Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I Am My Own Doomsday Device

funny pictures history - over medicated

It could be said that 2012 started off with a bang for me. Or rather the sound of body parts busting a cog at Christmas. The short version is this: I overworked myself during Christmas production and the bod and brain went on strike in protest. But I also have to say that 2011 was a very difficult year on a personal level. I guess everything just came to a head. That said, however, suffering near complete physical and psychological exhaustion is an interesting experience, and it's one I never wish to repeat.

Being of the same mind, my doctor put me on prescribed "pasture rest" though I'm slowly making my way back in the studio with welcome help from Mom and Ham. All in all, it's taken nearly two weeks of total rest—of doing absolutely nothingto recover. Wow. Let it not be said I don't work hard or don't suffer for my art! And in the same breath, let it said I'm a total smeghead.

Cuz hey, I admit it: I did it to myself. It's a curse and a blessing to love what you do so much, you literally cannot stop doing it. Add in bad nutrition (apparently eggnog and Christmas cookies aren't found on the food pyramid), hosed up sleep patterns, barely any sleep on top of that and then constant, grinding stress, and well...after two months it catches up to you. Especially when you're 43!

Now my cheeky life's philosophy has been, "let my life serve as a warning to others" (and I surely need this poster in my studio), yet never before has that come to bear so profoundly than during this past Christmas. It was our worst on record. 

On the upside, though, the whole silly escapade inspired resolutions designed to ensure it never happens again (one hopes). So in that spirit, let me share new wisdom gleaned from my own private chartered whitewater rafting trip into my own personal Apocalypse Now. "The horror. The horror." Grab a paddle. 

First: Dreams Need Schemes My mind is in creative overdrive pretty much all the time. That's just the way it works. Ideas instantly spawn new ones and set me chasing after them in a Lamborghini, wheels asquealin'. And that's a problem. 

What I learned then is that immediately springing on new project ideas full bore can actually be counterproductive so, instead, the first impulse should be to jot them down for future reference. Stay on target. That is to say there's an important difference between perceived creativity and actual creativity, and the distinction between the two is critical for a working artist.

Anyone can have lots of ideas, but the real trick is managing them. Actual productivity requires a plan. Flipping it over then, choosing not to act on new ideas right at this very moment doesn't mean they won't ever materialize. Quite the opposite really, as learning how to delay, prioritize and schedule them actually improves their chance of materializing, and often in smarter ways, and better still, without me dying in the process. A studio can be a mad place, but there should be method, too!

This may be old news for far wiser folks, but for me it's a bit of a revelation. See, in the past, my creative options were limited: realistic equine sculptures destined for resin casting. That kind of work created its own pace because of the logistical nature of the work. However, introducing ceramics into the studio changed everything, literally overnight, and in two fundamental ways.

First, the previously limited, narrow options were instantly transformed into infinite, myriad possibilities. Before I realized what had happened then, the pace of my creativity exponentially increased and took my body with it because I forgot to pace myself in the process. It never occurred to me that a new media would usher in new ideas about effort and progression. At the time it was just a new media, not a new way of working.

Second, the process of creating ceramics is markedly different than that of oil or epoxy clay sculptures. Ceramics are created in a sequence that requires a fair bit of preplanned scheduling that also includes long lag times (such as those for drying and cooling)...and therein lie two traps. For one, the timing of those deadlines is really important. Miss or miscalculate one, and the finish date for the entire project can go wildly astray. Now if other projects are timed too closely, what you then end up with is a bottleneck of work requiring very very long, hard hours of ceaseless work to meet the deadline. 

Secondly, there exist mad flurries of intense activity nestled within long periods of down time in ceramic production. It's in the down times where peril lies because it's so incredibly seductive to cram more projects into these "empty" time spans. And similar to the first situation, if all this work has similar deadlines, you can imagine the compounded workload at the tail end of the process. Imagine having two months to plan your giant wedding, a funeral, a surprise birthday and preparing to give birth, with all of them occurring on the same day. Yeah.

So this year, I'm instituting a production schedule for each project, with strict, suitably staggered deadlines. And I will not over schedule! There's always next year, despite what the 2012 doomsayers say.

Second: The Theory of Seasonality My giftware lines are sensitive to seasonal buying patterns. As you can imagine, the holiday season is the busiest time, but things also pick up in summer. When you play your cards right, collectors come to expect specialty items at certain seasonal times as well, and so the whole mechanism takes on a life of its own. This is really exciting and super inspiring, but...

It's really quite new to me. 2011 was only the second year of active selling through my Etsy store. In the past, selling my realistic equine sculpture has been more or less a rather steady endeavor throughout the year, with it actually dropping off around the holiday season.

But this new cycle of intense production and selling in very short burstsduring an already busy holiday timeis one I've only started to understand properly. Indeed, I only discovered how not to do so just last month! Considering how the giftware lines are expanding so quickly, and with jewelry quick on its heels, careful production management is going to be pivotal for keeping my sanity.

Altogether then, I learned that if I'm going to deal with the crazy holiday time in my personal life, I must start holiday production much earlier in my professional life. The two cannot coexist. For that, the production schedule will be designed with seasonality in mind. Sure, pressing Christmas ornaments in July will feel weird, but I clearly see now it's necessary. 

Third: Health is Wealth Your art depends on your wellbeing, simple as that. So take care of yourself first—physically and emotionallybecause if you collapse, your art will collapse right alongside you. Learned that the hard way! Identify what stresses and drains you, and minimize them. Then identify what replenishes and rejuvenates you, and seek those situations whenever possible. You owe it to yourself and your art.

For a working artist, in particular, this is really important. I mean, let's face it, I don't get paid for sick days or personal days, and there's no one to fill in for me if I can't make it into work. I'm all I've got, and I only get paid for what I createand all of that depends on my wellbeing

I realize now that I must become far more protective of myself because I'm the only one who can. What did surprise me, though, was just how quickly I reached my limits because now hard work and stress are cumulative. Age does matter! Each hour of running on empty adds up nowadays, and when the inevitable vapor lock comes, it takes a lot more than a good night's rest to bounce back. Point taken.

The fact of the matter is that now "taking care of myself" applies to each day because an aging body and stressed psyche have a harder time compensating. There's nothing wrong with that, of course—it's a part of life—but it occurs to me now that I'm a young person in a middleaged body wondering what the heck happened!

But I'm also reminded of Tony Bennett's comment about "sinning against one's talent." That idea resonates with me. I've come to realize that my life isn't entirely my own—I share it with family and friends, yes, but also with my art. I live a symbiotic life in more ways than one. For my work to flourish then, so must I. 

Me thinks the old adage applies here as well, that even "too much of a good thing is bad for you." If I want to reach my artistic goals during my lifetime then, I can't be the hare anymore, I gotta be the tortoise. I gotta work smarter.

But it's also no coincidence that my other favorite chestnut is, "the only way around it is through it." If you're in my house for any length of time, you'll probably hear my husband's daily mantra of, "why don't you listen to me?" followed by mine, "Oh, I do listen, I just disregard what you say." So there he was, warning me for weeks about my pace and there I was, blithely ignoring him and augering headlong into my very own custommade crater. Mom just rolled her eyes. She knows all to well the howl of futility when faced with my bullheadedness.
And what a crater it was! So at this stage in my life, I need to strike a new balance because not only is my art changing, I am too. Never thought that how I created my art would evolve as a function of how I'm evolving, but, well...live and learn!  
Fourth: KISS of Life This whole ridiculous debacle finally proves to my inner OCD workaholic that I cannot do it all, all the time. The clock just isn't that flexible anymore because I'm becoming far less tolerant to stress. 
So to minimize stresses, my life must be simplified, at least until I figure out this new balance. So I decided this year to focus on getting my business back on track via immediate strides, both for financial and psychological reasons. Keeping my eyes on one prize, while also minimizing disruptions, will (hopefully) inspire a more reasonable pace, keeping bottlenecks at bay and not piling my plate quite so high. "Manageable bites" will be my motto in 2012.
So for one, my book is on hold until these transitions even out. For another, workshops and field trips I planned for this year are now off the calendar. More still, certain projects must be completed before I start new ones. How I run my studio will be streamlined, too, with some rather long–delayed changes now moved up on the priority list. Travel will be greatly limited because I cannot afford the stress. Award commissions and donations will be suspended, and I'm only going to focus on three new R&D projects rather than dozens.

In the end, I hope these temporary sacrifices will pay off and I'll come back stronger than ever this year. I'm also happy to report that all the chaos in my personal life appears to have leveled off (knock on wood), so I only have to really focus on my professional life. Lemme tell ya, that's a relief in and of itself!

So in that light, creating a disaster like Christmas 2011 isn't so foolish. Hey, we all do really dumb things with the best of intentions! The foolishness is not learning from our implosions to doom ourselves to repeating them over and over. What did Einstein say? Oh yes, "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

So my greatest challenge this year will be sculpting myself into a better, updated version. It won't be easyI know how stubborn and dismissive I can be. It'll be interesting to be my own Inquisitor, but I suspect Mom and Ham will carry concealed cattle prods to motivate me along the right path. So yes Ham...yes MomI'm listening now! Regardless, though, I suspect more Hammies will be born in the process, so I suppose it's all good in the end.

"The reward of suffering is experience." ~Aeschylus

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