Recently I presented a talk to a Regional Arts Organisation, Orana Arts, the topic being… How might mental attitude towards your practice might impact on what professional and creative opportunities you pursue, and how to push through the doubts that all artists have at some point…?
Have you seen the thing about the creative process that does the rounds on social media?
I HAVE AN IDEA! THIS IS GOING TO BE GREAT! OH NO – THIS IS ACTUALLY A BIT SHITE. THIS IS REALLY SHITE. I GIVE UP. MAYBE I CAN FIX IT?> IT MIGHT BE OKAY> OH WOW< THIS IS AWESOME!
This process is something that resonates with me totally except maybe the last bit, which says THIS IS AWESOME. I almost never ever get to this point- I am incredibly critical of my work.
I wonder, is this the thing that drives me to keep making more? To be better? I think it is.
I suppose it depends on your mental attitude, and where you are at in your creative journey. That perilous, exhausting, nerve wracking, exciting and unpredictable journey. Like mine.
I’ve lived with depression and anxiety since my late teens, early twenties- becoming an adult was so hard. Doing a degree, falling in love, being diagnosed with both a deviated nasal septum (weird) and endometriosis with possible infertility, self esteem issues, including long term bulimia and generally just trying to find my path.
Yes, I was that dark, cliche’d emotional Uni Visual Art student. To be honest I spent a lot of time with my dark thoughts , creating art based on them. I still do not know whether art helped or actually injured me more- as it seemed that living, embracing, immersing (wallowing? ) myself in this darkness was encouraged by many around me. Rich fodder for creating work.
Whatever the case, I felt like total shit, and my work was all about feeling like total shit. I did not have a healthy attitude towards myself or my art, and looking back I can see how this impacted on any ability to look towards future opportunities with art and where it might take me.
So I did NOT pursue professional and creative opportunities at all.
How did I push past it?
I began treatment for the endometriosis. I had my septum undeviated. I finished the degree. I left my family home. I got some work. I partied, saw live bands, hung out with friends, op-shopped, went to the movies. I had counselling on and off. My love life settled down as both my boyfriend ( now husband) and I matured.
And I travelled. This was a huge part of moving forwards – losing myself in the wonder of being in new places, tasting, smelling, seeing new things. Going to galleries and museums, seeing the work that had been in textbooks now right in front of me. Feeling the flow of creativity that had carried humans through the ages. Feeling that I wanted to be part of this.
We moved back to Australia, and to Central West NSW. It was a shock to the system, and my mental health did get a little shaky again- feeling very isolated and alone.
Then I began breeding and completing a second Degree, by distance education. There was NO TIME to create. Like mothers the world over, the focus was no longer on my own individual needs.
However the need to create was still there, always under the surface.
But any confidence in myself faded, slowly. I think I stopped thinking about art as my path so a bit of me died.
I actually feel like crying just thinking about it.
Fast forward a bit, and a traumatic life THING happened.I had to pause, to reset, re-evaluate. My doctor told me – Shani, you will NEVER be happy or content unless you reconnect with making art again. It gave me permission to walk with baby steps back down that path, and dare to dream again.
But my confidence was shaken, well and truly. I also felt very alone, and very disconnected from any sort of art network.
I began very very cautiously, setting up an art business doing illustrations. I stayed well away from showing any conceptual art or art galleries, convinced I was not good enough for them. I felt I had nothing to say of any importance.
In 2015 I won a national award for online creatives and blogging, which bolstered my ego, and led to some other opportunities. I remember waking up after the award ceremony (it was at Luna Park in Sydney), seeing my trophy and cheque, and thinking… “This is what winners feel like”.
Belief in myself was growing and I began to put work in galleries and curated shows and sold enough to feel that it was not a lost cause.
But again, I was working in relative isolation, no networking with other creatives, and I had the feeling that there was something I was MISSING, something outside my grasp.
I reached out to a person in my area, employed in the arts, who I thought might help me. But instead I was given a total kick in the guts. “ You are not a real artist” he told me. Hurt beyond words, I retreated back into my shell, licking my wounds, ego and belief in my creative self obliterated. I though, well, you stupid woman, how idiotic that you dared to dream.
It took a LONG time to recover- and not sure if I really have. I still smart at those words.
So again, I gave up pursuing any opportunities really.
Then I realised, girl you are getting OLDER. And I had better get on with it. Otherwise there would only be bitter regret.
This is where my stubbornness began to kick in too, I think.
I was bolshy, and began asking questions, sending emails to people I thought might help me, that inspired me, might know something, share their knowledge and expertise.
And every time I did – my heart pounded, but afterwards I felt a little bit stronger, prouder, braver.
I began to write down even little tiny victory, every bit of knowledge gleaned. I researched.
I kept playing, experimenting, drawing, painting.
I had a few great opportunities happen in a few short years. I am still very much in the early, early stages of developing my art practice in the direction of public art, conceptual pieces and I still get massive impersonator syndrome.
However, I know that every time I submit, or apply, or create and make, and it does not turn out the way I anticipated, this is just another learning experience along the way. I try REALLY HARD to reframe it to cognitively and not give up.
I allow myself the mental space to cry, feel upset, the time to process. Then I push through it – knowing that giving up is simply not an option at this point. I am too far down that path to turn back now knowing how far I have come.
I realise I have limitations, and try to work within them. I was diagnosed with adult ADD a few years ago, which explained a lot, and helps me understand what I need to keep my mental heath ticking along .
Instead of struggling against these things, I work with them. I try to see them as my superpowers – knowing that the same sensitivity and empathy that makes me vulnerable also give me imagination, insight and observational skills. I remain curious.
Lastly, I have a few little pearls of wisdom that I keep blutacked to my wall, that help me out sometimes, reminding me this is not a sprint, but a marathon, with some bits that are uphill, some down, some are cruisey, some are tough but I can go more slowly, and even walk them in if need be.
Where focus goes – energy flows. So focus on what you WANT not what you DON’T or CAN’T .
What kind of life do you want to live?
Believe. Don’t stop.
If people laugh and scoff, look down their noses, then work harder to throw it back at them. Be stubborn, show the bastards.
DO NOT QUIT ON YOURSELF – the ones who get what they want are the ones who did not give up.
Do what you love.
Commitment does not mean pushing yourself to breaking point.
Engage in consistent action, try to take a step towards your goals everyday if you can. Even a tiny one.
Celebrate and share the wins- of yourself AND others.
Compare yourself to yourself, not to others. There are always going to be people doing bigger, better, bolder, grander, but there are always others who are just starting too. It is YOUR journey, NOT theirs that matters.
And remember… THIS IS AWESOME!!!
To view the talk I gave, lots of other info and opportunities for creatives, you can head to Orana Arts Website for more info
Illustrations/collages by me – Shani Nottingham “Tourist In My Head” 2022-watercolour, ink, gouache, pencil, reclaimed vintage books and paper scraps