What I have learned from a wholistic creative practice review
Late last year I started playing around in my journal with reviewing my year to date. I have read so much about reviewing and explored plenty of thoughtful analysis monthly, quarterly and annually, but never had it seemed so important as in 2020, the year that was nothing like what we expected.
I’ve been supporting artists and makers since June 2020 through WebinArt and had so many conversations about what was working, how to plan in chaotic times, how to find motivation and above all, how to be gentle on ourselves. Living in a pandemic is hard. Running a creative business is hard at the best of times. We are often too hard on ourselves and focus too much on the perceived failures or negative feedback when actually the successes and positive things massively outweigh the less good stuff. Over the time I’ve been working closely with a cohort of makers in WebinArt, I’ve also been doing 1:1 sessions with other creative people and businesses, as well as exploring my own professional development with Kayte Ferris’ programmes The Playbook and The Trail. I’ve also had some great conversations with other creatives including Melody Vaughan, Emma King, Helen Hallows and Martha Moger. All of this has added up to me being much more reflective and thoughtful about my short-term plans, added to pandemic life where long-term plans are almost impossible.
I love planning. I love knowing what I’m going to be doing in the next few months and usually have work (teaching or exhibitions) booked a year or two in advance. I often work on long-term projects which can be planned into my diary months ahead. And suddenly that was gone. Last spring my long-term plans suddenly became pencil marks on an empty diary rather than fixed points to plan around. I had to learn to be more in the now, less in the future. It’s been quite an adjustment for me to let go of certainty and fixed points and go with the flow a bit more. For the 15 and a half years I have been self-employed, I have always worried that I’ve not got enough paid work scheduled in for the months ahead. And always for those 15 and a half years I have survived. Some years have been pretty lean and some have been disastrous but I have always been ok. Having things booked in advance helped keep me grounded, but looking back, those commitments also made me feel a bit trapped. When I booked a talk 20 months ahead, I often thought – “what if I’ve left the country or got another job by then?”. I was always very conflicted about these far away things. And now they are pretty much gone. Bookings are usually a few months ahead at most, exhibition dates have been moved into 2022 and long funded projects are a thing of the past now. I don’t have many fixed points in 2021. And actually that’s ok.
Back in November when I started thinking about my process for creating some semi-fixed points for myself, coming up with some clear activities which were flexible enough for the 2021 but important and meaningful to me. I knew that the rigid goal-setting concept of scheduling in activities for months ahead with deadlines and milestones wasn’t going to work. I work for myself because I like the freedom to choose. I resent arbitrary fixed points. I also learned in 2020 that you can plan all you like and the world has other ideas. So I came up with the idea of Gentle Goals. Things that I could control, stuff I could be getting on with which didn’t rely on the outside world getting back to normal. I am not focussed on exhibition dates, teaching commitments, conferences, community projects or funding deadlines, for the first time in my professional life! It’s half liberating and half scary. I wanted to make sure that the gentle goals I set myself would work throughout the year, not just for a few weeks after the January reset (which wasn’t much of one) so I began by creating a review of the year, focussing on what worked and what didn’t, and crucially what I learned about myself and my needs.
As soon as I started this, I realised I wanted to share this process. I actually love working with other people and felt that this process might help other people too. I created a workbook and developed a workshop for creative businesses to join me for sessions in December and January and to work through the ideas and explorations in the workbook with support and sharing. It has worked incredibly well and I’ve had lovely feedback and a couple of participants have also opted to do some additional work with me to work out their needs and plans. The workbook is now available for self-study – 40 pages of things to think about and to help you plan your way forward with self compassion and gentleness.
What did I learn about myself from reviewing last year?
I definitely need human interaction to spark creativity. I am a sociable introvert, which means I like being around people when I choose to do so but I find it very tiring and need time by myself to replenish. I have all the time by myself now and not so much of the human interaction. I absolutely love talking to artists and creative people about their work and this is a big part of my professional purpose. I love mentoring and teaching and supporting others but I also realised that I need some input and talking myself! It’s kind of obvious but I have totally forgotten it over the last year or so.
I have learned so much. While pandemic-life feels static, I have actually discovered new things, tried new approaches, uncovered confidence and leadership in a way I would never have imagined. We have all had to pivot, readjust and change our way of working and I have done so much new stuff that it surprises me when I look back.
Volunteering and co-running a foodbank and community support has been invaluable to my wellbeing, sense of place and connection. I have loved being part of this project and hated the hours spent on the phone to the bank to sort out something so simple as our own account! This work has really clarified to me how I want my professional life to progress during and post-pandemic too. It is valuable in so many ways.
I wanted to be doing more of my own projects and less following someone else’s brief. I wanted a break from exhibiting. I got both of these, more by accident than design. I did do some paid projects for other people and I am able to analyse which bits I loved (talking to creative people) and which bits are not playing to my strengths (marketing).
I invested in help for my business, with courses and programmes and with an assistant who is now so vital to my work that I can’t imagine having to figure out all these technical and administrative problems myself.
The key points I picked out from working through my own workbook as that connection and creativity are key, and this is what I am working on as my main goals for the year, in all kinds of different ways.
In my next post I’ll share how I created some gentle goals for myself and how they relate to what matters most to me in my life and work.