Why Artists Need Structure, Part 3, and How Do We Build the Structures We Need?

by Laureen on October 24, 2012

A studio to come home to

The structure of an artist’s retreat makes work easy. Virtual or otherwise, its form is there waiting. You don’t build it, it’s created for you. The time of day. The expectations of others. The physical space you inhabit. They’re all arranged in a pattern whose dominant characteristic is that it helps you be what you’ve chosen. The gift of a retreat is that the pattern is arranged for you. What happens when the arrangement isn’t there anymore?

For two weeks I walked to Ireland. It was a lovely time. Actions: walk, look after a friend’s cats, paint. Accomplishment: exercise, contemplation, doing for others, doing for me. Balance. Then it stopped. For one thing, during week 3 my temporary studio became the retreat space of another deserving creative person. For another, while it would be nice if all my commitments were those of an artist, my life isn’t set up quite like that.

During week 3, a session ended of the five-week course I teach online (link dated; commitment current) in graduate-level library and research skills for University of Maryland University College, which means a few days of relentless computer time and heavy grading. The classes are big and the work demanding, and payment for it is one of the foundations of my artistic freedom. But two days of heavy grading mean two days of no art. Days 1 and 2.

On day 3, I had to go to the bank and get a haircut. Doesn’t sound like much, but where I live, ordinary-sounding errands can mean 1-1/2 half hours of driving each way. Appointment day happened to be one of west winds gusting to 80 kph/50mph. I wrestled with the car for the whole trip. On day 4 I was tired from wrestling and tired from teaching. Day 5, I worked 5-1/2 hours at my grocery store job, lifting and hauling boxes and bags of goods and produce. Then I headed out on a 4-1/2 hour drive to a long-planned weekend in my old city, visiting with friends and dining out and catching up on citified shopping. It was a lovely little vacation, well worth days 5 to 7, and drive home on day 8. For day 9, the retreat space was mine again, and my external responsibilities were supposed to be complete. But day 9 brought an unexpected morning staff shortage at the grocery store, and two of three casual staff were away. The third of the three was me.  I could leave everybody lurching, or I could show up. There goes another retreat day.

Well, there goes part of one. I’m home by 1:00 p.m. and I feel pretty defeated. “How can a person have a regular studio practice when all of life won’t let you?” I thought. “I’m tired and I probably can’t paint anyway. The weather has turned miserable and the wind won’t stop blowing and I don’t want to walk that far and it’s too hard.”

Oh, phooey. I’m whining. Maybe it isn’t so hard that I can’t even try. The studio is still there, and the Irish cats will want dinners anyway. My easel is waiting, as is the new piece I began at the end of week 2. I begin to wonder: can I change some of this structure without changing what makes it supportive? Let’s see.

I get into the car. It takes me back to the studio, and I don’t run away. I look at the new piece and I put some paint on it, and then I fall asleep. Naptime isn’t art time. But I’m there. On day 10, the weather is still horrible, so I drive again. I paint a bit more. But today I need to have a piece photographed for a book cover, so at noon I drive back into town. After the photo session I return to my retreat. And to the easel. At 3:30 my guy the Big Guy unexpectedly drops in because he’s working nearby. He lives in another town and this doesn’t happen often, and it’s good to see him. I make him some coffee and he repairs a studio lamp. And once again I pick up the brush.

It begins to seem that my ideas about what supportive structure looks like need some revision.  It isn’t the way I get to this studio that makes a difference. And apparently it isn’t having hours of uninterrupted time. It isn’t the remoteness of an offshore artist’s retreat. It isn’t even a feeling of readiness. Today I have none of these, but nonetheless, today this new painting doesn’t look so new anymore. I’ve managed enough work on it so it’s starting to take shape.

So what is supportive structure, anyway? I still think we need it. I think it makes everything easier, and to do the work that means so much to us, we need all the easy we can get. It’s wonderful when the structure is perfectly complete, but when it’s not quite as good, I think we still do better with some than none. The question is, what does some look like?

Next week my travelling friend comes home to her studio, so I’ll be back in my own. I like my own. In it, I’m going to continue exploring this idea of structure. I invite you to explore it along with me. Maybe we can help each other build the structures that each of us needs.

What does a supportive structure look like to you? How does it feel? Is it physical, or time-oriented? How do other people fit in? How is it different from goals, or systems? Does it have room for flexibility or does it have to be firm? Leave a comment on the blog, or on Grasslands Gallery’s Facebook page. Or send me an email.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Shanna October 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I know what you mean. My whole life is days — weeks– like that. I assume everyone’s is. My work is starting to run heavily to writing, and for the first time in years, I think I need to have a morning writing practice. Two hours, every morning, of whatevers on my plate. No more scribbling against a deadline, or sitting down when the mood strikes me. I need to start showing up and doing the work. I’ve been behind for two months. I’m sick of it.

Laureen October 27, 2012 at 6:01 pm

A morning practice is a very concrete step. I think the same thing. But is is a matter of will? Or is there some way to make the practice part of the flow?

Shanna October 27, 2012 at 6:46 pm

I don’t know. I don’t think so. There’s no better time of the day. I think it’s more just reordering my worldview to realize that my writing is the most important thing I can do for my business, which has never been the case before.

Laureen October 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm

“Just reordering my worldview” – I love that. It sounds…orderly. I have horrible troubles with morning, but maybe you’re right. Maybe reordering is all I have to do. I love the idea of good orderly direction (quoting Julia Cameron).

Let’s do it! I’ll report. Hope you will too 🙂

Melissa Dinwiddie October 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm

I’m with Shanna. I learned a long time ago that the thing I do first is the thing that gets done.

Sounds rather obvious, but sometimes it’s the *only* thing that gets done, so it behooves me to put the most important thing first. That’s what I aim to do… though some days still don’t work that way.

My relatively new meditation practice (since this spring) has been a huge support. I’m pretty steady with that, meditating shortly after awaking in the morning. This has in turn become an “anchor” for other practices: lately writing happens right after meditating, followed by some music-making (or sometimes vice-versa). And after that I usually hop on the exercise bike to make sure my brain and body stay healthy.

My schedule shifts around as my priorities and goals shift, but I’m finding more and more that structure is my friend.

Laureen October 28, 2012 at 8:17 am

The only structure I’ve ever really liked is the one I build myself. But it’s easy to get caught thinking that no structure at all is the same as a self-created one. Not so! Maybe what this creative structure thing means is moving towards where we want to be?

yvonne November 10, 2012 at 8:20 am

I like this one. I struggle with structure too whether it is in art or exercise… I will let you know what I come up with. I can guarantee that it won’t include any of the ‘A’ type personality answers like scheduling ….. but we will see what it does look like.

Laureen November 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I’m glad you liked it 🙂 I’m still working at this myself. I’ve discovered – and this is a real surprise – that having a home studio, it’s a better structure for me if the rest of the house is tidy and looks nice. Who knew? Also, thanks to the brilliant Catherine Caine at Cash and Joy, I’ve found out that my because my art practice is so important to me, I need to make it the most important thing I do. I’d never thought of that as structure before either.

I’ll look forward to hearing more about what you find out!

Jane Smith November 20, 2012 at 8:35 am

Thank you so much. I have just finished reading and it moved me enormously.
I think you are very brave. What I’m grappling with at the moment is ‘How to make things happen. ‘
I have just started illustrating books and would love to make some money from them but have got lost along the way. I know I’ll find a way, but it’s a question of when and how.
Good luck in all your ventures

Laureen November 20, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Thank you so much for thinking I’m brave! I don’t feel very brave sometimes. I try to put one foot in front of the other and just not get them tangled too badly, like some mixed-up centipede. Then sometimes the feet stop moving at all. It’s really hard to get them moving once they’ve stopped, and it gets harder the longer they stay still. So once again I try to put one foot in front of the other. Maybe this is part of the creative structure I’m working to define. Left foot, right foot. Steps of different lengths, on easier and less more difficult terrain, in and out of rhythm and on and off balance. Right foot, left foot.

I know that creative structure isn’t about lists and control. Maybe what it is partly about is taking one step after another one until there are enough of them to make a map that can lead out of lost-ness.

If you would like to send me an email about feeling lost, I would love to hear from you.

All good things,

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