Sustaining The Practice of Art

In Freelance and Business, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Vision Is Better, VisionMongers by David50 Comments

“The practice of art isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

Chase Jarvis recently posted about his Create-Share-Sustain paradigm. I’ve referenced it, linked to it, quoted it several times this past year. In that paradigm, the notion of sustaining the create-share cycle is generally seen as a financial one. It’s the grease on the wheels that allows you to keep going – whether that’s working at Starbucks or a day-job you love, or even making photographs as a career itself. But there are other means by which we sustain ourselves. Man, Jesus once said, does not live by bread alone. Of course, He was referring to prayer, a sustenance of the soul.

Art too sustains the soul. But how do you sustain art?

I’m ending, as you know, an incredibly busy year. It’s been exciting, and my work has certainly sustained and grown my soul, to use the words of writer Kurt Vonnegut. But you know that bit in physics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction? It’s like that in metaphysics too. As a result this year and the work I did, has also had something of a draining effect. I am tired. I am running out of images and words. I’m feeling it. So what do you do when the thing that sustains you begins to tire you? What do you do when the shelves are bare?

I think you go back and put stuff on the shelf. For the creative soul I think the way we do that is a little counter-intuitive: we shoot more, write more, we go back to the well and fill it with the same bucket we use for drawing water in the first place. We get intentional about the process and stop worrying about the products. We stir the paint. We take more risks. We work more, not less. If you’re a VisionMonger and your work feeds you literally as well as metaphorically, it means you take the time to do personal projects and create something for you and not only your clients. It is not just as important that you feed your own creative soul before you feed your market, it is more important.

I’ll tell you my plan in the coming days, but for now I’m curious about you. Forget resolutions and plans for the new year for now. For now, forget the steps you’ll take to improve your business. What do you do to stir the paint? Where do you go to fill your well?




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  2. I do exactly what you said. Being selfish with my photography and creating. This year I’m being selfishly creative with a friend across the country and we’re doing a photo pairing project. It makes us happy – and pushes us to. Thanks for the great post.

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  6. I put away my camera. I don’t open my photos and work on them. Soon I find that I am ‘hankering’ for my photography. I start to study other photographers, and when I can’t stand it anymore, I pick up my camera and shoot again.
    I guess I’m lucky not to be making a living at photography yet. Because then I wouldn’t have the luxury of time to spare. Where I work, I can’t just walk away whenever I want to re-ground myself, but I do start taking more time for me so I can come back to my work with the passion to create again.

  7. I’ve seen a few of the things I do already listed here. The common thread… doing something different.
    Here is my list:
    – When I was in college, I baked bread. Now I sometimes go to the kitchen and get wildly creative with whatever I can find. The alchemy of cooking – it engages all of the senses.
    – If I need a quick fix, I go for a run.
    – I have made jewelry for years and so I go to my bench and completely immerse myself in something very tactile.
    – Any type of mountain activity. The mountains have a way of making all of my concerns seem ridiculous and calming my nerves. A few hours hiking or skiing is magic. There’s nothing more creative than nature and when I immerse myself in it, it recharges all the batteries.
    – I go to the climbing gym and get completely out of my thinking mind.
    – 15 minutes of meditation – same as above.
    – Gardening.

  8. I am reminded of a quote from the movie “The Shining” … “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” or something to that effect. I suppose we all have what we consider our individual playgrounds – the beach, the woods, even just playing around in Photoshop or Lightroom with our images.

  9. I’ve always thought that doing less, not more, was the way to recharge, but I like your perspective. I get stirred by taking a deep breath, and by focusing on giving and investing in those around me.

  10. I go sit in the sun on a beach, which is not easy to do when living in the mountains. I watch the ocean and I listen to it. Somehow, the visual and audible rhythm of the water and the warmth of the sun re-calibrate me. I also look through other photographer’s work which I always find incredibly inspiring and motivating, but it is the beach that really recharges me.

  11. 1st thanks for the blog and the book vision mongers, i’m almost finished reading it. i to am tired, 29 months worth. the tired feeling started when my wife told me she was pregnant, i’ve been working like crazy to take care of an extra mouth to feed with less income.
    on the photography side, since reading vision mongers i’ve decided on a 5 year plan of action. my work needs to take an extra step forward ( a big one) and i need time to develop my my specialty / field of work.
    learning is my goal all the while shooting and learning. learning to be creative and stand out from what the others do. i’m seeing things differently since reading your book and blog and i’m hoping it helps to move me forward. take time off relax spend time with your wife, time is the one thing you can’t buy or get back once it’s gone.


  12. Hi David, a very good analogy, stir the paint. That seems to be what I do, mix it up. Stop doing the same old thing just because it is what I “think” I should be doing. I find with my photography (which is nature and landscape) if I start shooting other things, abstracts, buildings, studio stuff it allows me to start seeing nature easier again because it loosens my mind from the need to see it.
    So for me I go do something different, try to spark a different fire and open my mind to a new type of light.

  13. The older I get the more I believe there’s one simple answer to the question of how to achieve happiness in life… balance. When life feels heavy don’t pile more on your side of the teeter-totter. Even things out. Try something totally different. Change things up. I don’t think the solution is to work more. The solution may be to see things from the other side. Gain a fresh perspective and in the process you’ll be energised creatively. The most enlightened souls I have met have one thing in common – a wide variety of experiences. Passion about one’s craft is great but one needs to beware of the tipping point which leads to addiction. If I can’t step back from what I love then maybe I don’t love it. Maybe I’m addicted to it.

  14. So what do you do when the thing that sustains you begins to tire you? What do you do when the shelves are bare?<<
    I do ANYTHING other than what I have been doing. It can be as simple as spending time consciously focusing on my senses as a form of meditation. (Anybody who says this is an easy process is probably a liar:)) I've spent a day with a central Mexico shaman, whitewater rafting, having a series of intense deep-body massages (rolfing). Doing something like rock climbing where I have to maintain a high degree of focus – or else! Do something that is unfamiliar. Anything that forces me to use my senses in a different mode than my usual consciousness. In other words, I get out of my head.

  15. I was laid off from my photo gig (done it for almost 8 yrs) on 1st December because sales were down and I was the one that had to go. I was given 1 month’s salary and am now on unemployment. I had been planning to go off on my own in 2-3 yrs, but certainly am not ready now and don’t have the resources or capital or partner/wife/husband to back me while I pursue my goal. Heartbroken yes! What does the new year hold for me? I don’t know yet. Hopefully a paycheck. Creativity is gone and I worry about day to day existence. Sorry this is a downer, but my reality sucks and next year…sure hope it’s better. Suggestions?

  16. Whenever I feel in a slump photographically I force myself to shoot close to home. It is important to me to photograph a single subject intensively. Time spent on one subject, opens your mind to new possibilities. There is a familiarity of things close at hand that stifles creativity and forcing myself to photograph subjects close at hand increases my ability to see and be more creative.

  17. Simple. I look at the smile of my 2-year old little girl when she says “Papa”, give her a kiss on the cheek, and then help my little boy build some new creation with his Legos.

    Always works to ‘stir the paint’ and ‘fill the well’.

  18. I am in awe of much of what I see in movies – beautiful lighting, moods and scenes… Zhang Yimo’s sense of color is extraordinary; just watched a German film, A Woman in Berlin and feel incredibly motivated to create moods visually; Hirokazu Koreeda’s movies also seem adept at finessing moods and are nspiring as well.

  19. The Skokomish River is a never ending source of energy for my creative vision. I go there often at all times of the day and year. The eagles are there now. The livestock has on their winter coats. It is very wet.

  20. I am doing a year of self-portraits. It will be a way to get back in touch with myself. I have no idea what I look like anymore or who I am. So much has happened so fast that I am going to take the time to reconnect with myself and my Creator.

  21. Books….! Novels, classics, “The Four Agreements” by Miguel Ruiz. I try to get away from the business, and sometimes even the craft of photography for a bit, and I find that I come back a little stronger and more determined. Since you specified NOT to include plans for the year, I won’t, but suffice it to say that through reading YOUR books, and others, I’m ready to”Take names and kick a*^” in 2010. Wherever it leads is where I’ll be.

  22. I turn off the TV… and read. Novels that create images in my mind, comics, photography books. I bought a book on learning rock guitar. I find my creative well is like an ice cube tray. As you fill one cube it overflows into all the other areas.

  23. To get creatively motivated, I just need to feel something. I learned this year that I can change the way I feel about something by simply changing the way I think about it. Conscious decision. Bingo.

  24. I decided to take a day trip into NYC after reading this entry. There’s a Bauhaus exhibit at MoMA that I’ve been meaning to see for over a month. So I’ll take the trip in, see the exhibit and then take a stroll back to Penn Station and see if I can infuse my images with some of the Bauhaus influence I hopefully ingested. It’s not a style I usually employ, and that’s exactly why I need to try it.

  25. Nothing fills the well for me like ingesting art, whether that means going to an exhibition, cracking open a photo book (Michael Kenna being a favorite here), or putting on some good music (right now it’s Miles Davis). It charges up my imagination, and before I know it, the camera magically falls into my hands and I create new work.

  26. I often forget that I need to re-charge in this way. I am getting better at recognizing the warning signs. Self care is more important than we think and it is often not a priority in our lives. My re-charge is to spend time in “wild places”. To me, that is anywhere in the mountains where there are few people (or none) and I can just get lost in the magnificence. It is what feeds my soul. I take my camera and shoot for only me. On one of these trips I walked through the same alpine meadow a number of times and it literally called “make an image of me”. I don’t do this nearly enough and, as I am not skiing as much these days, it is much harder to get the re-charge in the winter.

    @ ron c – yep, our awareness does grow, but I think our soul grows as well. How can it not when we give it such good nourishment?

  27. I create for a living (a designer) and as a hobby (photography and writing). Fortunately, they all tend to feed each other.

    But, when things get tough I go outside and do something active without thinking about any of the three. Or I pick up my camera and take myself to a part of the lower mainland I haven’t seen before. And I always have a personal 365 project going with my camera that helps.

    When things get really tough, I turn again to the Artists Way by Julia Cameron and start writing my three pages again every day, doing my artists dates and looking for synchronicity. Always does the trick.

  28. I’d phrase it differently than Kurt V… I don’t think our soul grows; I think it’s constant. Instead, I think our awareness of it grows. And here’s the thing about feeding our soul: when we do it, everyone around us benefits, the whole planet benefits. I do it two ways: spending time in nature, and writing.

  29. I happen to have two passions…they feed eachother. (whether it be for myself or as work.) Photographer on one side, musician on the other. When I get tired from one, I run to the other. Spending time in one makes me creative in the other. It goes back and fourth. Financially I think I picked the worst combination!

  30. I go for a run. It’s good for you in so many ways and I nearly always see something inspiring. It can be kind of infuriating, especially when out in the woods, I get a whole lot closer to critters while running than I ever seem to do when out with my camera!

  31. Straight-up this is the year I want to run photography more as a business than a hobby. In this I mean I want to make smart financial decisions to prove that it’s a viable income stream to my spouse.

    Quoted today “Your photography is all about you, and not about this family.” words which cut deep, but obviously how she feels. If the images I take of the family are not the type of contribution we’re looking for, than for my soul’s sake I need to compliment those with a balance of income to justify my expenditures of both time and cash.

  32. I’ve found a few ways. Sometimes, I’ll take a walk. Up the mountains, along the beach, but without a camera. I realise how much I look for images to shoot once I don’t have my camera, but I also realise how much I miss. How much I miss out on feeling a place. So it feeds me, nourishes me.

    Other times I’ll grab a different kind of camera, my SX70, or my iPhone, and do a little shoot with that. Find something. Find something in something. I’m spoiling myself with such a session today. It’s a treat, a reward after spending many hours this week working on the business side of the ‘job’ of being a photographer.

  33. Constant reminder to self why I am doing what I do plus all the supports shown by family members & friends in my pursuit of my own vision

  34. What will I do to improve my business? An old joke comes to mind “This is a non-profit organization. It wasn’t meant to be but that’s how it turned out.” I am a photographer out of love. Love for the medium itself, the process of exploration that it represents and for my subjects. I’d like to make money at it, break even at least, but I’ve yet to find a way to do that without interfering with the joy I get from just doing. I just plan to keep putting my stuff out there.

  35. A few months ago I started a 365 project, and it has been the single most effective thing I’ve done to improve my photography. Some days are better than others, and sometimes I need to force myself to shoot. When I look back, some of my favorite shots came from picking myself up when I was exhausted and ready to call it quits for the day and forcing myself to pop off a few shots. It also drives me to read more about the craft and to look at more photos from other artists. I think this year I’m going to get a little more serious about selling prints online and try to supplement my hobby.

  36. I like to explore. I let my curiosity take hold and follow where it takes me. Not just physically but mentally too.

    In real life I’m a Software Engineer. I read about a book project to learn seven programming languages in seven weeks. I don’t feel like waiting for the book so I’ve dived in to learn them on my own. At the moment I’m taking a run at Io.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Philosophy too. Mainly Aesthetics and the theory of Art, but some Philosophy of Mind too. It causes you think a lot deeper about Art than you would reading mainstream texts.

    And I walk and ride my bike. I get myself good and lost and then get more lost and see what I find. Then find my way home. I turn up some interesting places and I don’t half to travel half way around the world.

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  38. I guess I am “lucky” in that photography is still a fulfilling hobby that helps me recover from my full-time job that is truly a creative desert. If I did photography full-time and it started to feel as dead as my current job does I don’t know what I’d do. Find another hobby, I guess.

    At the risk of turning my passion into a “job” I dream of one day being able to do photography and writing full-time. Until then I read as much as I can, primarily photography and business books. I have found an interesting thing happens though. Initially, looking at the work of others is inspiring, but if I do it for too long without going out and creating my own work, the quality of my work declines dramatically. All that study causes me to become overly critical and second-guess myself; both of which are fatal to creativity. So I have to be careful to balance study with practice.

    As a creative person, I think my biggest fear is that the well may one day run permanently dry, the muse will depart and my work will become terminally flat. If that day comes, I hope to have the wisdom to retire rather than becoming a caricature of my former self.

    An interesting and important topic.

  39. When in a slump I try to read both photography and personal discovery books. Education and self growth can go a long way in recharging the creative juices. This is of course preceeded by getting back into the mountains or canoeing down one of our Montana rivers. In other words get outdoors, read, write, believe in yourself.

  40. I go back to the source. The reason I started taking photos to begin with…because it fills my soul. I went to a couple of workshops instead of taking paying jobs when my energy level ran out earlier this year. It was perfect for me and inspired me more than I could have imagined. Now, I’ll schedule at least one workshop a year to keep the fuel going!

  41. I have 3 projects in the planning stages. One is potraits in the Cicago area where I live. The second should culminate in early November, 2010, the 3rd probably will be done June 2011.

    It’s a secure state of mind to know we have these things to be done, regardless of the economy and regardless of how busy or un-busy we are shooting for clients.

  42. I will often shoot something that I don’t normally shoot. I live within walking distance of Taipei Zoo, so I might wander down there and shoot butterflies or giant pandas. Or I’ll go along to a political protest or other newsworthy event and shoot that. I organize monthly photowalks here for a group of photographers so I’ll try something different at each one – last time I shot handheld HDR, the time before I stole Zack Arias’ gaffer tape idea and used that.

  43. Very interesting sermon, David. As it turns out, when I screw in my vocation, feel sub-par to my peers, or feel plain stupid for many reasons. My first instinct is to draw. It’s something that I do better than most average people. I am certainly not as good as the vocational illustrator but decent non-the-less. When people go “ooo, awww” at one of my doodles, it brings some confidence back in me. Perhaps,this is because my soul needs a stroke when I am feeling down. That is when I draw.

    Where do I fill the well? How do I stir the paint? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s never been a necessity as I am a “non-vocational” creative. I do know that I need to get back to the mountains though. It’s been a long time and I am due to visit Mother Nature for a breath of fresh air and consume some eye candy.

  44. I come from the opposite side. I take some time, a short break. Walk in the woods without a camera. Spend some extra time with family. If I’m feeling bare and empty the short time away lets me reset my vision.

  45. When ever I’ve gotten that burn-out-life-tiredness, I know I have prioty problems. I look at what I can eliminate or at least moderate…for a start. And I realize that I need more private inner time to re-connect with the valuable and sacred and I wait. And continue to come back and reach a little deeper…and the truth of what and where I need to go and do always becomes apparent. I think just the rest and letting go of all the unimportant leaves such a feeling of relief that I once again look at the world with a fresher vision. Hope this doesn’t sound too crazy.

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