In the summer of 2015, I had my first solo art show in years at Nelson Fine Art in downtown Johnson City, Tennessee. It was a glorious opportunity, thrown into my lap on a fluke; they had a hole in their schedule, and I was asked if I could fill it.
I said yes. I had some work in progress, and it would be a challenge to finish it in time, but I was eager to seize the chance—the timing felt right.
And so I dove into production mode. For a whole month, I sprinted—prepping, making, printing, and framing. I lost myself in it in a beautifully blissful way, although it came with added stress and pressures.
The show opened. I sold work. I got great constructive feedback. But after the show, I struggled to make new work. I simply didn’t know where to begin. Without a specific project or deadline in mind, I felt aimless. (This is where we cut to a film of me melancholically kicking a can down the street.)
I was stuck.
And you know what? The bad news is there’s a ton of ways to get stuck. In 2015, I was feeling stuck after the show because it had given me a really specific framework—it needed to be my cyanotype work, they had a specific space to fill, and it had a deadline. It was like my highly structured client work, which, as I’ve talked about before—I thrive in. It was almost as though I was steering a boat, and this show gave me a destination to navigate towards.
Without a destination, I was genuinely lost. But there are so many other things that we can get creatively stuck on, too. We can get stuck on feelings of inadequacy, on a lack of resources, on creating the perfect thing, on making sure that something is received a certain way. But all of these things take attention away from the fact that making good work often means that you have to focus on simply making a lot of work, whatever that work may be.
THE GOAL IS TO MAKE A LOT OF WORK
Let me tell you how photographing weddings has taught me to keep making a lot of work.
I take thousands of images at a wedding (and I’ve shot a whooooooooole bunch of weddings in my career), but only about 30% of the shots I take make the final cut (I’m a nerd—I keep track!). That’s right — 70% of what I shoot litters the digital cutting room floor as extra or superfluous to the purpose of what I’m doing. When putting together a cohesive story of someone’s wedding day, it’s important to leave a lot of material behind; that’s what helps create the shape of the story.
The point I’m trying to make is that with fine art, not every single creation has to be a masterpiece on its own. In photography, we call the masterpieces “hero shots” — a wonderful achievement, and so satisfying when they happen.
So in art and photography, I can churn out plenty of decent work, but very few pieces are absolute “hero shots”. Making “hero shots” can’t be the point of my work, though! The point of my work is to make work, because making work is what makes the “hero shots” come! This is one of those instances where the cliche, “The journey is the destination,” rings true.
And that’s a good strategy for the creative process overall: make a whole bunch of work, and pick out the strong stuff later. We can get so caught up in making things perfect, or caught up in the idea that they have to be for a specific purpose that we forget that making things can be an end in itself.
But when you’re feeling stuck, how do you get yourself back into making work? The good news is that for as many reasons there are to be stuck, there are lots of ways to get un-stuck.
5 WAYS TO GET THROUGH CREATIVE BLOCK
1. take in different stimuli
- watch genre of movie you'd never usually watch
- listen to new-to-you music
- read a work of classic fiction (bonus points for pre-industrial age)
- visit a museum you've never been to
- unplug & go out into nature
- call a friend on the phone
2. get your body moving
- wash dishes
- tidy up
- have a 1-minute dance party
- go for a walk
- do yoga or stretching for 5 minutes
3. shake yourself up
- brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand
- choose a different route to somewhere you go regularly
- eat breakfast for dinner (or vice-versa)
- go somewhere new and people-watch
- switch mediums & play in the new territory
4. create a structure
- begin a 30-day project with something portable (a sketchbook, for instance)
- choose something easy to complete that you can do every day
- get a calendar that you use to track your progress where you can see it
- set a timer for 10 minutes and just go with whatever comes
5. flip the question around
- throw dice, flip a coin, or the Oblique Strategies app to generate something random
- put a limit on a variable that previously had no limit (color, size, duration, material)
- instead of asking about what something should be, start asking what it isn’t
- pick an old idea or piece you’re unhappy with and try to destroy it
The point behind these exercises is to create a subtle set of signals that help you think differently about the things you see all the time. When you brush your teeth a different way, all of a sudden you have to use your brain in a way you wouldn’t have to otherwise. It seems like such a small thing, but it can help you build momentum in generating a new perspective.
And if you’re still stuck, there’s no harm in stepping back to examine some of your circumstances — perhaps it’s not all in your head. Creative block can come from without as well as from within. And best of all, you’re not alone. A lot of other artists struggle with getting stuck. Sometimes it’s helpful to watch (or read about) other people overcoming obstacles so you read your own situation more accurately. As a mother, it helps when I watch my kids and learn their uninhibited rules about making art, too.
GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD & MAKE IT A HABIT
It’s funny how much of creativity is mostly in the head and hands. It’s all about getting out of your head and getting into your hands. But again, it’s also about watching what comes into your head, and honing what you choose to focus on. It’s about creating the habit of new ways of thinking.
Creativity is a habit, so therefore you can cultivate it. It’s not something static that we’re giving at birth and that never changes throughout our life. And creativity takes different forms. Just as being creative can manifest itself in visual and performing arts, it can come in engineering, in teaching, in customer service, and more.
When I got stuck after my solo show in 2015, it was the leftovers in my studio that got me unstuck. I had unused and empty frames lying around—extras that didn’t fit into the event space. I thought to myself, “Well, just fill the frames with something.” It gave me a place to start making.