The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying One’s Studio

painting by Alexandra Schaefers in fluid acrylic of a sketch made at Jackson-Frazier Wetlands in Corvallis Oregon
from a sketch at Jackson-Frazier Wetlands in Corvallis, Oregon

I watched a few episodes of “Tidying up with Marie Kondo” with my mom and sister a month or two ago and when I came home I was beside myself with the desire to pile all my clothing on the bed and sift through it based on what sparked joy. I must admit if I had followed Kondo’s advice literally I would not own any pants. Nor would I have any clothes suitable for work.

I would have 12 pairs of socks, 3 dresses, 2 dressy winter coats, 2 flannel shirts, hiking shoes and no underwear what-so-ever. The idealist in me would love to take everything else to the thrift store to experience the reality of only owning things that spark joy. The part of me that hates shopping and would rather buy art supplies than apparel nixed the idea.

I did get rid of some things I know I don’t like or need and I bought Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, hoping it would shed light on this tangible spark of joy that is to guide one’s selection. It didn’t but I went through all my health and beauty products and appliances next anyway and was quite impressed with how lovely and spacious my bathroom was after-the-fact.

I tackled some other categories, all the while dreading what it would be like to Konmari my studio. I questioned whether or not that was even a good idea. Kondo believes one should have as few papers as possible and my art practice believes one should fill up as many pieces of paper as possible.

I know she isn’t talking about art when she says, strive to get rid of all papers. But I’ve always had an urge to dump all my past unsaleable work and trust my present art-making abilities to function without any history shoring me up. I do cull my studio regularly because I’m sensitive to clutter but I find it hard to let go of things I’ve created even if it’s just a loose sketch of a crow on copy paper.

In addition to all the other categories of miscellaneous stuff I used to guide my sorting I had: studio tools, art mediums, notebooks and journals, sketches and experiments, framed paintings, loose paintings, installations and artist books.

I mostly used common sense with my tools and mediums since holding these items all had the same sense of familiarity and appreciation that didn’t make a big emotional splash. There were things I know I don’t like to use that I am afraid to get rid of for no sensible reason, tools that are similar that I don’t need two of, tools I used to use and imagine I may use again someday. These are the things I got rid of, occasionally something would present an emotional attachment and I’d save it for the sentimental category Kondo recommends people tackle last. Her question, do I want this moving forward? was more useful to me than joy sparks.

Going through my drawings and experiments was the most challenging and rewarding part of the process. For this I got rid of things that weren’t exciting to look at which was as close as I got to experiencing sorting things by joy. What was left I sorted into piles: drawings that would make good paintings, studies I can still learn from, artifacts–aka experiments and paintings not good enough to sell but too good to throw away, historical pieces that I am attached to just because they show what I was doing way-back-when.

I put most of these into separate notebooks. I then made two paintings from old sketches, (one pictures above and one below) which seemed to immediately validate the worth of this tidying project.

I put all the studies I could still learn from into a portfolio which I’m using to inform my new painting journal, sometimes by painting them into the journal and then recycling them. Or sometimes by pasting them into the journal. This has been super fun and gives me a nice break from my endeavor to make good art.

I haven’t finished the entire Konmari method yet but I do think it was useful to apply it to my studio. It feels great to have a work space with only the tools I need and to have all my papers organized into collections that are useful to my creative process. I’d like to think I’ve been more productive.

Today I am laid up with what appears to be a sprained ankle. It didn’t seem like my rolled ankle was going to be an actual injury until I went to work at the restaurant and it gradually became very uncomfortable to walk on. Today is day two of resting and elevating it as much as possible. Tomorrow I hope to get back to some normal activity.

In the meantime I tinkered with my web-site a lot, revised my post about creative responsibility after a friend told me the original was heavy handed to say the least. Now I’ve written this post which I’ve been thinking about for a while. I know I should post pictures of my “new” studio space but the internet is so saturated with things like that I’d rather just post these paintings I made post-Konmari.

If you Konmari your studio I’d love to hear your thoughts about it!

watercolor painting of a Northern Harrier flying over Bald Hill Natural Area in spring by artist Alexandra Schaefers
Harrier at Bald Hill in Corvallis, OR


Studio Update

Painting Journal

When I was visiting Corvallis for the last art walk I got to see one of my favorite artists Carrie Tasman. I talked to her about how I wanted to develop a looser illustration style but I also missed my old neat and tidy illustrations and she suggested in this delightfully matter-of-fact tone to experiment with new styles in my sketchbook. That is really what sketchbooks are for. Somehow I get overly pragmatic with my sketchbook, all studies and story boards, loose drawings of ideas but very little experimenting. I started a new painting journal with the hope that it would help me be looser and more creative.

In other news I’ve decided my experiment in making art a hobby is complete. I don’t know how to make art into an actual livelihood financially but I can’t deny that it is my livelihood in terms of purpose and meaning and fulfillment.

I feel very fortunate to be able to wait tables and have plenty of time to immerse myself in my art. I’ve started doing a little research into the idea of book publishing. I don’t really think of my poem books as children’s books but other people do, maybe that would be a more natural fit for me.


Snow Book

Here is a video of a book I made from paintings and quotes of my last Landscape Diaries post. I used an old watercolor painting and I have to admit I like the random content book I made on repurposed paper better than the themed book but it was still really fun to make a video of it. Next time I need to set up better lighting.

Book Folios

 

In my recent decision to take a break from seeing art as a commercial venture I’ve been excited to get back to making art for the sake of exploration. I asked myself, If art is to be just a hobby what do I want to do? The answer was quite clear. I want to make books! said in a tone that suggested some passionate cursing be added to the statement. I also noticed a yen to make more tactile and less literal work.

For years I’ve wanted to shift from being an artist who writes to being a writer who arts but having invested a lot in my art education and seeing a lifelong pattern of losing interest in things before I’ve explored their full potential I thought it might be wise to question the premise.

Now I have a decent paying job I enjoy, ample time to work on projects, and a great need to stop putting pressure on myself to be a “successful” creative person. What’s wrong with reorienting, making mistakes or possibly being a fool now and then…or even often? We can’t all be CEOs for heaven’s sake.

I prefer Maya Angelou’s definition of success anyway, Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it. We can all become instantly successful the moment we read that quote if we have the courage to believe in ourselves.

Currently I’m making folios of little paintings from sketches on previously used watercolor paper. I have a pure blank sheet for one side of the folio and old designs to work with or paint over on the other side. The above slide show documents my efforts so far. I’m going to stitch these folios together but I didn’t create a sequential story with the text, they are just random experiments.

August

August

July

July

Having Tea with the Artist’s Existential Dilemma

The other day I was perusing the internet when I read this beautiful quote by Courtney Martin on OnBeing’s Instagram, Make relationships that are reciprocal, not transactional. Makes lives that aren’t easy, but rife with good material. Make art that matters.

Inspired I looked up Martin and read a transcript from a commencement speech she made about the challenges of being an artist.

In one spot Martin talked about self-loathing and—not being the first time I’ve heard a creative person talk about self-loathing as a regular part of the journey—I decided to give the issue some thought.

My goal has always been to eradicate negative feelings toward myself. It’s a fight that emboldens it’s own enemy and becomes quickly futile. But what if this these feelings are just part of the creative ecology? Not that all artists suffer internally, but that there is a required quota many of us have been assigned to. Or maybe an intense desire for honesty gets transformed into a plague of self-loathing for those that carry even a tiny seed of self-doubt.

It occurred to me to try a different approach. Instead of responding to self-loathing by dismantling my entire life and value system down to bare dirt and intently questioning each scrap of wood and nail as I build it back up, maybe I could just invite the self-loathing to tea as I’ve heard some Buddhists do, inspired by stories of Buddha inviting his own demons to tea as an honored guests.

Hello Self-loathing, it is hard to be an artist today, what would you like to talk about?

Perhaps I could have some influence if I take the time to make friends with this state of mind. Eventually I could level with it: I know you’d like to take this opportunity to scour every thought I’ve ever had to see if I am the real thing but I can assure you that it’s not possible to know and doesn’t matter. I am not strong enough to be something else, you are stuck being an artist and possibly a fraud. Is there something less existential you might enjoy doing today?

In the past I’ve benefited from a similar exercise I learned in one of Cheri Huber’s many books on mediation practice. When I became mired in melancholy I would sit down and write from the voices of the sorry feelings. It was quite amazing. Emotions that seemed overwhelming and debilitating would boil down to very simple issues once I let them rant for a while: You haven’t done anything social all week, do you hate me or what? That’s an easy fix once I see it clearly and then I feel like a human again.

Another example: I am really stressed out about that class I have to teach next week and I am dreading doing the prep.

It is easier to negotiate with a voice than a feeling: You’ve gotten a lot of feedback that would suggest you are good at teaching. But also, I don’t care if you bomb this class, I’ll still be here for you. Remember the last three times I avoided doing class prep but once I got started it was fun?

It’s still hard to get started but it’s easier after airing the discontent and worry. I also have more time to do the prep when I feel I can stop planning how to get a loan to build a tiny house in the field at my mom’s as any good failure would do.

I imagine many healthy people have these conversations in their heads automatically before they bog down without really being aware of it. Also, I’m not convinced this would help someone with clinical depression but it works well enough for me to suggest it.

There is a gift, I’m sure, in a propensity toward self-doubt. All of our challenges have the power to make us compassionate, to make us more resilient and capable. But most of all they are the terrain before us and we have a right to be intrigued with our path instead of worrying about how to get to the place we think we should be.