I’m having a creative crisis. I try to avoid writing about topics like this, but it’s gotten so bad this week that I have to stop and acknowledge it.  As many of you know, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life and this week has been especially difficult.  I can’t focus or concentrate on anything during the day and I’m starting to panic. I’ve lost my drive, passion, and motivation to work which is really troubling and unsettling.  I hate all the work I’ve been making over the past few months, and I’ve held off on starting any new pieces or buying supplies.  I have too much space to think right now, and my mind is racing with negative thoughts and frustration. Everything feels like it’s come to this horrible standstill. Time is moving at an achingly slow pace, and I catch myself watching the minutes going by on the clock during the day.

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13 thoughts on “Crisis

  1. Take a break. Read books like “Talent is Overrated” and Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage.” There’s another one, wait- this guy was on NPR. Jonah Lehrer and “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”
    Another one focused more on sensitivity than creativity is “The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” by Elaine Aron.
    BTW… I’m a Wellesley alum, a Davis Scholar who graduated a few years before you began teaching there. Friend of Phyllis’s. I’ve been following your stuff for a while and saw your work in a show at the Davis. I admire your work a great deal.

    Good luck!

  2. Suspend your critic.Suspend expectations. Be kind to yourself. The process is more important than the outcome. Your drawings of figures in water are remarkable,I’ve seen them on Flikr. You are remarkable.Your emotive drawings are powerful,works in transition. Work small,but keep on working. Change media.Go to a workshop that is different to your normal studies eg papermaking,printmaking. Make sure you are sleeping well and eating well,go back to basics such as life drawing; go to library and look at favourite artists or on youtube. Look at Rembrandt,Wolf Khan pastels, David Hockney’s recent Landscapes documentaries and I PHONE drawings.Early Seurat or other artists that share your focus, Seurat’s drawings. Degas monoprints.Browse. Go for walks in pretty environments. Work in a loose journal,simplify your art tasks.Concentrate on 2-3 elements/principles of design,mix it up. Engage & mix with trusted friends that nurture you.New work goes through an uncomfortable phase but perservere.Play classical music while you work,don’t get too isolated.Arrange limited number of counselling sessions with a counsellor that understands artists. Balance your work schedule with simple fun,dance,fun,take a break feed your soul,yoga, tai chi, lifting out of your self excercises, swimming etc.
    You sound like burn out. Check your vitamin D3 levels; haemaglobin, check you are not anemic,check your blood sugar.John Gabriel is a good health facilitator on top of his weight loss programs or Tapping.(You don’t need weight loss just good nutrition). Google these.Check out “The artist’s Way” author, “art without fear” book. Hope this helps.Take it slow and smell the roses.I am 62 and finding my way through illness using art as my means to wellness

  3. Your battery needs charging.. .Don’t give up on it! Challenge it! It’s hard and painful journey, but I am sure you can do it! Put your beautiful art in the side at the moment..your self-esteem is low, feel exhausted and you are very hard on yourself. You need pure relax and rest to charge yourself with energy(and very important – good energy) Depression is 21 century problem- we all got it at least once in our life time. You are very strong person by acknowledging it (trust me most of the people try to hide it). They scare to be misunderstood or judged. There is nothing to be ashamed of or feel different then everybody…as long as we are human being (not robots )we ‘ll have this problem, because we are ALIVE and have a FEELINGS. Our life is a heart beat UP and DOWN!
    Understanding that depression is transient and will pass is huge in knowing you will eventually feel better. Telling yourself this will pass, you have a lot of positives in your life and you will be a happy person will lessen the effects of depression and most likely allow you to sooner rise from the depressed state you feel at that time.
    Exercising releases endorphins within your brain which literally do make you happier and feel better about yourself. It doesn’t have to be a long and strenuous workout, but just something to get the blood flowing and your mind churning.
    Check if you are not anemic.
    When I am depressed I have a hard time connecting and caring, but nature is one of the first things that helps me get better. When I get the time to spend outside in nature or in the garden I feel renewed. The plants and animals that surround my home are non-threatening when I’m in a vulnerable state; I know they will not judge me or do any harm to my self esteem; this is my safe place.
    Don’t give up on positive thoughts! You are very strong and amazing person!! Love your incredible work!!! 🙂

  4. You pose two questions: Have you had a creative crisis before? What was it like and how did you pull yourself out of it? My answers to your plea are as follows:
    In 2005, after 25 years of working as a successful ceramic artist, I hit a wall— I simply couldn’t imagine touching clay again. I had no ideas, no interest, no vision. But so much of my identity was bound up with being a “mud” person how could I not want to work with clay? So it wasn’t just not knowing what to do, it was also suffering a perceived loss of identity and integrity. This was distressing and depressing. After much hand-wringing I sold all my equipment, cancelled all my commitments and sat there. And sat there. Of course this was difficult—I felt lost, angry, and even afraid but gradually I began sorting out, in a very inchoate way, what I wanted. One thing was clear: I still had to go to my studio and make stuff, but what? And why? I dithered. I worked in the garden. I avoided the empty studio.
    I read a lot of dumb books. By chance I recalled my interest in print making, took a few classes, workshops. At first this was especially difficult as I had to re-awaken my very rusty 2D skills after having worked in 3D for so long.There I was a beginner after all those expert years. But gradually, gradually I found my footing and am
    now a contented, if sometimes frustrated, printmaker. Acting on my visceral feelings (selling everything) and then waiting, not trying to prematurely fix or replace what was broken, worked for me.

    I don’t know what will work for you in your crisis.
    Perhaps my father-in-law’s aphorism will give you heart:
    “You have to be brave to be happy.”

    Wishing you luck and good cheer.

  5. After I graduated, I didn’t want to have anything to do with film anymore, which was what I studied and identified with for eight years. It was around then that my love for plants and the natural world grew and my interests and thoughts transferred to another subject. Now a year later, I’m fusing botany and film together and the energy and passion has resumed from this new wellspring.
    I think for me when I hit a dead end, I find something else to be interested in or inspired by, or go some place like the ocean or woods to be in the creative spaces of nature where I’m just an admirer and not having to feel the pressure to turn something out.
    Best wishes Clara, you continue to be a source of inspiration and help to me!

  6. Oh yes, I’ve had creative crises before and expect I will again. I think it’s just part of the process; all the artists I know have gone through them.

    All you can do is try to push through it. I’ve found that radically shifting my media can help shock me out of a creative funk because it makes it easier for me to suspend my expectations. I also tend to do a lot of reading when I get into a funk. It keeps my mind active but distracted from my own work.

    After a particularly bad creative crisis, when I was still in art school, I spent an entire summer scribbling with dry media. If it started to look like something, I painted it out with gesso or gouache, and then kept scribbling. I worked on two pieces of wood and a few sheets of paper, and just kept painting it out and redoing it over and over. No concepts, no expectations, and I didn’t keep any of it. I learned a lot about the nuance of charcoal and pencil.

    Most importantly, it allowed me to remember why I love making art, and I got back to painting and printmaking.

    Good luck; creative crises are never easy!

  7. I’m not an artist, but from my experience writing, I find it’s good to just go off and do something entirely different that you enjoy and which will relax you.

    I was surprised to see an article in the Harvard Business Review which backed that up somewhat. Apparently at 3M, which has some crazy number of patents for inventions by its employees, each person can spend an hour a day just doing whatever they want, whether it is taking a walk, going home early, reading a book, or whatever.

    They did studies and determined that relaxing is essential to the creativity for those insights etc., and that is why often the “flash of inspiration” comes when a person is taking a shower (because they are relaxed).

  8. I know what you are talking about. Personally my theory is, if we go through this there is something deeply wrong in our lives and that probably since so long that we got used to it and are unaware of it. It manifests itself in depression, nightmares, listlessness etc. Loneliness and lack of inspiration does not help. However, if you are suffering from an acute attack you can take some Bach flowers. In case you are not familiar with them, they are flower essences. You can get them prescription free in a whole food store or health store. They are not cheap, depending on the type about 30$ a bottle, but they last long, help very well and have no side effects. You should take a combination. For example Gorse, Mustard and Olive sounds good in your case. However, if you are suffering long term the effect will wear off if you take them daily over a couple of weeks. For that reason take them only when you feel acute problems. Further you might have to make some changes in your life, something is not as it should be. You should get the energy out of every day to be happy and able to move forwards easily. Best to you!

  9. I am having a bit of one at the moment too.
    In the last sixth months I have recorded a lot of material towards an album, half of which I don’t like and most of which I am finding impossible to finish. I only take heart in knowing that it will pass – I must finish it for myself it but I think that, at times, after putting so much energy into something one can feel isolated and frankly exhausted with it all.
    I am looking forward to doing something else or just nothing too creative for a while. I am pretty sure that all of this is to be expected; after pushing oneself and wracking one’s brains and body, these phases are needed. I am not saying that I know how you feel but just that, trying to achieve something is an adventure and the best adventures are risky and tiring. Enjoy a (deserved) rest and trust yourself – everything you have made and will make is the content of your life – it has meaning for you and all those around you.

  10. As an artist, as a foundations art professor, as a survivor of my artist wife’s depression/suicide, as solo parent, … just as a human being; I get what you are saying. I am in my mid-fifties now and it still doesn’t always come easy. Shoot, when I was young I just kept moving and hardly noticed my emotional moods affecting my art or my life. Drive and passion drove through me … keeping up a steady wind to fill my sails.

    But as I became a bit older, and maybe less oblivious to what was going on inside me, I found it harder to keep going full tilt all the time.

    The intensity of working with students (it shows in your blog. Kudos!) can at once enliven us AND wear us out. Being in the studio is often an exhilarating experience; it can also drain us.

    I can not tell you to lighten up … I don’t know you except through your work and your blog about your teaching. I can say that getting a rest can be quite restorative. Reflection, whether it is completely self-guided, with the a traditional practice, along with a group of like minded folk, or a trusted professional does help. I have used each of these in turn and in combination.

    Someone above suggested a change in your art practice. Walking away from what you normally do can be exciting and freeing. Doing something really new, working on something experimental … and doing it just for you may just refresh the passions. The problem for a professor is, of course tenure … and all the expectations of the academic art world.

    Another path for someone who seems to believe in others as your blog entries about students does … might be to find a place in your community that you can spend an hour or two a week giving to others. Something that isn’t associated with your art or your teaching. You may even decide to not speak about the experience with colleagues for a while. Rather, you may want to let the volunteer work do it’s work on you. Let it teach you, let it spark a healing with in you.

    In the end you have to decide what is most precious, your emotional and physical health or following the prescribed tracks of academia and of art’s trail of the glitterati. Keep making images, of course. But for a bit … let the images be part of the regeneration process … not position statements or theses of grand concerns

    PS My version of the re-balancing solution, which I have had to alter, re-evaluate, and compromise with ’til even today … left me happier and more whole. (Yes, I still hit the wall or the pit sometimes; I still flirt with the paths academic success and enjoy working to get my work out there.) But those are the major corollary paths now … the central path is the self (and if you have them … family and community too).


  11. I am a newcomer to your site thru a link from an artist you recently interviewed. It was so fabulous to read that I kept going until the end, finding the short entry entitled, “Crisis”. This happens to me too. The big black cloud you travel thru and come out the other side…. eventually. I never see it coming and am only suddenly aware of it when in the middle. Ride it out the best you can. An article somewhere in my past described how calcium supplements taken with magnesium for absorbtion help with depression. I think it’s true.

    People who recommend books to folks in crisis aggravate me… it always seems like a long answer to a short question. I’m going to do it anyway. Jonah Lehrer has written a book called “Imagine” (available for audiobooking). It explains how creativity works. You’ll be pleased to discover that the creative process and epiphanies actually require some level of angst. It’s a good read while you’re waiting for the the cloud to pass.

    Thanks for posting the interviews. They are a good read!

  12. I loved reading all the wonderful responses by friends and well wishers! This support and advice is real and good. What a community to be a part of.

    I have noticed that when I am backed into the proverbial corner, and it happens many times in any lifetime, it helps me to find something to giggle at. Not the hollow, painful, grin-and-bear-it, despairing laughter of hysteria, but the giggle of delight that happened the first time you actually braided your doll’s hair, or you first rode a bike, or you realized that “Look, look! 3 (fingers held up) and 3 are 6!” It is pitiful, but I still giggle at the joyful child in me that learned how to do stuff all by myself, or was brave for the first time when I skinned my knee and my sister painted a rabbit on my leg with stingy mercurochrome. And then I cry and laugh at the same time, remembering how earnest I was to get it right.

    I am just reading a biography of Montaigne, who was terrified of death until he had a near-death experience. In my case the fear is not of death, but of failure, of not counting in some essential way. Montainge’s response was to try to find delicacy and buoyancy in life. ” ‘Bad spots’ were everywhere, he wrote in a late essay. We do better to ‘slide over this world a bit lightly and on the surface’ “.

    I think I use my little giggle, if I can find it, as a sort of rubber duckie life preserver. Or maybe a clown whose nose I can honk, a mercurochrome rabbit that doesn’ fix anything, but makes it feel better long enough to help me find a way around the panic.

  13. One thing that has worked for me at his stage in life, is to go to a place where you can silence ” active thought”. For me, location sketching has done this since I have nothing riding on quick sketches and it is nothing like my professional work. Do what is really easy for you—-especially if it is far afield from your goals—and then ask ” what makes me push to do those things that are so hard?” Sometimes we equate HARD work with GREAT work, as if it is some universally true arithmetic. What if doing the most natural, least painful thing is exactly the path creatively for you at this time? This kind of thinking usually knocks down the walls if I can be patient and listen to whatever is blocking the work.
    I love your work and blog and really look forward to seeing all you create.

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