December 30, 2009

Reflection: Self-Care for Artists

I'm sick again. As a healthcare volunteer, I've been inoculated against H1N1 and the seasonal flu, but I seem to be catching every other possible bug that goes around. Being sick always brings me face-to-face with Resistance. It quickly shows me what I've been avoiding--I recognize the sense of relief that I can't possibly do That Thing I'm Avoiding when I feel so crappy. It also gives me clues about which activities are the most soul-filling for me; this comes in the form of resentment and impatience around missed opportunities.

But I digress, a little. My physical state is a stark reminder that self-care is important. We can all recite the self-care checklist, right? Get enough sleep, eat well, get exercise, all that stuff. But that's just the physical body we're talking about, and there's a lot more to being human than just the physical body experience.

What if we look at self-care from a creative standpoint? Why would self-care be important for an artist? What would be on that checklist? (It doesn't have to be a list. Right-brainers, feel free to think of this as a mindmap, a collage, or whatever works for you.)

Note: I'm approaching this topic as if it can be broken down into discrete categories. In practice, you may find a lot of overlap.

First, let's consider physical self-care. Obviously, that "usual checklist" is important for artists, too. Taking care of our bodily needs will support us to do our important work of making art. (A wonderful reference for intuitive movement is Open Body: Create Your Own Yoga.) But there are other physical aspects of self-nurturing for artists. For example, cleaning up your studio space or taking care of your artmaking tools is a tangible way of nourishing your artistic self. Maybe you've noticed that the lighting in your workspace could be improved. Or if you don't have a dedicated studio space — believe me, I feel your pain — perhaps you need to organize your materials in a protective container to keep them away from smaller members of your household (like children, or cats).

Artists also need intellectual self-care. We must acknowledge that we move through cycles of engagement with our work: a period of activity followed by a period of rest. In the active part of the cycle, you can take care to document your ideas and progress in a sketchbook (or whatever format works best for you), and you can schedule your time to allow flow states to emerge. In a rest period, you might choose to refuel by viewing others' artwork--or you could enjoy the "beginner's mind" stage of a brand-new activity that is unrelated to your art. For more on intellectual self-care, check out On the Care and Feeding of Ideas at the Make + Meaning site.

What about spiritual self-nurturing? On the most basic level, an artist's spiritual self-care is about staying connected with the Source. Self-doubt and disengagement can creep in if we lose sight of our purpose as art creators. It's not my place to say what that purpose might be — it's a unique relationship between the individual artist and her/his context of experience. But I can tell you that, however you may define your artistic purpose, your work is important. Not just your "artwork" (the tangible evidence of the art process), but all of the hard work of being a creative human being. Spiritual self-care might take many forms, including a practice such as meditation or prayer, connecting with the natural world, or dreamwork. (For an unorthodox guide to spiritual connection, take a look at The Red Book by Sera Beak.)

And let's not ignore self-care on the emotional level. It can be hard to engage with artistic process when we're wrestling with emotional demons. Most artists have experienced some version of self-doubt, whether it's brought on by external events or internal questioning. Either way, it can lead us to put down our tools and wonder whether we deserve to ever pick them back up. (For an honest look at this state, see What to Do When You Feel Like Dirt by Havi Brooks.) For me, the most effective way to deal with self-doubt is to ask someone I trust to help me understand why my contribution to the universe is vitally important. Barbara Sher suggests an Ideal Family exercise to provide a new perspective on your strengths (check out Havi's version here). And, of course, I recommend keeping a journal, a practice that has sustained me through many difficult periods.

General recommendations: Art and Fear functions as a kind of self-care manual for artists. For a great how-to guide on overall self-care, see The Woman's Comfort Book (also available at Jennifer Louden's website).

I'd love to hear your comments about self-care for artists. Which type of self-nurturing is the most difficult for you?


  1. As I have set up my first ever space dedicated to my crafting practice, I can say that what is hardest to do is to think one is actually worth a space dedicated to intellectual and artistic practices.

    Setting up a studio is making a loud visual statement that we believe in our work! This was hard for me.

  2. Thanks for this very introspective and personal blog entry. I also struggle, as you do, with my own self-care vehicles. Being another healthcare provider, hearing and attempting to help others with their own struggles, can add an extra weight to our lives. It also adds a wonderful complexity and beauty, so I would not want to ever give it up, but self-care becomes ever more important the more I work with others. In fact, it is this very work with others that brings me closer to understanding how my own soul must be nutured to achieve my own center and thus, these acts of my own exploration can create and fill a vessel through which I can sent this energy and love back out into the world.

    I enjoyed some of your additional sources that you listed that I am not familiar with. I am going to be checking into them in the next week. Thanks for being you and I agree...we all have a unique and appreciated contribution to the whole.