Sunday How Do You...Choose What to Pursue?

Today's "How Do You...? feature centers around a question my dear friend Ellen recently posed to me and it is a topic I've been pondering intensely as summer winds down and the new school year approaches, full of new opportunities and challenges. In the face of reduced time for personal art-making, I am trying to pin down my approach to this dilemma so I can make the most of my available time and supplies:

How do you choose lines of artistic pursuit with so many areas to choose from?

My studio is packed to the brim. My primary work space occupies almost half of my upstairs living space (which includes the kitchen, half bath, and what the landlord calls a "living room.") I call it my studio. I have another room downstairs for little-used or overflow supplies (what is supposed to be my bedroom) as well as an office at work for all my teaching supplies. All in all, like many people, I have too much stuff and I am actively involved in reducing my stash. Right now, the upstairs studio is filled with all those things I feel I can't live without and represents a vast range of interests: journaling, sewing, sculpture, painting, illustration, jewelry-making, and book-making. And, since I am sure that I have enough books to call it such, my library is upstairs as well. So this begs the question: when time and energy are limited by health issues and the demands of everyday living, how do I focus on a particular area when I am surrounded by possibilities?

Before you can figure out how to do something, it is important to figure out what that "something" is in the first place. Here are some things I try to distinguish between when looking at the range of options spread out before me:
1) Fleeting fads vs. long-term love affairs: (i.e. Indian loom beading vs. drawing)
2) Daily activities vs. short-term projects (i.e. journaling vs. prepping for a show)
3) Hard focus vs. soft focus tasks (i.e. scientific illustration vs. doodling)
That last point of distinction - hard focus vs. soft focus tasks - is the most important for me. Hard focus tasks are ones that take the most concentration, enthusiasm and/or energy. Hard focus tasks also most often have a specific end goal or singular result. In contrast, soft focus tasks are things that I can do without much thought, projects that are repetitive and soothing. Soft focus projects often are ongoing, things I can pick up and put down over and over again within losing ground or momentum.

Since journaling for me is a soft focus task, I can do that while watching TV or waiting at an appointment. I do soft focus tasks when I'm not feeling well. I save my uninterrupted studio time for those hard focus tasks (sculpting, painting, illustration, sewing) that need the most attention and practice. This means that feeling good or feeling bad, I'm almost always still making art.

Once you pinpoint what it is you'd like to accomplish in your studio, you need to devise an plan that will support your goal. Here's some ways to approach the problem:

Tactic #1: Explore a Single Theme in Multiple Media aka Mastering the Imagery
I am doing this right now with my creatures. I draw them, paint them, doodle them, collage them, write about them, sculpt them, and have plans to sew them.

Tactic #2: In a Single Medium, Explore Multiple Themes aka Mastering the Medium
I used to swing back and forth between this approach and the former but it's hard to limit myself to one medium. I want to play with them all! I also feel like I get less done overall. I'm OK with being a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Tactic #3: Exploration Time Frames
I never had much success with doing this but I know a lot of people do. With this approach, you give yourself a time frame (whatever feels natural) to explore something specific (i.e. for the next month, I will make books or for six weeks, I will study and practice watercolor.)

Tactic #4: Go Where the Whim Takes You
This is, of course, another valid approach to art-making. Wake up and follow your gut. In my case, I have specific goals and projects that I wish to see to fruition before my fine motor control deteriorates due to Parkinson's Disease. I have to use my time wisely (both day-to-day and long term.) For me, it is not an option to wander aimlessly in my studio on a regular basis. I could dabble here and there in a bit of everything but I would never complete anything and I would never dig very deep into any particular subject or medium. There are days of course when that is all I am able to do but as a general rule, I try to pursue just one or two things at a time. The more limited my time, the more focused I need to be.

NOTE: I have found that "following my whim" often dissolves into games entitled "Gather Rather than Do," "Mimic the Teacher," and "Stack the Unfinished." While those pursuits are fun in the moment, ultimately I find them to be unfulfilling. 

Some other considerations/strategies:
Eliminate distractions.
Get rid of supplies that you never use, things you tried but hated, and supplies for things you used to do but got burnt out on. I've pretty much accomplished that but the problem is that my favorite mediums seem to require lots of pieces! Yes, I can mix all the colors I need from just red, blue, and yellow but where's the fun in that?! Fortunately, I feel like I've reached to point where the only supplies I now need to purchase are replacements for stuff I use up. Otherwise, I'm fairly sure I have enough art-making fuel for three lifetimes.

Recognize and honor ideas that just won't go away. 
Here's a classic example from my life. I've had this idea for a circus-themed journal or storybook (created entirely in black, white, grey, cream, red, silver, and gold) for almost sixteen years. I've collected an entire box (well OK...boxes) full of papers, fabrics, trims, and embellishments in that color scheme. An entire stack of books in my library is devoted to circus-themed novels and non-fiction books. I have written bits here and there on the story for years. This is an idea that will not die and I know at some point, I need to find a way to tap into that reserve of supplies and thought. I may not know why that idea is so important but its persistence in my peripheral vision is something that cannot be ignored.

Where I'm at Now in This Decision Tree:
I am keenly interested in bringing the characters and stories in my head into the real world (no matter how they are received by the public.) I am also determined to push my fine motor abilities while I have them so that means lots of drawing, painting (on a smaller scale,) sculpting, and some sewing. I especially enjoy Tactic #1 mentioned above so I will continue character creation across multiple mediums including watercolor, acrylics, pencils, markers, clay, fabric, and paper. I will continue my efforts to purge the unwanted and the unnecessary. And, most importantly, I will always try to move forward by listening to my body and making the appropriate adjustments for the energy, pain, physical ability, and focus level of the moment.


Janet said…
Wow!!! Well said. Thanks.
Beverley Baird said…
Lovely post - great ideas. Really need to be more focused and try to accomplish more.
Chrissie said…
Oooh, your note on "following my whim" really hit hard! Thank you, I needed that!