By Jon Hunt
It was a beautiful, bright morning in South Florida; early enough in the day so the sun and humidity had not yet transformed the air into the temperature and consistency of molten lead. The birds were chirping gleefully and the squirrels gamboled in the brambles. My bike was lying on top of me as I sprawled at the bottom of a ditch staring up at the clouds flitting between the gnarled branches above. I was a bit disoriented at first, but adrenaline coupled with the taste of dirt and leaves brought me back to reality fairly quickly. Unfortunately for posterity, my friends had been riding ahead of me on the mountain bike trail so there was no embarrassing video of my headlong tumble off the rickety wooden bridge. After confirming that all my limbs were still attached, I brushed myself off and dragged my bike out of the ditch to rejoin my friends. Just another typical Sunday…
There is this “Myth of the Muse” that pervades artist culture (is there such a thing as artist culture? Berets, cappuccino and oblique sardonic musings about the state of society shared over Gruyère and cabernet? Sounds good. Count me in!). Illustrator Greg Ruth discusses his views on the creative muse at length in an insightful Muddy Colors blog post (see link below). He states that:
“While I may acknowledge that the Muse arrives on its own schedule… there are real practical things that bring it down from wherever. The Muse only comes when it knows it can find you… it’s not magical at all: you just need to be available to it via the work.”
In more pedestrian terms: When your car needs a new air filter, lounging on the front stoop expecting the gods of non-warranty replacement parts to drop one into your lap wouldn’t be the most expeditious course of action. You get yourself to the auto parts store, son. Similarly, artistic inspiration favors those who maintain a creative workspace and put pencil in hand and their butt in a chair for the hours it takes to perfect their craft. That being said, sometimes in life or art there is no other recourse but to let go. Walk away. Give up. Quit. I tried to explain this to my publisher, but for some reason she refuses to pay me unless I finish writing this damn column. Ah, the tragic life of an artist…
It can sometimes become necessary to distance yourself emotionally from certain important personal and professional decisions. Cool-headed objectivity may make it easier to come to an informed and rational conclusion untainted by misleading emotional triggers. The same concept holds true when making art: Without realizing it, we can fall in love with the process of making something while being blind to the fact that the end product is suffering. This emotional short-sightedness may lead us to create art that is fun to make but unimaginative at best, and self-indulgent or derivative at worst. This is all well and good if you are doing “personal work”-- e.g. art as a hobby or as a means of therapy, however becoming too emotionally invested in a piece is not advisable if you have clients or patrons to answer to.
Despite stick-to-it-iveness being one of the cardinal rules of success in any endeavor it is also important to know when to step away from your art in a more literal sense. Physical distance is good for several reasons: Sitting or standing in one position for hours at a time can take a toll on your back, circulation, tendons, joints, and muscle tone. Repetitive Stress Syndrome is a very real demon that haunts painters, tattoo artists, animators and writers. Eye strain and headaches are exacerbated by focusing at a fixed distance on the flat plane of a screen or canvas for too long. Remind yourself to stand up, stretch, do downward dog, walk around the room, or head to the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee every once in a while. Gaze longingly out the window or bravely journey out into the world of humans to fetch the mail (don’t forget to put your pants on).
What you DON’T want to do is make these breaks an excuse to scroll through Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter because, more likely than not, you will still be frozen in a contorted, unnatural posture while focusing on a screen twelve inches from your poor suffering eyeballs.
I love doing art. I stay up reeeally late at night so that after I finish my paid gigs, I can work on personal projects (and sometimes Art Hive articles). Yet despite my intensity and insatiable need to create, there are times where I feel the need to back off. Sometimes this is necessitated by a particular compositional or anatomical issue that I can’t resolve and I need to let my frustration fade before I can think clearly again. Sometimes I need to make dinner or fold laundry or watch Netflix with the family. And honestly, every once in a while, I am just sick of the grind. And that brings us back to mountain biking (you forgot about that first paragraph, didn’t you?).
At least once a week (usually on Sunday), I make it a point to get my butt out of the studio chair and onto a bike. Not to ride on the street— I don’t have a death wish. And besides, except for the drivers who are actively trying to pulverize you under the tires of their SUVs, the flat, straight roads of South Florida are so boring that my mind is probably going to wander and circle back to dwelling on bills or making art. And the entire point of me getting out of my studio is to NOT think about that stuff! So, for years, I have been an avid amateur mountain biker. I get out into the woods with my family and friends, where instead of worrying about deadlines and emails, I channel my inner 12 year-old and focus on jumping dirt piles, rolling off of boulders, and navigating my bike over drops, bridges and log-overs. And as long as I am not going over my handle bars into ditches there are some amazing health benefits to riding. The other unexpected benefit is that I have befriended a generous and enthusiastic group of people who exist outside of my little art bubble. By the time I get back to my studio on Sunday night, I am sore but happy and ready to start painting!
So, the next time you are finding it difficult to make good art, maybe you should try giving yourself a break— and if you’re in South Florida hit me up and I’ll meet you on the trails!
P.S. I saw a really big snake on the trail the other day (a South Florida Rat Snake, Elaphe obsolete quadrivittata to be exact). It was cool.
1. “The Myth of the Muse” by Greg Ruth
2. Making a Mark: Artists and Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI)
3.“How I Avoid Burnout Through Work/Life Balance” by Lily Williams
4. “The Research-Backed Secrets to Getting Inspired”