The prolific painter Edgar Degas once said, “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” Certainly, to be an artist is to struggle — but there are ways to cultivate that struggle into great art, and live a satisfying, fulfilling life as an artist. LA-based art consultant Beth Pickens wrote Your Art Will Save Your Life (Feminist Press) to reach artists she cannot help on a one-on-one basis. Trump’s takeover of the White House was the final nudge Pickens needed to write this how-to-survive-in-a-bullshit-world book for artists, in an attempt to encourage artists to keep making their art. The book’s comprised of two parts; part one is a brief section about Pickens’ background, and part two contains exercises and practical advice for artists and writers alike.
Pickens’ first experience with the art scene came when a neighbor brought her to the opening of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, when she was a teenager. Because she came from humble beginnings in pre-internet times, the art opening naturally opened her mind to a world she couldn’t possibly imagine on her own. It gave Pickens an entry point to a world that offered her so much more — a world galaxies beyond the humble small-town existence she’d been limited to before. This pivotal moment relocated Pickens into the art world, which became her life and eventually her mission — to help artists be artists — as she knew firsthand how life-changing art is. She writes:
It’s been more than twenty years since that night at the Andy Warhol Museum, and since then I have consistently, heavily relied on artists to make me want to be in the world at its worst and to embody a deeper experience of life at its best.
Part two of the book kicks off with a self-inventory, which asks way more questions than you’d ever be asked at a therapist’s or college advisor’s office. Questions cover everything from family, money, careers, and the creative process, such as, “What have you created most recently, and what are you working on right now?” and, “What is your relationship to money now? How do you earn it? How much debt do you have?” I performed the self-inventory myself and wrote all the questions and answers down, and even while just writing the questions down, the answers flowed out of my head and made immediate sense of my thought process and many thoughts and decisions I’ve made that I’ve wondered about forever. This self-inventory is no joke — it is a much-needed reality check for anyone feeling stuck and unsure why they keep banging their head against wall, making the same dumb mistakes over and over out of a habit they cannot seem to shake.
Your Art Will Save Your Life is the artist's guidebook to create, thrive, and survive amid any political shitstorm.
In the next chapter, Pickens states the artist’s three basic needs as “an ongoing art practice, a community of working artists, and lots of varied art consumption.” These three must-haves are the key to a satisfying life, and will keep artists out of despair. By tending to these needs, an artist will avoid many common problems in the field. Pickens also discusses how self-care is essential to an artist’s well-being, as it's impossible to function without taking care of oneself. Of course, this is true for anyone no matter their profession — but holds especially true for artists, whose craft depends on a certain level of well-being and inspiration to create (we can’t all be tortured geniuses, nor do we want to be). I can attest to all of these strategies for satisfying an artist’s basic needs, as I partake in them myself and truly feel they’re the only way to stay creative and sane in this world.
With the shocking news that comes our way every single day thanks to the Trump regime, artists are finding it more difficult than ever to create art. Some artists feel that it’s a selfish thing to do in times like these, which is a problem that everyone who gives a shit about the world can probably relate to. But Pickens urges artists to keep creating art, insisting that their art matters — and it’s needed more now than ever — as she discusses in sections like “FAQs During Oppressive Political Climates.” She writes:
When our culture becomes oppressive and moves toward upholding the white supremacist capitalist militarist patriarchy, we need creative, public forms of dissent to inspire, counter fatigue, rally, instigate, and inform.
In the same chapter, Pickens suggests treating activism like a hobby, and engaging in it with an activist buddy, which is basically her much cooler version of the gym buddy system. I'd rather get active this way, and it’s a great way to do something about the nonsense while connecting with friends and other like minds IRL. It’s a much better — and actually productive — way to spend your time than responding to comments from racist Nazi trollbots.
Though the book is very short, it contains lots of valuable advice and probably wouldn’t be as effective if Pickens had written more on the topic (since writers and artists tend to be procrastinators, it's better to avoid making the process seem too complicated). That said, I would have enjoyed more advice specifically geared toward writers, considering the author’s decision to annotate the word “artist” to mention her definition includes writers on the book’s first page. I’d love to see a writer-specific companion piece companion piece to this book. That said, it’s easy enough to read between the lines and apply Pickens’ advice to writing. This book would be the most effective if read when an artist’s just getting started, but it will surely work at any level. I really wish I had a guide like this when I was just getting started — back when the president-turn-painter Bush was running the oppressive regime at hand — so I didn’t have to learn by trial and error. This advice will always be in style, since, as Pickens points out, assholes will always rule the world. Fortunately, Your Art Will Save Your Life is the artist's guidebook to create, thrive, and survive amid any political shitstorm.
top image: cover detail
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Crystal Erickson is a writer, blogger, copy editor and proofreader. Off the clock, she freestyles cat-themed raps to Cat Mulder, watches campy horror movies, and talks to plants. You can follow her on Facebook.