Art Practice As Residency

In many ways I’ve been treating my daily life over the past few months as if I was on an extended residency in an unfamiliar locale. This has helped me break some habits and overcome various fears that have been holding me back. I don’t really want to get too pop-psychological, but I’ve had conversations with a number of people about some of the strategies I’ve been using to cope with the business side of life as an artist. The overall impression I get is that there is interest in what I’ve been doing, and that it seems to have wider applicability than my own life.

My goal for the past few months has been very careerist. I want to get as much as possible out of the fact that at present I have devoted my energy and focus—not to mention money—to becoming financially self-sustaining in my art practice. I noticed that I had some habits that needed breaking in order to get the most out of my time. As a thought experiment, and a way of tricking myself into some desired behaviours, I decided to try as much as possible to treat my daily life as if I was on an arts residency. Therefore, a more accurate—and unwieldy—title for this post is “Treating the Daily Grind of the Artist’s Life as a Residency.”

For those unfamiliar with artist residencies, they take many forms. The general idea is that an artist goes to some distant local for the sake of creating or researching work. Often there is a group of other creative individuals with which to talk shop. Sometimes there is interaction with the public. The idea, though, is for an artist to get a change of perspective and eliminate some of the distractions of daily life in order to simply work.

Back in December, once I had recovered somewhat from all of our moving, had finished the main revisions and upgrades to this web site—not to mention Lia’s health having started to improve—I started to crawl out of my self-imposed hermetic existence and actually interact with other people in the arts community.

As a bit of background, I have to say that despite outward appearances I consider myself to be shy. I have a tendency to cluster with people I know, and avoid meeting new people.The whole idea of going to receptions, art openings, and talks—and actually interacting with people, especially new people—often seems unpalatable. Once I’ve met people and have had a chance to get to know them, I tend to open up. But overcoming the inertia of “meeting new people” has often been problematic. This is not news to anyone who knows one or more introverts.

In any case, you might be wondering what this has to do with pretending I’m on a residency. This role-playing forces me think of my time in Saskatoon as limited, and to take advantage of as many opportunities as I can while I’m here. As an aside, some people already know that we don’t intend to stay here for long. I haven’t tried to hide the fact that we are planning to move to Toronto in the fall of 2007. But this moving plan hasn’t been finalized, and is a topic for a future post. To get back to the subject at hand, rather than treating my time here as normal “living here” time, I’m trying to act as if I was seeing the place with new eyes.

As such, I’ve changed the way I look at exhibitions, performances, receptions, and other such events. In general I’ve changed my evaluation criteria for what to attend. Rather than using previous criteria—whether the event interests me, whether I know someone involved, etc.—I’m evaluating with the question “Would I go to this if I was on a residency in [exotic location]?” Simply put, if I was on a residency I would have a much more exploratory mindset, and be doing whatever I could to see as much of the local scene as possible. Evaluating outside events like this means that I’ve been going to a lot of things that I previously would have avoided, and seeing new things. Few of them live up to my extremely critical eye, but I’m extremely hard to please and any disappointment I feel probably has little to do with the events themselves. Regardless of my reaction, I find that having an experiential awareness of the context of local practice gives me a much stronger sense of my own practice.

In addition to this exploratory attitude is the sense of urgency in my activities. Residencies are usually time-limited. They create a stronger sense of the value of time than is felt in the usual course of daily life. The clock seems to tick faster. It makes it much easier to prioritize. I find that managing my time the way I would on a residency—with an acknowledgement that all of my time is valuable—motivates me to do the most important things first.

Of course, creative residencies can be exhausting at the same time that they refill the creative well. Between the energy required to maintain an intense studio practice, going to a multitude of events, and having an active social life, it’s no surprise that people often come back with both a reinvigorated practice and a need for some time off. What seems to help me balance this out is the fact that I’m completely aware of the trick I’m playing on myself, and temper the need to “see and do everything” with a reality check of asking myself whether my actions will have a negative impact on my health. Where this breaks down is when I realize that my professional achievements in art don’t match where I think I should be, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m trying to make up for lost time. Combine this with workaholic tendencies and I still don’t get enough sleep.