiple ways, fractured, at times splintered between desperately wanting to travel, to see the world and do all the things I thought I'd gain from throwing myself wholeheartedly into my creative practices, and at other times spending far too much time on individual works for what I was selling them for. I felt like a failure on one hand because I wasn't earning as much as friends who had full-time jobs, however getting a full-time job in my mind meant giving up everything I' d fought so hard for in abandoning a solid income to pursue my dream of being a successful illustrator and musician.
There's a quote by Brenda Ueland that has helped me to remember my own value and the power in my creative practice when I've experienced doubt over my commitment to wholeheartedly pursuing a creative life -
'Why should we all use our creative power....? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.'
This quote has been a reference point for me on the many times I've doubted my decisions to pursuit an authentic creative life. It kept me going when, three years post-uni I had done all I felt I could to chase down opportunities both musically and artistically and I decided enough was enough, I needed to leave Auckland for a greener pastures..such came in the form of the city of Melbourne where I decided to move in pursuit of new stages to perform with my band Shadow Feet, and to push my paper cutting out on a larger platform with the wave of other paper cutting artists I'd seen emerging overseas since I'd begun the practice in 2008.
But if I had thought it would be an easy ride in, I was sorely mistaken. I flew into Melbourne at a time when the heat was up around 37°C. Three weeks after arriving in Australia, I woke up in a friend's house, sick and in pain, with what felt like a large swelling on the inside of my stomach. my friend's housemate was there (luckily) and drove me to hospital where I had an emergency surgical procedure which would keep me bed/couch-ridden in my brand new city for the next month. When I look back on it, I believe this was the first sign of my body saying no to me on many levels. No you can't handle high levels of stress 6 days a week, no you can't put off self-care for the sake of your next creative venture, no you can't create when you've had next to no sleep, no you're not driving 4 hours for a job that might not even cover your travel costs. But what did I go and do..?
You got it.
Through all the things that happened leading up to and after leaving New Zealand, the stress and hearing directly from more than one medical professional that my symptoms were directly correlated, I still believed that somehow I wasn't doing enough with my life, that I needed to do more - book more shows, write more music, apply to more galleries, get a bigger online presence and increased promotion for all the things I was doing. Regardless, it didn't matter how hard I worked, how many works I sold or what exhibitions I had lined up, I still felt a nagging sense that none of it meant I measured up, and the harder I worked it seemed, the more I fed this idea and allowed it to be the motivator for keeping my creative practices going, despite the warning signs that I was doing physical damage to myself by refusing to give myself a break.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances and hard motivations I faced that year, it turned out to be one of my most productive. I got asked to present a solo exhibition at a large library in the CBD. I began a residency at Somewhere Studios where I met some extremely talented and generous film makers who helped to capture my practice through Let the Light In, a film documenting some of the elements of my practice as an artist and musician, and I also got to be a part of a few council run initiatives in different suburbs of Melbourne. The same year I hooked up with a group of Australian musos to form a collective label called Airpunch music, on which we recorded an album together for Christmas that year. I was also part of a pop-up store where I sold some of the laser cut journals I'd been developing as a way to prop up my still-time-saturated paper-cut works. It's not really surprising that I wound up right back in hospital for a second operation that same year.
Another month without security of work, and still the nagging sensation that my needing further surgery may be a direct result of the negative thoughts and doubts which motivated my practice at the time. These in turn informed the decisions that were costing me both my emotional and physical well-being, and which led me to hit further lows the year after, when I had a stress reaction which had my GP refer me to an eye hospital for symptoms of what was in hindsight a stress reaction, and not his suspected shingles.
Since then, I'm proud to say I've let up on the work front (at least compared to how I used to run things) and I'm learning to protect and nourish myself, to ensure life stays more balanced, and that my practice never again impinges on my health.
At this point in the piece, I feel it's important to mention that I went through a period where I couldn't make anything. No music, no art. I questioned whether I would go back to my practice at all. I seized up, and then relaxed, and recently (in the last few months) I've begun once again to create, slowly. Baby steps in between a lot of futile worrying about whether I'd create again (very silly but understandable, at least to me).
In short, I'm learning to think differently about my creative practice.
I've learnt that it's something that, unprotected and malnourished it might perform for a while as pushed, but after a while you'll have something similar to the supermarket tantrum of a 3-year old on your hands. Paying no attention to that, your '3-year-old' might stop screaming.. and might just shut up completely for that matter.
It is for this reason I've learnt to give my inner 3-year-old artist treats on occasion and not to think of this as wasting valuable resources on 'things' when I should be investing EVERYTHING I have in my quest for success.
Practically speaking, this means reassuring myself that taking a night or two off a week doesn't mean I'm not committed, or that I'm a failure. I've got enough experience now to know pushing yourself too far can spell the end of it, and that you can't do anything sustainably if you can't look after yourself first, and that all the opportunities in the world mean nothing if you're not in a place to appreciate and enjoy the things that come your way.