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The Anxious Artist: Is Artist’s Block Essential to the Creative Process?

It can feel like the worst experience for an artist, but also inevitable, when the creative juices just don’t seem to be flowing. This can happen at any time, in any number of ways and for all sorts of reasons, so it is hard to predict and impossible to prevent.

As I write this I am feeling rather blocked and it is causing me to feel a great deal of anxiety. It feels hard to get my words out, or my head straight enough to write. I realise I place a great deal of my self-value in my creative identity, which I have worked hard for and can feel precarious at the best of times. A friend of mine once said he felt as good as the last (in his case) photograph he took and I can relate to that. So, when the work has dried up, what is my worth? Existential questions begin to emerge and nobody needs to be wandering into that territory.

Perhaps this is where the creative mind, which can feel so lively and exciting, rears its darker side. This is when all that energy is sent ruminating on being the world’s biggest failure. I am extremely adept at gathering evidence to prove this point, while ignoring anything that may suggest the contrary.

(Illustration by Naomi Elfred-Ross, taken from ‘Goodbye Mama Cat’ 2021).

So why am I blocked right now? Well I suppose partly it must be something to do with the fact I have now finished my Dungeness series of screen prints, of which I now have a series of 4. I had been so full of inspiration following my visit to Dungeness and have ridden a joyful wave of creativity since then. It’s such a great feeling to be so motivated and inspired that you can’t wait to get working on the next part of the project. Creativity becomes the most import thing, where there is no time to do anything else.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. It is not as though I am short on ideas. In fact, I think it is possible to have too many ideas and this can be overwhelming and paralysing. There’s the NHS screen print, which I’ve started to work on, but the initial thrill of inspiration when the idea first came to me has passed by. I also have my exploration of making a graphic memoir, which is beginning to take shape as a concept. I am slowly persevering on both projects, but do not feel particularly motivated.

Maybe, after investing so much energy into a body of work, it is quite understandable that one might be tired and there is a need to regroup and re-resource oneself for the next all-consuming wave of creative activity. Creative ideas go through a process of gestation, followed by growth and eventually blooming. This may be experienced as a block, when actually what is happening is an essential part of the artistic process. Perhaps the best course of action, in that case, is to gently sketch, doodle, take pictures, whatever feels accessible. Abandon any notion of perfectionism, this is time to play. I do feel tired and rather run down and so maybe I just need to give myself a break, although I am not very good at this.

Other artists often advocate a digital detox at times of creative block. I think this is good advice for anyone. My art isn’t created on the computer, but I can certainly get lost in the world of social media, which only leaves me feeling as though I’ve wasted my time. Having physical contact with art materials, such as paper and pencil can feel re-grounding. In psychoanalytic terms, creative block is described as an unsuccessful attempt to channel one’s unconscious. This would be no surprise if one is in the midst of a heady cocktail of tech overload, stress, anxiety and exhaustion. Surely, it’s time to have a break! Take a holiday! Why are we artists so hard on ourselves?

I have found it helpful to explore well known artist’s experience of creative block and how they worked through it. A favourite artist of mine, Agnes Martin, solved her creative block by fleeing New York, giving away her materials and building a house in New Mexico. It wasn’t until 7 years later that she re-emerged with her famous grid like compositions, with faint hues of ethereal colour.

(Agnes Martin: Untitled 5, 1998)

Louise Bourgeois struggled with agoraphobia and depression after the death of her father. After a lengthy period of psychoanalysis, she eventually re-emerged with the biomorphic forms of bronze, plaster, late and marble, which she is best known for.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell XXVI, 2003. Steel, fabric. Aluminium, stainless steel and wool.

Stepping further into the past, William Blake retreated from the public eye for 8 years, following a poorly attended exhibition at his brother’s haberdashery shop. Following this hiatus, he re-emerged, committing himself to publishing and public engraving. He went on to complete the ‘Illustrations of the Book of Job’ and his illustrations for Dante’s ‘Inferno’. In fact, it doesn’t take much delving into the archives to discover that the majority of our most treasured artists have emerged from this painful, but necessary part of the artistic process with a tremendous sense of renewed vigour and life, when their most celebrated works then became possible.

William Blake, ‘Job and his Family’, 1918.

Although it is evident a great many of our favourite artists have endured tremendous levels of turmoil and hardship, which has resulted in creative block, I take comfort in knowing I am in good company. I think the Agnes Martin approach feels most appealing; a complete change of scenery sounds ideal. London can feel far too hectic and loud and I feel such an urge to get away and surround myself with space. You might guess that I would choose somewhere like Dungeness!

I think part of the issue for me is that I feel that my mental and physical health already places numerous barriers that get in the way of my getting on with my life. There’s a constant feeling inside me that I need to catch up (with whom or what I don’t know). I wish I didn’t, but I worry about the judgement of others, particularly those close to me, who may think my taking a creative path is a waste of time and that I should be getting a regular income. Of course, people who think in this way really have no idea. All of this is in addition to the ever present inner critic; who needs it? One of the reasons for starting the Anxious Artist blog was to tell the story of one person’s day to day experience of living with mental health struggles, with all its highs and lows. It is my hope that misguided judgements might be checked and that those in a similar boat to me, feel better understood.

I find that a stressed or anxious mind will struggle to enter the realm of creativity and none of these kinds of thoughts and worries help in that department. Added to that is all the news we are being exposed to about all the awful things happening from the world. It is easy to get overwhelmed and it takes time to detach sufficiently to allow for a creative response. I hold on to the knowledge that I have managed to do this many a time before though and so it will come again. The important thing is not to force creativity, it just doesn’t work. Time and patience are what is needed and permitting oneself these takes practice and a good dose of faith in a process that cannot be controlled. Surely that is part of the magic of being an artist!

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

The (sometimes long winded) process of dealing with creative block, by Adam J. Kurtz.

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