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In the book Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists, the late Sarah Charlesworth said to fellow photographer Laurie Simmons, “You have a way of working that you call intuitive, and you trust yourself, which is a big thing. … That, to me, is very scary—when you decide to trust something working without being able to give an explanation.”

I always assumed that Charlesworth, who was an influential and prolific conceptual artist, had no problem relying on her instincts, so I was surprised when she expressed what I have often questioned: what’s behind my intuition? I wasn’t born with it. I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I know exactly where my work is headed.” If I want to make progress, I have to understand the reasons that allow me to trust myself when I say, “It works.”

Let’s say you’re creating a new body of work. The exploration is perhaps more personal (and uncomfortable) than you’re accustomed to. In order to move forward and trust your instincts, you first need to illuminate the foundation that supports them. 

Your intuition is more developed than you may realize. It has become second nature: you have a built-in vocabulary, a repertoire, a unique voice, a way of communicating. This comes from your technical training and your accumulation of experience and expertise. Even when you take a snapshot, you are subconsciously choosing the lighting, composition, framing; you even consider—again subconsciously—how you will modify it in Photoshop. 

Intuition—which is typically thought of as part of the unconscious—also requires a commitment to being attentive."

In a studio art class years ago, I apologized to the professor for my graphic design background, thinking it had too much influence on my art making. He said, “On the contrary. Use everything.” I realized then that I have a sensibility that is based on a combination of instruction and inclination. My education as a graphic designer was in the Swiss/International Typographic Style. It taught me to use simplicity to convey a message. It also cemented my attraction to a particular style and helped me use my aesthetic in other creative endeavors. By seeing, accepting and enjoying what I’ve worked hard to build over the years, I have a clearer idea of what’s behind my gut reaction to the new work I make.

When I’m pursuing new directions in my work, I often wonder if I’m choosing the right path. But just as often, I’m surprised by how quickly I can identify the wrong one. 

One of my most useful (though scary) exercises is to show work in progress. We all know the dangers of exposing new work too early, when it’s in a vulnerable stage. An audience can shut down your momentum with a negative comment that causes you to doubt your instincts or, just as bad, with a positive comment that encourages you to follow someone else’s road. But if you examine your reaction to their remarks, they can bring clarity. 

I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I know exactly where my work is headed.’”

In my column “Hashtag Is the New Muse” (CA September/October 2015), I described the insights that come from posting on Instagram while developing new work. One of the benefits that I did not mention was using “likes” to discover what you hate.

I’m currently focusing on my hands as the content for a new series of images. During a recent visit with my elderly mother, I shot a photograph of my hand cradling hers and posted it. The subject was an easy one to “like,” and it did indeed get the most likes of any of my Instagram posts. But to me, the image was sentimental, and that is a quality I definitely do not want in my photographs. The intensity of my negative reaction to my followers’ approval was a great motivator. It is no small thing to be able to identify and articulate what does not work. 

A friend of mine is working on a new film, and I asked him how he trusts his instincts when he develops a script. 

He said that his intuition is actually a chain of decisions, and he trusts it by constantly revisiting his choices. As his work on the film progresses, he finds that what worked yesterday may need to be modified or rejected. For example, he collects mental images of friends and acquaintances and uses aspects of their personalities for the characters in his film. But, he says, a character is her own woman, and, although certain traits were appropriate before, she has evolved, and so her persona must evolve as well. Experience has taught him that intuition—which is typically thought of as part of the unconscious—also requires a commitment to being attentive. 

My goal for my new work is to venture into challenging, unknown territory. This will involve courage and discomfort. I’m hoping that my accumulated arsenal of tools—training, expertise, experience and attention—will help me trust my instincts. ca

© 2016 W. Richmond

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.


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