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Letting the “shoulds” ruin my work

Working from a place of artistic curiosity is better than working from the ‘shoulds.’ How the ‘shoulds’ snuck up on me recently.

I have a lot of interests. My art practice is made out of what is obsessing me at the moment. I love making tiny shrines so I will make one whenever I feel like someone needs it. Sometimes I make and bind books when the mood strikes. Then sometimes I make books when I’m at a loss for what else to do. I like to chase tangents and the flexibility to do what I want keeps my making fresh. So it was a bit of a surprise when I realized in the past few weeks that I have been operating out the ‘shoulds’ instead of following my artistic curiosity.

In my own way

It happened gradually. I did this amazing mentorship the first of the year where I just had my process blown wide open and I realized I could make things in a whole different vein. But I put that work on hold so I could work on videos for a class I’m teaching later this year. At the tail end of that laborious session, my oldest kiddo graduated high school and we had several deaths in and near to our family. Life got to be a lot and I…just…didn’t go to the studio much.

When I was in the studio, I felt guilty for not working on my “real art.” I often felt like I was avoiding the things I “should” be doing. My practice has suffered for it. Instead of my work being playful and free, I’ve been worried about the big stuff I ought to be making. Instead of following my artistic curiosity I’ve been fretting that what I make is not good art.

I started this work because I wanted to play, make stuff, and call myself an artist. Over the course of these ten years there’s been a few times when I have had to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It seems to occur whenever I start white knuckling what I’m doing. Holding on too tightly and wanting to have finished products instead of enjoying the play and seeing what comes of that play. Wanting to sell instead of wanting to make. Being worried about the galleries I should be researching instead of focusing on the time spent in my studio practice.

The fix

Each time this happens, I feel like such a dumb dumb. You’d think I’d have learned by now how to avoid the ‘shoulds’ or at least have learned to recognize them sooner. Those ‘shoulds’ are sneaky though. They play around the edges of what I am doing until they get crystalized into habits. Once that happens they are hard to see. When I realized I was avoiding the studio pretty regularly because I didn’t know where to start, I knew I needed to look into what was going on in my head.

How do I break out of this? Funnily enough, the answer for me is more studio time, not less. I go in and ask myself what do I want to work on. Not what I am expected to do or should do but what will be fun and loose. I turn up the music. Dance around a little bit. Get back to play. I go back to start where you are. I work until I’m tired. Then I don’t feel any guilt when I leave the studio.

me in a blue shirt in the studio using an exacto knife to distress a small painting

The biggest thing, the very biggest thing is to never let my last ‘failure’ dictate my fun. All of this is just a big experiment of looking into the unknown. Maybe the unknown will become just a little more known in the process. Whatever I make out of that might be beautiful. Or profound. But I can’t let the ‘shoulds’ tie me up. The ‘shoulds’ produce lousy work, when they produce anything at all.

Notes for future me

The thing I have to remember always, always, always is that I have to make from my own internal compass, keeping it moving toward the vision I see. Looking toward the horizon keeps me out of trouble in the weeds. Too much focus on an unnamed, undescribed audience makes it hard for me to work from my own vision. While I want people to see my work, too much concentration on them leads me to disaster.

I have to get better at writing down ideas. I tend to hold them in my head and that can lead to vapor lock when I am struggling for what to do next. I have lists of every other kind in my bullet journal, you’d think I wouldn’t be so resistant to this one. But here I am without a list. Can anyone even believe that?

Right now I’m contemplating a new journal. An accordion fold one. But I’m going to make all the pages first and then bind it. I saw a quilt pattern I was thinking of trying to replicate with eco-dyed paper and hand-drawn “stitching.” Then there’s this paper collage thing I want to try where the paper is hanging from this rack so it’s very 3-D. And there there’s this drawing with string idea I had…. Ahhh, there’s the flow again. Lemme go get a pen…

Do the ‘shoulds’ get in your way? Let me know in the comments or tag me on social media so I can see how you are working it out in your art.