Beating Artist’s Block: Know Yourself

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For a long time the best word to describe my relationship with my work was agony. The kind of silent, paralyzing agony that takes over when one is lost in a dense forest, or tied by an undecipherable riddle. Love and desire, in the way Plato means it when he uses the word eros, defining it as the desire to give birth within beauty was still there but that desire had become too elusive, too vague, and thus too unfulfilled.

Typically I would start working on an idea, or an impulse, only to abandon it, feeling no strong commitment or desire to complete it.

And despite the fact that I managed to get into the flow of creation several times I still didn’t have the feeling, or the understanding of continuity in my work. My works were more or less perceived as fragments, failing to form a picture of self.

The vicious cycle would repeat itself again and again paving a path of unfinished works, fragments of an unfulfilled desire. A desire that was there, but only to torment me and make me feel trapped. It existed, but it was weak, lacking in direction, clarity and focus.

This landscape of torment and despair (as if the myth of the tormented artist needed any further reinforcement) makes it hard at times even for me to believe how I reached the point (described in my previous article, Artists: It’s time you take your career into your own hands) where I began to actively take steps towards getting my work noticed. It would seem, given this form of artist’s block I was going through, that I had a lot to deal with before any concern about showing my work would be legitimate. And this is exactly where the key to break out of that vicious circle lied.

I don’t think that things would lead up to that first artist call application in January 2014 that marked the beginning of a drastic shift, if not in my overall position in the art world, at least in my psychology and sense of control, without the necessary work within.

As much as it was several factors that came into play, the basic prerequisite for a change to happen was the untangling of the mess inside me.

I had to realize what I wanted, where my heart and mind were as an artist, who I was, or at least what certain fragments of myself looked like and how they connected to each other.

When the transition from my confused state to a sense of self-coherence started taking effect things began to fall into place. A newly acquired confidence set in, hesitation and fear, the paralyzing self-doubting started to recede.

Connecting the dots in terms of who I was played an immense role in my liberation from this impasse:

  • My sense of self-trust increased and I was able to act more readily on my impulses in the studio. I could be more immediate in my work
  • Outside of the studio, defending my work came more naturally

The connections between my past works started to become obvious and my desire could at last be traced. I could eventually make out a picture of myself, or rather a rough design (how could it be compete since a proper picture of one’s self can only emerge through a life’s work?). It seems that a rough design was all I needed to begin.

What about you? Was there a point where confusion had taken over your practice and your desire to create failed to liberate you, maybe even did exactly the opposite? Does any part of my experience resonates with you and what you have been through or facing right now? In what ways it is the same and how is it different?

This article is based on the latest of a series of posts published on my blog under the title “Application Sunday & What I learned from a year of artist call submissions”. Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen.

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