In Steven Pressfield’s influential book, “The War of Art,” he brilliantly captures the internal struggle that creatives face on their artistic journey. As a mixed media artist navigating the ever-evolving landscape of the art world, I have discovered profound resonance in Pressfield’s concept of “the war of art.” From battling self-doubt to embracing discipline and finding resilience amidst external pressures, the artistic journey is indeed a battlefield where perseverance and dedication ultimately lead to artistic fulfillment.
The Resistance and Self-Doubt
“The War of Art” highlights the invisible force of resistance that plagues creatives, manifesting as self-doubt, procrastination, and fear. In today’s world, where comparison and societal expectations are constant due to more connectedness through social media, global travel, and the vastness of the internet, resistance can be even more insidious. As an artist, I’ve encountered moments where doubt creeps in, and in turn I begin questioning the worthiness of my work. Sometimes the doubts come directly from those in my innermost circle! However, recognizing resistance as a natural adversary allows me to confront it head-on, pushing past my comfort zone and embracing vulnerability. It is through this resilience that I find the strength to persist in creating despite the internal battles. In fact, it is during times of self-doubt and inner conflict that I often begin my most innovative work that challenges my own identity as an artist.
Embracing Discipline and Professionalism
To succeed as a creative, discipline and professionalism are paramount. Pressfield’s emphasis on treating art as a profession echoes the need to prioritize consistency, routine, and dedication in one’s creative practice. Embracing discipline means carving out dedicated time for creativity, setting goals, and holding oneself accountable. By establishing a professional mindset, I am better equipped to navigate the challenges and prioritize my creative endeavors amidst the demands of everyday life.
Being professional also means respecting oneself as an artist, and in turn respecting other artists. The “starving artist” persona lends indignity to a profession filled with some of the brightest, most innovative people on the planet. Artists should not fall victim to the “starving artist” persona. It is not romantic, it is not endearing. It is disrespectful to the profession at best and at its worst, the “starving artist” is a succubus that destroys the importance of art itself and shrouds the artist in ridicule and disgrace. To put it plainly, if you wear the “starving artist” badge, you need to get a different job and stop complaining about society’s inability to support artists and see talent. It’s either not your time, you’re not working hard enough, or your work is just bad - whatever the reason, don’t walk around in rags and hungry, blaming everyone else for your failure. It cheapens the field of art.
Finding Inspiration in Resistance
Pressfield suggests that resistance can be a compass guiding us towards our true artistic calling. Today’s world bombards us with information, stimuli, and distractions, making it easy to lose sight of our creative purpose. However, by recognizing resistance as a signpost, I have learned to lean into the discomfort it presents. Through introspection and reflection, I discover what truly inspires and ignites my passion, allowing me to channel resistance into fuel for my creative process. By embracing resistance as a teacher rather than an enemy, I can tap into a deeper well of creativity and create art that is authentic and resonant.
One such example of embracing discomfort is seeking critique. As an artist, critique has been one of the biggest catalysts for growth in my work. When I first applied for the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant, I was selected as one of 70 applicants to receive feedback from a panel of professional artists. The feedback was delivered publicly, in person, from a stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall, with dozens of other artists and applicants present. It was a humbling experience. I did not receive the grant, but I did receive some of the most valuable feedback of my artistic career. I took that feedback to my studio and used it as fuel for a new era of my work. A couple years later, I felt ready to apply for the grant again, and this time, I succeeded. I was a recipient of the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant in 2021, and I fully credit the feedback I received from the first round for this success. Never be afraid to receive and apply critique. In fact, seek it out often. Artists who gracefully receive and implement feedback will stay at the top of their craft. This actually goes for any profession.
Building a Supportive Community
In the battlefield of the art world, having a supportive community becomes essential armor. Connecting with fellow artists, engaging in constructive critique, and seeking mentorship can provide invaluable guidance and encouragement. As a recipient of the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant, part of the program was that each artist was required to work with a mentor for the year. This aspect of the program turned out to be more valuable than the grant check itself. Through working and conversing with my mentor, I was inspired to approach my work from a completely new lens. I started working with new materials and experimenting in ways I never before imagined. My work was launched into a whole new realm because of this.
Collaboration, rather than competition, fosters growth and a sense of camaraderie in the face of artistic challenges. In today’s world, networking and building relationships extends beyond physical spaces to virtual communities, allowing artists to connect globally and find solace in shared experiences. Embracing collaboration and community-building has been instrumental in fortifying my artistic journey, providing strength and resilience amidst the inevitable setbacks. The Warehouse Arts District Association, Creative Pinellas, and the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance are a few of the organizations that support artists locally. They work tirelessly to connect artists and community.
Working as a creative in today’s world is undoubtedly a battlefield, with internal and external challenges demanding our perseverance, resilience, and dedication. “The War of Art” serves as a guiding framework, reminding us of the battles we face within ourselves and against external pressures. By recognizing resistance, embracing discipline, finding inspiration amidst challenges, and fostering a supportive community, we can navigate this battlefield with grace and emerge as triumphant artists. As we continue our creative journeys, let us remember that the war of art is not one fought alone, but a collective effort of courage, authenticity, and unwavering commitment to artistic expression.
Today I was sanding the edges of one of my latest pieces, brushing off the sanding dust, and in general fine-tuning several of my pieces for the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Exhibition coming up in July. As I was doing this, I reveled in the care I was taking to make these works presentable, clean, and gallery-ready; and I suddenly recalled back to an incident, or rather, series of incidents in which I was judged for perfectionism. With a bit of a chuckle, I remember it being a passive aggressive statement to start with, where he said, “Oh, you’re editing that photo to make it perfect?” Initially, I did not detect the sarcasm, but later as this same person called me “uptight” and continued to judge my “perfectionism,” I realized the intent of the statement. And at the time, it made me uncomfortable, because not only was there an implied negativity with this statement about my perfectionism, but it also seemed to question my character as a whole. I won’t go into detail about the ways in which I managed my feelings about this judgment or this relationship, but ultimately I did realize that it is unworthy of my time and especially my emotion. What I do want to discuss is the IMPORTANCE of perfectionism. It is not something to be ashamed of at all, despite what some critics may say. In fact, the critics whose opinions and critique we DO welcome and that WILL actually help us probably value a certain amount of perfectionism.
Presentation is everything in art. A well-presented work demands respect and attention. It deserves its place in the gallery. For example, if I were to leave my wooden frames un-sanded, dusty, and with splotches of spilled paint, even the tiniest drop of paint, it would seem careless and sloppy. There are so many moments when my all too human brain thinks, “is this really necessary?” Our minds and bodies naturally seek out the quickest, easiest way to obtain a goal, so it stands to reason that even in complex, unnatural tasks like creating and preparing a work of art for display, my brain would want to make sure it’s expending the smallest amount of energy possible. So it wants me to cut corners. And then I imagine the work on the wall in the gallery on opening night, with (hopefully) hundreds of eyes on it, from peers to family to mentors to professionals, and everyone in between, and I think, “NO, this does have to be done.”
The edges need sanded. The white paint needs touched up. The corners need dusted, and each piece needs to be thoroughly inspected. If I were to present a sloppy, jagged, blotchy, dirty collection of work at a show attended, hosted, and presented by other artists and clients who actually do care enough to spend time perfecting their work, it would be insulting at best. I would in a sense be implying that this exhibition is not worth the time and precision it takes to display polished, professional work, thus devaluing the time of all those participating.
It seems that some people think of art as messy, or that artists are flighty, disorganized, and casual. The “starving artist,” perhaps? That misunderstood “genius” who arrogantly flips off anyone who isn’t also a free-thinker and who scoffs at others’ 9-5 jobs? If you picture most artists in this way, it does make sense that you would also believe that most artists are not perfectionists, do not care much for presentation, and live in a juvenile fantasy world where professionalism and respect are tossed to the wind and represent far too much societal pressure and standards to be bothered with. This is simply not true, and does a disservice to those artists who take their work seriously, consider it a true profession, and work 9-5 or 6 or 7 or 8 AND weekends because their work is important to them and their business is important to them.
I am surrounded by professional artists who respect themselves and their peers as any businessperson respects their colleagues. My work is a reflection, not just of my creativity, but of my pride, my consideration, and my respect for myself and others. This is not to say that the work itself should demonstrate some sort of perfectionism… art is, after all, a world of unlimited possibilities, creative flow, and emotion.
In fact, my current body of work is abstract, a result of a failed experiment that provided me with a unique material that I fell in love with. They can be irreverent and the colors and materials may seem random to some. But in fact each piece was carefully pored over and loved. Each frame and substrate was carefully polished and painted. In other works, I may splash paint, smear it, sand it, adhere paper over it, and then scrape it off with a palette knife. I may mix spray paint and acrylics and smear them haphazardly about to achieve a certain texture. I may layer encaustic wax over a layer of uneven, scraped paint, and then adhere tissue paper to create a ghostly illusion. It can be messy, even painful as I burn myself with hot wax or the heat gun, or cut my finger with an Exacto knife. The creation can sometimes be carefully planned, and other times, based on mood or the strike of a lightbulb. Who knows?
What I do know is that I will never jeopardize the integrity of my work again by doubting, even for a moment, that presenting polished, thoughtful, belabored work is in any way a fault or character flaw. There is no formula to my work, but before it makes its debut on gallery walls, it will always receive a final once over to render it gallery-ready.
As a recipient of the Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant for 2020-2021, part of the grant process is working with an artist mentor. My mentor is Ry McCoullough, an assistant professor of art & design at University of Tampa, as well as practicing as an experimental artist influenced by printmaking, creative writing, drawing, sound, and sculpture.
Our first meeting was a great introduction, which inspired me to start thinking about my art a bit differently. Our subsequent meeting was even more inspirational, as Ry took me on a tour of the world of art books and how unique and diverse they could be. Forget about coffee table albums of art. The art books Ry shared with me were pieces of art themselves! This meeting was the catalyst in my new project - creating my first art book.
Once I embarked on the journey of creating an art book, my mind went directly to the foundation of the book. The paper. I have tons of paper in many forms. Fine art watercolor paper, tracing paper, children’s construction paper, rolls of brown paper, a roll of paper from Ikea. But as I looked around my studio, I realized that the paper that I want to define my practice will be recycled with the least amount of energy possible: by me. So, I set out on the journey of making my own paper.
One of the great things about mixed media is that you are reusing magazines, newspaper, books, and journals that may otherwise be discarded. However, it’s impossible to use ALL the pages of this media. I always end up with some paper to ship off to the recycling plant. Recycling is a good thing, but it’s not the best, cleanest, most sustainable solution. Recycling paper myself, however, is. Aside from reusing it, recycling this paper myself is my best, most Earth-friendly solution. So I went to Youtube.
In theory, it’s quite simple, although in practice it’s a bit more difficult. I hand shredded a bunch of magazine clippings and pages, and drowned them in a bowl of water overnight. I added this mixture to a blender and made a paper smoothie. Next I was supposed to spread on a screen and dry it out. This part of the process became a bit more tedious. I was having trouble getting the right amount of water in the pulp to allow it to spread thin without creating holes in the paper. After working at it a bit I found the right consistency. So far, I’ve made several large sheets of paper and some very unique pieces out of my magazine clippings. I love the final product. They are rather stiff, textured grey pages with some tears, uneven edges, and holes. I call these pages ugly paper.
My next step is to start experimenting more with different colors, different textures, flecks of different materials and colors, and other ways to create new and cool looking paper. One thing I realized is that I can create quite a bit of my own recycled paper with the excess clippings I have from my mixed media projects. I will never be without paper again!
Someone I respect once said to me, “Nikki, you can’t do anything wrong.” I took that to mean that because of my moral compass and presence of mind, my actions would always be well-intentioned and thoughtful, which is how I try to approach my life and the world. Even when confronted with strife, I am very thoughtful about how to respond to the situation. Sometimes people don’t like the response, but my responses always contain a lot of consideration as to how to conduct myself in a way that is true to myself, and a way that is true to my values. If someone doesn’t like my response (which happens on occasion), then their values and compass are pointed in a different direction than mine, and I am happy to say, “adios.”
In art, too, I like to apply this “you can’t do anything wrong.” Because it’s actually very true for artists; we just need to create, without dwelling too much on whether or not it’s “good” or “right.” You can decide later whether it’s presentable, once you feel that the piece is complete, or that your commitment to the piece is dwindled or exhausted. I find that approaching my art in this way allows me to be fearless and productive - there is no time-consuming hesitance and fear of making something bad. If I don’t like it, I can just start over again. It’s a liberating approach to creation, being able to lift my own critique and fear.
One of the reasons this came to mind is that I’m about to embark on a new branch of my creative journey. I’ve decided to add encaustic painting to my toolkit, and I’m so excited to start experimenting with this dreamy technique. I have the wax medium and brushes all ready to go, just have to find an old crock pot to melt the wax in. I already have ideas about how to use the technique on some current works in progress. I’m so glad the weather is getting cooler now because I have to be in the garage studio and it can get downright stuffy in there during the summer. Stay tuned for more!
Creative Pinellas is an arts organization supported by Pinellas County, serves artists throughout the entire county and is located on Walsingham Road right between Heritage Village and the Florida Botanical Gardens. Each year, the organization awards grants to several artists, both professional and emerging. This year, I have the honor of being awarded a 2021 Emerging Artist Grant!
I am not new to the grant process with Creative Pinellas. In fact, I applied for a grant through the organization a few years ago, and though my score brought me into the award finalists, it was not high enough to receive the grant. During that year, the professional and emerging artist grants were not separately juried. All artists were critiqued in the same group with the same criteria. What the Creative Pinellas leadership discovered was that there was too much of a gap between some of the emerging artists’ experience and that of their long-time professional artist colleagues. There was just no way they could compete. So they divided into the two levels, which evened out the playing field.
During that first round of critique, which was held publicly at Ruth Eckerd Hall, I was sitting in the auditorium with a hot face and tight throat, but I was ready. I seek out critique, particularly when it comes from other well-respected, experienced artists. In fact, this opportunity that all applicants receive is an invaluable one. Whether or not an artist receives the award, the panelists’ critique alone is worth attending, to hear a review of your work and application, but also to hear what they say about others’ work. All of this feedback is useful information in guiding an artist’s work and professional conduct. Needless to say I took a lot of notes, because number one I was nervous and knew I would forget what they said, and number two - THIS WAS AN IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITY!
What I left with was probably some of the most influential guidance I have received as an artist. There was some criticism that was hard to swallow, but that turned out to be the most useful. One of the judges said my work was “nothing new, I’ve seen this before.” I’ll never forget that statement, it made me shrink in embarrassment - despite the fact that the forum was anonymous - but it also made me rethink my approach. What could I do to create something more refreshing for my audience? How do I breathe life into my work while still maintaining my authenticity as an artist? Another panelist said that my application was lacking in support materials, meaning that I needed more involvement in my community, more testimonials and publications showing that I was indeed an involved and practicing artist. Ok, I need to participate in more arts organizations, get out into my community, and get my work in front of more people!
So there I was, scribbling away with my red-hot face burning, but knowing that this too would end and I would walk out of there with an actionable list that could change my career if I took it objectively. And I did. It was a gorgeous, sunny day. I got into the car and drove down McMullen Booth Road with the windows open, sun shining down on me, big smile on my face, and excitement for what I knew would be a whole new era in my work! I knew it then, that in these notes on the seat next to me were some keys to the next step in my art career, if I could keep working at it and always keep in the mind that I do this because I love it, and because it’s a part of my very soul.
Here I am, four years later, an Emerging Artist Grantee! It really did work. Well, I really did work. I worked on my art, I worked on new techniques, I am involved in my community now more than ever, not just for art, but for leadership, volunteerism, and business. I am so excited for the growth that will happen this year as I work with my mentor through the grant program, write about my experience and progress, and have the opportunity to share my work in an Emerging Artist Group Exhibit in May of 2021.