Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to Deal With an Artists' Block

Artists' Block:

This is a difficult subject that Seal will try to address in multiple posts, starting with this one. Almost every artist has experienced or will come up against this wall called an "artists' block" or "slump" where art doesn't feel as creative or at worst, even painful to complete. Not only do we avoid doing art, we beat ourselves up for not doing it: "I should have started sooner" "Why am I not doing more?" we demand from ourselves. We try to fix it, by doing EXTRA the next day, "Okay, I will get up earlier and do more tomorrow, since I slacked off so much," but when the next day comes, we are listless, full of other commitments that take its place (we are secretly relieved in not having to do art), at the end of the day, we feel guilty, disappointed, angry - another day has gone by without having done art.

Let's break this down. An artist's block needs to be seen as an illness. There is a cause behind it and a treatment. Each case is unique, so the diagnosis will often have to be made on an individual basis, but the good news is, once you know what is is, what's causing it, you can begin to find the cure.

With an artist's block, you need to treat it with all seriousness and respect. Your body, mind, and soul is telling you something very important that you haven't been listening to all this time, and it has resorted to hijacking your system, creating all kinds of ailments, shutdown, and alert signals for you to pay attention.

Like any physical illness, when you visit a doctor, they begin with questions and tests, to find out what's causing it. When did you begin to feel an artist block? have you had it before? how frequent is it? do the rest of your family members have a history of artist block, it may appear in the form of minor depression, listlessness, etc., Has something triggered it? What was the event? What happened? And how did it make you feel?

Recently, Seal had been kindly asked to do a group gallery show. She was filled with excitement and gratitude, after a day had passed, she began to feel dread -- to the point of not showing up for the gallery show. Painting became very difficult and scary. She procrastinated. But every day was filled with growing disappointment of herself - she felt as if the kind opportunity to show in the gallery was squandered with each day that she wasn't painting, and was instead used to fight her artists' block. This is not the first time for Seal to experience this kind of block. Throughout her battle to go back to art school and pursue art despite vocal oppositions, Seal has dealt with many artist's block many times before. Sometimes it would come and go within an hour, other times it lasted months, or years before Seal would pick up the paintbrush again. So, she was able to recognize this recent experience as another artist block.

She quickly launched into her series of questions. What triggered it? Has a similar incident like this happened before? What am I feeling? She wrote a lot. During an artists' block, it's good to document your thought process. Suddenly, the words in her journal jumped off the page . . . "I am afraid . . . " then slowly the answer scrawled itself on the page" . . . it dawned on me that the last time I was asked to be in a group show, I had left the gallery scene early during opening night, only to find that my painting was stolen when I came to pick it up after the show. The gallery denied knowledge of the painting's existence. My friend, who was simultaneously my friendly rival in school, agreed that he never saw that painting at the gallery in the first place. Our friendship dissolved soon after. To this day, it is unclear whether a guest had stole it, my friend who invited me to be in the show, or the gallery curator did."

I was a young, naive, college student at the time. I didn't even get to take a picture of it when it was hung on the wall. I was just happy to have been asked to be in a gallery. It was, at that time, the best painting I had ever did - the one my mentor had acknowledged as having potential. It was the first time anyone had acknowledged that I could be something. It was the first time I began to dream. I had dreams of going to Cooper Union and doing residency painting there. That one painting was a symbol, the accumulation of all I had learned thus far, my best expression, and I was afraid, that it was a fluke - that I couldn't paint like that anymore. And no one that matters to me now had ever seen it. It exists only as a faint memory in my mind. I can still see the rich colors, the smooth transition, the curvature . . . I am haunted by it, and seemingly, only I know of its existence.

This one incident continually presents itself as an artist block for Seal. But once she recognized the cause for her current state of procrastination, resentment, and fears, the treatment was simple, but it does take time. Acknowledge the experience and feelings that come with it. Grieve for what is lost, replace what is lost. Realize that most artist blocks are old mechanism, tactics you used as a child to protect you. As a child it often doesn't know any better means of dealing with a scary or painful situations, so it shuts down, throw tantrums, hides. But as an adult you can comfort your inner artist child, make amends for what is ailing, and have the power to protect it now.

For example, the adult-you can take extra measures to make sure you have good relationship with the curator, make extra copies of the contract, take pictures of your work, etc.

Begin by acknowledging the block. Don't blame yourself. Remember your artist block is simply trying to protect you from whatever danger it perceived. Find out what it is that is causing the block. Write in your journal, draw it, knit it, in whatever communication that is most helpful and conducive for your artist self. Some people do yoga, and talk to their bodies and they answer back! Your physical body carries a lot of information that are right under the surface of your consciousness. One lady who was suffering from a sniff neck asked herself, "neck, why are you hurting me" and she answered back, "because you're always sticking your neck out for other people, and you never stand up for yourself." Wow. Just the other week, Seal asked herself why she had a toothache and got the answer "cause I took on more than I can chew." Obviously if you have major physical problems, you should also check them at a legitimate doctor's office. But often our ailing psyches manifest themselves unto our physical form.

Once you've got the answer to why you are in an artist's block. Thank your artist's block for trying to protect you. Assure it that it is being listened to and that you will take care of what needs to be done, to make your artist feel secure. Then take those actions to ensure the safety of your artist self to come out and play again. This is the most important step. Because a broken promise from yourself will lead you further into the block. Sometimes all you need to ask is, "what will make you feel better? What would make you feel safe to do art again? Sometimes the answers come quickly, other times, it might take awhile. Throughout the while, just listen. Do low key activities, (remember, an artist's block is an illness that needs to be treated. You can't expect to dance and paint, if you've got a gunshot wound to the heart. It has to be looked after first.) And lastly, start gradually. No shock. Even 1 word a day or a paint stroke a day. That's it, no more. One day soon, you'll revive the desire not to put the brush down.

For more reading: The North Star, The Artist's Way, Fearless Creating

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stand for Something

"Racebending" - An illustration for Hyphen Magazine about Avatar:The Last Airbender's controversy over white-washing the casting. For more information check out

In retail, you're taught that you need to be completely neutral. You are not supposed to take stances on politics, religion, sexuality, or anything that might potentially offend a customer. We think this is not the right way to go about things.

While Monkey + Seal equally is against marketing campaigns that serve to make companies look like they care when they don't (greenwashing, etc) , we also applaud companies that actually stand for their values.

We're big fans of Urban Bazaar, (full disclosure - they're carrying our ties, but we're talking about them here because the owners are awesome) a new boutique in San Francisco that only stocks handmade and Fair Trade items. The owners are very specific about the politics of their owners in their "about" page:
"Stemming from their shared passions for social justice, environmental responsibility, and promoting the handcrafted arts, they aim to create an alternative to big box chains and mass produced goods while supporting artisans locally and abroad."
Now that's what we're talking about. A statement of their beliefs and values. Besides selling some really cool stuff (belts made from reclaimed bike tires...Monkey wants!!), they have a clear intent and purpose that as people who also care about these things, we'd like to support.

Many businesses are probably afraid of driving away customers with politics and whatnot. We say, drive them away. If you stand for something positive and awesome, then by all means, stand by it. Although you might drive away some potential customers, do you really want to have people who support things you don't, come to you for help?

Monkey + Seal are all for healthy discussion (not one-sided yelling or name-calling) and debate. However, if a customer is not willing to buy from us simply for the fact that we support gay marriage, or are feminist, or are vegan, or are anti-racist, or anything other attribute that makes us who we are, we're willing to turn down their money. We realize that this is a privileged position to take, but we do our best to stick to our paint brushes and determination (although situations like this don't come up very often, to be honest).

While we don't have anything deliberately stated on our About page besides our mission to help empower other artists, as we are shifting to donating part of all our items (not just our You're Not Alone Anymore shirt) to charities, we'll gradually become a bit more vocal about our causes. We're not saying that you have to be overt about your politics (although if that's what you want to do, go for it!), but I think if you stand by your cause, you'll be better off for it.

If anything, we think that taking a stance and declaring what you believe in is important to your business and to your soul. You can feel good and honest about being yourself, and if you support a cause people will want to support you as well. Like we said before, you should NOT go around making false claims and trying to pitch your product to a niche that you don't really believe in. In fact, if you're not super passionate about anything, then don't pretend to be. But if there is a cause that speaks to you (there usually is), then stand up for it and be proud.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Your Art Fun?

Mozart's "Sonata for Two Pianos in D major" is the only formal composition made exclusively for two pianos. The sonata was composed for a performance he would give with his student and gifted fellow pianist, Josephine von Aurnhammer. This composition was often perceived as being intended as a learning piece for the student. But in actuality, it's more likely that Mozart, the teacher, composed it for himself, so he could recall how fun music was through the eyes of his student.

Often when we pursue art, we begin to absorb, "what is expected of us," the "traditional way" of doing things (like how to paint, make comics, sew a bag, etc), we become locked into a certain structure, learning how to copy from master paintings, we look to the next successful artist and try to be like them, we become rigid, we become so busy on striving to be a "great artist" that we forget how fun art is. In the same way, Mozart wanted to let go of his ego and musical mastery, and compositional structure, and trade it for the freedom and playfulness of a student again.

The "Sonata for Two Pianos" is composed in the gallant style with interlocking melodies and simultaneous cadences*. The music starts with the two pianos entering in synchronicity with a strong bold introduction. Then the higher sounding piano usually played by the student starts taking off in a gallop, while the teacher's piano plays the supporting bass, as it follows and repeats the playful rhythm of the first. This sonata is fun; it bounces, it frolics, it runs, and it gushes. It is one of his few pieces, with relatively simple and repeating movements. It is meant to be played as a "cantabile" - "songlike" in free-form as opposed to a fixed tempo or measure.

The piece has also been proven in scientific studies to have "the mozart effect." Listening to this piano sonata improves spatial reasoning skills and reduces the number of seizures in people with epilepsy and alleviates depression. It is not a coincidence that something fun to the creator really speaks to the heart of the mass.

It wasn't about complexity or showcasing his mastery over composition. It was about expression. It was pure fun.

Art should be like this every day. What you are doing now, should recall pure enjoyment.