Matter Over Mind: Work and the Importance of Rest

The non-art life that makes an art-life possible.

In the past three and a half weeks, I was home in NYC working my various freelance and day jobs. Artists generally don’t like to publicize their day jobs, for fear of seeming less serious or successful as an artist. But perhaps by omitting my jobs on my blog, I’m implying a falsehood that my art is my income. So: I work as an artist assistant, freelance art handler (recently at the Frieze and NADA fairs, and occasionally at the Museum of Arts and Design), and freelance graphic designer. This is how I cobble together an income to live in NYC, make art, and save up for and recover financially from residencies and exhibitions. The multiple streams mean I’m not tied down or dependent on any one employer (say, for fear of losing health insurance). The trade-off is that it’s financially precarious but strategically flexible. As someone at the Center for Cultural Innovation once explained, artists often advance opportunistically, by taking opportunities as they come.

For example, my residency at c3:initiative happened quite by chance: the Portland ‘Pataphysical Society invited me to do a show. I asked them to suggest places to stay. They asked c3. Then we figured out that making new work for the windows at ‘Pata fit c3’s mission. (Thank you Jo, Dave, Shir and Erin!) Luckily, the people I work with get that I’m a worker and an artist; they psychologically support me by tolerating my occasional unavailability. I realize how uncommon this is, especially as workers’ personal time is increasingly infringed upon by work responsibilities like answering emails, etc.

When I look back at the past few weeks, I’ve realized two small lessons:

I need to be intentional about down time. My body has been forcing me to take breaks via jet lag, exhaustion, and back pain. I’ve been working long days and late nights to maximize on art opportunities and income generation, and to reciprocate clients’ and employers’ commitment. It’s been a sprint. Running training plans outline different types of training for each day of the week, including speed, endurance, active recovery, and rest. Skipping the latter two is a recipe for injury. I have to fight the “cult of busyness.” It’s not enough to catch up on sleep, either; I can’t be like a toddler, toggling between ‘overdrive’ and ‘knocked out’—I need to be conscious to decompress. Though I want to be productive this residency, I also need it to recharge me. Period. It’s not about slowing down to serve the creative process. Utility isn’t everything. (E.g, I’m not a corporation craving insights on creativity and happy workers in order to increase revenue and productivity). I need to prioritize the inherent value of rest and recovery.

Follow-up is work. I left the residency at Harvester Arts on the day after my opening. It was emotionally satisfying to do so—I left just after the high point. But there were a few days’ worth of color-correcting, writing captions, blogging, web updates, bookkeeping, etc. that followed. Administrative labor is work. It’s often very gendered labor, which may contribute to why it’s often invisible and undervalued, as ET pointed out. I can’t fall into that trap. I need to acknowledge that a residency project doesn’t always end when the actual residency does. Just as I’d try to schedule out time to prepare for a project, I have to allow the time and energy for post-residency labor.


points of reference: work

Late nights at the studio are like a "second shift" that artists often work.

Late nights at the studio are like a “second shift” that artists often work.

A cardio machine display of an interval workout, where high-intensity activity is interspersed with recovery periods.

A cardio machine display of an interval workout, where high-intensity activity is interspersed with recovery periods.

An endless dilemma for working artists: How do you balance studio art and income-generation?

Are you a “second-shift” artist? Do you find your passion and then do it on nights and weekends on it for the rest of your life, as a recent Onion op-ed potently parodied?

Are you an “aerobic” artist? Do you break up your life into deadline-driven seasons? Like month-to-month tempo training, do you work in high-intensity intervals—at paces impossible to maintain longterm—interspersed with physical and financial recovery periods?

Are you both? Is the combination wise? Or combustible?

I’ve been a “second-shift” artist in the past. For some reason I find the idea of it slightly depressing, maybe because it implies a 9-to-5 type of job. (Also, a ridiculous phobia of clichés makes literally going to the studio to paint on Sundays especially painful.)

More recently, I’ve become an “aerobic” artist. I’ve found that residencies are fantastic for intense periods of production, but are only sustainable in modest bursts, say, 4–6 weeks at a time. Longer periods are too hard to maintain personally and financially. They take a toll on my relationships with my partner, family, and employers. Upon return from a residency, I usually have to focus on income generation to pay debts and regain financial stability. Then, working so much, I’m unable to pull a “second shift” as an artist. Indeed, in the past three weeks, I’ve worked some 11-, 12- and 16-hour days, partly out of loyalty to the institution or artist, partly just because it’s work. It was impossible to get enough sleep (so much so that I felt jetlagged days later)—much less ecke out time for in-depth studio experimentation.

I’m not complaining. Just observing the pros and cons of second shifts versus aerobic intervals. I’m very grateful for all the exhibition and residencies opportunities I’ve had. The goal, ultimately, is for me to convert more of the hours in my life towards making art, and right now, intervals seem more productive.

The Ethics of Overtime

I’ve had lots of opportunities to think about this in the past few weeks. I think institutions and employers should pay their hourly workers overtime, though art institutions sometimes are loose with rules. But labor unions fought for this right. And what exactly should workers be paid overtime for? For working harder to stay focused after eight hours? For the lingering aches and pains that a long day of physical work compounds onto tomorrow’s tasks? To incentivize businesses to better structure the work and respect workers’ schedules? For the higher risks of injuries or accidents when workers are tired? (And how is that even ethical to value in monetary terms?)

New Skills: Get Excited and Make Things

As psychologist Edward Deci found:

People find the most enjoyment when they learning new things and get to use those skills today.

I started assisting a sculptor recently, and it’s been a lot of fun. In three days I learned how to make foam molds, cast concrete, and, most excitingly, assist with sand-casting metal sculptures.

In school, casting sculptures didn’t appeal to me at all. The dust. The plaster mold-making. The possibility of bacterial mold in the plaster molds (yuck!). But mostly, the indirectness and the cost of maintaining such a studio never made the process seem realistic for me.

But this artist is scrappy and experimental. Most of the foam and concrete needed is available at Home Depot. Working with more common materials, and more loosely, the process seem not as far-fetched, and not nearly as academic as plaster usually seems.

Thinking Big: What Artists Make Happen

In recently assisting with the installation of another artist’s work, I thought about ambition. There was a lot of large-scale and site-specific work which had to be built on-site. It required a lot of problem-solving, flexibility, and those above-mentioned long hours. I came away from the experience very inspired. And though the show is a solo show—it is indeed one woman’s vision—it came to fruition with a lot of people’s help: artist’s assistants, art installers, interns, friends, fabricators, printers, and so on. I’ve never been to an old-fashioned house-raising, but I imagine that it felt something like that. That what artists make—what you see in the gallery come the opening reception—is a small part of what artists make happen—behind the scenes, in the studio, late nights installing in the gallery, or far away on site where the work first sparked as an idea.