This is one of those articles about living and working as an artist that both seems simultaneously obvious but also one we forget the most and is at the end of all things, one of the most essential and important parts of living the art life: Joy. It’s a simple word, goofy overused and under utilized… for the bitter minded curmudgeons like me even something to scoff at as childish and naive. The experience of joy is not a natural event and it’s not usually a shared one. it has to start personally and spread through contact, and it has to be generated as a response to something that births and grows it. joy can come unbidden, but it usually needs to be courted and invited in. Without it our studio is an Orwellian gulag, with it, it is a living breathing and vibrant place that can act as a sun in a solar system giving life, warmth and light to the worlds that orbit around it. Whether it’s a daily continual process, a simple surprise gift you give to yourself every day, or a goal… make time for it, make room for it, make it a point in your work week.
Look unless you’ve grown up in an art household or on an island of painters, you’ve been made to feel that drawing and painting is never more than an act of play, or distraction from “real” work. Even I sometimes snidely refer to myself as “still waiting to get a real job”. But as those of us trying to build an art life and make a go at it in some professional capacity know, it’s entirely the opposite. It’s work. The hardest work because it doesn’t just require the kind of physical stamina to execute the work, the late nights and hoofing it all over to try and find a wedge in the door, but it exhausts us deeper on almost every level. In art making we are confronted with a myriad of opportunities to be forced into the Thunderdome of our own egos, our deepest psychological foibles, and our fears. A long day at work for us can be exhausting on many levels. I know when I get back from a show or a con I am utterly drained to my tap root, and we’ve all had a terrific day in the studio that can leave us depleted. When you do this for a living that work just gets harder, not easier, even as you achieve a level of autonomy, the stakes increase, the need to not just climb the mountain but keep from being slid off it into irrelevancy explodes. All the more reason to find a locale for feeling pure joy wherever possible.
If you can carve out a space that is for this, a physical real actual place… be it a space in your studio devoted only to goofing around, or even as a hunk of red estate in time, you will be better for it and your work will too. It’s so easy for our work to become work, and to be part of a grinding routine. When you’re taking on a project because you need to not necessarily because you want to, it’s all the more essential. We all have to pay our dues and grind through some bad gigs, and some of those jobs that seem fun at first can turn sour in the process, whether it’s being choked out by endless committees or a change of life circumstances… we have all been there and we will always go there again no matter our station on the ladder.
It’s in these times where going too a place where that thing you’re wrestling with cannot follow. And really it can be anything from a long hot bath, a jog (though I don’t endorse running unless chased, generally speaking), get into a gif war of penis-memes from Game of Thrones footage, (I ran one of these for almost a week and let me tell you, that well is deep), or that little corner of the studio where you never do anything but play. I myself don’t have a specific location in my work space for this anymore, but I make it by using the existing physical area, cutting off the internet, phone and throw on some music and then just… do. The place can be, simply put, a parallel universe you can coax into being this easily, and I find the way I feel at the end of a day there, the sense of peace even if it’s an exhausting experience, both infectious and foundational.
The 52 Weeks Project is me doing this, by exploiting a block of time as a physical place for joy, and ironically and unsurprisingly, has become the most supportive and successful work professionally to date. I think all of my major projects have somehow derived from the work in this place, be it my children’s picture book with Barack Obama, the Twin Peaks work, gallery show and print series, and on and on… which is both wonderful and dangerous because it infects this previously sanctioned area of pure play into work. So how to manage that terrible gift? carve a new space for play and joy, or find a way to maintain the rule of play and joy as a leading point to the work. The second is tricky and not always sustainable. Once your joy becomes monetized it’s value changes, and the joy can decrease. But you can find pockets of time in the workday to sneak something in that makes you happy as a recharge and should.
Steal an hour to try a new technique out, draw a goddamned flower, whatever it is that lures you out of your cognitive space into the ineffable. I can’t tell you where that particular piece of res estate its, but you’ll know it when you cross the border into it. In this place where joy grows, time doesn’t;t. Hell, you might not even notice you’re there until you life your head up to realize that what you were sure seemed twenty minutes was actually hours of time gone by. These kinds of moments can happen in the midst of the other work, and they do all the time. If nothing else it should at least confirm that you’ve managed to luck into a project that has enough joy in it to trip over every once in a while.
A lot of times this gets misinterpreted to mean “personally therapeutic”, or the kind of stuff where you can delve into your particular pathos. But the personal doesn’t always need to be a bag of crack-headed cats either. That’s not the kind I mean. Personal work can be the lodestone for your other stuff, and can be a lab of invention for techniques and ways of thinking and designing that can metastasize out into that professional work, but should always remain at least at its basic core, a place of joy and fun. I know an artist who makes weird erotic flip=books no one will ever see. Another who draws his cat, and another who many of you know who walks around the world with his portable set up and paints every day mundane scenes and places into magic. The personal work doesn’t have to be substantive or deep delving, but just something that makes you relax and have fun personally. Fort a North Star, remember if you can what it was like to draw as a kid: that drive, and need, and unfenced desire to draw in and of itself. That’s personal work and if you’re feeling that, you’re doing it. Sometimes you get lucky and this kind of work can cross over into the professional. Hell I know artists who’ve managed to make this their entire thing and it is a sight to behold.
Personal work doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else but you. It just needs to be your own, and feed you rather than drain you if the goal of refueling your joy is the goal. If you can’t stop drawing sexy jon Snow fan portraits, by all means get scribbling. Need to make tiny dioramas of dreams you can’t shake? Get thee a-dioraming. Obsessed with the textural values of fried okra at your local catfish joint, by all means hug that action. This is not work for anyone but yourself, and even though later if the product of that work turns into a professional thing, you can still keep that private moment secure as a resource to draw on later. As an example, for me, my series of funerary portraits of firewood called LOGS I HAVE KNOWN was that. It didn’t matter who liked it or not, and strangely it remains one of the most obsessed over and hated things I have ever done… but because I never let me mental understanding of that series leave the space from which it was created, I honestly don’t care. Truly. When I look at them I see, like all physical art really is, the evidence of an act of personal joy. I and brought back to that place and can smell it and feel the echo of it. It served no masters, demanded no fealty and was required by no one to do anything else but what it did, so there’s no judgement to bring to it from my point of view. That series has been like a lighthouse steering me to shore but not the shoals for years if only to remind me I did that once and need to do it again.
The Price of Play
When you practice some joyful exercise the result is and should be, good blowback into work… but be sure not to see it as a resource of making work better. You don’t want to ever start mining it for that resource as a conscious thing. it might serve a couple of times to operate like that but eventually, and swiftly it will destroy that resource for you. There’s an old Persian story of a mystic crossing into and out of Heaven by virtue of a pure heart but when he tries to go there to save his son from doom, finds the gates locked and rails against God for the seeming caprice of being denied entry and loses his son in the process. You can’t make of this place you create, whether its the tiny gift you give yourself daily, Agent Cooper style, or the day you carve out for play in your studio, a resource to pull for… or it simply stops giving. Bliss is like this: it requires that you require nothing of it to exist. Like a dream before waking, the more you try to grab hold of it the more it squirms away. There is no circumstance where chasing that ethic brings you the prey you seek. You have to go there without goals or requirements. it will give you that energy, inspiration and joy fueled energy, but only if it is kept pure of the needs that drove you to it. Real play has no goal to it, but is. You can defend its borders and should, but you cannot station troops inside its walls.
Play is Never a Waste of Time
Back to the opening thesis of this article, don’t ever get into your head that playing is a negative act, or is somehow getting in the way of true work. We have in this culture an underlying Puritanism that loathes any non-work indulgence. I know I have it and certainly didn’t invite it in. This is not to say sitting around shooting nazi’s in the face on your xbox is the kind of non wasteful play I mean- though I can’t say there is zero value in that particular exercise even still. I just mean to say that if you find someone giving you shit for playing, ignore that shit. If you start doubting yourself while playing- either flush that and keep on or stop playing, do what you need to do to put those thoughts away, and get back to playing. Even though work might occupy the vast majority of your time, try to avoid making it the sole point by merit of its; scale. Play shouldn’t be the reward for work, but the point of working.
I’ve had miserable factory jobs where I literally survive those days because the weekend’s promise of play. Those guys getting hammered at a bar Friday night after their last shift… I get you. We criticize working-for-the-weekend as a negative, but we mistake the part that brings us joy for the thing being at fault for why our work isn’t joyful. Work ain’t always joyful and sometimes it can be a drag definitionally. I think a lot of people who have “real jobs” scorn this complaint from creatives when talking about their work week because there’s a sense of choice in the field of work, and that implies there isn’t in the other thing. And sometimes there isn’t. But choosing to chase a field of work doesn’t guarantee joy or happiness, and it should never be burdened with that kind of value system to begin with. Choosing your work is a privilege compared to some simply by the ability to choose, but that does not in any way mean you are guaranteed joy. Even for pathological nut jobs like myself who scoff at simple joy… find a way to do it anyway, regardless of whether there’s merit to it or not. For me the act is counter to my learning it feels like a rebellion just unto itself. That alone is reason to do it and in and of itself is joyful. Joy and Play don’t necessarily produce a product, but they are essential to fueling production in the other parts of your life… whether that’s simply being present for your kids, crafting a kick ass flower garden or making a painting. Think of it like eating a good meal: The act is joyful unto itself but also fuels actionable things later. It’s the difference between living and merely surviving.
In short- don’t overthink it. Get out there, play, find joy, make trouble. The most important advice warning I can give is this: As we get older play does not come more easily, and we must consciously make room for it and build a place for it. Waiting for it to come on its own won’t cut it. While you can’t force a state of joy, you are required to wrest a place for it to occur. Like a slot at the gym, or a daily meditation, make room for it in your life and your work, and it will reward you endlessly.