Downtime – Good for the Artist’s Soul

“Straight, No Chaser,” ©2018, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 36″

An artist’s life is a busy life.  And conventional wisdom has it that any creative life should be a busy life.  After all, what with the many things to think about, there’s no time to dawdle.  The White Rabbit’s lament from Alice in Wonderland is quite apt — “I’m late! I’m late!”

Friends and relations of artists are quite used to hearing, “Sorry, I need to spend time in the studio this week.”  If we work at home and they’re so bold as to drop in without a call first, they expect to see us at the easel or table, brush or some other tool in hand, working like demons on the latest project.

What they don’t expect is to see us sitting around doing what looks like nothing or folding the laundry or puttering with our plants.  If we work in a studio, they don’t expect to find it closed when they arrive with a sign on the door that reads, “Gone fishing.”

“I thought you were busy with your painting this week.”  And we are.  Busy thinking, day dreaming, relaxing our brains enough to allow new ideas to come in.  Busy doing anything but painting.

The old saw that good ideas come while we’re in the shower is true because standing in the shower is as good a place as any to do absolutely nothing except let the water pour over us.  The perfect environment for inspiration.

In his delightful little book Steal Like an Artist, writer and artist Austin Kleon says this:

“Take time to be bored…Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts–it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can…Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.”

If you’re an artist/introvert like me, you know about coming up with reasons why we can’t be available for a full-scale social life.  And you know that we run the risk of being crossed off the social lists after saying “no, thank you” too many times.  But still…

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye wrote a beautiful message for us all on this very subject.  Bill Moyers said this poem changed his life.  Maybe it will change yours.  I know for sure, it will help you explain your downtime as a creative soul.

The Art Of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

–Naomi Shihab Nye

Time runs only one way.  Decide for yourself what to do with the time you have, especially the time you need to be bored and quiet while inspiration comes.  Wash the dishes. Go fishing. Stare at the sea.  It matters.




The Poetry and Jazz of Painting

“Birdland,”  © 2018, Molly Larson Cook
22″ x 28,” acrylic

“An artist’s warehouse, full of experience, is not a store of successful phrases ready for use, but is a store of raw material. The successful phrases are there, but they have been broken down to be made over into new form. Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”    –Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”  —Miles Davis

These days I wear three hats.  I mean that both metaphorically and literally.  I love hats and have several along with a hot pink hat rack to hold them.  I particularly rely on my hats on bad hair days which happen often when the Santa Ana winds churn themselves up.

Metaphorically, I wear my artist hat (beret?), my jazz hat, and my poetry hat.  I’m so attuned to these three that I’m billing my upcoming solo show as “The Colors of Jazz,” celebrating the connections among poetry, jazz and visual art.

I  work in abstract expressionism because it combines pieces of both jazz and writing along with my love of color.  Abstract expressionism is improvisational – like jazz – and lyrical – like poetry.  This may not be anyone else’s definition of abstract expressionism, but it’s mine.

And it’s actually not far from the truth for many of the abstract expressionists  who made the scene just as modern jazz, cool bop, wildly improvisational music were also making the scene. It’s no coincidence.

In Listen, the jazz novel I wrote a few years back, one of the musicians says, “You play the first note, baby, and see what happens. Then you play the next note.  If you know all the notes before you start, that might be something. That might be music. But it ain’t jazz.”

Henri’s words resonate whether they’re describing a work of art (or the process), a jazz improvisation or a new piece of writing:   Those who have the will to create do not care to use old phrases. There is a great pleasure in the effort to invent the exact thing which is needed. Use it. Break it down. Begin again.”   

If I know how a poem or a painting will turn out before I start – well, they might be something. They might even be music (or words that rhyme or a picture).  But they will definitely not be jazz.  Or poetry. Or abstract expressionism.

Miles spoke wise words, indeed, about learning to sound like yourself (or paint or compose).  These things happen only when a writer or musician or artist is willing to let go of the need to know the outcome until the process has ended.  Risk and a certain bravery will be required for the ride.

For my money, it’s the only trip worth taking.