In a week or so I will be setting off to Japan for an artist’s residency of several weeks to further my Japanese woodblock printing skills. At present details remain sketchy: I know I am the British artist, but don’t know who my four other companions are or which countries they will represent. Interestingly this worries me far less than the thought of crossing Tokyo. Printmakers always have plenty in common; I and the noodle sprawl of the Tokyo subway less so…
On the face of it, an artist’s residency seems like a bit of a jolly. Five weeks to indulge. Indeed, ‘aren’t you lucky’ is something I have been hearing on a very regular basis. I wouldn’t argue with the fact that I am lucky, but what I see as luck may not be the same as the luck implied in the comment. Artists like me have the luck of possessing the drive to stick with a technique and work through the catastrophes, goofs and setbacks to get to a point where we can be good enough to be considered for residencies. After that, luck is out of the equation: selection committees select, they don’t tend to pull names at random from a hat (at least I’ve never been on one that’s done that, however dull the evening and close the pub).
The residency also brings responsibility. I am giving up earnings, cancelling a workshop or two and putting family on hold to go out there. I’d better have something to show for it when I get back. I’m gambling that five weeks far from my comfort zone will result in a move forward in my work. I don’t doubt it will be a marvelous trip and I am certainly not asking for sympathy. I’m more explaining that a residency has to mark a point of change for my work or I will have failed and not be lucky at all: I’ll just have been self indulgent.
Sometimes I feel like my working life is a bit like treading on a skateboard at the top of a flight of stairs – an ever accelerating rush which, should I try to stop, will end very badly indeed. Of course that’s not really the case, but there are some similarities and I do spend time thinking, since my feet are on the board for better or worse, how to develop my balance.
This year I messed up. I let the teaching aspect of my work take over. Don’t get me wrong, especially all of you reading this who have come on my courses or spent a day in my studio, I see teaching as essential to my work and not just as money earned. It is a chance to learn more myself: to push my thinking and get involved in the experiments of others. I just need to plan better and to accept that I can’t say yes all the time to teaching, even when that means saying no to assured money. This isn’t easy for any self employed artist!
Sometimes you have to stop and look at the balance of things. It’s not going to win any art prizes, but there is a lot to be said for a big bit of paper, some felt pens and a plan. I’m not talking about a spread sheet here, though if I knew more about my computer I would probably embrace it. More a ‘this is what I did this year and these were the outcomes’ leading to ‘this is what I want more of, this less and here’s how I capitalise on the bits that have worked’. I also include a mad section for advancing myself (here’s where the skateboard actually leaves the stairs for an airborne trajectory with me gracefully poised atop). That section could involve some daring cold calls, project pitches or simply dropping something that is bogging me down. The mad stuff I space out so as not to traumatise myself too much and I accept that nearly all of it will end in rejection tempered by the warm glow of having had the nerve to try.
I’m not nearly brave enough to drop everything for a meditative six months in my studio thinking about my next step (and I do know an artist who did just that), actually forget brave: I just couldn’t resist fiddling with something after ten minutes of sitting still. But I do plan and, as I hurtle forward, I realise that it’s getting increasingly important that I plan well: it’s the only way I’m going to keep my balance on the damn skateboard…