Art lessons: Advice for living a more creative life

Art lessons: Advice for living a more creative life

Every week for the last 10 months, I’ve interviewed area artists for this column.

Over coffee and phone lines I’ve been privileged to speak with writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, actors and mixed media creators. We’d talk for an hour, I’d write for three more, and in the process I’ve found a few themes that cause ordinary people with recognizable lives to wake up every day and slip on the artist’s mantle because they feel they must.

They make art for no money (or very little) and range from wide-eyed hopefuls to seasoned vets. They are full-timers and freelancers, parents and children, teenage students and octogenarians, and they measure the meaning of life not by profit or social approval but by something else entirely.

The new year is a time when most of us resolve to improve our lives. If your best life includes viewing your world through an artistic lens, here are 13 of my favorite suggestions for becoming an artist in 2015.

1. Pay extraordinary attention to ordinary things.

“These aren’t just people sharing their stories but what connects us in those stories. Even when these [nonfiction essays] are about a man with alcoholism or a breakup, they’re about me on some level. There’s something to me about paying attention to our experiences and allowing them to be meaningful. Mundane things that happen to us can be transformed if we really notice them.”—Susan McCulley, contributor to the online literary journal Full Grown People, on essay writing

2. Chase experiences, not beauty.

“If people describe my work as pretty, I feel insulted on some level because all it means is that I was present for something beautiful. A picture is what it is, it’s accurate, but the truth of a picture is extremely subjective. I’m trying to harness some sort of visceral experience.”—Photojournalist Philip de Jong on creating beautiful photography

3. Be prolific, not perfect.

“Think about humans versus dandelions. We gestate our young, these singular creatures, and take care of them for years. Some artists work that way, but there’s another way of looking at it. Dandelions release thousands of seeds. The majority don’t survive, but everywhere there can be a dandelion, there will be a dandelion.”—Artist Warren Craghead on his rapid production of mixed media works

4. Tell your truth.

“[Writing is] an act of translating what’s in your head to what someone who’s not in your head can understand. I’m always a little suspicious if there’s a book that everyone loves because it’s probably safer somehow—more eager to please. I don’t think fiction should be likable. I only care if a story is complex and compelling and feels real.”—Elliott Holt, author, on what she’s learned since winning the Pushcart Prize

5. Trust your instincts.

“So much of the work I’m doing now, from teaching to coaching to writing, has been created because of people who knew Dirty Barbie and either wanted to see it again or see more of my work. The biggest lesson has been to be true to my roots, my storytelling and my personality. I hadn’t trusted myself like that before.”Denise Stewart, writer and actor, on the success of her blog- based, one-woman play Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales

6. Embrace change.

“Even in real life, we don’t know how much we’re embellishing in our heads. When I try to fact check my memory, I’m shocked by how much it morphs. Art morphs too.”Writer Araxe Hajian on collaborative non-fiction

7. Create a connection.

“Art has a unique role in claiming what matters, of saying, ‘this is meaningful,’ and bringing the next layer of wonder to those experiences. Whether that’s setting a table or arranging a house—even how I stack the wood I use to heat my home feels like the art of the everyday to me. For all our differences as people, the similarities are what I come to. Human beings want to connect to themselves and each other and plants and something higher than themselves. And growing food and eating it on Sunday nights with my neighbors is one of the most profound experiences I can create.”—Farmer and artist Kate Daughdrill on social sculpture

8. Share your practice with others.

“It’s difficult to make a living wage in this mass-produced society, and I think it’s important to support people who want to make a living from a craft or [art] that they make with their hands. It’s a very human desire to want a tribe, to feel like you’re not alone. I think letting other people see you doing something [creative] can be really comforting. We want people to come up to us and talk to us. That’s the root of why community can be an asset, because you connect with people who can guide you through the good and the bad.” —Amber Karnes on performance knitting

9. Do whatever you want.

“The mediums themselves are nothing but tools, like you’d choose a paintbrush or pencil. Painting is a tool, photography is a tool and the English language is a tool for me to use at my discretion. If I need to write a story, I’ll write a story. Any artist can do anything they want to do at any given time. The art world that I see is just a celebration of that idea.”—Comic artist, musician and writer Andy Friedman on creating through multiple art forms

10. Change your perspective.

“When you focus in on this really small scale your eyes have to adjust. Now, if I brush up against a wall with moss on it, I see a whole microcosm is destroyed. Even while we’re drilling offshore, barnacles are attaching to the ship. Salt is corroding the hull even while we’re destroying the bedrock.”—Sculptor Justin Poe on micro- and macro-landscapes

11. Believe in magic.

“In nonfiction, the truth defies belief with much greater regularity than even the most imaginative fiction does. So many of my stories, I’ve thought to myself while writing, ‘There is no way anyone would believe this if I were writing a novel. It doesn’t pass the smell test.’ And yet it happened, and I can prove it.” —Earl Swift, longtime reporter and novelist, on the nature of reality

12. Make your mark.

“I have a pile of stuff. In the end, I know they’re gonna pull a dumpster up, and there goes the stuff. When the apocalypse comes, this will outlast everything. You know what most artists do? They fill up space. It’s how they say, ‘I was here.’”—Saul Kaplan, fine artist and poet, on switching to ceramic canvases after 65 years of drawing

13. Enjoy the process.

“Everyone is doing it for the love, not the money. I think artists get caught up in making art with a capital A, but I’d rather create an experience where people feel relaxed and engaged and invited in, and they can walk away saying ‘That made me think, but I also had some laughs.’ You want the end product to be good, but in the meantime you want to have fun.” —Miller Murray Susen, writer, actor and director, on her work in volunteer theater

Posted In:     Arts


Previous Post

Illustrating the revolution: Locally connected artists to watch in 2015

Next Post

Under and out: Some of 2014’s best films flew below the radar

Our comments system is designed to foster a lively debate of ideas, offer a forum for the exchange of ad hoc information, and solicit honest, respectful feedback about the work we do. We’re glad you’re participating. Here are a few simple rules to follow, which should be relatively straightforward.

1) Don’t call people names or accuse them of things you cannot support.
2) Don’t direct foul language, racial slurs, or offensive terms at other commenters or our staff.
3) Don’t use the discussion on our site for commercial (or shameless personal) promotion.

We reserve the right to remove posts and ban commenters who violate any of the rules listed above, or the spirit of the discussion. We’re trying to create a safe space for a wide range of people to express themselves, and we believe that goal can only be achieved through thoughtful, sensitive editorial control.

If you have questions or comments about our policies or about a specific post, please send an e-mail to

Leave a Reply

Notify of