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.