Some artists and writers are afraid of the empty canvas or the blank page. It’s not the emptiness that scares me; it’s the page that has a promising first sentence or the canvas with the graceful first mark. Yes, my initial spark was good. But what is my next mark? What is my next sentence? Will it live up to my expectations? If I’m simply sketching or free writing, I can move ahead. But as soon as I give these explorations the responsibility of becoming a finished piece, I start to hold back.
In the earliest stages, what does your work need in order to develop? Once you have planted the seeds, how do you encourage their growth?
In my previous column, I wrote about a family member’s rare form of cancer and my struggle to absorb my dual role as researcher and caregiver. I described my decision to empty out a large closet in my apartment, creating a place that could hold the medical information I had collected and printed—and that could also hold my emotions: “a space that was pristine and white, ready for whatever it needed to contain.” That closet soon became my designated space for transforming data and emotion into a new body of creative work. I had no idea what that would be.
A friend came over to brainstorm with me. We treated the space like a visual playground: we traced delicate outlines of each other’s bodies on the walls and drew vague diagrams and calendars. These drawings, along with the charts and notebooks full of data, showed potential. Then my friend left, and these nebulous images and piles of paper waited for me to take the next step.
I froze. The marks that we made with lightness suddenly held too much meaning. They became too precious to touch or alter, adding to the burden I was already carrying around. The original impulse, which was to make a fluid, creative space, was instead being weighed down by the obligation to become something.
Luckily, I stumbled upon an antidote to this heaviness. #The100DayProject, the brainchild of artist Elle Luna, is based on Michael Bierut’s now-classic workshop at Yale in which he instructed his design students to choose one action and repeat it every day for 100 days. The 2015 incarnation is a partnership between Luna and the Great Discontent magazine.
Anyone could join in. Participants were instructed to decide on an action and post it daily on Instagram with the hashtag #the100DayProject, along with a related hashtag of their own, #100Daysof__________.
I opened the door of the closet. Noticing an outline of my friend’s left hand, I immediately decided on my hashtag: #100DaysofLeftHands. I started right away, thinking it would be good to take a break from my heavy introspection around research and caretaking, to come back to the closet later. I made a commitment to a creative study of nothing more than left hands. The only task I was obliged to complete was 100 days of Instagram posts.
Sometimes I gave a lot of attention to images, like my sketches of the left hand of the model in my Friday open drawing class. Other times I used my phone to capture whatever caught my eye during the day (or at 11:30 at night, just before deadline!).
Within a few weeks, I realized that my posts had become a journal and that many of the drawings or photographs had a connection to my family member’s illness. Some were overt: blue surgical gloves in the drugstore, my hand holding a thick caregiver’s manual, a snapshot of the TV screen showing a surgeon’s hand in the documentary Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Others were more subtle: a friend’s fingers cradling mine, a ragged hole in a worn leather glove, my hand gripping a canoe paddle during one glorious day on the lake.
I received comments on my posts that heightened my awareness. One follower initiated a repartee of hand shadows; another picked up on the medical images and wrote, “Are you OK?”
Many participants used #the100DayProject to build a predetermined, cohesive body of work. Each post was a single fully realized piece that was part of a visually consistent collection. Following the progression of various artists was like encountering beautiful seashells—each one perfectly formed and, taken as a whole, an impressive set of finalized work, ready for public appreciation.
My posts of drawings, photographs and notes were nowhere near finished art, but #100DaysofLeftHands became a committed exploration: a stable and comfortable way to nourish the early seeds of a vulnerable new body of work. By removing the severe prescription for completion, I knew that I had, at least, taken the next step. ca
© 2015 W. Richmond