Simplify Until You are Doing It

Simplify Until You are Doing It

Sometimes I am making the art I want to make. Sometimes I stop.

Sometimes I have a great idea, get really excited, make a bunch of theoretical plans and then do nothing.

Sometimes I succeed in making a whole bunch of art. Convince myself I need to take it to another level. Attempt this level up by messing with the established process and find the “new and improved” process sucks and hate it.

Making art is delicate. You do not strong arm your way to poetry. Your process is like a wild animal. Your stewardship over that process builds or breaks trust. Without trust, the art does not come.

What to do?

Simplify.

Minimize.

Remove the parts that cause the jam. Think smaller. Think fewer steps. Less set up. Less clean up. Less not doing it. More doing it. Locate the thing or action that is inhibiting you.

Here’s two examples. One is positive and one is negative.

Negative first. Most of you know me over here as the artist making Sidewalk Faces as I mostly use those to illustrate my essays and I reference it a lot. But professionally, I’ve worked as a documentary editor for the past 18 years. When I was starting out, I wanted to practice all the time, so I also shot a lot of video to provide myself with material to edit. I got decent at shooting and mic-ing and I made a ton of one man band video projects, some professional, some personal.

So, I had a BIG IDEA! Actually, I had a germ of an idea that got big really fast. I had this vision for a short video about why people get tattoos. It came almost fully formed and it was a SHORT video. I visualized how it would begin and end. The scope of it was something I could accomplish quite easily on a technical level. It would just entail finding and interviewing a bunch of people. That was a little outside my wheelhouse, but I was so infatuated with the idea I did it. I interviewed a bunch of people and filmed in several tattoo parlors. It was incredibly exciting. It was maybe like getting high. The higher I got, the more I started to envision a bigger project, a feature length film. The scope of the project started to live more in my imagination than in reality. The higher the imaginary stakes, the more afraid I became of making actual mistakes. I never edited the material. It’s one of my greatest failures and regrets. The project totally stalled out. I let it get so big in my mind that I became afraid of it and ran away.

There were other contributing reasons, there always are. But I could have easily done the first idea. I could still do the first idea.

Here’s the positive example. I always have a blank book I like to play in. I think I have about 70 of them spanning decades. They are not art in and of themselves. They are messy and wild and private. But many ideas, projects, and sources of inspiration have germinated first in this garden of creativity.

Someone close to me gifted me a beautiful blank book. They inscribed it and gave it to me as an act of love. The book was a bit too special to serve my messy purposes and it went unused. Then I had a very bad period. I was distraught and overwhelmed with anger. For reasons that are not at all clear I told myself I could take out my anger on this book. For several days I used only black and red sharpie and made bold, ugly scratches on a lot of pages. I let my anger make the art. Slowly the anger softened but the wild abandon did not. More interesting abstracts started to come. More and more until the pages were used up. I started a brand new book of only abstracts. I used whatever art medium was around. Nothing special. Pens, cheap markers, glued on bits of whatever. It was easy to start and easy to end a session. Just open the book, grab whatever art supplies are nearby and go. It was incredibly fulfilling. After finishing the second book, I formalized the project into 9 x 9 inch pieces of paper.

The abstract drawing process works. All impeding decisions have been eliminated. Paper size is set. Materials are set. I now use only alcohol based markers and I have a ton of them. They are in little jars on a shelf in the main room. If I want to be doing this activity, it takes no more than a minute or two to set up and the same to clean up. I need it to be this easy or it wouldn’t happen for me. Despite the ease, I mostly only do this on weekend nights. The most crucial ingredient to art making is having some time. But when I have it, nothing else gets in the way. 

Some processes are easier to simplify than others. And all art is cumulative so something that was simple might become something more complex. I am not trying to eliminate the complex from coming into existence. But remembering that it is cumulative and keeping the process going is utterly foundational. What stops cannot grow. Eliminate everything that is stopping the process.

Sidewalk Face 874

Responsibility Seesaw

Responsibility Seesaw

A seesaw appears to be a binary. Either you’re up or down. Emotionally it’s easiest to imagine this as you’re happy or you’re unhappy. Stressed or not stressed. I am often stressed by responsibility so naturally I dream of relief. How wonderful it would be to roll the backpack of anxiety off my weary shoulders and shove it deep into the closet, not to be hoisted again until next season. I wish for this so often. I am delusionally imaging a world of equilibrium. I think if I am not stressed about too much to do, I will be in a stasis of happiness.

No. Stasis does not exist, it is merely the briefest moment of passing through the fulcrum from one state of anxiety to the next.

I noticed this last night. I was taking stock and feeling pretty darn good about my week’s accomplishments. I had managed to do so much! And the future was looking a little less hectic. It’s as if I had been stuck in the up position of the seesaw for a month by an elephant of labor who either refused to pump his thick legs up and down or who was just too large for it to be effective. But miraculously, he had shrunk in size and I was slowly floating down. Happiness is just on the other side! Here I come!

I felt total bliss as the board evened out, me and the now skinny elephant smiling across from each other, perfectly aligned, our eyes meeting in joyous anticipation.

How brief was that joy, how fleeting that sense of ease. The skinny elephant suddenly transformed into an emaciated rodent who flew up in the air as my terrified butt whacked the ground. Thrown from the game he scurried away, leaving me unable to go up again. What if I don’t get any more work? What if all the jobs dry up? What if I have nothing to do? All the anxiety was back, just a mirror image.

Too much or too little. Those are always the main course. The hoped-for sense of ease is a momentary movement in between.

I am glad I could see it so clearly. And the metaphor helps. Possibly the thing to do is get off the damn seesaw.


Illustrations by my brilliant husband, Andy Norman.