Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Busting Through Creative Block

By E. Marie Robertson

Creative block is one of the most stressful, frustrating experiences an artist can have. There are numerous books, articles, podcasts, blog posts and videos devoted to wrestling with it. Almost all of these works include recommendations for dealing with creative block, but many of these “techniques” feel like graduate school exercises which, like graduate school itself, may or may not be helpful. Other times they come off as condescending and almost insulting, as though the problem is simply that artists have no self-discipline or can’t manage time.

I’ve talked to a lot of artists about their experiences with creative block, and have my own to add. I can safely say that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.  Creatives experience blocks for different reasons that often go far beyond what a one-off exercise can cure.  That means busting through your creative block may require more than a nap or an art-school exercise.
by spinster cardigan via Flickr

The first step is to pinpoint and truly understand the deep underlying mechanism of what creates the blocks that you experience.  This phase of discovery is generally skipped by mainstream creativity tomes, because it can be time-consuming, and painful and enlightening by turns. While only you can deduce what is triggering your block, here are some common themes:

Fear.  Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of criticism, fear of falling outside or inside accepted norms. Consider the project in front of you and ask consider whether there is fear attached to it in any way. Why are you scared of moving forward?

Confusion. Our brains are miraculous things, capable of holding many different ideas, goals, and processes all at once. You may have lost track of the purpose of your work, or let your focus become blurred by competing priorities and plans.

Mindset issues. Your subconscious is just as miraculous as your active brain, and in some cases it works  even harder to make sure your reality lines up with your thoughts.  But your thoughts about yourself and your artistic practice come not just from you, but from the input and expectations of your family, your colleagues, your upbringing, your culture, your society.  If there is dissonance between your subconscious and your conscious direction, this can lead to all manner of self-sabotage, and what better to sabotage an artist than creative block?

The second step is working through the issues you identify.  To truly address creative block is a process rather than an event and may take time.  Additionally, each episode of creative block may have different triggers, so be prepared to wash, rinse, repeat.

Here are some less commonly-cited methods for tackling your issues—although if you really WANT to take a nap, tear up something you have deemed important, or  spend the afternoon drawing with your nondominant hand, please feel free to go ahead !

Meditation and mindfulness
I have had a meditation practice for a very long time and have found both scripted guided meditations  and simple brief mindfulness exercises in attention are great ways to relax the mind and jumpstart creativity.

EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, or “tapping”)
I don’t know why EFT works. It seems like this pattern of tapping on your face and upper body and repeating statements that end with you reaffirming your love and acceptance of yourself wouldn’t have any effect on anything, but something does happen when you tap regularly. Some suggest that it serves as a pattern interrupter, drawing our “toddler brain” away from repetitive programming and setting a new focus in its place.

In the words of life coach Cheryl Richardson, “there is amazing power in a strong intention.”  If you haven’t given thought to what your intention is in making art, now might be a good time. Writing down what you hope to achieve with  your work and setting an intention for it, whether for the individual piece on which you feel blocked or for your artistic practice overall if you are more generally blocked, can give you something to grab onto whenever inspiration escapes you.

Committing to Consistency
Woody Allen famously said that 80 percent of life is showing up, and that’s particularly true for artists who feel blocked or stymied in their practices, according to Prague-based visual artist Jessica Serran. “I’m all about magic and miracles, but not when it comes to having a consistent studio practice,” explains Serran, who is also leader at Source and Sanctuary where she helps artists explore their own callings. “Consistent creative flow comes from showing up for yourself – not from waiting for divine inspiration to strike.  Inspiration is not a limited resource. Like solar power, that shit is renewable. The trick is knowing that you have the power to usher inspiration in."

Jessica Serran
Source and Sanctuary—A Field Guide to Uncharted Creative Callings

Emotional Freedom Technique: Basic Steps to Your Emotional Freedom
Julie Schiffman

Why EFT Could Very Well Be Just the Right Thing for You
Brad Yates

How Mindfulness Can Help Your Creativity
George Hofmann
Psych Central

What Daily Meditation Can Do For Your Creativity
Mark McGuinness
99U by Behance

Exploring Intention: Setting an Intention for Creativity
Chel Micheline
Bliss Habits

5 Steps to Setting Powerful Intentions
Deepak Chopra, MD
The Chopra Center

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Busting the Bullshit Myth of the Starving Artist

by E. Marie Robertson

Society loves the "starving artist" myth, and we creatives are fed it from an early age. It infects us, and it infects the people who are potential buyers of our artwork. The poor struggling artist, painting feverishly in his or her sparse freezing garret, is a universal stereotype that is played out everywhere from classic literature to the nightly news. But there is some insidious doublespeak going on at the same time. Consider this: even while describing the desperate situation of "many artists" in a recent article about subsidized housing programs for creatives (one featured artist was, in fact, homeless), Bloomberg Business also heralded artists' "bankable cache."

So which is it? Are artists struggling, unappreciated, starving, broke? Or are artists "bankable"?

That. Is. Such. Bullshit.

I'm a sincere believer in the idea that we become the stories we tell ourselves. If you're trapped in the "struggling" cycle, breaking out might need to start in your head. Here are some important points to address to remove the labels and stop living the stereotype.

1. Watch Your Language. How do you describe yourself to others? What kinds of words do you use to characterize your life, your work, the lives and work of other artists? Stop painting yourself as struggling, starving, broke, unsuccessful, unappreciated, underpaid, etc. in your everyday conversations ... even the ones you have with yourself. You're only making that stereotype stronger, even if you're under the impression that you're just kidding when you say it. Language creates specific pathways in your brain that affect behavior. Don't create any more of the "wrong" ones.

Steps to take: First, just try to notice every time you use a derogatory or negative word or phrase in normal conversation about yourself, your work, your financial standing. Make a list of the ones that appear most often and the situations in which they come up. Now, create positive or nonjudgmental replacements for those negative turns of phrase so they don't come to define you over the long term. Make this a continual practice! You will be shocked by how automatic self-deprecation can be. 

2. Explode Self-Limiting Beliefs. Many of us have swallowed whole the fallacy that poverty and struggle, especially for emerging artists, is some kind of  litmus test to gauge how "good" or "serious" we are about our work. The next time you tell yourself you're broke because you are truly devoted to your craft and make "serious" art, think about whether or not Cindy Sherman, Ai Wei Wei, Gerhard Richter, Andreas Gursky or Chuck Close make "serious" artwork, or seem "devoted" to their craft. "Serious" is not the opposite of "saleable," nor is "real" the opposite of "successful."

Steps to take: Remove judgement from the equation. Make your work. If your response to the list above was  "But that's them, that's not me. I'm no Chuck Close,"  ask yourself why not? If you're doing something you believe in, you are no different than them. If you find yourself feeling tinges of jealousy over other artists' success, transform that emotion into confirmation that artists CAN be successful, and that includes you.

3. Kick Your Fears to the Curb. Do you have specific fears connected to success and prosperity? This can be linked to #3 ("If my artwork is popular, it can't be very good."), or can be much more personal ("If I succeed as an artist it will mean my mother, who always told me I would never make any money as an artist, would be wrong and I can't make mom wrong."). You might even be worried that if you make "too much" money, you'll draw the negative attention of the IRS or have to set boundaries with a deadbeat relative who is always asking everyone for financial help. It doesn't matter if the fears are large or small, totally illogical or highly likely. It's our most powerful motivator, and can keep you trapped in a very tight space for a lifetime.

Steps to take: Make a long exhaustive list of everything that worries you about potential success and prosperity. Include everything you can think of, no matter how tangential or silly it seems. Now go through that list and carefully, realistically consider the likelihood of that fear coming to pass ... and what it would mean and what you would do about it. Understanding your fears in context enables you to address them so they no longer have power over you.

4. Begin Evaluating Where You Need Help ... and Get It. What's holding you back? Money blocks? Creative issues? Deep psychological conditioning around success and failure? No understanding of how to sell your art or promote yourself? There are coaches on top of coaches available to work with you, and many of them offer very solid free introductory courses or training sessions online. You'll also find many of these concerns addressed in best-selling books and online vehicles like TED Talks and blogs. Depending on where you live, you may also find some great options locally,  like artists' guilds and collaboratives, small business advisors, or other community college or Learning Annex courses to help you approach your practice like the successful positive experience it should be.

Additional Resources:

Oldham, Jennifer. "Dream Apartments for $582 a Month -- If You're a Starving Artist." Bloomberg, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016. <>.

Zaidi, Nida. "Top 10 Richest Painters of 2015." Smart Earning Methods. N.p., 22 Oct. 2014. Web. <>.

Coming up next week on ArtLifeNow: Breaking Through Creative Blocks

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Don't Fear the Taxman! Take Proactive Steps Instead!

by E. Marie Robertson

The information in this article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for accounting, tax, or financial advice from a qualified professional.

January 2016 has come and gone and for many of us that means just one thing: the tax forms are in the mail. 

For artists, tax time can be fraught with uncertainty and fear. We’ve all heard a horror story or two about an artist who has had to defend their life’s work from being classified as a “hobby.”  Even artists whose work is in the Guggenheim and the Met have not been immune from the dismissive hand-wave of the IRS. 

But don’t fear. Despite the hype and the urban legends, the IRS is not really specifically out to get artists. Taking just a few clear-cut steps now can help you be ready to file with confidence and avoid the “red flags” that could trigger an audit, as well as the stress that often accompanies doing your taxes.

1. Make sure to report ALL OF YOUR INCOME. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not an uncommon assumption that the less money we make, the less likely the IRS is to pick on us. In fact, the opposite is true:  statistics show that more than 5% of returns among those making less than $24,000 per year trigger audits, and nothing is more likely to get negative attention from the IRS than a return showing a $0 income. So gather together all those 1099s and W2s and handmade receipts for the artwork you sold at that show or fair or through Etsy. Think of it as a celebration instead of a chore: your art actually DID make some money for you last year. Hooray!

2. Get your expense documentation in order. If you file Schedule C as a small business owner and are reporting a loss, make sure you have excellent records and documentation. According to, a web site created and maintained by New York tax expert Susan Lee, you need to keep all  of your receipts, even if you purchased supplies with a credit card.  “Credit cards are not receipts,” the site emphasizes.  Although a credit card statement shows you paid for something, a receipt is needed to give the details of the purchase. Those details are how the IRS will determine if those deductions are accepted or denied if you find yourself in an audit.

3. Start early. It’s important to make sure your return is filled out 100% correctly, so start putting time into your document organization now.  If you discover you are missing documentation or receipts, it will be much better—and significantly less stressful—to start dealing with those issues in February than in April

What kind of things might land you in front of an auditor? According to the website Nerdwallet, things like math errors, not reporting 1099 income, reporting too many losses on Schedule C, or claiming too many business expenses are big red flags to the IRS. Recent court decisions have taken a slightly softer tone toward the “business vs. hobby” question, but remember that you do need to demonstrate a real intention and effort to manage your artmaking practice professionally and with key business systems, like inventory tracking, basic accounting, and expense reporting, in place.

Finally, don’t hesitate to engage a tax professional  to help you with your returns. That person can guide you toward maximum deductions and steer you away from errors specific to your situation and the state you live in. And if you do fall victim to an audit, he or she will represent you at the proceeding, saving you an extra measure of stress.

Additional Resources:

Kennedy, Randy. "Tax Court Ruling Is Seen as a Victory for Artists." The New York Times. The New York Times, 6 Oct. 2014. Web. <>.

Lee, Susan. for freelancers, artists, writers and psychotherapists.  Susan Lee, CFP, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <>. Includes deductible expense checklists for visual and performance artists, as well as extensive information regarding money management and financial planning for creatives and freelancers.

Paden, Romona. "7 Reasons theIRS Will Audit You." Web log post. Nerdwallet. N.p., 18 Dec. 2015. Web. <>.

Riley, Peter Jason. "Taxation & Tax Deductions forthe Self-employed Visual Artist." Arts Tax Info: Visual Artists. Riley & Associates PC, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016. <>. Includes downloadable artist expense and income worksheets, example of inventory documentation for tax purposes, and a sample artist's tax return.

Taylor, Joy. "16 IRS Red Audit Flags." Kiplinger. Kiplinger Tax Letter, Dec. 2015. Web log post. <>
"What Makes an Artist a Professional for TaxPurposes?" Web log post. <>.