Years ago I was at an art retreat where everyone was talking about a woman who’d attended the previous year who had, during the course of the retreat, changed nearly everything about her life. She took classes in techniques she’d never tried, made friends with people she never would have met. She cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes and, they said, went home to sell her house and move somewhere that was more supportive of the brand-new life she was inventing.
Her story was both compelling and terrifying. Huge change is like that, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, at least in part because change is inevitable: sometimes we choose it, but sometimes it chooses us. And that’s scary. While most people don’t go away for a four-day art retreat and come home with a whole new life, all of us are going to make changes both large and small whether we want to or not. Many of the artists I talk to are finding themselves in the midst of sweeping changes for a lot of reasons, but the ones I hear most often are prompted by shifts in family structure, age, and the economy.
Family changes are always work-altering, whether it’s entering a new relationship and suddenly sharing the apartment with a partner or the kids leaving home and giving you access to rooms in your house you hadn’t dared enter in years for fear of being attacked by rogue sports equipment and unwashed socks. Whether it’s finding yourself with hardly any personal time because there’s a new baby in the house or facing a tripling of studio time that presents itself the day after you retire from your day job (so that you no longer have the excuse of “if only I had more time”) it’s daunting. Everything’s different, and it’s hard to know how to begin to adjust. Changes in your relationships and living situation have enormous ripples that effect everything in your life, especially if you work at home.
Then there are the realities of aging. For most of us, this isn’t necessarily a huge change. Sure, your eyesight may need a little help, and your fingers may not cooperate like they used to, but you don’t really worry too much about it, and you can usually figure out ways to adapt. For working artists, though, the realities of aging can be scary, indeed. If you’ve been self-employed for 30 years, there’s no pension, and in many cases, the financial crash wiped out whatever you’d managed to save. You have no desire to retire from the work you love, but you have to wonder what will happen when you can no longer solder or hold a brush. Past a certain age, you pay more attention to every little change, wondering if it’s the harbinger of something bigger.
And then there’s the economy. Thomas Mann and I talked about this last week in our podcast. He’d told me a little about reinventing his career in the last decade, teaching at mixed media art retreats and working to find other ways to keep his New Orleans business afloat after the double blows of Katrina and then the crash. Almost every working artist I talk to is in the same position, trying to keep doing the work they (and their collectors) love in an economy that has people reluctant to spend money on art, which they see as a luxury. Fear is a powerful determinant in spending, and when people are worried about their future, they’re less likely to spend money on things they love but that they don’t consider necessities.
Different sources, different changes, but at the core, it’s still change. Welcome change, unwelcome change, scary change. How to we deal with that?
I have always been a creature of habit. I like the same food for breakfast and the same trip to Starbuck’s at the end of the work day. I have favorite clothes I’ve loved and worn for years. I don’t want to move to a new house, and I like having had the same partner for over 35 years. For much of my life, change was something I avoided whenever possible. And then in middle age I figured I’d better learn to accept it, if not actively embrace it, because it was happening anyway. It turns out that sometimes embracing it can be the way to get past not much liking it.
Stepping up and initiating change–being proactive rather than reactive–can be liberating. Instead of waiting fearfully to see what’s going to happen, you figure out what you want to happen and then set about seeing what sorts of changes might help you to get there. If you find yourself suddenly living alone, perhaps you can think of ways to take advantage of the freedom to do exactly what you want to do: the pantry no longer has to hold food; it can be used for cans of paint. The closet can be a darkroom, and the bathtub can be a dye vat. If it’s getting harder and harder to hold a brush and do tiny, intricate details in a painting, what about going larger–much larger? If you’re not making as much money as you used to doing what you’ve always done, what is there that you’ve always wanted to try that you’ve been postponing? If you’ve been putting off making sculpture instead of jewerly because you weren’t sure it would sell, but the jewelry isn’t selling very well any more, well: why not borrow a torch and see where you can go?
Instead of waiting until you’re forced into a change you think you don’t want, take a little time to think about what it is you’d like to introduce to your future. Maybe it’s encaustic, maybe it’s purple hair. You get to choose.
Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.
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