A look at creativity in a time of stress, in two parts.
1. Clark County Poet Laureate Heather Lang-Cassera on how different modes of creativity feed each other
Poetry is my primary artistic genre, the one I’ve studied most formally. I feel required to write exceptional verse. It is unrealistic for an artist to expect consistent excellence. Allowing oneself the opportunity to fail, oftentimes catastrophically, can be how we make our most brilliant discoveries. Nevertheless, amidst the immense global grief during this time of COVID-19, being gentle with ourselves can be much easier said than done. Many of us feel a burden, a responsibility even, to use any free time that we might have creating life-changing art responding to this crisis.
I’ve allowed myself to steep within my other creative outlets, ones about which I feel less pressure, such as pinhole photographs, developing the film at home, and even smartphone snapshots, such as the images here. This allows me to both express myself creatively, which is vital for my messy heart, and also to explore motifs, imagery, framing, and juxtapositions that lead me back to poetry.
Las Vegas writer and editor Jarret Keene recently mentioned to me the concept of surviving in shadow, thriving in light, the thin line between salvation and damnation. This conversation inspired these photos of a fragmented angel standing guard on the dark Vegas Strip, a closed cathedral beneath the looming darkness of a luxury hotel, and disruptions by lens flares that might be seen as the heavens, all complicated for me by my own tenuous religious upbringing.
Photography has been a visceral reminder to me that any work of art, whether it be a poem or photograph, is never about only one thing. There must be some tension, a complexity, often an unspoken narrative, perhaps one that haunts us. In turn, these photos are now allowing me to write poems that are more authentic to me than I have in some time.
For example, my snapshots of the headless angel sculpture in front of a prominent Sin City hotel led me to later see the trail of condensation behind a jet fighter in my favorite movie, Top Gun, as angel wings. This moment of symbolism and duality progressed into a poem exploring private, contemplative grief through an infamous, adrenaline-fueled film.
Whether you are a professional artist, a creative dabbler, or the parent of a child who is looking for ways to work through emotions, consider engagement with other creatives: find a coloring book pen pal, join a collaborative poem, draw and share according to online daily art prompts, or write an email to an artist you adore that simply expresses your admiration. Also, try something at which you don’t feel pressured to be good. Right now, especially, that weight can be immobilizing. You might be surprised by how a different medium can inspire or elevate your craft.
2. Creativity during the pandemic
In the course of preparing a short look at the response to the valleywide shutdown by the local arts and culture scenes (see the May-June issue of Desert Companion), we asked a few artists the same question: Do you feel any pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to make something lasting from this pandemic moment? We only had space to run snippets of their responses in print. Here are more expansive versions of their answers.
Multimedia artist, instructor, UNLV
Yes, definitely I felt that pressure more so in the beginning of the pandemic. Because of the excess of time, it is fascinating that it actually becomes debilitating. In the beginning, I struggled to do anything but stay at home and watch movies. Then I began cleaning like craziness. I had my studio, but I wasn’t going there. I was more frustrated at myself for not making art every waking minute. I questioned, “Am I a real artist if I’m not in my studio every day, 24/7.” I felt guilty for not going out and painting a mural Downtown, or not making some big response. After a couple weeks of this, I made a schedule and some goals for being in the studio. Honestly, once I got there, my paintings or sculptures automatically responded to the pandemic. It wasn’t something I could control, it was almost unconscious. Work that just needed to get out.
As an artist I think it’s more important to make the work you feel you need to make (almost uncontrollably) instead of focusing on making work you think you should make.
Author, The Loneliest Band in France
I don't personally feel a pressure to make art of the Moment — or not more than at any other time. For me, writing has always involved a synthesis of what's happening around me. It's an imaginative practice — but one that only works when it's also observational. Or, I guess, this lack of pressure may just be because I'm currently in a halfway-through-writing-a-novel black hole. Or, perhaps, I'm feeling a resistance to this trend where it seems everyone's writing about it, where it's nearly unavoidable. (I think I'm doing what I'm criticizing. Oh well.) To be frank, at this point, I'm tired of people sharing their favorite books about pandemics, their favorite essays on sickness, on grief. Yes, these are important and valuable. Yes, they're very often excellent books. But, to me, we're flattening these texts in the process, making them singular rather than — what they generally are —multitudinous.
This is all to say, I don't think there's anything wrong, per se, about feeling this pressure to grapple with the current situation. But I also worry about how this kind of thing becomes all-consuming, that art that isn't topical is not just forgotten or ignored, it's actively derided — right alongside that which is too on-the-nose. For even in the scariest and worst of times, I believe we need a space in which art exists for art's sake, nothing more, art that isn't in direct conversation with the Moment.
I think the other question that comes up is: "How can you write in a time like this?" I'm thinking about Nikki Giovanni's “For Saundra”: “perhaps these are not poetic / times // at all.” Even if the times themselves are not "poetic," don't we still need poetry — even if it's (in Adorno's words) barbaric, even if it's grotesque, even if it's beautiful? For me, life has always appeared huge and hard to grasp, and what's so wonderful about writing, and art generally, isn't that we try to hold it or contain it. After the Holocaust — after my great-grandparents died of “starvation” in Theresienstadt — we continued to make art, great art, resonant art — and shitty art, too. And I'm thankful for that.
So, for me, these days, I'm ... still writing, the same book I was writing last month, the same one I was writing last year. Today, my partner and I met a lovely dog we're planning to adopt. His name is Skipper, the same name as my mother's childhood dog, surely a coincidence. Today, I'd rather write about that.
Yes, I do feel pressure to create and make work. As a photographer, a lot of folks have asked me if I am going to document the historic event we were all going through. I started going out with Mikayla (Whitmore, a local artist and photographer) to document, and I can definitely say it’s been a little scary. Mostly because I didn’t know if I was putting myself in danger, was it worth it? I don’t know.
I still feel pressure to create artwork or just work on personal projects. To make sense of all this, to help others get through it. I haven’t been working on anything, though. I spent the first two weeks of this glued to my phone feverishly scrolling through Instagram and Twitter.
My artwork, regardless of category, is a result of significant research and thought into the concept prior to creation. Only after I feel that I have satisfied my intellectual understanding of the concept do I explore potential materials and the physical manifestation possibilities I could utilize to express that concept.
I do not make quick one-offs in response to current events. Some artists do that well. But that does not motivate me.
My process for creating art has other self-imposed criteria. My art is my expression, and I refuse to allow others to define what it should be. My art practice has not been a reflection of my emotional state, events that have happened to me or about how I am feeling. My art is not introspective in that way. My art reflects who I am and what has happened to me in my life only by the issues I choose to address. I have learned to trust that process.
In the past, I have not been able to work if I was experiencing significant adversity. The severe life challenges I have experienced shut down my creativity. However, those experiences influence who I am and what I care about. So these experiences indirectly are expressed, sometimes years later, in work that is related by the issue that my art addresses.
However, I have had time to ponder how all of this will be impacting my current artistic passion, a multiyear, socially engaged art project that I have been working on for nearly a year. I am exploring how viable it will be or when it will be viable again. It is difficult to ascertain given that we do not have any understanding on how this virus will be impacting our future. ... Clearly, this will impact my project as I need to be able to interact with people in person and collectively, to create the initial component of the work. In fact, that social interaction I have with people is the most important component of the project. It is the entire point of the project. It is where I find purpose and fulfillment and advance the concept for the work. So I consider this a challenge. It may dramatically alter the work. It may simply postpone it.
I have learned to embrace change; as they say, it is the only constant in life. I will be flexible, find a path, or a create a detour.