How to Get Started

Artist Talk/Real Talk at Texas State U, image courtesy of  Jimmy Canales

Artist Talk/Real Talk at Texas State U, image courtesy of Jimmy Canales

Last week I spoke at Texas State University to an awesome group of graduating seniors. I gave my spiel about my work, career path, love of Italy, and the students asked all sorts of juicy questions about life after art school:

How do you balance doing an unpaid internship and having to pay your bills?
A: First, see if you can get paid (don't ask, don't get) and if you can't, decide what you want to get out of it and how long you can make it work without $$$.

What is an art-world 'faux pas' I should avoid?
A: Being insincere.

Why don't you move to Italy full time?
A: Because I'm too impatient to make it as a full-time Italian.

Anytime I give a talk I try to be real honest. Last week, I talked about some of the high-points of my art practice so far - getting my first solo show, getting a Fulbright, landing a teaching gig. And some of my lows - when I had to move back in with Pat and Pat (my parents, bless them) and work four jobs while I made art in their basement. I ruined their carpet, but I made this really cool wall paper...

In my experience, the trajectory of a creative career is not always a straight shot UP. It's got lots of useful bumps along the way. I think it's unhelpful when people say you need to 'just keep going!' In my opinion, you need to both keep going and keep being practical. Sometimes that means temporarily living rent-free with P&P, or moving to a smaller city to get your work done.

Being a student is great because you have permission to ask these questions. For the rest of us though, asking questions is not as straight forward, let alone knowing who is going to have the answers you're looking for.

My workshop participants from this past weekend had lots of questions around the theme of ‘getting starting.’ But these questions had a different flavor to them:

How do I start making things again?

I want to get more serious about my creative practice - what should I do?

How do I juggle my art practice and all my other commitments?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, so here are my tips on what to do (and what I’ve done) when you’re feeling creatively stuck:

Take a class:

  • Something you’re excited about that would be FUN. The goal is not to come out of the class an expert, but to get some ideas and connect with an instructor or creative peers. Being a student again allows you to feel more free to ask questions and seek guidance.

    Don’t like a classroom setting? Reach out to an artist you like and ask if they do private lessons in their medium.

Set aside 30 mins a week for ‘pressure free’ play:

  • After your class, pick one day a week to set aside 30 minutes for ‘pressure free’ play. Don’t worry about outcomes, let yourself be driven by what interests you - materials, colors, text, patterns, sounds, whatever feels playful. Don’t worry about the end result. It’s about trust and giving yourself permission to make things again.

    Need some prompts to get you started? Check out these art assignments.

Pay attention to influence:

  • Notice the artists, writers, and musicians you gravitate toward. What do you like about their work? What ideas or visuals do you connect with? Write it down. Watch them speak on Youtube. Go see their work in person. When you’re thinking about this list of artists, make sure to only select people you are truly excited about, not artists you think you “should like.”

    This is your inspiration map. Use this to find other things you’re interested in.

Say you’ve already done all this, and you’re ready to kick it into high gear, make a bunch of work and maybe get some feedback - what’s next?

Do a week-long or month-long studio intensive:

  • Penland School of Craft, Haystack, and Anderson Ranch are all craft-based art centers across the country that offer studio intensives. Check out their offerings, research their teaching faculty - do you connect with their work? Email that faculty-member and tell them what you’re looking for. Ask them if their class is where you can get it.

  • Check out your local university’s continuing education program. Often times they will offer a summer studio intensive. SVA, for example has a month long course taught by MFA teaching faculty. Find alumni of these programs and reach out to them - even if they’re strangers. Ask them if they had a good experience in this program.

    (Attn: Writers, musicians, filmmakers - same applies: think about a ‘focused creative experience’ that would benefit you)

Don’t got the $$$ or the time to do something immersive?

Start your own ‘Critique Group:’

  • Gather your creative friends together and share your artwork. Ask for feedback. Ask them what your work makes them feel or think about. When they give you an answer, ask them “why?” They don’t need to be an artist to have a perspective, they just need to be someone who is willing to talk about their ideas and be generous. Do the same in return.

Ask a working artist you respect to come to your studio:

  • Reach out to a local artist that you respect and tell them why you love their work. Ask them if they’d be willing to look at your artwork and give you some feedback. Be grateful if they come, and understanding if their time is tight. Don’t take it personally. Keep inviting people and eliciting conversations around what you’re doing!

What if you’ve taken classes, gotten some feedback, but you’re struggling to keep your studio momentum going?

Join or start a ‘creative accountability’ group:

  • Get a small, committed group of people together who all want support around their creative projects. Set up a once-a-month meeting where you chat through your challenges and give each other feedback. The Artist’s Way has a good framework for how to set up these meetings.

  • Also I run a group like this! Contact me if you want to learn more.

Hire a creative coach/artist to work with you:

  • They’ll help you identify your values, set goals around your work, and figure out what’s next and how to move forward. You want to build a portfolio? Apply to a residency? Find some funding? They can help you think through these questions and give you some answers.

I have done every single thing on this list! And this is what has worked for me. Let me know what works for you when it comes to getting out of a creative rut and building some momentum.

David Shrigley

David Shrigley

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