Sunday How Do You...Get So Much Art Done? Part 1

Happy Sunday and welcome to the first installment of "How Do You..." in which I try to answer questions about my art and art life. These aren't technical questions such as "how do you make a stuffed armadillo" but rather inquiries concerned more with the philosophical and logistical conundrums of being an artist. I'll warn you right up front of two things: these articles will describe how I personally do things - they may or may not work for you. I'm aiming here to draw back the curtain for the curious on my approach to being an artist. Secondly, these posts may be long so if you're interested in such things, grab a cup of coffee or a spot of tea and prepare to read.

I'm beginning with the question I probably get asked the most:

"How do you get so much art done with all the obstacles you deal with?"

(Briefly, for new readers, those "obstacles" include chronic migraines, bilateral Kienbocks Disease in both hands/wrists, bilateral fibromatosis in my feet, Young Onset Parkinson's disease, and the resulting chronic pain from all of these conditions and the 11 surgeries they have required.)

See how I caged the word obstacles in quotation marks? That's important because it hints a bit at my approach to life as I hope you'll see. This is a question that I think I will need to answer in three parts so today, I'll just begin with the basic things that define my level of productivity.

First of all, I have to say that, health issues aside, my life is less complicated than most. I have no spouse and no small children. My adult son, from a brief marriage in the early nineties, lives at home but the responsibilities and challenges that brings pale in comparison to the distractions a family would add to my life. Please know that I don't use the word "distractions" negatively; I'm just acknowledging that having a family - and doing it justice - necessarily takes time away from pursuing art.

My old marriage certificate, obtained and executed in the British territory of Gibraltar, lists me as a "spinster" and long ago, when my marriage ended, I decided to return to that life. At first, it was so I could devote all of my attention and resources to raising my son as a single mother. As he grew, I opted to remain unattached so I could follow my dreams. In addition, I work only minimally: I'm paid to teach art about seven hours per week during the school year and prepare for those days for approximately another seven hours per week. My health precludes working too much more than that so I have a lot of time at my disposal if I feel well enough to be up and around.

Time - and how I use it - is really the key to answering today's question. I manage to get so much done because not only do I have the luxury of free time, I manage that time ruthlessly. Each day of the week has its own posted schedule. I have one type of schedule for when I am working and one for summertime. I follow a strict set of rituals to begin and close each day (aided in part by a touch of OCD.)

After two decades of severe hand problems, I began something I call "extreme multi-tasking." I most often work at various stations set up around my home all at once. For example, I might art journal, edit blog photos, do the dishes, and prep canvases all within the same block of time. Each "station" requires something different of me: fine motor/detail work, using a mouse & keyboard, and large motor work while creating the serendipity backgrounds of my paintings. I almost always throw in a set of dishes to do because the hot water wash/cold water rinse acts like a contrast bath for my hands, soothing them before they get too weary from any one task. All those little bits of time add up and by not overworking myself on any one thing, I actually end up getting more done in the long run.

As I've detailed in a previous post, my everyday motto is simply "Onward!" I aim, every single day, to adapt and persevere no matter what sunrise begins. And every day is different. Some days, my PD tremor disrupts my fine motor skills to the point where my handwriting resembles the finest doctor's scrawl. Many, many mornings begin with a migraine creeping up the back of my skull (anywhere from 6 to 20 days per month.) Those will be days where I just create backgrounds. In fact, I lean a lot on serendipity and organizational work when detail work is out of the question due pain, tremor, or migraines. Much of project prep includes skills that require no precision or heavy thought; indeed, certain projects benefit from an injection of the random, sloppy, and spontaneous.

When I feel bad, I rarely just quit. I merely adapt and adjust my stride. (Not surprisingly, I often feel better staying busy with light work rather than collapsing on the couch to wallow in my misery.) Do I have pity party days and/or days where my loftiest goal to to browse my Netflix queue? Ab-so-frickin-lutely! I'm not a robot! However, I do, even on the darkest day, cast my eyes towards the horizon and resolve to get back on track. I do that by beginning with little projects. I might spend a day simply pulling an art book down from the shelf to scan or by clipping words from magazines. I organize my clippings by letter and by parts of speech so an off-day could be spent mindlessly shifting words into piles. Later on, all that time I spent will save time when I'm trying to create a found word poem for my journal. As I said, it all adds up.

Lastly, I am an explorer. I play in lots of different arenas: journaling, painting, drawing, illustration, found object sculpture, clay, sewing, crafts, book arts, jewelry-making. Not only does this give me lots of options when I have a health issue to work around, it keeps me engaged in my art life. I'm never bored and as disparate as all those pursuits might seem, each medium informs my vision and skill in another. The more I sculpt creatures in clay, the better I become at drawing them. The rigorous fine motor challenge of jewelry-making keeps me in shape for my illustration work. My daily journal exploration sparks ideas for things to put on canvas.

None of this is easy. I have plenty of days where I rage at Fate or surgeons or weak bones or shaky hands. I worry a lot about the future. In truth though, all I can do is control the now. Today, in this moment, I can do what I can do and I'll just have to trust that it is enough. Interestingly, in terms of Parkinson's anyway, studies have shown that patients who practice regular fine motor activities and physical exercise (no matter how difficult) more often experience a slower and gentler progression of the disease. The sooner a patient begins these things after diagnosis, the better. There's no drug in existence that can accomplish that. So all those little things are enough and the more I do them, the longer I'll be able to do them. And in the maybe three decades I have left, all that time, adaptation, perseverance, and exploration spent in the pursuit of art will equal a truly comprehensive and curious legacy for my family to hold onto once I'm gone. It is a bit of immortality crafted a day at a time.

In my next "How Do You...?" article, I'll approach this same question in a different way by trying to detail a typical art-making day by the hour. Remember, this particular feature will be alternating with another called "Serendipithon Sundays." Whether I'll be able to manage consecutive Sundays remains to be seen (that's the best laid plan) but however things shake out, those two themes will always post on a Sunday. Mondays and Wednesdays will be art posting as usual and the third Tuesday will eventually become "Tech Tuesday" for those more nuts & bolts art questions.


Janet said…
Truly remarkable! I'm in awe of your strong work ethic and your determination to continue on despite all that's been put in your path. Your positive attitude will carry you forward very far in life - one of your greatest assets. Keep going forward - I'm enjoying the journey!
I just wanted to say i am already liking these new series on the blog :) Happy creating Michelle...
BritChickNY said…
What a well written post Michelle. Thank-you for sharing your wisdom and some really wonderful ways to manage challenges. Your outlook is inspiring and there are some great ideas here for time management. I am going to print out this and keep it in my journal as gentle reminders of how NOT to be overwhelmed.
Emie58 said…
THANK YOU!!!!! This is a wonderful post.. I think it's great how you break things up into smaller portions and the type of task it is... definitely some tips I can use. Love this new series!
Leone said…
Thank you for sharing your creative process. I must admit I feel a little embarassed at the time I waste. I have no other commitments except the daily chores so I really want to spend more time creating. These tips will help me I am sure. I admire your tenacity.
Carin Winkelman said…
A wonderful post, thank you and my deepest respect for all you accomplish.
Suz said…
This is a beautifully written post. I admire your courage to share and your attitude. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder in 2013. I attest to the fact that attitude is everything and when I get down I always remember there are people in the world with more serious problems than mine. You are a wonderful artist and I am enjoying reading your blog!
LAHRdesign said…
Wow--that's amazing. I like how you describe your circuits to get things done. I always figured I was easily distracted. Going to reframe my running around your way!

PS: The photos at the bottoms of the pages change--which is great except I've gone to one and then hoped to go back to get to the other and cannot. Please add a search box or a list of topics to click on--characters, monsters, monotone, color!, butterflies, etc. Please, please, please.