Building things ... and then knocking them down

On my last visit to see my family in NZ, my older brother was commended on his child-minding abilities, while looking after my two-year-old niece at a family gathering.

I can tell you I was there and from what I saw, this activity basically involved my extremely tall brother sitting cross-legged on the floor, while building wooden block towers as high as was humanly possible, only to have my niece’s small arm come swinging into the centre of them, scattering them to the four corners of the guest room. At this point, she’d look over at my brother expectantly before the cycle would begin all over again (lucky for her, it did).

Just because I can, I’m going to use this story as an analogy for what it has taken me to be a successful artist. Although, from watching my two-year old niece for 5 minutes it was clear she’d picked up the talent for this game far sooner than I did.

I myself am more of a builder.. but without the thing getting smashed at the end.

I am/have been that person who cleans their room/studio/the kitchen meticulously before sitting in front of it and taking in the visual serenity.

To give you some insight, the one critique my tutors had of me during my four years at art school was that I didn’t move through concepts fast enough. They were critical of the hundreds of hours I spent pouring myself into one or two works that may or may not be picked up or appreciated in critiques. They would rather have seen me tacking vast quantities of conceptual detritus on my movable (and very temporal) studio wall, than see me present one or two immaculate outcomes that I’d clearly spent a bunch of my time on.

So this idea of putting all one’s energy (or in this case my brother’s) into building something huge and grandiose before seeing it in ruins on the floor wasn’t a model of living I found naturally cathartic or appealing.

In saying that, I am very glad to say these days I’m learning to have more and more acceptance for this model. I still make work that takes a long time. I still value time-slow methods of working, but I’m a lot kinder to myself these days than I used to be. I’m also a lot more forgiving than back in the day when I considered my art practice to be paramount above my own happiness or health.

My journey to Australia has taught me a lot about discarding old models for better and more flexible ones. In my case this has meant tossing the old ideals I held for quite some time - that if you really want to be an artist you have to be where the action is (for me this was what first drew me to Melbourne). The other beliefs I kept pretty close while I bled, sweated and cried my way through too many exhibitions and film-productions to name, were that taking any work that wasn’t ‘creative’ was ‘settling’ and that in doing so I was setting myself up for eternal failure.

Fortunately, things got pretty dire pretty soon on my journey to being a real artist.

If you’ve read some of my earlier blog posts you’ll know three weeks after arriving in Australia I had the first of three surgeries over my first two years and struggled to feed myself at times while pursuing my cause as an artist & musician. This is all well and good if you’re being paid by a set director in a starving-artist-type production, but not ideal if you’re actually doing so in the arena of life.

In my case this model was totally debilitating and while operating within this paradigm, I always felt like I had something inherently wrong with me. I can see looking back on that time, that my model for success as I saw it was totally screwed up and that it was unsustainable because it meant I was always giving out but never putting back into myself as a human being or an artist.

Following a faulty model - and berating myself for the injuries I incurred along the way - impacted heavily on my ability to focus on building my practice in a new country, and eventually I realised I couldn’t keep pushing myself the way I was; long nights, under-valuing my work, pushing at all the limits of all my connections in order to make the crazy deadlines I was setting for myself in my quest to be a successful artist.

Eventually, my awakening came in the form of a stress-related rash my doctor first took to be shingles, and sent me to the emergency unit at an eye and ear hospital.

It was about this time I took my first baby steps in unfurling my white knuckled fingers from the old model, though at the time this felt like jumping off a cliff or signing a death warrant for my beloved professional career as an artist.

Fortunately life had other plans for me, and after two years working in hospitality to fund my creative work, I found my dream job working as an education support at a special school with a central focus on creativity as a means to reaching and inspiring students with learning difficulties.

Which brings me back to my original point.

This 'niece model’ of living, of setting the standard high - building towers (or delegating the task to someone taller and more able than you are) before swiftly knocking them down in order to build another better one, might be the best model I have ever encountered for staying open and flexible to life’s opportunities.

I still don’t feel like an artist.

It doesn’t mean I’m not one. But it does mean these days, all I feel I can trust is the work.

These days I take each day as it comes. I set deadlines for myself and work toward them, I make sure I’m making time in my schedule to have nights off work, I go to shows and regularly catch up with other artists who inspire me. In short, I’m putting back into myself as well as producing work and would you believe I’m far more productive (and far happier) than I was while pursuing my old model of unrelenting persistence for fear of failure.