Simple, portable, doable

So there I was, thinking, “When things quiet down and get a little more normal, I’ll write something new.”

I checked, and my last blog post was on June 27, 2017. It has been just over three and a half years since then. It has definitely been a long, strange time, and none of it has really been quiet or normal.

Goals and priorities for all of us have had to adjust to a new reality with far fewer frills and extras. For some of us, it has been a new reality with straight-up trauma. Overall, I feel pretty lucky with my own situation this past year.

Things have not been what I’d call easy, but all the basics are fine: I am still healthy, I don’t have to worry about food or getting evicted; I’m not stuck in an abusive situation; and I don’t have to risk my or my family’s health to support myself because I can work from home and my husband has stable work. I also have a daughter who is an easy learner and a pleasure to spend a lot of time with, which has been immeasurably helpful.

But pretty quickly my husband, who handles supply chain for a bunch of hospitals here, needed to be gone a lot, and that meant I had to take on more hats, and then other things got complicated, and it became like…juggling hats. (Where’s Bob Fosse when you really need him?)

So what became difficult for me was the persistent lack of control over my schedule. I tried many times to create a functional studio schedule for myself, and I was sometimes briefly successful, but eventually I had to accept the difficult truth that I just was not going to have the type of time I need to get artwork done. 

If you’re an artist (or have had a similar creative career), I know you’ll immediately understand why I can’t do my work at random, occasional intervals; but if you’re not an artist, I have a simple metaphor that I think will help:

Although the work seems intellectual, and of course some parts are, it’s actually far more physical, something like being a gymnast. You learn certain skills and you practice for years, but even after all of that, you still have to warm up every time, and when everything is ready and you perform, it’s like your body and mind work together in a heightened way that’s completely impossible if you’re thinking too much about it. 

But also, if you haven’t warmed up, if you don’t have the required focus, you can seriously hurt yourself. 

Okay, so the metaphor isn’t perfect: I’ve definitely never fallen on my head when painting.

But I do know from past experience that I can destroy months of work if I try to do certain things unprepared. 

It is also really emotionally – I would say even spiritually – painful to get yourself into that space, have it all working, and then be torn away after ten minutes for something mundane. And not be able to return again for days or weeks.

So when it turned out that my particular COVID experience was going to be one where I could not reliably control my time, where I often lived in an interruption of an interruption, I gradually accepted that for the first time since my daughter was a newborn, I needed to let it go indefinitely.

Of course that didn’t make me happy, but I knew it would be okay because I could use my maintenance plan to keep me in basic shape for when I could come back.

My particular maintenance plan is one for which I am eternally grateful to one of my VCU professors, Harold North. He told me, at a time when I couldn’t even imagine it, that at some times in my life, whether due to children or other emergencies, I would not be able to do my usual work. He said at those times you need to strip your work down to make it as simple, portable, and doable as possible.

Specifically, he said, if nothing else, keep paper and a pen next to your sofa or chair in the living room. It can be cheap printer paper and a ballpoint pen, it doesn’t matter, just so you don’t have to go looking for materials. And then every night, sit down, and force yourself to draw something, even if it’s just for five minutes.

So that’s exactly what I did. 

Thankfully I had a smallish pad of paper already and a few technical pens lying around, and I was surprised at how relaxing it felt to take my little bit of time each night.

I also definitely never planned to share what I drew, but now when I look at them, I find them kind of funny. Especially with how they changed over the months, they seem like a doodle Rorschach of my reaction to the circumstances of 2020, so here they are for your amusement. 

I started back in the spring of 2020 with ones like this, starting with random squiggles and adding lines.

These next squiggles are getting a bit more organized. I think some might be on stay-at-home orders.

Then I grabbed some of my daughter’s colored pencils from her desk.

As we move into the summer, these circles started to emerge. And no, I wasn’t consciously drawing exposure circles, though I can now see that seems almost hilariously obvious.

These next circles look like they’re getting a bit stressed out. Again, not conscious at the time, but I think this might be my depiction of the summer surge. Or it’s just me getting a bit overwhelmed with the lack of school/childcare for my daughter. Take your pick!

And then getting more relaxed again.

In the fall, I moved away from color, back to straight black and white, and these little blobs emerged. And checked each other out.

More blobs, getting closer!

They’re not social distancing!

But it turns out, they were just turning into…a flower of blobs! A blob of flowers! I really have no clue, but it seems to be a positive development. Also, it’s kind of like the concentric circles also came…full circle. Har-de-har.

And that’s it.

I’ve done this kind of maintenance work before (see what turned into my entire Wood & Water series), but I was still amazed how much doing them gave me energy for everything else in my day, because it literally fed my soul, even with just 20 or 30 minutes a night.

Yes, I admit it: Drawing blobs feeds my soul. If drawing blobs feeds your soul, you may already be an artist or have artistic tendencies. Call your doctor if you think you might be drawing too many blobs.

But seriously, in this unprecedented, difficult time, we are all experiencing so many things being out of control, and this is what I learned works for keeping your equilibrium in those times: Take what feeds your soul and simplify it to its most basic component, to something you can still control.

Make it simple, portable, and – most importantly – doable.

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