Why the Artists are Okay

In this new world turned upside down by coronavirus, amid the backdrop of racial justice protests, politics, and the urgency of climate change, a lot of professional artists seem to be coping well, and in some ways, truly thriving!

While I’m specifically referring to professional visual artists here, this likely applies to everyone who does highly creative work.

We’re working more than ever, finding new creativity in our work, selling art, finding and creating new opportunities for ourselves. We have kept our passion for life.

Work in Progress: Windows to the Sun. ~5.5′ x 9′, Acrylic on 5 Live Edge Slabs, © 2020 Cedar Lee

Of course, I say this with a big caveat: Some of us are grieving the loss of shows and talks we were going to give. A lot of us have lost income. We are reeling with the changes of this year, just as everyone is.

A lot of us are struggling with a larger load of family responsibilities than ever before. A lot of us are struggling, like everyone right now, to take care of our mental health. We are worried about our loved ones. We care about the world too, and we feel the uncertainty of the future too. We’re not exempt from any of these difficulties.

Art by Cedar Lee: Branches Glowing. 36″ x 12″, Oil on Canvas, © 2020 Cedar Lee

But at the same time, I think artists have a special perspective that we can share right now that may help benefit everyone else during, as has become a cliché, these unprecedented times.

And, if you are an artist who is struggling, maybe this can serve as a reminder of how you can harness your superpowers to get through this.

Cycles of Hope. 30″ x 40″, Acrylic on Canvas, © 2020 Cedar Lee

Consider the particular strengths of artists:

Artists have the character trait of “openness to experience.”

This is the same trait that would make a person want to travel to a new place, taste a new food, or try their hand at a new skill. For better or worse, it’s a form of fearlessness.

So, when everyone suddenly realizes: “Nothing is as it was before, and it’s not going back, so we have to adapt. We can’t do anything that we used to do. We have to do something entirely new,” artists are in a prime position to say, “Okay! Let’s do something new, then. This is what I live for!” It’s the ability to re-frame very bad news into an opportunity for a novel experience.

Wild Rhododendron. 24″ x 30″, Oil on Canvas, © 2020 Cedar Lee

Artists have the gift of visualization.

This is simply how we think all the time. We see visions in our mind’s eye. We constantly dream of what could be. We ask, “What if?” We think in possibilities. All our thinking is colored by our active imaginations.

Creative Vision. 20″ x 20″, Oil on Canvas, © 2018 Cedar Lee

The reason the pandemic is hitting many of us so hard is that we were living under a false illusion that the particular future we had envisioned was ever guaranteed, and now, as we watch the world go careening off on an entirely different course, we are finding it hard to let go of that shattered illusion.

It is now necessary to visualize an alternate future to the one we had in mind. When you already live inside your imagination all the time, this can help you to adjust to an unexpected reality.

Work in progress in Cedar Lee studio, 2018.

Artists have creative problem-solving skills.

When it comes down to it, this is what art is. It’s a constant stream of solving problems. Artists look at the limitations before us, consider the ideal goal, then bridge the gap between the limitations and the goal by inventing the most elegant solution our minds can devise.

We can see the potential in the raw materials in front of us, and our minds are practiced at putting old things together in unexpected new ways. Artists know that no matter what happens, you can be creative anywhere, with anything that you happen to have.

Cedar Lee art studio, 2017.

Artists are the storytellers among us.

We never stop reminding ourselves and others what is important, because we’re always consciously choosing what to focus on, and how to communicate it to others.

We understand that the experience of life is a cacophony of sensory input that our brains try to make sense of, and that when you change which input you pay attention to, you literally change the experience of life. Art is a communication of a chosen experience. Artists isolate the experience we have purposely chosen, then we amplify it for everyone else by creating the art we want to exist.

We each make our own story, of course. Everyone has a unique perspective. But artists make a point to share ours with the world.

Cedar Lee book illustration: A Search for the Northern Lights

Artists value and cultivate self-discipline.

We have spent years prioritizing our studio practice and honing our craft. We’re not afraid of hard work. There’s nobody but ourselves to answer to, no boss making us show up or evaluating our work. We can be harsh on ourselves, but the flip-side of that is that our motivation is intrinsic, and honest. Discipline is a strength that can carry you from one point to another, no matter the goal.

Cedar Lee work in progress.

Artists already know how to cope with isolation.

Granted, this doesn’t necessarily mean we like it. The extroverts among us are suffering. However, we are used to working alone in our studios. We are used to being alone with our thoughts. We know how to make the best use of solitude and turn it into a productive time.

Cedar Lee art studio.

Artists are thick-skinned and resilient.

To be an artist in this world, you have to have a steely resolve and a kind of stubborn persistence that goes beyond what is typical. Our identity does not depend upon external circumstances or the judgments of others.

We have gone through many private failures and dead-ends in the studio in our quest to become good at something that is hard. We have applied for many things and been rejected many times. We know deeply what it feels like to get knocked down, and also what it feels like to stand back up and try again!

Detail: Onward. 36″ x 36″, Acrylic on Canvas, © 2020 Cedar Lee

Artists do not shy away from starting over.

We are deeply familiar with and have made peace with a certain amount of loss. This is the loss inherent in sunk cost and dead ends that never play out. We understand this is just a part of taking risks. Risks are worth it as they often pay off, but, well, sometimes they don’t.

We have learned not to fall for the sunk cost fallacy, which is when people continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources. Sometimes, you invest those resources, everything fails, and the resources are just gone. Them’s the breaks. Most of us have spent months or years and lots of energy creating so much bad art, and the only thing to come of it was a lesson about what not to do.

Detail: A Thrilling Lookout. 16″ x 12″, Oil on Canvas, © 2016 Cedar Lee

So what? Recognize the fixation on sunk cost for what it is: an unnecessary distraction that’s bogging us down and interfering with creating a workable plan for the present. Shake it off and let go of the past. Whatever the new future requires, it’s okay to adjust course the very instant that you figure out what needs to be done.

Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” When you’re chasing the richness of infinite possibilities, there is no time to waste on whatever didn’t work out.

Freedom. 36″ x 48″, Oil on Wood, © 2019 Cedar Lee

Artists have a growth mindset.

Learning new things is woven into the process of making stuff. Artists think of ourselves as perpetual students, and we tend to respond to any challenge by asking a lot of questions. Even after you’ve achieved ostensible expert status, with the requisite 10,000 hours under your belt, you still know that there is always, always, room for improvement. We have high standards in our quest for quality.

For artists, growth is the default state.

Fall. 30″ x 40″, Oil on Wood, © 2018 Cedar Lee

Artists network.

Despite our deep relationship with solitude, artists are never really alone because we are so connected. Artists are supportive of one another and create communities among ourselves in an intense way.

Because of our motivation to share what we create with the entire world, we tend to end up with wide social circles that transcend typical societal boundaries. We are friends with people from all over the world. We have deep connections to people rich and poor. We are influenced by a broad range of thinkers. We tap into the universal things that connect all humans, so on some levels, we have an ability to relate to everyone. All humans love art. It’s part of what makes being human so great.

Pollination, 24 x 72″, Oil/Canvas, © 2012 Cedar Lee

An artist’s influence on others has broad ripple effects. Sometimes we find out about our own effects through unexpected ping-backs or love notes from afar. These many connections to other people make life interesting and fun. Other people can be an inspiration, a resource, and a comfort.

Sea Cliff Eclipse. 30″ x 24″, Oil on Canvas, © 2017 Cedar Lee

What can everyone learn from artists in this difficult year?

I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, or imply that a simple shift of attitude can solve all problems.

Nonetheless, no matter who you are…You can let go of what you thought and felt before, and choose to be open to what is now. You can re-frame the situation by visualizing the life you want. You can continually re-invent yourself.

Whatever the problem you face, you can always question the path you’re on. You can create solutions using the materials you have right in front of you. Forget what you don’t have. What do you have? You get to tell your own story.

Courage Blooms. 40″ x 30″, Oil on Canvas, © 2017 Cedar Lee

Even in the face of an epic dumpster fire, you can always work on yourself. Working on yourself gives you control, and an opportunity to enjoy your own company.

Get back up when you’re down! You can do it. You can look for new possibilities and search for new meaning even when—especially when—you’re grieving on top of a mountain of sunk cost. Let go of what doesn’t matter.

You can purposely cultivate your inner strength, keep learning, growing, and moving forward.

And no matter how much it feels like it, you are never, ever really alone.

Change is the Only Constant. 24″ x 48″, Acrylic on Canvas, © 2020 Cedar Lee

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